Guest post by Michael Johnson

I have just dusted off ‘The Writer’s Brush’, a book in my chaotic library that reproduces the artwork of 200 well-known novelists and essayists. Looking over their paintings, I can almost hear them letting out sighs of relief as their images took shape on the canvas. Writers often turn to painting for relief from the tyranny of words. It’s a form of therapy — the visual arts provide immediate respite.

Pianists seem to be perfect candidates for this same escape yet finding them and making them talk about it is like pulling teeth. I have identified a handful of pianist-painters and captured some of their thoughts, and my hunt continues, but it might be in vain. Composer-critic Virgil Thomson wrote in one of his better polemical pieces, “The music profession is more secret than most … No other field of human activity is quite so hermetic, so isolated.

Some of my pianist friends will even admit that too much time at the keyboard is ultimately bad for the soul. They are weary of working on muscle memory. It’s the endless repetition of notes penned by someone else that rankles them most. The late Charles Rosen once told me he dealt with this dilemma by propping a book of detective stories on his piano to read as he repeated tricky passages a hundred times. Is that art?

True artists seek self-expression, artistic adventure. They feel the urge to own their work, and written music strictly limits departures from notation. Some musicians eventually realize they are mere messengers, but of what messages? (Deciphering Chopin’s detailed dynamic markings, they ask themselves, “Why did he insist on such constraints?”) If they stray too far, their teachers steer them relentlessly back to the page.

My advice to pianists is to grab some pots of paint and start splashing. Painting has a “touch of the miraculous” about it, one artist told me recently. Of all the arts, painting will grant you the most license for creative release.

I have been collecting samples of musicians’ artwork for the past year or so, and have been surprised at how committed some of them became, often mounting

their own exhibitions and publishing their visual creations, at least on the internet.

Moreover, I find similar urges among academics, business executives, and even one magician, David Blaine.

Alexander Motyl, a novelist and political science professor at Rutgers University, Newark, N.J., finds painting a release from the straightjacket of words – much as musicians fight the constraints of music. “There are no words, no speech, no ‘thinking’ in my painting,” he tells me. “It’s just lines and colors and spaces and visual creations. Stuff happens and, suddenly, you realize, gosh, this is really good.

Somewhere among the painters I find myself, once a struggling pianist, then a working journalist, now a successful portrait painter. I get chills of the “miraculous” when one of my portraits seems to speak to me. My first book of music-makers’ ecstatic faces * has just appeared and my recent one-man show of 70 watercolors in Bordeaux attracted press coverage and a few commissions.

While frustration has driven some leading musicians to the drawing board, reasons of course vary. Among those who turned to the pot-and-brush are Felix Mendelssohn, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Arnold Schoenberg, George Gershwin, former Juilliard professor David Dubal, the British polymath Stephen Hough, the Argentine virtuoso Ingrid Fliter, Boston’s Russell Sherman, British composer-pianist Richard Rodney Bennett, the Israeli pianist Ilana Vered, The German composer-painter Heiner Goebbels, and the early work of Alfred Brendel. Some Chopin drawings are on display in Warsaw. Ferruccio Busoni, Edward MacDowell, Charles T. Griffes, and Enrique Granados all left visual art among their legacies. Even Mozart doodled funny faces in the margins of his scores.

Stephen Hough tells me in an email exchange that he finds painting more release than relief – a way to explore a different branch of creativity. In playing the piano, he says, “sounds evaporate into the air… but a painting stands as a thing, complete.” As he put it in a separate interview, “I’ve always felt that playing the piano just by itself was not enough.” Painting allows him to find a further outlet. “I feel like I need to move in other directions,” he said.

David Dubal, pianist, broadcaster, pedagogue and accomplished abstract artist, believes that drawing and painting are things we should experience “all the time”. It would “make for a more peaceful world”, he tells me. “Painting and drawing have taught me to see and remember. The hand moving on any surface with brush or pencil is a major activity of the unconscious and conscious mind. One must be absolutely ready to let the hand activate its power. It is an adventure and a gamble.”

He quotes designer William Morris as writing to his painter friend Edward Burne-Jones, “If any man has any poetry in him, he should paint …

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In one of the quirkiest cases of backward cross-fertilisation, John Cage was so inspired by Robert Rauschenberg’s “white painting” (blank canvasses that Cage called “mirrors of the air”) that later the same year he composed his most famous work, 4’33”, at which a pianist sits quietly at the keyboard but does not touch it.

