My grandfather played the piano, mostly Methodist hymns and his favourite bits of Bach, Beethoven and Haydn. I suppose I was always aware of it and probably messed about on his piano, an Edwardian upright, which was on the left as you went into the front room (kept for Sundays and special occasions) when we went to visit. The piano stool was full of interesting song sheets and hymnals, friable and speckled with age, with that special antique smell, like the musty reminiscence of an old church….. My younger uncle also played the piano, passably well, while my eldest uncle was a fine amateur violinist. There was often music in my grandparents’ house, live and on the ‘gramophone’ (as it was called).
I don’t recall actually asking if I could learn the piano; rather, my parents acquired an old Challen upright for me when I was about 5. It had lived in a greenhouse for 2 years and needed a lot of restoration. It was overhauled, refelted, and given lots of TLC, and was gradually brought up to concert pitch by the tuner to become a much-loved and regularly-played instrument. It saw me through to Grade 8, but when I left home, I stopped playing seriously for some years, and when my parents divorced, my father sold the piano because I did not have room for it in my flat.
My first teacher, Mrs Scott, in Sutton Coldfield, seemed ancient. She had a grand piano in the front room of her house and during the lesson, her husband would silently bring her a cup of tea, served in a bone china cup and saucer. She always wore mauve or pink, and smelt faintly of lavender. I took my exams at the Birmingham School of Music, one exam a year, a veritable treadmill. When we moved to Hertfordshire, I took lessons with Suzette Murdoch, who taught me to love the intricacies of Bach and the passion and humour of Beethoven. She had an Old English Sheepdog and a spaniel, who would lie across my feet as I sat at her Steinway. My music teacher at school was also very influential. He was endlessly enthusiastic and inspirational, and I often find myself repeating things he said when I am teaching (“pretend you’re a trumpet!”). Twenty-five years since leaving school, I started having lessons again, an experience which I find endlessly absorbing, interesting and fulfilling. The most satisfying part is seeing how quickly I have progressed from post-Grade 8 repertoire to “proper” advanced repertoire – Chopin Etudes, a Ballade, Schubert’s last sonata…. Three years ago, I didn’t think I would be playing Liszt, but now I no longer look at music and think “there’s no way I can play that!”.
My current piano is a Yamaha, purchased four years ago, and chosen for quality and price. Of course, I dream of owning a grand, when space and budget permit, but in the meantime, I play my teacher’s antique Bluthner regularly, and a friend’s Steinway B, which I find as quirky as driving my old Porsche. Last summer, while on holiday in southern Ireland, I had the good fortune to play a rather special Bluthner which lives at Russborough, a beautiful 18th century stately home in County Wicklow. The piano belonged to Sir Alfred Beit, who, with his wife, was a great society host, and a fine amateur pianist. It was wonderful to see Sir Alf’s music in the rack next to the piano: the same Peters edition of Schubert’s Impromptus I had when I was in my teens, and a book of Czerny studies. Next to the Bluthner is an older Steinway, which was played by Paderewski when he visited Russborough.
I am fascinated by the connection pianists, in particular, seem to have to their instruments, and also the stories which illustrious instruments can tell us, in their own way. In a novel (as yet unpublished!) I wrote some years ago, about a young man poised on the cusp of a fantastic career as a concert pianist, before the Great War cruelly intervenes, the various pianos he plays have great significance for him – his teacher’s Broadwood, his mother’s Pleyel, his patron’s grandiose Steinway, a rickety upright in the officers’ mess – and the music he plays on each has very special and symbolic resonances (Beethoven, Scriabin, Debussy, Schubert, Rachmaninov). We grow very attached to our instruments, and we are often very protective of them. Although I teach, and am happy to do so, I do get upset when children treat my piano badly. Luckily, this does not happen that often – and when it does, I am quick to point out that such treatment will not do the instrument any good!
The loneliness of the pianist also interests me. While other musicians, be they soloists, ensembles or orchestras, sit largely facing the audience, the pianist does not, and this immediately changes the dynamic between performer and audience. Some people have suggested that I chose the piano because I am an only child and that I like being on my own. It’s true that I am content in my own company, and am happy to spend hours alone with my piano, but I don’t buy into the only child theory. Discussing this with fellow students on the piano course in April, we all agreed that one of the chief attractions of being a pianist, aside from the vast and wonderful repertoire, is the solitariness of the role.
