Bach’s Goldberg Variations caused me misery – but I still can’t get enough

– Jeremy Denk, pianist


Our relationship with our repertoire is personal and often long-standing. Connections with certain pieces and composers may be forged in our early days of learning our instrument, which remain with us throughout our musical lives. Many of us can clearly remember some of the earliest pieces we learnt as children, and returning to repertoire learnt in childhood and during student years can bring an interesting, and sometimes uncomfortable rush of memories. Opening the score of the first book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, I saw my teacher’s markings, her explanation of the structure of a fugue, and for a moment I was transported back nearly 40 years to her living room and the big black Steinway grand piano on which she taught me.

Sometimes these repertoire relationships forged during early study can be detrimental to our learning as mature players. Bad habits from childhood and student days are deeply ingrained, and all too easily recalled, and thus very hard to shift later on. This is interesting in itself as it demonstrates how carefully (or not) one has learnt the music previously, and sometimes the only way to step aside from these habits is to buy a new score and start the music afresh, as if learning it for the very first time.

Jeremy Denk’s comment on the Goldberg Variations is interesting and will resonate with many musicians, I’m sure. We all have pieces which have a particular hold over us, which fascinate and compel us to revisit them over and over again. Yet their technical and musical complexities make the learning and practicing process difficult and sometimes less than rewarding. Some repertoire, however beautiful, satisfying or intriguing, is simply a slog, and the more progress one makes, the more “just out of reach” it seems.

Other works, in comparison, feel relatively easy, the music flows in practice and performance, gives satisfaction to player and audience, and enters into one’s personal catalogue of “favourites”.

However, “easy” can be a myth, because everything, even the simplest little prelude by Bach, can be taken up a level each time we revisit the music. This setting aside of and returning to repertoire also affects our relationship with it, and we may observe how that relationship changes over time and with the benefit of artistic maturity. I have gone back to previously-learnt works and wondered what I found so difficult before. The passing of years, and accumulated experience and wisdom make the process of reviving repertoire stimulating and enjoyable. We are reminded of what attracted us to the music in the first place, while also continually finding new aspects to it. This curiosity also helps to keep alive our relationship with the repertoire.

Then there are pieces which we may never play, but, rather like the books you haven’t read, and may never read, remain special. Just knowing the score is there, on the bookshelf, can foster a particular relationship with that music (I often buy scores of music I know I will never play simply for the pleasure of reading the music or admiring the organisation of it on the page), and maybe one day you will open it, set it on the music stand, and start the process of learning it….

 

 

Too often it seems that we view learning, studying, practising and performing music as a kind of fight. People talk about “doing battle with Beethoven” or “fighting the fear” (of performing) as if one must take up arms against unseen, powerful forces.

It’s true that learning new repertoire can be a Herculean task, and practising can feel like a form of captivity, the same page of music confronting one day after day, coupled with the sense that one has hardly moved forward from the previous day’s practising. It is also true that in order to learn any repertoire properly, and deeply, we must spend inordinate amounts of time sweating the small stuff – all the details in the score, the directions and signposts the composer gives us to navigate the keyboard and produce a coherent path of sound to take the listener on a unique journey into the composer’s own inner landscape, while also to enabling us to make our own interpretative choices about how we will perform the music.

There is no alternative to the hard graft of learning new work in depth: working, with pencil and score, cutting through the music to the heart of what it is about. Living with the piece to find out what makes it special, studying style, the contextual background which provides invaluable insights into the way it should be interpreted and performed. The endless striving to find the emotional or spiritual meaning of a work, its subtleties and balance of structure, and how to communicate all of this to an audience as if telling the story for the very first time.