Left-handed violinist Paul Klee was talented in music and art. He ultimately embraced art, dropping the confines of music altogether and becoming a leading avant-garde painter.

Like Hough, I too find release in painting, sometimes spontaneously. I am often seized by the impulse to sketch a player when I see him or her emotionally high in public. Musicians’ faces and body language provide great material for the artist, inspiring my approach to their portraits — joyful, tragic or just deep concentration.

There is a peculiar pleasure in portraiture. The artist must take an intimate, even intrusive, approach to detail, exploring the eyes, noses and lips – their crinkles, wrinkles and folds — to make the subject come alive. An expressive face can reveal something of the individual’s inner life, and that is what I seek. It takes time to study these faces. The English painters John Singer Sargent and Lucian Freud were known for their multiple false starts in oils, scraping away the face and starting over and over. Leonardo da Vinci invested five years, off and on, in his “Mona Lisa”.

Conductors are some of the most emotive performers in public. Yutaka Sado, Kent Nagano, Paul Daniel, and of course Leonard Bernstein lose themselves in the music. I have seen Bernstein leap so joyfully that both feet left the podium at the same time.

Studying faces puts the artist in a spooky symbiosis with his or her subject. I know I have captured the pianist when I can hear the music or see the subject come to life. I stop short of a related spookiness, however, in the very spiritual conductor Seiji Ozawa who also gets that “miraculous” chill. Intensive study of an orchestral score eventually gives him the feeling that it is his music, that he composed it.

Music can get inside you that way.

 

* My collection of portraits of musicians is available at Amazon


Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. He worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his writing career. He is the author of five books and divides his time between Boston and Bordeaux.

 

 

oldenglish-graffiti-alphabet-zCarlo Zecchi, pianist

zecchiIt wasn’t easy to find a Z to complete A Pianist’s Alphabet, but Carlo Zecchi (1903-84) fits the bill perfectly, being a pianist, music teacher and conductor. He studied with Busoni and Schnabel. His Paris debut was rather overshadowed by one Vladimir Horowitz but he enjoyed success in Russia in the inter-war years and was particularly acclaimed for his performances of piano works by Scarlatti, Mozart, and Debussy, and of Romantic music.

Beyond the Notes

…a virtuoso was, originally, a highly accomplished musician, but by the nineteenth century the term had become restricted to performers, both vocal and instrumental, whose technical accomplishments were so pronounced as to dazzle the public.

Music in the Western civilization by Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin

Google “virtuoso pianist” and the image search will throw up pictures of Richter, Brendel, Rubenstein, Argerich, Arrau, Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Ashkenazy, Barenboim, Lang Lang, Yuja Wang, Trifonov, Pollini, Cziffra, Gould, Kissin, Uchida, Hough, Pires, Ogdon, Schiff, Cliburn, Hamelin, Schnabel, Cortot, Horowitz, Hess, von Bulow, Andsnes….. The list is seemingly endless, with every significant or “great” pianist of today and previous eras afforded the accolade of “virtuoso”. Along with the pictures there are 100s of articles ranking pianists – the 25 greatest pianists of all time, the 10 greatest living pianists, 50 legendary virtuoso pianists……

martha-argerich
Martha Argerich

The word “virtuoso” literally means “a person who is extremely skilled at something, especially at playing an instrument or performing“. It describes an individual with exceptional and extraordinary technical and musical abilities, but as the opening quote notes, the word is more usually associated with dazzling displays of piano pyrotechnics.

Today virtuosity in the sphere of classical music has become almost synonymous with an over-developed technical facility without a comparable level of musical understanding/interpretation or broader musical education. The word has been misappropriated and more often than not is now attached to the performer who simply plays very fast and loud, or one who attracts more attention to themselves than the music (I am sure we can all think of a few examples…..). It troubles me when the word is used to describe young children playing (seemingly) complex piano repertoire, whose irritating videos are posted across the internet. How many of these “piccoli virtuosi” will actually grow up to be true virtuosi, in the purest, most romantic sense of the word? As we gasp in amazement at these pianists’ fleet fingers and glittering pianistic athleticism, the word has come to mean something rather superficial and derogatory.

