Mojo

N.
1. Self-confidence, Self-assuredness. As in basis for belief in ones self in a situation. Esp. I context of contest or display of skill such as sexual advances or going into battle.
2. Good luck fetish / charm to bolster confidence.
3. ability to bounce back from a debilitating trauma and negative attitude

[Source: Urban Dictionary]

It’s been some time since I posted something specifically about piano playing. I have enjoyed so much live music in the last month, some of which I have reviewed for this blog and Bachtrack, and I haven’t had as much time at the piano as I would have liked due to building work going on in my home. While I could practise while the builder laid bricks or tiled the roof, somehow sitting at the piano while he laboured, alone, seemed rather self-indulgent.

And to be truthful, in the immediate weeks after receiving my LTCL Diploma results, I experienced a curious flatness, a post-diploma ennui, not unike the tiredness that comes after a virus like ‘flu or a bad cold. I had worked solidly for 15 months for the Diploma, starting my practising at 8am religiously, almost every day of the week, and eschewing a social life to the extent that a good friend commented “you’re chained to that effing piano these days!”. Only those who do it seriously, both professional and serious amateur musicians, understand the need to turn into a hermit in order to undertake such a task. The Herculean effort of learning all the notes, and ordering them into such a way that they make beautiful, expressive, insightful and thoughtful music; feeding the artistic temperament without allowing the ego to take over; doing the reading and research to write the programme notes; the pre-Diploma performances; and then – The Day. No wonder I was tired afterwards!

After the initial euphoria of receiving a result which astonished me (no, I really wasn’t expecting to secure a second Distinction), and far too much champagne, I decided I should start to focus on new repertoire. Each day the piano glared balefully at me from its niche in the corner of my living room, the open score of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage challenging me to come and practise. But I just didn’t want to go there.

An enjoyable Saturday piano event with my friends and colleagues Lorraine Liyanage and Manny Vass, and assorted amateur pianists, at which I played what I now consider my ‘signature piece’, Takemitsu’s haunting Rain Tree Sketch II, failed to rouse me from my gloom. I consigned my scores to the bookcase and rediscovered my social life.

Rather rashly, or so it appeared to me when I found myself in this slough of despond, I had, on the crest of the wave of exam jubilation, booked myself a set at The Little Proms, a wonderful initiative to take classical music out of the formal setting of the concert hall and into places where it is accessible and informal – in this case, the basement bar of a Soho pub. I played at The Little Proms last August and enjoyed it very much. But with the concert looming, I felt bored by the repertoire and the prospect of performing it.

However, as the concert date approached, I found more time to practise and instead of resenting the piano, I began to enjoy it again. I started working on what might become the greatest challenge of my pianistic career to date – Beethoven’s Sonata in A, Op110, my most favourite of all of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, or indeed anyone else’s, and a work I have long wanted to learn and play properly. Going back to the nitty-gritty of learning something from scratch, as opposed to finessing very well-learnt pieces, was interesting and engaging. One afternoon, when the builder had gone, I played for an hour and a half – and I loved it.

I took myself off to Soho on Sunday afternoon to arrive at the venue in time for a sound check. When I go there, one of the other acts, Brasilliero Big Band, were warming up with much vibrancy and laughter. I had a brief warm up on the piano and then went to brush my hair, apply my “lucky” lipstick and quietly await the signal to go on. I was to open the event (a relief, as no one could possibly compete with the exuberance of Brasilliero Big Band!). My programme was mostly a now very well-trodden path of Diploma pieces, with a couple of new things thrown in. Beginning with the ‘Adagio’ from the Bach Concerto BWV 974 was an excellent idea, as a friend later pointed out. The slow tempo and hypnotic bass quavers drew everyone in, and by the time I started on the mysterious opening chords of the Takemitsu I felt I had everyone’s attention.

And this is where it got interesting for me. You’re close to the audience in a small venue. You can almost hear them breathing and you’re very aware of the people around you, so much so that you actually have a sense of people listening, very concentratedly and carefully. The people sitting behind me were close enough to read my scores, if they cared to.

