Tag Archives: musical maturity

Reflections on turning 50

56167176-house-number-50I believe it was the pianist Claudio Arrau who said that passion intensifies with age, and I am sure this is the case when one hits a significant birthday, as I did last winter.

50 – it feels like a large number. It’s half a century, and for a while leading up to my Big Birthday, it felt very significant. Admittedly, I felt the same when approaching my 40th birthday – in fact, I felt worse because at that time I was going through a difficult period in my life, trying to find my identity after emerging from the fog of the early years of motherhood and feeling invisible to everyone but my child. But at 40 I returned to the piano seriously, with a passion, after a break of over 15 years, and I quickly realised I had been waiting for this creative impulse to awaken in me again. Repressed for the years while I was first working in London, moving house, getting married, starting a family, it now re-emerged with the maturity which comes from age and experience, and which has, over the last ten years, led me to fully immerse myself in music and writing, which is where I had always truly wanted to be.

When I was a teenager I wanted to be a professional musician (I also wanted to be a published writer….), but a dismissive comment by a school music teacher quickly scotched that desire. Looking back, he was probably being realistic, but the comment stung and has remained with me into adulthood, becoming the spur which urged me into the place where I am now, professionally (a piano teacher and writer on music). I’m neither a concert pianist nor a novelist, but I do perform, gaining satisfaction and pleasure from doing so, and this blog and my concert reviewing and other writing more than satisfies the writerly itch. Now, at 50, I am realistic about my capabilities, but I do not feel that the entry into my second half-century should be a time when I sit back and rest on my laurels.

The decade of my 40s was an interesting one. It was a time when I learnt that the boundaries of one’s emotional life are not completely impermeable, and that being married does not make one immune to another person’s attention and admiration. It was also the decade during which I established an identity (and not just my writerly nom de plume), now that my son was growing more independent, and I could explore and re-explore the things that I cared about as a teenager and young adult (music, art, literature). Establishing this blog (in 2010) marked my decision to share my activities with others in a wider public forum, and it has led to many fascinating and inspiring encounters with wonderful musicians (via the Meet the Artist series) and forging new connections and friendships with fellow writers, bloggers, concert reviewers, teachers, amateur pianists and music lovers.

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As a musician, maturity (in terms of years, rather than attitude) gives one perspective, the ability to take the long view, and not sweat the small stuff quite so much (because there is Big Stuff looming: old age and what that brings with it…). I think the “passion” Arrau speaks of comes from the realisation that one has a finite amount of time left, that one should seize the day and make the most of it. For me this has led to a greater sense of mindfulness about what I do, being fully “in the moment” when I play the piano (and indeed elsewhere in my life), trying to always look forward rather than going back over what has been, combined with a maturity of outlook which enables me to really appreciate what I have now.

Maturity can also bring confidence and the self-assuredness of knowing one has found one’s niche and metier. In my musical life, the single most significant and confident step I have taken as I’ve matured is that I’ve ceased constantly comparing myself to others (a toxic habit which can fuel resentment, jealously, and lack of self-esteem), and instead try to follow Schumann’s advice:

As you grow older converse more with scores than with virtuosi

As we mature, it is important to recognise the value of what we have to say, personally, as musicians and to measure that against the score, rather than other people’s perceptions, preconceptions or interpretations of the music. Thus the challenge becomes between oneself and the music, rather than constantly seeking or needing validation from peers, audiences or colleagues (though I do have a handful of trusted friends, colleagues and a teacher/mentor whose opinions I value and respect), and one appreciates that it is more important to gain approval from the works themselves by living with them and in them.

I have much to look forward to in the next decade (and beyond, I hope), with a number of personal projects on the horizon this year which will offer new challenges, both intellectually and musically. And, all things considered, 50 is just a number……

Maturity

I have a theory that we should spend c25 years living with our music, studying it, absorbing it, and then only perform it when we are in our 40s or 50s; unfortunately, this is not an ideal scenario in which to forge a career as a performer, and few professional musicians would ever have the luxury of being able to work in this way, but it’s an interesting thought nonetheless.