Virtuosos are constantly tempted to indulge in an undue exhibition of their wonderful technic, and as many have succumbed to the temptation, the term virtuoso has come to be considered by many as slightly depreciatory, and the greatest artists usually object to having it coupled with their names

W.L. Hubbard et al, 1908

For me, and I suspect others who appreciate the art and craft of pianism, virtuosity transcends technique. It is less about the ability to play the fastest, most treacherous passages of Rachmaninoff or Liszt or to scale the high Himalayan peaks of works like Gaspard de la Nuit or Islamey, or to perfectly execute thousands of scales and other ‘technical exercises’ with amazing dexterity, but rather an aggregate of many skills which enable the pianist to play a million different passages, and to adjust finger and arm weight and touch accordingly to achieve particular effects and sounds, as well as learning to ‘speak’ the language of music through one’s playing and an ability to stand back from the music to allow it to speak on its own terms. Nor is it about flashy piano pyrotechnics and extravagant gestures, which may wow the audience but do not serve the music. Indeed, a number of pianists whom I regard as true virtuosi are also some of the most “immobile” in the profession – Marc-André Hamelin, Murray Perahia and Stephen Hough being notable examples.

A true virtuoso “must call up scent and blossom, and breathe the breath of life”

Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt is usually held up as the first great virtuoso pianist, yet for many he remains merely a “showman” whose virtuosity was a negative attribute. A poseur and a charlatan, superficial and bombastic, whose playing and music was affected, grandiose and vulgar. But Liszt was no superficial showman: in addition to playing his own music, he played all the best music of his day and all the best music which had been written for the piano. He was “the very incarnation of the piano”. In addition, he was a pioneering conductor, concert promoter and champion of young composers (notably Wagner, who described him as “the most musical of all musicians”). His musical outlook in general was noble, transcendental, sacred, orchestral and metaphysical – surely attributes to be admired rather than denounced?

With Liszt, one no longer thinks of difficulty overcome; the instrument disappears and music reveals itself

Heinrich Heine

The virtuoso appreciates and understands that each performance is a “critique” in the purest sense of that term; it is a profoundly thoughtful, insightful, penetrative response to the music in which the performer invests his or her own self in a symbiotic process in which he/she becomes not a re-creator but a collaborator with the composer. The virtuoso respects the demands placed upon him/her by the composer by playing the music with passion, poetry and extraordinary technical ability.

In concerts, the virtuoso approaches each performance, each interpretation as a unique occasion – something I feel is increasingly hard for performers when high-quality recordings are so readily available, benchmarks by which pianistic prowess is measured and which lead audiences to expect a certain manner of playing in live concerts. The virtuoso appreciates that there is no one “perfect” rendition of a Beethoven Concerto or Chopin Étude; that one should never aspire to have the “last word” on any work. It is for this reason that many of us seek out the same virtuoso performers in the same repertoire, either on disc or in concert, to hear how their view of certain works changes and develops over time. Yet for some musicians the constant revisiting of certain works (the Beethoven piano sonatas, for example), or playing them on different instruments (fortepiano, for example) suggests an overly reverential or literal attitude to the composer’s “intentions” as they perceive them, and a wish/need to make a final statement on this music and set it in stone. Such performances, for me at least, may come across not as virtuosic but rather as academic, mannered or overly precious.

…the further a performance must travel to reach the origin of the music, the more the artist demonstrates the measure of both his conscience and his genius: his virtuosity

Mark Mitchell, Virtuosi!

The virtuoso takes risks in performance – by which I do not mean coming to the stage ill-prepared. Indeed, the most risk-tasking, vertiginous, exciting or profound performances are often the result of many long hours – nay, years – spent living with the music. Even a flawed virtuoso performance can excite, delight and enthrall far more than a perfect non-virtuosic performance: technique over artistry nearly always fails to impress.

The virtuoso understands that while there is no “definitive” performance, one can create, in that “existing in the moment” of the live concert experience a performance whose communicative and emotional power renders it “perfect”. Audiences know this too – these are the performances during which we enter a state of wonder, from which we emerge speechless, hardly able to put into words what we have just heard (often the hardest concerts to review, in my experience!) because the experience of the performance has awakened in us what it means to be a sentient, thinking, feeling, living, breathing human being. I would cite concerts by Maurizio Pollini (in Pierre Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata), Steven Osborne (in Messiaen’s Vingt Regards), Marc-André Hamelin (in Liszt, Ives and Stockhausen) and Richard Goode (in Schubert’s last three piano sonatas) which transported me into that particular state of wonder.

The miracle of an aristocratic performance lies in its capacity to vaporize everything that surrounds it, and in particular all efforts to appropriate it.