Studying, practising performing and ultimately sharing music, the musician’s “work”, should not feel like a battle or a mountain summit that must be conquered. I know many musicians, professional and amateur, who have personal strategies to prevent this sense of struggle. Spending time with the score away from the instrument can be particularly helpful, familiarising the shape and architecture of the music on the page, and imagining the sound in one’s head, without the added distraction of the geography of the piano keyboard, for example. For very complex music, I like to leave the score, or copies of the score, around the house – on the dining table, by my bedside, so that I see the score regularly, often many times during the day. When I come to place it on the music desk, it already feels comfortable, even if I have yet to touch the piano’s keys

Practising is an act of doing, creating, living with the music. It defines who we are as musicians and gives us a reason for being. A positive, open minded approach to practising can remove the feelings of toil and travail. Making friends with the music brings joy, pleasure and excitement to practising. We should live and breathe our work, beginning every practise session with the question “What can I do that’s different today?”.

Our excitement and affection for our music is very palpable when we perform – audiences sense and appreciate it – and it brings the notes to life with vivid colour and imagination.


 

Do you ever think you might be practising the piano in your sleep? Yesterday I went to practise Debussy’s prelude La cathédrale engloutie, which I’m preparing for a performance later in the year. The second section, when the waves start to roll and the sunken cathedral begins to emerge from the deep, it bells tolling and organ playing distantly, has previously been problematic for me, in part because of the position of the right hand chords and the necessity for the right arm to cross the body to the bass. I find this difficult because of a left shoulder impingement which is painful and limits my movement. In previous practise sessions this section has tended to sound chunky and lacking in fluidity, but yesterday the chords, with their flowing bass accompaniment, rose gracefully from the piano, growing in drama as the section approaches its climax and the full resonance of the cathedral’s organ is heard through those big, deliciously hand-filling chords. I was also able to play without pain, which is quite an achievement for me these days. I later tweeted that perhaps I had been “practising in my sleep” and that this had led to the improvement in the Debussy!

It’s not such a fanciful idea, “sleep practising”. We can do a huge amount of useful, productive practising away from the instrument, both detailed work studying the score, analysing the music and memory work, but also seeing the wider picture of the music, its narrative, character and context. Listening is also useful practising – not to imitate other people’s versions of our repertoire, but to get ideas and pique the imagination to create our own personal vision for the music.

I may not practise in my sleep per se, but as someone who tends not to sleep very well, I often replay the music I’m working on in my head in the middle of the night, hearing the sound in my “mind’s ear” and imagining the music as it would be heard by a listener. When I was working on Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata for my final Diploma I was, through this kind of practising away from the piano, able to create a vivid, perfect interior model of the sonata, and could replay huge parts of it in my head, such was my familiarity with it (though I never memorised the entire work).

Returning to Debussy’s drowned cathedral, I wonder if the improvement also had something to do with the fact that I’d been away in France for a long weekend break. On our return journey from Nantes to Cherbourg, I glimpsed le Mont St Michel emerging from a mist of rain and immediately thought of Debussy’s Cathédrale engloutie. Later, lying in my bunk on the overnight ferry crossing, I felt the boat pitch and roll and heard the strange deep bass groan and yawn of the sea (which Debussy imaginatively includes in his prelude). Perhaps the sounds and motion of the ocean infused my practising…

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Who knows, but I do believe that imagination and visualisation play a huge part in shaping our music, far beyond mere technical assuredness (and technique should always serve the music). Cues such as the view of Mont St Michel spark the imagination, help us bring our music to life, and communicate stories and images to the audience with expression, vibrancy and musical colour.

The first of a series of short films made in collaboration with Casio UK and Pianist magazine. In this film, Frances Wilson AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist offers suggestions on how to make the most of limited practice time, and making practising productive and most of all enjoyable.

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Frances Wilson is a pianist, piano teacher, writer and blogger on classical music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. She holds Licentiate and Associate Diplomas (both with Distinction) in Piano Performance, and for 12 years ran a successful piano teaching practice in SW London. She is now based in West Dorset where she teaches from her home in Portland. Further information

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Guest post by Rhonda Rizzo

It’s an average practice day and I’m at the piano—just me and the score—and I’m staring into the unforgiving mirror that is making art. I say unforgiving because every musical wart, every lazy line, every single inadequacy is reflected right back to me in the way I play or don’t play each phrase. I once had a trained psychologist as a piano student. After three months of lessons, she told me playing the piano is harder than being in therapy.