I used to play the clarinet as well, an instrument which I love to listen to, which allowed me to join an orchestra and wind ensemble. However, I did not choose to learn it (I wanted to play the flute), and I always felt overshadowed by my father, who was a talented amateur clarinettist. Fortunately, I could accompany him on the piano, as I grew more proficient, and one of our favourite pieces was the Brahms E flat Clarinet Sonata. My father is now learning the piano, though he refuses to take any advice whatsoever from me!
When I was at school, I played the harpsichord, often being called upon to play continuo with the chamber orchestra. It was, by turns, a fascinating and frustrating experience, as it is not an easy instrument to master, and the school harpsichord (a modern instrument made from a kit) was beset with problems and regularly disappeared for maintenance.
My piano tuner keeps urging me to visit the Chappell showroom in central London to “try the Bosendorfers”, but, as I said to him, I know if I try one I will want one! And I’d love to play a Fazioli. And when I had a backstage tour of the Wigmore Hall some years ago, it was hard to resist sitting down at the Steinway on the hallowed stage there, and rattling through a drop of Schubert…..
How did you choose your instrument? What’s your story? Please feel free to reply!
In the last thirty-six hours my musical life has gone from one extreme to the other, both in terms of genre and venue. Saturday night: jazz legend Courtney Pine at an open-air swimming pool. Sunday night: Chopin at the Wigmore Hall. Monday morning: my monthly piano lesson in Finsbury Park. All special and memorable musical experiences in their own way.
I nearly didn’t make it to the Wigmore. Living in leafy suburbia can be delightful, but on a Sunday there is a frustrating lack of trains into the capital, and if you don’t time your arrival at the station correctly, you can be left waiting for half an hour. It takes me an hour to get to the Wigmore from home and so in order to arrive in time for pre-concert drinks and chat with my friends, I needed to be on the train at 6pm. I arrived at the station, after a somewhat fraught consultation with my son about his plans for the evening (he is just 12, and has the sort of complicated social life no A-list celebrity would tolerate). Having established that he would be having a sleepover with a friend, I set off for the concert. Arriving at the station in the warm early evening sunshine, I wanted to purchase a bottle of water. I reached into my handbag: no wallet, and therefore no concert tickets. I had already missed one train by a whisker, and as I stomped back home to collect my purse, another train swept into the station. The next train was 20 minutes later, thereby denying me my pre-concert drink.
On reflection, I could have gone up to town without my wallet. Sylvia, my regular concert companion and the person who books all the tickets, would have been able to procure a replacement ticket for me at the box office, and I know she would have stood me a drink or two. I was pondering this while broiling on the Bakerloo line. I was alone in the carriage but for two men sitting opposite me, one of whom I recognised as the radio presenter Paul Gambacini. I have enjoyed his programmes, especially his music quiz and the one about the Oscars, but since it was a Sunday evening and he was clearly “off duty”, I didn’t tell him this. I followed him and his friend out of Oxford Circus station and across Cavendish Square, and when they turned into Wigmore Street, like me, I concluded they may well be attending the same concert.
At the Wigmore, the vestibule was crowded with people still hopeful of returned tickets. I bolted down the stairs to the loo, as far as it is possible to “bolt” against a tide of (mostly very) elderly people tottering up the stairs, and then followed the tide back upstairs to the hall. At the door, the young man who had been sitting with Mr Gambacini turned to me and said “Oh, hello! I saw you on the tube. I hope you enjoy the concert.” I was flattered that he had noticed me and said “It should be really lovely. Just the thing for a Sunday evening!”. We took our seats in different parts of the hall (I’m always near the back as Sylvia prefers economy to enjoying a good view of the stage). Sylvia was waiting for me, fanning her face with the very thin programme (“£3! For this!!” she grumbled), and soon after Gefry joined us, and we settled down for what promised to be a delightful evening of readings about and by Chopin – from his letters, from George Sand’s diaries and letters, and observations from other friends and colleagues who had known him (Lizst, Charles Hallé, Delacroix). The readers were the actors Sam West, who looked the part in his long velvet coat, and the painfully thin Harriet Walter. The pianist was Lucy Parham.