Mark Mitchell, ibid.

And there’s more – because for me true virtuosity goes beyond the notes. It includes the ability and willingness to tackle a wide range of repertoire. By which I do not mean playing a lot of pieces, as some younger performers feel they should be doing, but rather playing a broad range of music. One of the chief exponents of this art is, in my humble opinion, Maurizio Pollini. Not many pianists would programme Chopin’s 24 Preludes, a selection of Debussy’s Preludes Book 1 and Pierre Boulez’s Sonata No. 2 in the same concert. Stephen Hough and Marc-André Hamelin are also notable examples in their championing of lesser-known repertoire and their own compositions.

People will always be impressed by fleet fingers and noisy piano acrobatics, but for me the most profound musical experience often comes in the quietest, slowest or most intimate moments in music when a venue as large as the Royal Festival Hall shrinks to the size of Schubert’s salon through the pianist’s power of expression and musical intuition and understanding. That is true virtuosity.

 

There are cats and kittens all over the internet. For some people it’s what social networks like Facebook and Twitter were created for: sharing pictures and video clips of cats doing funny things, cats doing cute things, cats doing daft things….. Or pictures of our own furry friends for us to collectively coo over.

Many of my pianist friends and colleagues own cats (I know this because they post pictures of their feline companions on Facebook and Twitter) and it strikes me that cats are good companions for pianists, being self-sufficient and far less demanding or attention-seeking than dogs. (My own cat, a blue Burmese called Freddy, used to sit on the lid of the piano when I was practising, or join me on the piano bench, leaning gently against me as I played.)

Just when we thought there wasn’t room for another blog or website featuring cats and kittens, along came Pianists With Kittens, a delightfully witty Tumblr photo-blog which contains pictures of famous pianists with kittens and cats Photoshopped into the pictures. It’s a simple idea, but it works because it is executed so well. The choice and the placement of the cat or kitten is both thoughtful and humorous:  Garrick Ohlsson seemingly in conversation with a hairless cat, a wide-eyed cat peeping round Maurizio Pollini, a stripey ginger kitty hangs from the arm of Vestard Shimkus, a tabby dives over the shoulder of Nikolai Lugansky, the tail of a disappearing cat in a picture of Lang Lang madly emoting, a kitten flying through the air, as if tossed out of the piano by the extravagant gestures of Yuja Wang. There are many famous pianists featured on the site – late greats such as Richter, Ciccolini, Kempf, Hoffman, Gould, Lipatti, even Chopin and Mozart, as well as living artists, and each picture is accompanied by a YouTube clip allowing one to listen to the featured pianist. Those of us who follow Pianists With Kittens on Twitter have taken to nominating pianists to be featured on the site, and I was honoured last autumn to be featured myself on the site, with my beloved cat Freddy of course. Now it is quite an accolade to be included on the Pianists With Kittens site.

I caught up with the creator of Pianists with Kittens to find out more about how this charming site came to be

Who or what inspired you to create Pianists With Kittens? 

The idea for Pianists With Kittens came first from a scholar-pianist friend, Alex Stefaniak, who learned in the course of his research that Clara Schumann was a fan of kittens—no less a source than Franz Liszt reports that she used to return to the piano with bloody hands from playing with them! So I made a (clumsy) photoshop of her with a kitten and immediately my friends requested other pianists.

clarawkitten1

By popular demand, the Tumblr came into being and then the Twitter account. (NB: Pianists will want to keep an eye out for Prof. Stefaniak’s book on the Schumanns and virtuosity. Should be out in the next year.)

What is your own musical background? Are you a pianist? 

I grew up with classical music on 24/7, so it always seemed a neccessary accompaniment to life, not something to study for a “career.” Now I’m a professional in the music world, but piano is still my hobby.

Do you own a cat/kitten? 

A cat and a kitten. The older cat sits at my side when I play piano.

What is your earliest memory of the piano? 

Classical piano music was probably on while I was in the womb, but I first became aware of the instrument as such when my parents brought one into the house. I was 6 and started lessons the next year.

Who are your favourite pianists (living and dead)? 

I think my tastes in dead pianists are not particularly controversial. Seems that posterity has done a good job with this already. Richter tops my list as I’ve previously written here. Among his contemporaries, I’ll always give a listen to Yudina and Gilels, Sofronitsky, Lipatti. Young Horowitz belongs on this list too.

