Guest post by Howard Smith, Adult Amateur Pianist

My first Chetham’s. The International Summer School & Festival for Pianists, that is. Manchester, UK. Two hundred and thirty participants. Forty tutors and staff. Phew!

What is Chetham’s? A holiday? An experience? A dream? Deep learning? A festival? Camaraderie? Joy? All these and more. Mental exhaustion? Yes. Tutorials throughout the day. Recitals each evening. And practice rooms open 6am til 11pm. Seven days (fourteen if you can do it) of end-to-end piano madness. Non-stop. Punctuated by meals and coffee breaks. And for those with stronger metabolisms than I, late nights in the bar or around town. I needed sleep. Lots. Be prepared to pace yourself.

So what is Chetham’s? A privilege. Yes. A shock, also. So much talent. I feel … inadequate. My journey just beginning, despite the last years of obsessive practice. I am … nowhere. Visceral. I feel it keenly as I watch the young people and experienced ‘adult amateurs’. It’s hard to come to terms with this reality, despite the modest progress I have made. So little for the effort expended. Like a heavy weight bearing down on me, I hardly dare to imagine what will happen if, in the end, I find the journey too onerous.

Day 0: Registration. Check in. Unpack. Explore. And in the evening (from 5pm) three recitals! Three!! Nearly four hours of music, including Peter Donohoe CBE (Haydn programme).

Day 1: Tai chi (optional) Breakfast. 1-to-1 and group workshops. Coffee break. Workshops or practice. Lunch. Workshops. I play on stage, on a grand, for six minutes, to over seventy people. I am first to volunteer. Not bravery. Far from it. Desperation. Unless I do this my performance anxiety will kill whatever progress I have made. Dinner. Then three more recitals. Top international talent. 10pm. Bar. Wine (large glass). Sleep.

Repeat for six days. And *everyone* gets a piano.

Day 2: 9am. I am sitting in (observer) on a composition class. A young man, clearly ambitious (and knowledgeable) is explaining to a faculty tutor that he wishes to write a toccata. His  tutor opens a copy of Spectrum, book IV (ABRSM) and invites the young man to accompany him at the keyboard in selected ‘miniatures’. They discuss style and compositional ideas. Exploring. There is a poster on the wall of the tutor’s office: Peter Maxwell Davies. My mind returns to 1975.

What is Chetham’s? Memory jogger and nostalgia generator.

Time for my second 1-to-1. Schubert. I learn how to play big chords, softly. And how Schubert requires far less pedal than I was using. Somehow Tippett enters the conversation. My tutor has a close relative now occupying the house where Tippett lived and composed. He tells me about the garden path he trod while writing Child Of Our Time. And as the lesson ends, my tutor tells me – based on what he heard and the way I took instruction – that I should be playing more advanced music: Grade 8 music. Music to my ears …  but he does not know just how much work I do at Grade 6. LOL.

Still day 2. Lunch. I sit down by myself. A lady a couple of chairs away seems eager to introduce herself. We exchange stories. As a student, she studied Jazz, at Leeds, and now teaches. I start listing some of my musical heroes, starting with Corinne Bailey Rae. Her face lights up. “I was at college with Jason and Steve!” Oh my. My new Chetham’s friend (Leeds accent, there’s the clue) shows me photos of herself and the gang.

Is this musical world smaller than we imagine? Is that because being ‘musical’ is rare? Or weird? Does it require a particularly high IQ, or is it just a niche innate ‘talent’? More evidence emerges … I am in the school shop (Forsyths, who also ship-in additional grand pianos for the summer school) and ask a question about the Spectrum series of ‘contemporary music’ I heard about in the composition class. A man standing nearby asks, “Ah. Do you like contemporary music?”

“Britten and Tippett,” I reply.

“Oh, not contemporary then,” he says. “Britten would be 106 this year.” He smiles.

(He has a point. I have some catch-up to do.)

And then explains he has “worked with Britten”, and “lived for a while at The Red House”. Wow.

“And did I mention that I also worked with Tippett. Nice man.”

And the young woman behind the book counter joins in. “Yes, Tippett came to conduct our school orchestra. I agree, really nice. Fun. Britten was a but stuffy.”

Racing ahead with more connections the man (a Faculty tutor I now see from his badge) adds, “I taught Ed Sheeran you know. Lovely family. Must catch up with him some day.”

So there we are. What is Chetham’s? The centre of things.

How can this still be Day 2? But it is. A (much anticipated) evening recital in the gorgeous Stoller Hall (perfect acoustics). Angela Hewitt. Bach. The monumental Goldberg (30) Variations. Four (four) standing ovations! A once-in-a-lifetime performance. Superhuman. Truly. Everyone agrees.