The mood of the evening was immediately set by the first piece, the Nocturne Op 48 No. 1, in which there is only momentary relief from its overriding sense of melancholy and poignancy. The readings were interspersed with music: Mazurkas, Polonaises, Waltzes, each half of the concert ending with a Ballade (the third and fourth). The music was not presented chronologically, rather it was selected to suit the mood or context of the readings. The whole thing worked very well; indeed, as the chronology of the readings drew inexorably towards the composer’s cruel treatment at the hands of Georges Sand marking the end of their relationship, and his tragically early death, there were some deeply moving moments. It is all too easy to present a saccharine, sentimental view of Chopin: the effete pianist with the delicate constitution and fondness for lilac kid gloves, coughing consumptively in a cheap, cold room in an unfashionable arrondissement of Paris. The romance and legend surrounding his death goes on: a Polish friend of mine told me that Poles believe he died of “zal”, that particularly Eastern European condition, an inexpressible longing for the homeland, because he could never return to the country of his birth. True, his music is imbued with “zal” – and trying to recapture that particularly untranslatable emotion is one of the most difficult things to do as a performer of his music – but listen carefully and you hear the sounds of nature too: the flora and fauna of Nohant, Sand’s house in the French countryside, which he loved.
In fact, if his letters to his friend and factotum Julian Fontana are anything to go by, the sickly “Chip Chip” (Sand’s nickname for him) was actually an astute businessman, demanding the best prices for his scores because he had bills to pay. And whatever one may speculate about his relationship with Sand, there was a time when she clearly cared deeply for him, as a lover, artistic companion, champion of his art and craft, and helpmeet when he was ill.
The Wigmore programme, entitled “Nocturne” was really charming, and if the piano playing was a little flat and sloppy in places, it didn’t matter. It was a delightful event, imaginatively presented, and I hope it may encourage similar evenings at the Wigmore.
I was planning to play Chopin at my lesson this morning (the E-major Etude from the Opus 10). Playing it at home before my lesson, I felt it really coming together (at last! After 8 months work on it!) but in the end there wasn’t time to play it for my teacher, as we were busy with Debussy, Gershwin and Poulenc. When I said goodbye to her, she urged me to perform the Chopin for friends, and then put it away for six months. This is wise advice: I did the same thing with Schubert’s D960 sonata, after working on it for over a year, by which time I had developed all manner of “issues” about it and was beginning to resent it. Playing it again after a long absence, I learned to love the piece again and I know I will revisit it, ready and willing to learn the rest of it.
In the meantime, my next challenge is a Chopin Ballade – not sure which one yet, but I was chuffed to bits that my teacher reckons I am at least up to it. “Not for the Diploma, just for fun!” were her parting words. I suppose it depends on what one classes as “fun”!!
The day ended with a trip to the cinema with my son, and my best friend and her kids to see ‘Toy Story 3’: unashamed escapism and the happy ending we all craved.
Friday morning, and I was enjoying fairly leisurely tea and toast in bed (not having to get up early, for a change, to chivvy my son off to school) when I switched on Radio 3 and caught the charming Scherzo of Beethoven’s Opus 97 Piano Trio, the ‘Archduke’.
This work was one of the set pieces for my music A-Level (circa 1984), and has remained a favourite ever since. Pubished in 1811, it is Beethoven’s last piano trio. It comes from the same period of the composer’s creative life as the Opus 96 Sonata for violin and piano, and shares some of the same qualities of this work in its elegant long-spun melodies and nobility of expression. I was fortunate in my music A-Level group in that the other students were a violinist and cellist respectively – and we were all of a similar standard, having all done our Grade 8 exams at roughly the same time. The A-Level syllabus required us to analyse the complete work, and as well as studying it in the classroom, we spent a great deal of time playing it together, which was both enjoyable and educational, since it reinforced many of the things we had been discussing in class.
