Someone once said to me “As long as you are trying to do something, you are not actually doing it”, and this resonated with me.

When we first start working on a new piece, there is certainly an element of striving. We desperately want our fingers to obey our vision of  how we feel the music should go, to reproduce the ideal we have in our imagination. I would even go so far as to call this a yearning, and this is what spurs us on. But, if we have put in the slog, there has to come a time when we must let go of the reins and allow the music to take flight. OK, given that we are constantly striving for perfection, a piece will probably always feel like work in progress, but there has to be some mechanism where  in performance we let go of effort, and trust ourselves. For some this is much easier said than done. How often do we walk onto the concert platform feeling totally satisfied that we have put in enough practice hours, that we have covered all our bases (or should that be basses)?

My first year of overseas study was at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, Maryland, and what happy memories I have of that short time! I made many lifelong friends and started to get to know a culture that was very different from the one I grew up in. My formal lessons were with the wonderful pianist Ann Schein, one of Artur Rubinstein’s very few protégés (I have quite a few of the maestro’s special – and rather cheaty! – fingerings for Chopin). I will never forget a recital she gave where we all spontaneously started clapping before she had quite finished Chopin’s B minor Sonata. She managed to generate such excitement in the coda that we could not contain ourselves. This goes down as some of the most beautiful as well as some of the most exciting piano playing I have heard, and I have heard the greats.

Other highlights of that year were the weekly masterclasses given by Leon Fleisher, for all piano majors. We would somehow manage to cram into his studio (room 413, I think) for two hours of remarkable insights and wisdom from this great musician. I learned as much, if not more, from listening to him work with others as I did from playing for him myself.

One magical thing (among very many) he did was to help a student who was struggling with overkill to regain a necessary sense of perspective and detachment in her performance. I remember she was quite physically contorted and was trying way too hard to be “musical” (to express what she really felt about the music). What resulted was a kind of tug-of-war, where opposing forces cancelled each other out and there was deadlock. It was as though she were suffocating herself – and the music – by a sincere desire to do it justice, not trusting that because she had put in the work, she could now let go and let the playing (and the music) speak for itself. Playing seemed inextricably linked with effort.

Mr. Fleisher’s process was beautiful, and because I am speaking from my memory of the event, this is a paraphrase. He compared our desire to be expressive (to add a rubato here, and a highlight there) with putting on make-up. While it’s fine, even necessary, to add our personal touches, we have to remember to take the make-up off. If we don’t, we slather on layer upon layer of the stuff until we can hardly recognise the original. Then things become grotesque, caricatured and distorted. What, he questioned, is so wrong with the natural beauty of a face anyway, that we feel we have to constantly tart it up?

He asked the student to play the opening of her piece again, now completely in time and without rubato but – and this was the genius of it – not mechanically or metronomically. Play it with good sound, good tonal balance, an awareness of the louds and the softs, the peaks and the troughs (i.e. musically), but not to get overly involved in the feelings and the emotions the music evokes. It seemed to me he was asking her to sit outside of herself and do the equivalent of hum it. As she did this – with great ease and a sense of relief, I sensed – there was an “aha!” smile on her face. After, she was invited to replay it, which she did freely and beautifully. Until the make-up had been stripped off, she had not realised just how much she was stretching that phrase. Each time she had played it, she felt she had to “do” that special something to it. Rather than enhance, she strangulated the moment.