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Stoller Hall

Day 3. The afternoon class introduces a wonderful idea. We are each asked to i) walk to the piano (applause), ii) improvise “anything” (no more than thirty seconds), iii) take a bow and iv) walk offstage. It works like a dream. Those who were reticent to play before are, by the end of the course, playing to the group.

Day 3. Evening. The bar. Chatting. We have just been treated to not one but TWO concertos. Brahms No. 1 and No. 2, with full orchestra (the first performed by Murray McLachlan, founder of the summer school, the second by the french-American pianist Eugen Indjic). A quiet lady joins us. I ask her what she has played to her group. In an accent I don’t recognise she explains she is too nervous. She has travelled to Manchester from Brazil. And not played! (other than to her tutor) Well, that has to end. Gathering up a colleague, and despite it being late (11pm), I suggest that we grab a room with a couple of grand pianos and play to each other for an hour or so. And we do. And my little plan works. She plays a complex piece by Villa Lobos. Slow and hesitant but lovely. And half an hour later she is showing off another piece, rich in Brazillian rhythms. Mission accomplished.

(Later in the week I repeat this trick for an IT Project Manager who had previously only played to his teacher at home … not even to his family and friends. But he played for me, at Chetham’s, and later found the confidence to play in his final group workshop.)

So what is Chetham’s? Mutual support network. Agony aunt for performance anxiety limited international piano tourists.

Day 4. I sit in on an ‘Improvisation” lesson. The pupil is a lady I met on the bus from the station. She has spotted my music bag and introduced herself. Her first Chetham’s, just like me. To the surprise of her tutor, she breaks down, tearful, before the lesson gets underway. The explanation: the first two days had shown her a new world: what it *really* means to be a musician. She explained that her musical education at school, and with various ‘teachers’ thereafter, was little but rote learning. No creativity. No authenticity. I understand her. My childhood experience was limiting. Decades pass and along comes Chetham’s to show us what the journey is really about. Two minutes later she has recovered her composure as she listened to the kind, empathetic, words of reassurance from her sensitive faculty teacher.

Day 4. Just before lunch. A friend from a London-based piano circle I attend (LPMG) emerges from class. We decide to help each other and find an empty practice room. He helps me with my sight reading. We exchange notes on Bach minuet style. We play Satie to each other, wondering how to achieve evenness.

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Adult student receiving tuition at Chethams Summer School for Pianists

Day 4. Afternoon tutorial. More input. Listen. Apply. This is good. I am learning. I hope it sticks. I’ll try.

Quote of the week:

Pupil: “I always get these bars wrong.”

Tutor: “I see. Have you tried playing them right?”

Evening concert. Sarah Nicolls’ ‘Outside-In-Piano’. Difficult to describe. Sarah builds vertical pianos, exposing the strings. The keyboard is sawn off and put back at a ninety degree angle. (No reaching over to get to the strings and the audience sees everything) Sarah uses this ‘instrument’ and a pile of electronics to compose new music. Tonal music washed in pads of sound coaxed from the unusual piano using her box of toys. What is this music? Part theatre, I could call it acoustic-electro-Dada’esque art. The hour with Sarah bewitches the audience. I meet up with her after the show, and she gives me an old piano-key from one of her construction projects. Apparently it contains a secret download-key to her digital album.

Sarah turns out to be an ex-student here at the school. So what is Chetham’s? Creativity incubator. And talent attractor.

Sarah is building a new InsideOutPiano (grand) using high-tech light weight components. The unique #StandingGrand will be built by FuturePianoLtd. The design will occupy no more space than a traditional upright and be able to be carried by two people. This will allow Sarah to perform more wildly and perhaps open the market for more musicians to own such a beautiful and unique instrument. Please consider supporting this project here on Kickstarter.

Day 5. Late (after an evening of recitals). Cabaret!! Not the musical; rather an end of summer school tradition. We assemble in the hall for the end of week celebration. A few have been roped in to provide the ‘entertainment’. A talented student plays the ubiquitous Bach Prelude in C major from the WTC Book 1. He is sitting on the ground, facing away from the keyboard, hands over his head and swapped left-right. This and a host of other entertainment closes the night. And before you ask … yes, I volunteered. It went down OK (for a first timer). Enough said of that the better.

Day 6. The following morning. Bit-of-a-head after late night wine. But I had signed up to play in the ‘leaving day’ recitals at 10AM. Without music! Memorization. Satie. Gnossiennes No. 1 and No. 2. Six minutes. That should be enough of me for this audience.

So what is Chetham’s? Unique. Essential. If you want to find out what lies ahead, just around the corner, waiting to pop up and poke fun at you. I’m back at school, where I need to be. The stepping stone.

What was the oddest thing I learnt? Clementi lives in Croydon. His name is Chris and he is a bellringer. Yes, Clementi’s great great (etc) grandson lives not too far. I knew there was a reason I found those exercises a little too close for comfort….