Among the 19th-century babies, of course Rachmaninoff himself. I love anything Carl Friedberg plays, his Brahms and Schumann were revelatory to me. And the other “fried”– Friedman, for his Chopin. I think just about everything Myra Hess touches is gold, such warmth in her German rep – love her Op109. I like to imagine that warmth is what Clara Schumann must have conveyed in her playing.

Cortot is a favorite. There’s nothing new to be said about his amazing pianism, and I love his wrong notes as much as the right ones. His name always seemed paired with Chopin, then I heard his Schumann and liked it even more.

Notably absent from this list are some greats of the Golden Era. I find too much of that repertoire superficial (part of that impression is because of recording technology: hard to record a complete 50-minute Schubert sonata à la Richter).

Among the living, it gets more difficult. There’s a whole generation that leaves me pretty cold (the Perahia-Schiff-Uchida generation). My tastes still tend to the Eastern European, so I’d rather hear Leonskaja, Virsaladze, Pletnev, even Pogorelich than those who often grace concert halls in the West—and forget the States! And for the new century so far, Daniil Trifonov.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

When I was a small child (3 or 4) and taken to a local college symphony concert: they played the Candide Overture and I thought it was just the coolest thing.

Favourite pieces to play/listen to? 

Too hard to name favorite pieces! I play Bach and Mozart all the time and I love them; can spend hours reading through WTC. Brahms, too, as much of it I can play. As for listening, whatever requires so much pianistic finesse/technique that I can’t stumble through it satisfactorily myself: Chopin, Russian rep, the “Impressionist” pieces.

If you could play one piece what would it be……? 

I have small hands, so. . . if I magically were to become a great concert pianist with a great orchestra and conductor around, then maybe one of the Brahms or Rachmaninoff concerti.

Follow Pianists With Kittens on Twitter at @PianistswKitten

Tumblr: http://pianistswithkittens.tumblr.com/

Lola Perrin
Lola Perrin

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and pursue a career in music?

It picked me, I couldn’t keep away from the piano and when I hit my early twenties I realised I had to compose, and knew it would take a good few years to write anything I could say was original.  It actually took 9 years to eventually compose eleven minutes of music that I rate; my first piano suite which is a set of seven miniatures.  After that, the door was open.

 

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Edward Hopper, Ansel Adams, observing children set free at the piano, Rachel Whiteread, Carsten Hoeller, Dr Martin Coath’s emails to me about the speed of thought in the brain, Hussein Chalayan’s ideology that drives his designs, the passing of a close friend and musician and remembering him in a piano suite – these were all triggers, one by one, for my eight piano suites.

 

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

It’s unimaginably difficult to get other people to play your work which is fairly usual (so many of my predecessors only started getting played after their deaths), although my work is played now more than it was – it ebbs and flows.  It’s hard to get it to take off. I’m more interested in composing than promoting so I run out of time to promote my books. I spend less time than I would like on promoting my books because my composing and teaching take priority.  So I would say the greatest challenge is ongoing; getting my work further into the repertoire and into the hands of many more concert pianists.

 

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

Always the next one.

 

Favourite pieces to listen to?

Bill Evans playing ‘Symbiosis’

 

Who are your favourite musicians?

Martha Argerich is high up in my list and I loved seeing her daughter’s amazing and intimate film about Martha: ‘Bloody Daughter’.

 

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Maybe the one where around 5 and a half people came. I was in a tiny chapel in Hamburg, My show included films and as there was no screen, they were projected onto the amazing and antiquated wallpaper, creating the sense of a one-time-only atmosphere never to be repeated but perhaps everyone would remember on a particularly deep level.

 

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Once you find your path, never step away from it; no matter how hard it is, do not compromise. Be brave and keep reaching out!

 

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve spent the last year creating “Now You See It” – a composer’s response to living in the age of climate change. It’s scored for piano and an orchestra of words featuring the voices of activists and innovators at the frontline of climate justice.  I worked with co-producer Christian Dymond, researching and interviewing a number of activists around the world; then I created a word based composition using extracts from the interviews and set that within piano composition. It has its premiere in London in March and is going to Hebden Bridge Piano Festival in April, will be on at Markson Pianos Concert Series in October, with more dates coming in. 

 

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

On a planet that has switched to renewable energy or NO energy.

 

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Walking to my next gig; that’s when I most feel in my element.

