I recently heard a performance of Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, D959, a work with which I spent three years in preparation for a fellowship diploma in piano performance which I took back in 2016. The experience of learning such a large work and to a very high level of competency and artistry was an interesting, rewarding and occasionally frustrating experience during which I learnt a great deal about the practice of practising, the art and craft of performance, and how to take ownership of a piece of music and make it mine – an important consideration for any performer. During the preparation for the diploma recital, I grew to love the music and regard it as “my” sonata, even when I heard other people playing it – pianists who had clearly made it their own and whose sense of ownership was clear in their presentation of the music. Despite not having gone near the music for two years, it is still “my” sonata.
I didn’t pass the diploma, and on reflection I didn’t deserve to pass it because a number of things were not right in the lead up to the recital and on the day – things which I should have taken care of, given I had already taken two other diplomas. Facing up to failure is not a particularly pleasant experience but it is important that one reflects on that failure and to try and learn from it. The most uncomfortable issue was accepting that my ego had got in the way. I do not regard myself as a particularly egocentric person, but one does need a degree of ego to commit to a large project like this and also to push one out onto the stage to actually perform the music (at which point the ego needs to be put away). Unfortunately, my ego got in the way throughout the learning process as well as on the day of the recital: having passed two previous performance diplomas with Distinction, I told myself (and others) that the Fellowship diploma was well within my grasp. In addition, I decided I would take the diploma in my 50th year. It seemed significant, and I felt I needed to prove something – that I was “good enough”, and that it was possible to return to the piano after an absence of some 20 years and play/perform at a high level.
The diploma result was bruising – to my ego, and my confidence and self-esteem as a pianist, which I felt had been hard won, having come back to the piano after such a long time away from it. Although I tried to revisit the sonata and even considered retaking the diploma, it was too caught up with all the unpleasant negative feelings associated with my failure. Despite kind and supportive words from family, friends, teacher and mentors, I was hurt and angry by the result, particularly some of the examiners’ comments, and it took me a long time to process the experience and draw positives from it. I consigned the score of the sonata – or rather scores because I had not only a working score but several other copies – to the back of my bookcase and vowed I would never touch it again….
But things can change, and the passage of time has allowed me to put some distance between the diploma result and my emotions. Hearing the Sonata again reminded me of how much I like it, and during the performance I kept thinking how I would approach this or that phrase or passage. There were moments when I thought “I like this, but I prefer my version” (a sign I still “owned” the music), but I also heard the work afresh: new details were revealed – a little inner melody here, the articulation of a particular passage there – and a few days after the concert, I got out my score of the Schubert sonata and put it on the music desk of my piano. The next day I played the entire sonata from start to finish (including the exposition repeat in the first movement). There were rocky places, of course, but it was encouraging to find that much of the music was still “in the fingers”.
How often do we set aside a piece of music and swear we will never return to it? Fairly frequently, I should think, perhaps more so amongst amateur musicians than professionals who may need to keep certain repertoire going. An unpleasant experience – a bad exam result or unhappy performance – can colour our attitude to certain pieces of music. When I was learning the piano as a child and teenager there were pieces which I simply disliked and never wanted to play again (an important note for teachers to ensure their students, whatever their age, are playing music they enjoy to keep them engaged and motivated).
Returning to a previously-learnt piece of music can be like reacquainting oneself with an old friend – and I certainly feel this with the Schubert sonata. Picking up a piece again after a long absence can be extremely satisfying and often offers new insights into that work, revealing details, layers and subtleties one may not have spotted the first time round. One also recalls all the things one liked about the music and why one selected it in the first place.
Another important aspect is acknowledging that a work can never truly be considered “finished”. Young or inexperienced musicians often think that a learnt piece is finished and are keen to move on to the next one. A satisfying performance of a work to which one has devoted many hours of study can be said to put the work ‘to bed’, but only for the time being. This process of “continuing” and “returning” means that each performance informs the next, and all one’s practising and playing is connected in one continuous stream of music-making.
And what of the Schubert sonata? I have been playing it regularly, and working on it seriously again. It’s satisfying and revealing, and playing it afresh has largely erased the uncomfortable feelings associated with failing the diploma. That I can get around the music, play it well, and convincingly, is extremely gratifying – a reminder of how much good, careful and deep practise I did when I originally learnt the work, work which has not been wasted, nor was thrown away in the moments when I received the diploma result. An important lesson in learning is knowing that everything we do has value, that it is part of an aggregation of gains which cannot be taken away. Those of us who acknowledge this are on a path to self-determination and fulfillment which allows us to move towards a goal which is imperative for any musician – autonomy. It requires an open-minded, ever-curious, spontaneous and mindful approach to the task in hand and a willingness to embrace setbacks and cul-de-sacs along the way.
Will I retake the Diploma? It’s unlikely, though some have encouraged me to re-attempt it. Having given myself plenty of time to reflect and move on, I realise that I do not need to prove anything to anyone but myself, and that competitiveness needs to be tempered by pleasure in learning and music making rather than constantly seeking the outward trappings of success and progress.