Music – like wine – needs to mature. We need to spend time with it, understand it, allow its flavour, depth, and narrative to develop. We need to live with the music to find out what makes it special, study its style and contextual background which provide invaluable insights into the way it should be interpreted, listen around the work, endlessly strive to find the emotional or spiritual meaning of a work, its subtleties and balance of structure, and how to communicate all of this to an audience as if telling the story for the very first time.

To do this, we should never study and learn music solely in the isolation of the practise room. The 8-hour practise regime I know some musicians pursue is harmful in so many ways, beyond the merely physical. And note-bashing (which is what practise becomes beyond a certain time-frame), is no substitute for life experience: fall in love, fall out of love, embrace art, literature, poetry, theatre, film, go to concerts, meet friends, eat, drink – all these things feed into the artistic imagination and help shape one’s response to music. Because, fundamentally, composers are just like us – sentient, thinking, emotional human beings who drew on their own life experience to create their music.

I know my own musical maturity has come from physical maturity and life experience, and from spending a great deal of time “in music”, by which I mean attending concerts, in my capacity as a concert reviewer and for the sheer pleasure and enjoyment of live music (which I adore); interacting with other musicians, primarily through the Meet the Artist interview series on this blog, and encounters with musicians at concerts and other events; teaching and interacting with students and other teachers; reading and listening. In addition,  I continue to study with master teachers, whose own studies with some of the great pianist-teachers of the twentieth-century (including Nina Svetlanova, Andras Schiff, Vlado Perlemuter, Phyllis Sellick, Guido Agosti and Maria Curcio) offer unique insights and act as connectors to earlier teachers and mentors, and, most importantly, to the music.

In more practical terms, I believe that our music matures through detailed and careful learning, a deep understanding of the piece, and a solid grounding in the technical and stylistic aspects of piano playing, together with an awareness of cultural and historical contexts. Learning a work and then putting it aside for a few months can also be hugely beneficial, for on returning to that work, one often discovers new things about it, while also deepening one’s understanding of and response to the music. Performing regularly helps shape our response to our music and allows interesting new ideas to develop which can be reviewed and pursued after a performance. The work is never static: it is always evolving, developing, and on this basis one can never truly say a work is “finished”.

Observing young professional artists in concerts, it strikes me that many young people, and even some more established or senior artists, feel they must learn a lot of repertoire very quickly. They are under pressure to have the big warhorse concertos – a Rach, a Tchaik, a Beethoven – in the fingers, together with other “holy grails” of mainstream concert repertoire, such as Chopin’s Études, Ballades, Sonatas and Scherzi, Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes, Beethoven’s most well-known and well-loved Piano Sonatas. Young artists are under tremendous pressure in this competitive world of classical music to demonstrate that they can handle these great works (competitions and superior-quality recordings don’t help this situation either), but sometimes their performances seem to lack depth: technically assured but not always as insightful or thoughtful as one might like, their sound becomes a bland synthesis, as if they are striving for that perfect sound of a top-quality recording, instead of allowing emotion and life experience and the excitement and risk of the one-off live performance to enter their music. One hopes that such artists will give their music time to develop and mature.

The late great Glenn Gould was obviously aware of the differences in one’s playing and response to the music which develop over time when he re-recorded the Golberg Variations in 1981. Compare this with his youthful recording, and one hears more breathing space and thoughtfulness in the music. It is perhaps this insight and profundity that one seeks in going to hear performers such as John Lill, Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich, Maria Joao Pires and Radu Lupu, all now “senior” musicians who have spent a lifetime in music. But of course now and then one comes across a young performer whose playing leaves one utterly awestruck and keen for more: one such performer is Daniil Trifonov, who at only 23 already displays an extraordinarily mature approach, combined with superb technique and musical understanding. One can only hope that these fine aspects of his pianistic persona go on developing as he matures.

Glenn Gould – Aria from the 1955 Goldberg Variations recording

Glenn Gould – Aria from the 1981 Goldberg Variations recording