This sense of intense concentration and attention is very potent, and is surely the reason why performers get a buzz from, well, performing. (On a purely physiological level, it is the release of adrenaline that creates this feeling.) There is also a very strong sensation of everyone being engaged in a special and unique experience. There are certain performers who have an amazing ability to create this intimacy in the biggest venues – Mitsuko Uchida is one, Stephen Osborne another – drawing the audience into that wonderful, enchanted circle that is impossible to recreate when listening to music on disc in the privacy of one’s home.

Adrenaline, the fight or flight hormone, does interesting things to us as performers. It can unleash a whole host of unpleasant symptoms – sweaty, trembling hands, headache, nausea, palpitations, cold fear – but it can also, if we use it positively, enable us to raise our game, to rise to the occasion, and play well. A professional pianist I interviewed some years ago, during research for a book, admitted that he rarely had time to feel nervous before a concert, but that adrenaline did induce a certain lightness in the hands and arms. I felt this on Sunday night, so that by the time I reached Chopin’s Nocturne in E, Op 62/2, I hardly had to remind myself to keep my hands and arms soft to produce a rich cantabile sound in the right hand melody (a friend in the audience told me afterwards that with the amplification this came across very effectively). The final piece of my set, ‘Muted and Sensuous’ from Aaron Copland’s atmospheric Four Piano Blues, was receiving its premiere, at least in my hands, and such was the atmosphere in the venue that a piece which had, the previous week, felt horribly unpolished, suddenly poured out of the piano with all the sonorous and shiny sounds I had tried, and failed, to achieve in practise.

Interesting things happen in performance – which is why it is important to perform. Anyone who has performed, or performs regularly, knows that the bar is raised considerably higher as soon as you take your repertoire out of the comfort of your home and put it before other people. But by playing for others, we endorse all the lonely hours of practise and, more importantly, offer the music up for scrutiny. Sometimes in performance issues with a piece are revealed, which inform our practise when we go back to it, and sometimes really remarkable things happen, which create a special magic for performer and audience.

When I returned to my seat near the bar, to rapturous applause and whooping (that’s pretty potent too!), I felt excited. I had enjoyed every minute of my 35-minute set, and despite a slight mishap in the opening of the Liszt (note to self: don’t try something new in a familiar piece on the morning of a concert!), the pieces went well, and, by all accounts, communicated effectively to the audience. My friends and family were very complimentary, and a couple of members of Brasillieiro Big Band even came to congratulate me. I had rediscovered my ‘piano mojo’, and I couldn’t wait to get back to the piano and on with new repertoire. But the best part of the evening was my husband’s very evident delight and pride in my performance: he has been basking in my reflected glory ever since I received my LTCL results.

Glenn Gould recording ‘The Goldberg Variations’ at the Columbia Studios in New York in 1955

“The paradox of recording is that it can preserve forever those disappearing moments of sound but never the spark of humanity that generates them” (Alex Ross)

Occasionally when I’m at a concert, I hear people comment that the performance “wasn’t as good as his/her CD”. These comments seem tinged with disappointment, suggesting that the listeners were expecting a pristine performance in a silent-as-the grave venue.

I love the excitement of live music – and the whole concert-going experience, from the moment I arrive at the venue and join the throng of people in the foyer or bar, the air full of that eager hum of expectancy, and all the little “rituals” of concert-going: buying a programme, having drinks with friends, discussing the music we’re about to hear, slipping into the plush seats. Then the house lights dim and the adventure that is a live performance begins as the performer crosses the stage, bows to the audience, and takes his/her place at that big shiny black beast of a concert grand. Each performance is different, and it is this very uniqueness that makes live music so special.

Afterwards, when the final note of the last encore has faded and the house lights come up, we make our way out of the venue, sometimes talking excitedly about how wonderful the music was, or quietly digesting what we have just heard. As I wend my way home on the train, I try to retain a memory of the concert, not just of the music, but also the emotions and thoughts I experienced during the performance. If I am writing a review, I inevitably make some notes, just to jog the memory of key points. If I’ve been at a concert with friends, we might email one another the day after to discuss the aspects we really enjoyed (one particular concert-companion is very good at this, and her comments regularly find their way into my reviews and articles). All these things to contribute to the special memory of a live concert.