Practicing is hard work. Performing is hard work. Creating art is hard work. I know of very few professions where you’re required to search your soul every single time you do your job. And then there are the outside critics—the former teachers who’s voices still sound in our heads, the critics, the Classical “high temple” or “museum” that fills performers with “should” and “have-to” and “only-one-right-way” judgments that further complicate the process of making music. It’s a wonder so many of us bother to go to work every day.

And yet, along with thousands of fellow musicians, I keep returning to the piano and to the music that challenges every part of my intellect, instinct, training, and skill. I do it because it’s oxygen for me. I do it because it’s something that I can never conquer because at this stage of my life, conquering the piano means conquering myself. I do it because the music has so much to say to me and I humbly believe that I may have something of my own to say through the music I’m privileged to play.

Don’t expect applause. It’s what I’ve learned from years of trying to please all of the people all of the time. I’ve never been able to please everyone and I never will. One of the gifts of being a “musician-of-a-certain-age” is that I no longer expect that I can please everyone. Of course, that’s what I think on my more enlightened days. The not-so-fun days are the ones where every negative review, every criticism, every botched performance comes back and settles on the piano bench next to me, howling my failures in my ear like a bunch of harpies. Those are the days I have to remind myself: don’t expect applause.

Not expecting applause is a gift you give yourself. For me, it’s given me the freedom to survive failure. Surviving failure gave me the freedom and strength to simply disregard the judgment of naysayers because I know failure won’t break me. Knowing this gave me permission to trust my musical instincts and my own voice.

Not expecting applause has made me a more confident performer because I’m not thinking “please like me, please like me” every time I step on stage. I play. I do my best to communicate the music. I play some parts well. I smudge some bits here or there. Maybe I have one of those magical nights when the audience is breathing every note of the piece with me. Maybe it’s the “gig from Hell” where anything and everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Either way, when I don’t expect applause, I’m less tossed around emotionally by the highs of a great performance or the lows of a bad.

Don’t expect applause. When I take my own advice, I’m free to disregard the ill-fitting interpretations of others and find my own custom-made sense of the music. I’m open to playing with the music—and maybe even messing it up a bit—as a way to get beyond the stiffness of the notes to the warm, living core of the composition. Most importantly, it allows me to move beyond soul-killing, rigid perfectionism and embrace the wild, vibrant, unpredictable dance of co-creating a work of art.


Rhonda (Ringering) Rizzo is the author of The Waco Variations. She has crafted a career as a performing and recording pianist and a writer. A specialist in music that borrows from both classical and jazz traditions, Rizzo has released four CDs, Made in America, Oregon Impressions: the Piano Music of Dave Deason, 2 to Tango: Music for Piano Duet, and A Spin on It.  As both a soloist and a collaborative artist, her performances include several allclassical.org live international radio broadcasts, Water Music Festival, Central Oregon Symphony, Oregon Chamber Players, Aladdin Theatre, Coaster Theatre, Ernst Bloch Music Festival, Bloedel Reserve, Newport Performing Arts Center, Skamania Performing Arts Series. In addition to her work as half of the Rizzo/Wheeler Duo, with pianist Molly Wheeler (www.rizzowheelerduo.com), Rizzo records and writes about the music of living composers on her blog, www.nodeadguys.com

Her numerous articles have appeared in national and international music magazines, including American Music Teacher, Clavier, Piano & Keyboard, and Flute Talk. Her novel, The Waco Variations, was released in the summer of 2018 and can be found on www.amazon.com.  

 

(Image: Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864 – 1916) Interior with Woman at Piano)

Play always as if the presence of a master

Robert Schumann

The ability to self-critique, evaluate and reflect on one’s playing during practising and in lessons is a crucial skill for musicians, and is a component of the skillset of “deliberate practise” and self-regulation, which enables us to practise productively and deeply.