 

 

Lola Perrin performs at Hebden Bridge Piano Festival on 18th April in a programme which culminates in her “Now You See It” – a multimedia project featuring solo piano with a sumptuous cloud film by visual artist Roberto Battista, and pre-recorded words captured from international activists, climatologists, inventors, writers, and oil rig workers; voices from the frontline of our global climate conversation.  “Such a brilliant idea!” George Monbiot

 Further information and tickets here 

Lola Perrin is a London-based, USA-born composer, pianist, publisher, and Composer-in-Residence at Markson Pianos.

She has been composing since 1992 and performs her compositions on mainland Europe, in the UK (including works for 2, 4 & 6 pianos at Lang Lang Inspires, Southbank Centre) & USA, and has published over 70 piano compositions in 8 books, distributed via Spartan Press. Commissions include silent film scores performed at Barbican, BFI Southbank and Peninsula Arts in Plymouth. She collaborates in performance with writers (including Mihir Bose  & Sue Hubbard), scientists, artists and film makers. 

Lola Perrin has been taken into the repertoire by concert pianists including; Elena Riu, Kevin Robert Orr, Paul Cassidy, Ivory Duo Piano Ensemble, LP Duo, Duo Gastesi Bezerra, Carles and Sofia.  Her technical exercises, commissioned by Trinity College of Music, can be found in their 2015 – 2016 Piano Syllabus Grades 3 & 4.

As an increasing number of pianists and piano duos take up her piano works she is turning her attention to instrumental works.  Elysian Quartet and Carlos Lopez-Real have performed her string quartet and saxophone work. Sarah Watts  commissioned ‘Her Sisters’ Notebook’ (ten bass clarinets) for Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival 2011 and played it at Irish Royal Academy 2014. Simon Desbrulais and Ivory Duo Piano Ensemble have taken up her forthcoming Suite for Two Pianos, Trumpet and Narrator. During 2014 two instrumental works (String Quartet & Saxophone, Wind Quintet & Choir) are due to be rehearsed / performed in London.

She has been interviewed and reviewed by various media including Berliner Morgenpost, BBC Radio 3 and local stations, The Guardian, Lyric FM.  Her recordings appear on radio playlists and occasionally on broadcast TV, are on general release and can be found through digital sites including iTunes (CDs: Fragile Light’, ‘By Peculiar Grace and other loves’).  She also works as a private piano teacher.  Pianist magazine ran an interview, June 2014, with her piano student Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, in which Lola made a sneak appearance.

As well as various composition projects, she is also currently transcribing ‘Concerto in C Minor’ by Helen Hagan, a forgotten 1912 virtuosic masterpiece still in the composer’s hand, and creating a concert programme around it.

www.lolaperrin.com

What is your first memory of the piano?

I saw and played a piano when we were visiting one of my father’s colleagues at his family home. It was a long visit, and I had time to explore: I fell in love with it at first sight and although I was around 4 years old, I remember I sat and tried to play using my fingers. I was glued, and although my parents looked a bit embarrassed I had taken over somebody’s possession, they were clearly impressed. Apparently our hostess tried to impress on my parents I should start lessons.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

My piano teacher in Greece, the well-known concert pianist and pedagogue D. Toufexis, a Julliard graduate and former Lateiner pupil along with concert pianist Danae Kara, both staff at The American College of Greece, inspired me to maintain a portfolio career. I loved how I could go see them perform at major venues and festivals and then have the privilege of private conversations and lessons with them.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

The teacher who inspired me to become a musician was the head teacher of a large, state primary school in a well-to-do leafy suburb of Athens. He was himself a frustrated violinist with real passion for music education. His class produced three concert pianists (me included), one musical theatre singer-actress, and a musicologist. Yet the school was an ordinary non-selective state one.

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?

I finished my studies at the conservatoire in Greece, yet I knew that I could not trust myself to teach. When I came back from my Master of Music studies in the US at West Chester University of Pennsylvania (1994), I felt I could tackle anything: intensive courses in piano pedagogy were compulsory and included teaching practicums under supervision. At the end of my studies, my teachers were very eager to impress on me the need for certain books which became my bibles, especially the Denes Agay books on Teaching Piano, and were packed in my already impossibly heavy suitcases. Greece at the time felt quite cut off in many ways, and I still remember sending and receiving letters to the US which took about a couple of months: this was the era before Internet and Amazon!

