I have been away for the past three weeks on a concert and teaching tour of Singapore and Australia, the focus of my work there was three performances of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. I thought it might be of interest – and hopefully of use – to talk about how I prepared this magnum opus for performance having not played it at all in about a decade, and how I approached the practice time I had while on the tour itself.

Quite early on in the life of this blog I devoted a whole post to how I set about learning the Goldberg Variations in the first place, very much an obsession and a labour of love. Sometime last year, I was engaged by the Kawai Series at the Queensland Conservatorium in Brisbane to play the Goldberg this Easter; a piece eminently suitable in its grandeur and magnificence for such a Festival (especially given Bach’s own strong religious views). I played the Shigeru Kawai, the model EX concert grand, and wonderful it was too!

From this engagement, I was also invited to play at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music in Singapore, and on the Team of Pianists’ series in Melbourne. In addition to my performances, I gave masterclasses and taught a fair number of individual lessons as well as giving a lecture for the Piano Pedagogy programme at the Queensland Con. I thoroughly enjoyed all of these experiences.

I started to resurrect the Goldberg Variations just before Christmas, figuring that I would need four months to get the piece back into my fingers and into my head. This would also allow enough time for what I can only describe as the Olympian training component – regular play-throughs as part of my practice routine as well as in front of others. I can’t overemphasise the importance of developing the physical and mental stamina in this way: deciding when I would commit to a come-what-may performance in my practice room with absolutely no stopping, going over troublespots or otherwise tinkering with the process I call “practising a performance”. While I would not presume to include myself in such august company as Sviatoslav Richter, even he needed the ears of a few select colleagues before he would take his work from the practice room to the stage, and before my one house concert and two lunchtime recitals in London before I set sail, I did feel the need to play for two colleagues I completely trust. It is absolutely part of the process.

Before I was ready to do this, though, I needed to start back at square one, and I began with the nine canons that form the backbone of the piece. Having learned the work very thoroughly initially, and also having performed it at least 20 or so times (I never counted them up!), it did not take long at all before I had the notes back in my fingers and in my memory. Mind you, I was careful to go through each line of the counterpoint again, as though I were learning the piece from scratch. In order to make sure each line was known independently of muscular memory, I played it from memory with one finger. I also played all combinations of two voices with one finger, or (for variety) in double octaves.

From there, I added the rest of the variations almost on whimsy, starting with the ones I felt would need the most work. Before too long, I had the piece back in my fingers but what I would describe as deliberately plain and bland. I soon noticed that, if each variation could be described as a character in a play, their old costumes were tired and they needed a makeover. I found as soon as I recharacterised one variation, the next one was affected so I found I was recreating the piece in my imagination, my conception had changed and grown over time. Because I have changed, so has the way I approach this music.

Between the Singapore performance and the Brisbane one, I had a few days to practise as many hours as I wanted with very few other distractions. It was during this period that I noticed a small handful of the variations really wanting to assume different characters, and this felt absolutely right. So I went with this and made a few significant changes to how I was going to shape chunks of the work. Because the pedal of the Brisbane Shigeru was impeccably regulated, I was able to create pedal effects that (although I do say so myself) were quite beautiful. Let me interject here that I absolutely use pedal in Bach playing, very discreetly and in a very considered way. I use the right pedal for resonance and colour (piano sound without the pedal is, after a while, horribly boring) and the left pedal as a registration. There are two variations where, on this piano, I decided to keep the left pedal down all the way, not because I wanted it softer but because I wanted the silver quality that the shift pedal offers when it is regulated well. I would add that there were many variations which did not need any pedal whatever, and I rested my feet on the ground during these.

Between the performances of the tour, I absolutely practised daily, from between three to five hours. It was important to me to go through the whole work slowly every day. I hardly ever needed to look at the score – my maxim all along has been to have the score AWAY from the piano and not to do my memorising with the score on the desk. This way, I could develop the proper reflexes from the beginning. It is hard at first, but it gets much easier – with practice! One thing I found myself doing daily was to practise the canons and other variations that are strictly linear by bringing out a selected voice forte while keeping the others pianissimo. Thus, in the canons I practised each repeat three times so that each voice had its moment in the limelight. This enabled me, in performance, to shape the individual lines with extreme control, and to vary the voicing and layering on the repeats. For some reason, I have added five minutes playing time to my performance, which now runs one hour and twenty five minutes without interval! Sorry!

This brings me to the thorny question of what one does on the day of the concert itself, and here I can give no formula because we are all different. I have spoken to many colleagues about this and everybody has their own set of rituals that work for them. For myself, if you’re interested, I avoid caffeine and sugar. I like to go through my programme slowly and calmly in the morning then eat a good meal with some protein. Sweet potatoes are supposed to be a very good thing as they release their energy slowly. By the middle of the afternoon, I am usually starting to feel the anxiety that most performers feel on concert day. It may surprise you to know that many of the world’s best-loved and most successful musicians and actors suffer from stage fright. My experiences have been that I am fine as soon as I walk out onto the stage but the feelings of anxiety and nausea from mid afternoon to the time in the green room just before you have to play are pure torture. I can’t eat anything before I play, for fear that it might end up on the stage.

A final word about performing – I wonder how many people embark on serious piano studies because they want to be performers or because they are passionate about music, about the piano and about playing the piano? Public performance is quite a different thing, it’s not for the thin-skinned or the faint-hearted.