A guest post by James Holden

I am not practising but playing the piano.

It has not always been like this. I was younger once and like all pupils would be given my notes on how to play the notes. I would each week be handed a few handwritten, barely legible lines marking out my teacher’s expectations for the coming week: a list of scales to perfect, contrary motion; the names of the pieces to work up.

I am older now. I no longer have to decipher any comments or reach any point by a particular time. I no longer have to worry that my lack of practice will show. I’m not working towards any exams. I’m not studying for a GCSE or A Level. I’m certainly not building up to my Grade 6, Grade 7 or Grade 8. I’ve not had to pick any pieces from List A; I’ve not even looked at List B. And I’m definitely not looking forward to any concert performance.

I am older now and I no longer practise the piano. It’s not practice because I’m not practising the piano for anything. I’m not practising a work in readiness for some point in the future when I’ll finally be asked to play it, when I’ll be asked to perform it, when I’ll be marked, given a merit or a distinction or not. I’m not setting aside time at the keyboard now against some prospective moment. I’m not preparing for anything. No, I’m not practising but just playing the piano.

The difference is one of quality. It is a difference that I can feel in every note, even the wrong ones. I’m not practising the piano, I’m just playing it and that playing belongs entirely to this present moment, this instant as I press down each key. This is it; it’s happening now and not in some future time of a potential recital. It belongs entirely to me, even and especially when I play not the right notes but the wrong ones.

It is an experience that as well as being more immediate in time is also now closer in space. It is nearer to me. The playing begins and ends with me at the piano. There is no inevitable audience. I’m not playing to the upper circle or to any icy examiner but for myself.

The difference between practice and play is also one of quantity. I play the piano far more now than I ever did when I was younger. I play every day when I’m at home. And when I’m not playing the instrument I’m listening to recordings of other people playing it. The piano is no longer a distraction but the thing from which I’m distracted.

And with this increased quantity of time at the keyboard has come an increased quantity – or at least variety – of music on the stand. The difference between practice and play has been for me a greater freedom to choose any piece I want, from any List, A or B, any piece by Liszt or otherwise, from the most simple to those that remain beyond me at the moment, and may well always stay out of reach. It is equally a greater freedom not to choose certain pieces and to abandon any work I want. If I find a work unrewarding (which is different to finding it difficult) I can simply take the music down and put it away without any sense of failure. There is no longer any merit or distinction in playing something that more than challenging me is making me unhappy.

This playing still does not come easy. I’m only moderately competent at the piano. I still have to work out which note is which when there are multiple leger lines. I still have to work hard to eliminate those wrong notes which multiply themselves across the keyboard. And I still patiently have to work my way through complex passages hands separately first and then hands together after, counting in my head as I go, one and two and… getting a feel for the cantabile melody line before adding the accompaniment.

And yet for all these difficulties it is still a joyful and intensely rewarding experience. And so I would recommend that everyone diligently practise the piano and then whenever possible also make time just to play it as well.

© James Holden 2014

Dr James Holden was born in Ashford and educated at Loughborough University. He graduated with his PhD in 2007. He is the author of, amongst other things, In Search of Vinteuil: Music, Literature and a Self Regained (Sussex Academic Press, 2010). His website is www.culturalwriter.co.uk and he posts on Twitter as @CulturalWriter


Ziyu Chen

A new series of concerts launches on 5th February 2014 at the Radcliffe Centre at the University of Buckingham with a concert by violist Ziyu Shen and pianist Anthony Hewitt.

Hot on the heels of their recital at London’s Wigmore Hall, these two world-class musicians bring a glorious, innovative programme of music by Bloch, Brahms, Prokofiev, Ravel and Guan. Sixteen year old Ziyua Shen won the 11th Lionel Tertis International Festival and Competition in 2013, the youngest prize-winner of this prestigious competition.

Anthony Hewitt




Pianist Anthony Hewitt is founder of the Ulverston International Music Festival, now in its 11th year, and an internationally acclaimed virtuoso, whose communicative performances have won his high praise.

An intriguing addition to the programme is the inclusion of a specially commissioned poem by Artist in Residence, Graham Roos, to mark the 10th anniversary of the Chinese Cocklepickers’ disaster at Morecombe Bay. The event has resonances for both performers: Chinese born Ziyu and Cumbrian Hewitt, whose home town Ulverston overlooks the fated bay.
Further details and tickets

Future concerts in the series, which take place on the first Wednesday of each month, include:

5th March – Preludes and Promenades. The world premiere of a new words and music collaboration between Anthony Hewitt and actress Susan Porett, featuring selected Preludes by Scriabin and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, with original artwork by Klara Smith.

2nd April – LePage/McLean Duo. Violinst David LePage and pianist Viv McLean in a programme of music by Bach, Brahms, Debussy, Ravel and Monti.

Further information www.sevenstarconcerts.com

The Instrument, the Music, the Musicians – From Mozart to Modern Jazz and Everything in Between [Hardback]

Stuart Isacoff

Hardback/paperback: 382 pages
Publisher: Souvenir Press Ltd
Language: English
ISBN: 9780285641129

Anyone who has read Charles Rosen’s intelligently-written Piano Notes will find plenty to enjoy in this new book on the “life and times” of the piano by Stewart Isacoff, writer, composer, pianist and lecturer, and founding editor of the magazine Piano Today.