These days at concerts it is almost de rigeur to find CDs by the featured artist for sale at the performance. For many people, these recordings are, of course, a wonderful way of keeping the memory of the concert alive, purchasing a “souvenir” to take home, or simply buying another recording to add to a cherished collection. More often than not, the soloist is available to talk to/sign CDs afterwards, though I have sometimes had the distinct impression that the soloist would rather be quietly unwinding in the green room, away from people, or heading home for a shower and a good night’s sleep after a particularly effortful or intense performance.

At the turn of the twentieth century, at a time when recordings were relatively scarce, the activity of concert going was confined to a relatively small minority of cultured people (the Proms were conceived to bring classical music to a wider audience and to make music more accessible) and the symphonies of Beethoven, for example, could be heard only in a select few concert halls. And because of the scarcity of recordings, performers enjoyed much more freedom, in the way they rehearsed, presented and performed the music. For example, encores were often given between the movements of a symphony: audiences demanded encores, and received them, and there was nearly always applause between movements (a cardinal sin of concert etiquette these days!). With few or no recordings to bolster their career, performers made their living from, well, performing. Nowadays, the reverse is true, and performing for many performers has become an almost supplementary activity as a way of promoting CD sales, and the general received wisdom in the industry is that successful careers are made through recordings.

Since the middle of the twentieth century, recording technology has grown ever more sophisticated, allowing artists and orchestras to create performances which are quite alien to the performance in the concert hall. Alongside this, a certain “globalisation” of sound has taking place, almost as if all the rough edges and tics and distinctive national traits of earlier performances have been smoothed out, and even so-called “live” performances are subject to a degree of touching up. (‘Hattogate’ offered us some interesting insights into the craft, and craftiness, of the editor.) Incidentally, a performing artist active today, Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov, insists that all his recordings (and he has made relatively few during his long career) are genuinely live – one concert, one take ensuring that no two recordings are ever the same and retaining, as far as possible, the spontaneity of his live performances.

With the rise of high-quality recordings, and the ease with which they could be obtained, performers, ensembles and orchestras were forced to abandon the rather laissez-faire attitude to rehearsing and performing that had existed in an earlier age. Now they could compare performances of the same works by other performers around the world, and certain recordings by certain orchestras/conductors/soloists have become regarded as the benchmark against which other recordings are measured. This standardisation of sound meant that audiences demanded the same high-quality sound in live performances, and performers have been forced to adopt higher standards of technical facility, accuracy, consistency of presentation and an expressive focus that were unknown in the first half of the twentieth century.

This, of course, is no bad thing, and the quality of music one can hear on any given night in any concert hall around the world these days is testament to the high standards performers now set themselves, and similar high standards demanded by audiences and consumers of quality recordings. But it has also led, in my opinion, to a desire by certain audience members to hear an exact recreation of a recording in a live performance – something which is, of course, impossible, for no two live performances are ever the same. It is that spur-of-the moment spontaneity and element of risk that makes live music so exciting.

I have been to many concerts where a world-renowned pianist has fluffed a run or smeared a chord. I have witnessed memory lapses (perhaps the most painful thing to befall a pianist in a live concert), and cover ups for memory lapses. However, I am not the sort of ambulance-chasing concert-goer (and believe me, they exist!) who comes out of the venue glorying in the fact that I have spotted an error. As an occasional performer myself, I know how much these errors can hurt, and how much work one puts in after a performance to exorcise a memory lapse, or mistake. I have rarely felt that an error has “spoilt” a concert: usually the concert experience as a whole was so good, so emotionally engaging, so profound, that any small errors or slips were virtually invisible. Errors remind us that performers are also human, that they – and the music – live and breathe, that passion, involvement, communication, wit and humour rule over absolute perfection. I would far rather hear a performance that had all these very special elements, and the odd error, than a middle-of-the road, perfectly accurate, “safe” or sterile performance. And to those people who demand that kind of smoothed out perfection, I suggest you stay at home and listen to a recording. But beware, you’ll never recreate that excitement, the “aliveness” of the concert hall.