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

Despite having taught at all levels for at least 20 years, I still remember being 10 or 11 and helping my friend practice her sonatina. After about 20 minutes her mum couldn’t help herself anymore and stormed in with my mum to stop me from what she thought was merely distracting my friend. My friend whispered “thank you”, as I had helped her to repeat sections rather than play through mindlessly. Years after, when we met again, the first thing she remembered was how grateful she was for helping her practice that one time. I’m sure her mum is still not convinced, but I know it was the earliest confirmation that I could actually be of real help, and is certainly my fondest memory.

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults?

I’ve been teaching adults almost from the beginning of my career. Challenges, except for time constraints, include self-imposed limitations, mainly arising from clashes with self-image, and definitions of achievement and prospects. That’s why my best adult student to date is a hard working dad of three who is totally committed to his lessons because he sees it as personal growth.

What do you expect from your students?

A certain level of commitment: I can inspire, demonstrate and explain, but I can’t force them to practice. There needs to be an initial interest, and in the case of younger students, there has to be parental support.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

Exams and festivals can be great motivators while providing benchmarks of attainment. Competitions are both exciting and a necessary evil: as long as there are transparent selection processes they have a place in one’s development. I think it is important for a musician to enter any form of competition trying to achieve playing their personal best (rather than focusing on being better than the other competitors). At the same time it is important to come into contact with one’s peers. What I do not like is the message that one has to comply with what’s expected – and certainly there are pianists who are unhappy at the suggestion of modifying their affinities for certain repertoire. I also do not condone excessive emphasis on performativity at younger ages: young children and teenagers should not be criticised for being their awkward selves on stage, especially if this does not interfere with projecting the music.

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginner students, and to advanced students?

Smart practice, healthy posture-technique, and fingering, along with reading notation and counting are all concepts presented from the very first lessons and reinforced throughout the studies. Style and phrasing, along with pedalling, however, take a lot of exposure to repertoire and are more gradually introduced.

What are your thoughts on the link between performance and teaching?

My preference is for teachers who teach by example, as I found it most exciting to watch my own teachers perform. I am therefore a performer who teaches pupils how to perform on the piano, rather than how to play the piano. To perform is more than just pressing keys as instructed through notation: it is to communicate without the burden of words. The process of learning to perform is a complicated one of empathy with the perceived intention of the composer, and of enculturation.

Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why?

Martha Argerich is a firm favourite for her transcendental technique, as are the Labeque sisters. I saw the Labeque sisters perform live in Greece and their communication and poise were simply amazing. From my own teachers, Dimitri Toufexis taught me a lot about projecting phrasing through physical gestures, Danae Kara stepped in as my mentor at the early stages of my career and pushed for a totality of conception in extended works. Dr. Bedford introduced me to Alexander Technique and Tai Chi to focus the mind, and my dearest Dr McHugh taught me how to control my hands and the piano keys in what she termed “slow key-depression”. Martino Tirimo and Elena Riu will always occupy a special place for being so flattering and incisive as duet coaches.

 

Natalie Tsaldarakis is a concert pianist and member of the Ivory Duo Piano Ensemble. Natalie has also been active as a lecturer, piano teacher and examiner since the 1990s.

In 1994 Natalie was invited to membership by the American National Music Honour Society Pi Kappa Lambda for excellence in performance and she has been the recipient of numerous awards and prizes, including first and second place winners in piano competitions in the US, and Greece (MTNA Wurlitzer Collegiate Competition, West Chester State University Concerto Competition, the Pottstown Orchestra Competition, Deree College Faculty Development Award, WCU Graduate Development Award etc.).

Since 2005 Natalie has been based in London, UK. Between 1995 and until 2005, Natalie was artist teacher in residence at the American College of Greece as well as piano professor and examiner for Greek conservatoires of music including the National Conservatory of Greece.

Natalie has performed extensively at various venues and festivals in the UK and abroad, including the Southbank Centre, St John’s Smith Square, Oxford University, St-Martin-in-the-Fields, Glasgow City Halls, Sibelius Academy, Athens Concert Hall, Fairfield Halls, Winchester Cathedral.

Natalie has recorded both solo and with the Ivory Duo Piano Ensemble for the National Greek Radio (ERA-1, ERA-3), and has appeared on Greek television, and UK’s Resonance FM 104.4. The duo’s CD “Romantic Dance Music for Piano Duet” was requested by the Archive for Greek Music and Musicians (Lilian Voudouris Library, Athens Concert Hall) and hailed as an important musical event of international standing by the Greek specialist press.

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