Around 95% of my teaching involves showing students, young people and adults, how to practise. Many students are “surface practisers”: that is, they play the assigned repertoire from start to finish, but do not take time to reflect on or evaluate their playing – the sounds they are making and hope to make, why a certain passage is causing difficulties etc. Students who practise like this often feel that having got to the end of the piece they have “done” their practising. As a consequence, lessons and subsequent practising sessions may feel frustrating because progress/improvement is slow.

I admit that I probably practised like this for quite a lot of the time when I was having lessons as a child and teenager, and it was only when I returned to the piano seriously as an adult, after a break of nearly 20 years, and started taking lessons with a master teacher, that I learnt and understood the benefits of deep, reflective practising. It quickly became apparent that this kind of practising was far more productive: the most noticeable benefit was that I was able to learn repertoire much more quickly and, more importantly, retain it once learnt. It also made me far less reliant on guidance from my teacher, enabling me to work independently for long stretches of time (4 to 6 weeks) between lessons, which in turn motivated me to keep going.

During lessons, my students are now very used to being asked simple questions to encourage self-reflection and self-critique: “What did you like about your playing?” “Which areas do you feel need more attention?” “How do you think you should practise that section?” When I first instituted this practice of self-critique within lessons, most students focused on the negative aspects of their playing, highlighting mistakes or telling me that they “played it better at home”, and were reluctant to indicate areas which they felt were good or successful. Now they are used to finding positives first, giving themselves a virtual “pat on the back” for playing well. This approach is empowering for the student because it builds confidence, which then makes analysing those aspects within the music which need more detailed attention a far more positive experience, rather than an exercise in flagging up errors, which can be dismotivating. When this activity becomes routine in lessons, so it should also be habitual when practising between lessons from simple statements like “I really liked that passage” or “I’m pleased with the expression I brought to that section” to more detailed analysis of how to make significant improvements in the music. By working in this way, students become less reliant on a teacher’s guidance and develop independence in learning processes and confidence in their own abilities.

Schumann’s quote at the beginning of this article is particularly pertinent: there is no point in “surface” or repetitive practising without concentration, but there is every point in practising attentively and mindfully, as if your teacher (“master”) were listening. When practising alone, be your own “master” and question everything you do. Why repeat that passage? What was wrong with it and what are you trying to improve? Going through a piece and working on the most problematic or tricky areas slowly and deliberately is an effective strategy, one which is used by professional and highly advanced musicians. Accomplished performers at every level also tend to have a clear auditory “vision” of the piece in their mind as they work on it and continually assess their progress against this vision. Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of working like this is that one does not need to spend hours and hours at the piano: because it’s about quality rather than quantity of practise.

As one grows more adept at self-evaluation, reflection and self-critique, one is able to set clear, achievable and appropriate goals for each practise session (some people like to keep a record of these in a notebook, referring back to them and updating them as daily practising progresses) and build incrementally upon each small improvement (“marginal gain learning”).

Recording and filming practice and performance is another key tool in evaluating progress. Our music sounds different when heard away from the piano. Never listen to a recording as soon as you’ve made it: wait a few days and then listen. Be positively critical and assess what you like and dislike about your performance. And don’t just listen once: use repeated listenings to evaluate aspects such as rhythm, intonation, tone quality, expression, dynamic range. Video is helpful too, for checking posture (in particular stiff or raised shoulders), gestures and mannerisms, grimacing/smiling, and stage presence.

Most of us engage in music because we care passionately about it and love what we do. However, when evaluating our work, it is important to retain a degree of detachment, to stand back from the music and view it dispassionately, as if reviewing someone else’s performance. Thus we are able to separate ourselves, emotionally, from our music making and take errors less personally, which allows us to maintain a positive mindset and keep the habit of practising enjoyable and stimulating.

…the real pleasure of practice lies in engaging in a creative dialogue with the music, and thus getting closer to it.

– Steven Isserlis, cellist


My own teacher, Graham Fitch, advocates the use of a “feedback loop” which encourages self-evaluation and reflection in practising. More on the Feedback Loop

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