With the advent and increasing popularity of music streaming services such as Spotify, it is now possible to return to earlier recordings to recapture the sounds from another age, and to hear composers performing their own works (Spotify contains some wonderful archive recordings of Rachmaninoff and Ravel playing their own piano music – an incredibly useful resource). Music sharing platforms like SoundCloud offer a twenty-first century version of those early recordings as people post work-in-progress or tracks that were recorded away from the rigours and artificiality of the recording studio (some of my own tracks, recorded at home, have audible birdsong in the background). SoundCloud is also an easy-to-use way of promoting tracks from a new album, giving listeners a “taster” and offering inexpensive new marketing possibilities for performing artists of all genres.

The effect of recording on performers is the subject for a separate blog post.

Further reading

The Record Effect – Alex Ross

Performing Music in the Age of Recording – Robert Philip

Never underestimate the value of performing, whether at home for family and friends, or in a ‘proper’ concert venue on a really special grand piano. Performing for others, and the ability to get up and do it, is an important life skill as it builds confidence and self-reliance – and not just in the sphere of music.

The rush of adrenaline that comes with performing often encourages you to ‘raise your game’ and play better, and interesting things can happen to your music when played before an audience, which may not occur during practice. As a musician, of whatever level, it is crucial in one’s musical study and development to experience the difference between practice and performance, to put your music ‘out there’ and offer it up to other people for scrutiny. Performing endorses all those lonely hours we spend practising, and reminds us that music is for sharing.

It is important for students to hear each other perform too: listening to others in your peer group can be a useful benchmarking exercise, allowing you to measure your own efforts against those of others. If you hear more advanced students perform, you will feel inspired and keen to progress. Performing for and with others is also a means of sharing and discovering new repertoire. At every piano course and piano group I’ve attended I’ve come across new repertoire.

Stephen Gott, a student at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance, performing Debussy’s Prelude Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest at my concert, 20th May 2012

 

As a teacher it is also very important to perform, whether for students in student concerts, or in more formal settings in the concert hall. How can you train others how to perform if you haven’t done it yourself? I have met many piano teachers who rarely or never perform, claiming they are too nervous to play in front of their students, or that they simply do not have the time to prepare repertoire. In my experience, my students want to hear their teacher play – lessons often end with me playing something at the student’s request, and I hope that by hearing and watching me playing, my students can better grasp aspects of technique or interpretation we might have discussed in lessons, as well as enjoying more advanced repertoire and the sheer pleasure of listening to piano music. I also feel it is crucial, as their teacher, to show that I can actually do it, that I fully prepared when I perform, and that I have managed my performance anxiety properly. I also get ideas when I am performing which inform my teaching.

Performing adds to one’s credibility. Whether a professional or an amateur, it is important to prove that you can actually do it, and, for the amateur pianist, the benefits of performing are immeasurable: you never really demonstrate your technique properly until you can demonstrate it in a performance. Music and technique are inseparable, and if you perform successfully, it proves you have practised correctly and thoughtfully, instead of simply note-bashing. This works conversely too, for if you are properly prepared, you should have nothing to fear when you perform. The benefits for younger students are even greater: preparing music for performance teaches them to complete a real task and to understand what is meant by “music making”. It encourages students to “play through”, glossing over errors rather than being thrown off course by them, and eradicating stop-start playing which prevents proper flow. It also teaches students to communicate a sense of the music, to “tell the story”, and to understand what the composer is trying to say. And if you haven’t performed a piece, how can you say it is truly “finished”?

Resources:

How can amateur pianists become professional in their approach to performing? A useful post from ClassicalMel’s piano and music education blog.

The Musician’s Way – an excellent blog (and book) with advice on strategies for productive practice, artistic creativity, and performing.

“There is no word to describe it because all the work, all the sacrifices, all the things you put into it, it’s just unbelievable.” (Mo Farrah, double Olympic gold medallist)

You won the gold medal, you achieved the ultimate accolade, you revelled in the euphoria of success, the attention, the adoration of the crowd. You worked hard for this, every day for weeks and months, maybe even years. It’s everything you’ve strived for. You ascend the podium, bow your head to receive the medal on its purple ribbon. You lift the gold medal to your lips and kiss it as a thousand flashbulbs go off all around you…..