The opening movement is in B-flat major, the same key as the first movement of Schubert’s great valedictory D960 sonata. The two works share some characteristics aside from the key, which is both serene and grandiose, poignant and wistful: both begin with a stately and graceful, long-lined opening theme, establishing the nobility which permeates the entire work. The Archduke is full of sweetness and spaciousness, monumentality and intimacy. Its emotional core is the third movement, an ethereal set of variations on a hymn-like theme, and one of Beethoven’s most profoundly moving accomplishments. Player and listener are reminded of similar movements in the late piano sonatas (especially Opp.109 and 111), the Ninth Symphony, or the “Heiliger Dankgesang” of the Op. 132 string quartet.
Of course, I didn’t know these things when I was studying the work in my teens. We tended to do the analysis, without regard to the historical or compositional context of a work, studying it in isolation, blanking out all the other music that Beethoven was writing at the same time. But the work must have touched me, because whenever I hear it now, I experience a great rush of memory which can transport me right back to the music studio at school in the mid-1980s.
My school was blessed with an extremely fine music department, headed by a very energetic and hands-on music master. I was an active member of the department from the day I joined the school, and belonged to the senior orchestra (playing first desk clarinet), chamber orchestra (playing harpsichord continuo), choir, wind and recorder ensembles, and the madrigal group. I was a rather argumentative, opinionated and competitive A-Level student, always picking a fight with my music teacher (memorably, over my use of the word “bucolic” to describe Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony), and behaving in a (totally unjustified) diva-ish way about my piano playing. I thought I was the brightest student in the A-Level group, and I still cringe at the memory of my pretentious, know-it-all behaviour. I’m not sure what the other students thought of me, but when we were playing the Archduke Trio together, we were all equal before the music – which is how it should be. The violinist used to stand by the piano in her imperious violinist’s stance, tuning her instrument with much huffing and hair-tossing, while the ‘cellist, a clumsy, rather nervy girl who could be guaranteed to knock over all the other music stands when taking her place in the orchestra, struggled to secure the spike of her ‘cello. Then the music would begin, the quietly beautiful opening melody in the piano, and we would forget ourselves for awhile, enjoying the music and that particular give-and-take that comes from ensemble playing. Playing with other musicians can be so satisfying – far more enjoyable that hours of grinding practise alone, with no one to chat and joke with. It’s like belonging to a very special family with its own vicissitudes, petty niggles, tears and triumphs, and, like a proper family member, one has a responsibility towards the others, to be generous and open-hearted, and to keep going, no matter what, transcending oneself. It forces one to be modest, before the music and the other members of the ensemble.
We never performed the Archduke at school, though all three of us worked together on other works, including the marvellous Bach ‘Double’ Concerto (I was on harpsichord) with the chamber orchestra. I still have the manuscript of the Trio somewhere, covered in my analytical notes, a souvenir of some very happy and memorable years of music-making.
“Practise a tricky section five times. If you make a mistake, go back and start again. Play it perfectly five times, and you can consider it “done” and then move onto the next thing….”
This is a mantra oft-repeated to my students, most of whom greet such useful, teacherly advice with much shrugging of shoulders and rolling of eyes. One or two remember it, and so when I ask them how they intend to practise a problem area, they will repeat my mantra back to me. I assure them that I also use the same dictum when I am practising, but they don’t always look convinced!
In reality, I probably practise a tricky section many more than five times at one sitting, but the “five times rule” is helpful in keeping me focussed when a problematic passage is beginning to frustrate. “One more go and you can move on…” I mutter to myself as I repeat that same passage for the nth time and wonder if I will ever permit myself to move on to another section. Sometimes, when I’ve been practising the nasty bits of the Chopin Op 10 no 3 Etude over and over again for nearly an hour, I treat myself – and my neighbours who are probably forced to listen to the tedious repetitions – to a complete play-through of the piece. This is not just self-indulgent wish-fulfilment, where I hope that everything will fall into the right place at the right time; it also serves a practical purpose – to check that what I have been practising really has been taken in by head and hands.