This compact, well-designed book traces the history and evolution of the piano in a richly erudite and engaging narrative, from the unveiling of Mozart’s concertos through to Liszt’s fainting female fans, the rise of the modern travelling virtuoso pianist, to the ‘greats’ of the piano such as Rubinstein, Horowitz, Richter, Gilels, Gould, Peterson, Evans, Tatum, and many more. The book examines why the instrument has had such a fascination for generations of listeners and practitioners, how it can be used as a vehicle for emotional expression and individuality of style, and how it developed into the sleek, beautifully-crafted modern instrument of today. There are numerous sidebars and byways in the text, offering the reader a comprehensive survey of all aspects of the instrument, with plenty of amusing anecdotes, essays, and entertaining rambles around the subject.

Following a schematic course through the chapters, Isacoff’s wide-ranging and accessible text covers subjects such as the groundbreaking music of Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt and Debussy to the breathtaking techniques of the great pianists, such as Glenn Gould, Oscar Peterson, Arthur Rubinstein and Van Cliburn. Asides to the main text serve to amplify and spotlight particular aspects: we have Murray Perahia on shaping the piano’s sounds, Brendel on the challenge of playing Mozart, a profile of Duke Ellington by Oscar Peterson, Garrick Ohlsson on playing Chopin, plus many other contributions by both contemporary commentators and pianists of today, including Piotr Anderszewski, Emmanuel Ax, Billy Joel, Yundi Li, Menahem Pressler and Gabriela Montero. (A section before the index gives further biographical details about all the contributors.)

Jazz, too often overlooked in more traditional histories of the piano and its music, is celebrated with great affection, and the author shows how it grew from the same sources of inspiration as classical repertoire. The text segues comfortably between subjects, enhanced by 100 black-and-white illustrations, and there are copious notes, bibliographical information and a comprehensive index.

This book will delight and enthrall pianists and pianophiles everywhere, and at c£20 is excellent value as a gift for the piano enthusiast.


Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?

An old friend of mine who is an accomplished amateur pianist was playing Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata and I just absolutely fell in love with everything about the piano. It was at this time I decided I wanted to be a concert pianist. Every time I hear the Waldstein Sonata I have the same sense of excitement that I remember experiencing when I first heard my friend play it. It is one of the few pieces (along with Tchaikovsky Concerto No.1) that makes me wish I had two hands so I could play it.

Who or what were the greatest influences on your playing?

The greatest influences on my playing are the two teachers I feel I’ve learnt the most from over the years. I studied with acclaimed pianist Lucy Parham whilst I was at the Junior Guildhall School of Music & Drama. It was then that I was introduced to left hand repertoire and my journey as a left hand pianist properly began. I gained so much from Lucy and I always hold her in high esteem as I feel that without her guidance and high expectations I would not have been awarded a place at the Royal College of Music where I’m currently in my graduation year.

My second greatest influence is my current teacher Nigel Clayton. I have found out so much about myself as a pianist since learning with him: he seems to be able to explain things to me in such a way that it instantly transfers into my playing. Aside from being a great teacher he is also very supportive of the things that I do outside of the Royal College. Whether I have a concert or a television interview he always calls or texts to see how it went or to wish me luck.

Which CD in your discography are you most proud of, and why?

One of the first classical CD’s that I bought and am still proud of owning is a box set of Bach and Chopin performed by Martha Argerich. A few of the pieces on the disc really astounded me, the English Suite in A Minor by Bach and Chopin’s Piano Sonata No.2. I couldn’t seem to stop listening to these two pieces in particular; in my opinion they are the perfect recordings of these works.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

I adore playing in St Martin in the Fields. The acoustic is great and I really love the piano they have there. I also think the central location gives any concert a bit more of a ‘grand’ feeling. It is exciting for a performer.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

My favorite piece that I perform a lot is the Prelude and Nocturne Op.9 by Scriabin. I have a lot of nostalgia over these beautiful pieces as they were the first pieces for the left hand that I learnt. Ever since I mastered them I have included them in every single recital that I have played and just adore performing them. I would play Scriabin all day long if I could.

Who are your favourite musicians?

As mentioned before, Martha Argerich is a real favorite of mine. Though I also enjoy listening to Stephen Hough, especially his Rachmaninoff. I also listen to the violinist Nicola Benedetti a lot, I think her musicianship and technique is unsurpassed.

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

I think that the most important concept for students is to always be musical. One could walk down the practice corridor of any conservatoire and hear perfect notes coming from all the students practicing, yet sometimes I think musicians easily forget about the music itself and worry far too much about correct notes. I personally would rather go to a recital and hear an exciting, atmospheric and electric recital with a few wrong notes thrown in as opposed to a note-perfect performance with no excitement. I always try to impress on my students that correct notes are very important but are certainly not the be all and end all.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Perfect happiness to me is being content and fulfilled in both work and personal life. I think that if you have problems in your work life or problems in your personal life you cannot be fully happy. For me it’s about finding a fine balance between both.

Nicholas’s new album Echoes is released on 20 October 2017. More information/order

Nicholas McCarthy was born in 1989 without his right hand and only began to play the piano at the late age of 14 after being inspired by a friend play Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata.

Having once been told that he would never succeed as a concert pianist, Nicholas would not be discouraged and went on to study at the prestigious Royal College of Music in London. His graduation in July 2012 drew press headlines around the world, being the only one-handed pianist to graduate from the Royal College of Music in its 130 year history.

Nicholas is a champion of the dynamic and brave world of left hand alone repertoire, a repertoire that first came into being in the early 19th century and developed rapidly following the First World War as a result of the many injuries suffered on the Battlefield. Paul Wittgenstein was responsible for its 20th century developments with his commissions with Ravel, Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten amongst others.


Interview originally published in May 2012