During the London 2012 Olympic Games we have witnessed many moments like this, from athletes of all nationalities, who have been successful in their chosen field, and whose hard work and dedication has been rewarded and recognised. But how does it feel the day after the ceremony, and the day after that, a month down the road? The euphoria of winning, of achieving such dizzying heights, soon wears off as you contemplate that early morning start on the track, in the dark, in the rain. As British rower and four-times Olympic gold medal winner Matthew Pinsent admitted in a programme on BBC One ahead of the closing ceremony, after the euphoria has worn off comes the question “what next?”.

Musicians understand and experience these feelings too: the euphoria of live performance is matched by a special kind of depression compounded by a profound tiredness after the event. In the last days and hours before a concert, just like the distance runner or the sprint cyclist, everything you do is geared towards the single-minded responsibility of the main event, a super-human organisation of physical and emotional resources.

A vast amount of energy – mental and physical – is expended in the experience of the performance, and the excitement of the concert fills your every moment in the hours leading up to it. And then, suddenly, it is all over. (Sometimes, when performing, you lose all sense of time passing. I was astonished, when I checked the clock on my mobile phone after my Diploma recital last winter, that a full 45 minutes had passed: it felt like no time at all. And yet, the moment in the Liszt Sonetto when I had a minor memory lapse felt like a lifetime……)

After a performance, you feel drained, your mind is completely out of breath, your body physically depleted. You’re ready for your bed, but you’ve still got to do the PR thing post-concert: meet people, sign programmes and CDs, give interviews. But there’s no time for exhaustion: you have work to do tomorrow – and work is the best antidote to these feelings of depression and tiredness.

“At this low point, we have only to let music itself take charge. For every challenge we can possibly want lies before us in the vast and inexhaustible repertory that cannot but replenish our spirit. For true musicians, depression is temporary because their music is permanent.” (Seymour Bernstein, from ‘With Your Own Two hands’)

For the athletes, there’s not just the next Olympic Games to train for, there are any number of trials, competitions, and world championships to prepare for. The winning of a medal or medals has endorsed all those hours of training, and may even encourage a shift of focus, an adjustment to a tried-and-trusted regime. And for the pianist, there’s the next concert. There’s no future in looking back, going over what has been (a promise I made with myself immediately after my Diploma recital was “no post-mortem!” – I refused to analyse what had happened in the exam room, errors, memory slips, etc., at least not until I received the report and could set any of these issues in context). As performers, we’re only as a good as our last performance, and if that was less than perfect, the best thing is to move on and plan the next performance. We draw strength from our love of the repertoire, our excitement about our individual pieces and the prospect of putting them before an audience. Like the runner on the track, the rider entering the show-jumping arena, the swimmer poised to dive, the performance is what endorses all the hours of practice and preparation, and a fine performance will erase the memory of a bad one.

(a future blog post will focus on performing)

This post was prompted by a conversation over the weekend with a piano friend of mine: we were discussing ways in which students can free themselves from the constraints that prevent them from giving their all in a performance situation, and the expression “playing naked” came up, which I thought very appropriate. It refers not to a means of dealing with performance anxiety where one imagines that the entire audience is naked (an empowering way of turning the dynamic in a stressful situation), but to giving oneself permission to stand back from the music, to let go, and to play with passion and commitment.

If you are naked at the piano, whether literally or metaphorically, there is nowhere to hide, and you must do everything in your power to distract the audience from your “nakedness”. (Those of us who perform, and who suffer from the anxiety of performance, may well have had the dream/nightmare where we are in a performance situation without the protective carapace of clothes.), So, do you run screaming from the stage, or do you face up to the challenge?

Playing “naked” means:

  • Stripping away inhibitions, over interpretation, unnecessary gestures, and pretentions
  • Giving yourself up to the music
  • Playing with heart and soul
  • Believing completely in what you do
  • Fearless and focussed performance
  • Playing “for the love of music” (Rostropovich), with a vibrant sound and charismatic rhythm which radiates authority and emotion
  • Precise execution from well-honed technique
  • Crafting confidence and developing a positive response to stress
  • Finding meaning, desire and depth in your performance