Repetitive practise breeds familiarity, not just with the music open on the rack in front of you, annotated with all sorts of very personal markings, fingerings, reminders and hints which become crucial signposts on the map (pink dots to highlight to remind me to pedal carefully, the words “WATCH IT!!” in bold, gestural strokes, exhorting me to keep focussed in a passage where my attention is liable to wander to check what my hands are doing, causing me to lose my place in the score), but also with the landscape of the keyboard and the physical sensation of the notes under the fingers. Repetition informs muscular memory, enabling the fingers to fall in the right place more often than not, and, eventually, one hopes, every time. Learning the patterns, the feel of a particular passage as well as the sound, all contribute to the overall process. In time, all these ‘learning components” come together, and one can enjoy that special moment when everything seems to slot into place and you play as if standing back from the music momentarily, playing at arm’s length, as it were. I love this sense of disengagement, of watching myself play. I feel it sometimes when I’m swimming, or running – a rare, special synergy. Yet, as my teacher pointed out when we were discussing it once, it is at this point that the mind and body are fully engaged, concentrating fiercely.
Even though I tend to employ the same strategies for learning new work, it never fails to amaze me how an hour of going over the same passage again and again can result in noticeable progress along the sometimes steep learning curve. There are times too, though, when a passage repeated again and again just fails to “go in”. I remember feeling this with a short piece by Delius I tried to learn last winter. It was a gorgeous piece, but full of bear traps to trip up the unwary, and it always felt awkward under my hands. However hard I tried with it, it never felt comfortable, and in the end, I reluctantly had to admit defeat and set it aside. It is rare, these days, for me to give up on a piece of music, but sometimes even the “five times rule” fails to achieve the desired outcome.
Practising yesterday at the end of the afternoon, when the temperature had cooled a little and it was more comfortable to work in my piano room, it occurred to me that often there is a right time, and a wrong time, to practise certain pieces.
I’m learning a late Haydn Sonata, his penultimate one (Hob. XVI: 51 No. 61, composed in London in the 1790s) in cheerful D major (that’s royal blue, if we are talking ‘synaesthesically’!), with a first movement that is both sprightly and gentle, moving forward from a proud opening voice to a dialogue which alternates between melody and accompaniment. The brief, graceful development section shows some unexpected twists, with a truly Beethovenian climax, and some delightful cantabile passages. It closes surpisingly quietly. The second movement has chorale and fugal qualities, with offbeat dynamic accents, again prefiguring Beethoven. It moves forward with a clear purpose towards an abrupt ending. This is a grandiose sonata, though perhaps not as august as the E-flat major sonata which succeeds it.
I used to play quite a lot of Haydn when I was in my early teens, and then rather forgot about him, favouring Beethoven and Schubert instead. Although the D Major sonata lasts little more than five minutes, there is nothing mere about its content: it is one of those pieces which looks easy – the notes are not difficult and are comfortable under the hand – but has hidden depths, requiring some careful learning. It’s a good compliment to the rest of my current repertoire (Chopin, Gershwin, Debussy and Poulenc). I love the clarity of a Classical sonata, and it has warmth and nobility within its two short movements.
Yesterday, I practised for an hour and a half, Poulenc first, then Chopin Op 10 no 3 (just the tricky bits – the chromatic augmented fourths, the dreaded sixths, the brief cross-rhythms in the last section), before throwing myself, rather too energetically it must be said, at Gershwin’s first Prelude, which I love at the moment (and hope I will continue to love as I have another three pages, and the Third Prelude still to learn!). The Haydn seemed a good piece to round off my practise session, but as soon as I started to play it (badly!), I knew I had come to it at the wrong time of day. My hands and arms felt leaden and tired, my fingers fat and jelly-like, sliding all over the place, smearing notes and muffing easy runs. The octaves dragged, the triplets were uneven, and I ended up feeling very hot and frustrated.
Haydn merits an early start, I think, when one is clear-headed and fresh, and the piano room is cool. The piece deserves care and attention as each note must be heard and valued. It needs to sound unforced, yet elegant, lofty yet unprententious. Today I began my practising with the Haydn and the difference was noticeable: it was a whole lot better – indeed, it felt like a different piece!
The Poulenc Suite in C is another case in point. This too benefits from early morning practising. Like the Haydn, it needs great clarity, with a pureness of expression which highlights both the naive and the elegant qualities of the melodies.
Debussy, on the other hand, seems to fare better when practised in the afternoon – and the hot days, with a light breeze drifting in through the open French doors, are the perfect backdrop for his ‘Voiles’. I find myself listening to the wind rustling the bamboo trees in my garden, lifting leaves off the ground, swirling little eddies of dust – and sometimes, just sometimes, I find I can recreate the same sensations at the piano.
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