inspiration

The Myth of Perfection

The Myth of Perfection was first published in February of 2014. I’ve decided to republish as part of this summer holiday series of posts from the past, in the hope that it will give a little perspective on the subject. ***   ***   *** Many of us are caught in the trap of perfectionism, and yet attaining flawlessness is so anti-human. Music played perfectly would actually be boring and predictable – what makes performance interesting is the human element, and what makes it electrifying is the element of risk when the performer is pushing the boundaries of what is possible or imaginable (and might even teeter over the edge here and there). Here’s what Beethoven had so say about this! To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable. No live performance can ever truly be note-perfect, and no single interpretation can ever be the one true realisation of the musical possibilities of particular piece. It’s precisely this difference between the ideal and the reality where the humanity of musical performance lies, and the wrong notes in Alfred Cortot’s recordings matter not one iota to the communication of the music’s beauty. I would even go as far as to say it what makes me love his recordings all the more – they show greatness and fallibility at the same time. The problem is that audiences raised on a steady diet of today’s recordings (often a collection of the best takes spliced together) only recognise the perfection possible in that scenario, and are unprepared for live performances. Perfectionism has been defined in psychology as: A personality disposition characterized by an individual striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical […]

Remembering my Studies with Peter Wallfisch

I had the great privilege to embark on my postgraduate studies with Peter Wallfisch, studying with him from 1980 for two years (but returning on occasion thereafter). During my time with this remarkable man, my playing blossomed and I grew not only as a pianist but also as a musician. I look back on this chapter of my life with gratitude and a tremendous fondness for a teacher I came to love dearly. Last year, when I visited his widow, Anita Lasker, I walked into the studio where I had had my inspiring, magical lessons and  was overcome with emotion as so many wonderful memories flooded back. Peter Wallfisch was born in Breslau in 1924, and had sought refuge from Hitler’s Germany in Jerusalem and Paris before settling in Britain in 1952. His tenure as a professor of piano at the RCM was from 1973 to 1991, during which time he influenced many notable pianists now active in the profession. He was head of a musical dynasty that includes his wife Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, (cellist and founder of the ECO), son Raphael (international concert cellist), daughter-in-law Elisabeth (noted violinist), grandsons Benjamin (composer and conductor) and Simon (cellist and tenor). Peter was a musicians’ musician who is remembered not only a solo pianist but as an ensemble musician. His lineage was the Germanic tradition from Bach right through to Reger and Krenek, but he also championed very many British composers (including Kenneth Leighton, whom he raved about) and other slightly unusual composers (such as Novak). He confessed to having a passion for organ music, and he was not overly keen on Chopin or Rachmaninov. One time I arrived for my lesson and Peter was not in a […]

Slaying the Dragon

Piano playing can never be an exact science. We will not always be able to say with absolute precision or certainty how we arrived at a particular result in our playing. We may think we know, but in the end it will be a variety of different – and possibly even contradictory – means that bring about a result. Despite fastidious practising, human error and the sheer elusiveness of the act of performance will always play a part. And this is precisely what audiences like, the buzz of the live performance! There is the possibility of something wonderful, inspirational and spontaneous happening, as much as the performer falling flat on his face. The placebo effect can also enter into this – if you firmly believe you need to do a, b and c to achieve x, then perhaps you do! I am reminded of one of the all-time greats, Shura Cherkassky, who simply couldn’t play unless he went through certain rituals, such as always stepping onto the stage with his right foot first, then counting up to twenty-something before he started. The results were always fascinating. You can hear the audience actually laughing out loud during one of five encores (Shostakovich’s Polka from the Age of Gold) from a Wigmore Hall recital. Then there was the time during a recital in Carnegie Hall in the 1980s when I lifted my eyes to the ceiling realising I was never going to hear piano playing greater than this. Cherkassky was once asked (by a colleague of mine in an interview situation) how he practised on the day of a concert. The response was he played extremely slowly with his eyes closed, aiming to land each finger dead centre […]

Freedom in Interpretation

…what bestows upon the performer the status of artist and on the performance the status of art, is the real, full-bloodied possibility of the performer finding a better or at least different way of performing the music from the way the composer has specifically envisioned and explicitly instructed. This is what bestows upon the performance personal style and originality – what makes it the performer’s “version” of the work and not just the composer’s “version”. Peter Kivy, Authenticities: Philosophical Reflections on Musical Performance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 197. The other day an adult student came for a lesson on the E major Mendelssohn sonata. As he was playing, I was struck by how vibrant and communicative the playing was, except for one small section which felt grey and unconvincing. When I brought this up, he smiled. Apparently another teacher a while ago had told him how that passage should go. As he was explaining all this, I was struck how what this other teacher said was just an opinion – nothing more. There were no indications or directions from the composer to this effect , this teacher had given him an interpretation of the passage that was hers. The trouble was, it just didn’t work for him – he hadn’t managed to make it his own which is why that place in the music didn’t make any sense. There is so much in music that is subjective and open to personal taste and interpretation. In order for us to play convincingly, we have to develop an interpretation that is meaningful TO US, vivid in all its details. Unless we are convinced by what we are doing, we are unlikely to convince our audience. Love them or hate […]

“But it Takes Me Ages to Learn a New Piece!”

One of the saddest things about our exam culture is spending the best part of a year on three pieces and a bunch of scales, polishing every little detail until perfect. A couple of weeks after the exam, the student has nothing to play because they have forgotten their old pieces and won’t be ready with the new ones for a while yet. This structure means they often have very poor reading skills and are ill-equipped as practical musicians. It is hard to fathom is that a supposedly advanced piano student with years of lessons behind them would not be able to get up and play Happy Birthday by ear at a party, or to read at sight simple accompaniments when called upon to do so. A very distinguished colleague who taught high-level conservatory students would only ever hear a piece once or twice. Even first year students had to bring something new each week, and while the pressure was often quite intense every single one of them developed the skills to assimilate music very quickly. They had to! Apart from playing extremely well, the best of them became excellent sight readers capable of working out complex scores within a few days. They were flexible and marketable pianists with a large repertoire, just what you want from a conservatory education. Quick Studies Not every one of our students would be able to handle this sort of pressure of course, and don’t get me wrong – spending weeks and months polishing and refining certain pieces is absolutely imperative! There is no way we can develop pianistic excellence and finesse without this. To redress the balance between the type of painstaking and time-consuming practise involved in perfecting a piece and the […]

Keep Calm and Carry On Practising

When I was on the selection committee for the 11th Unisa International Piano Competition, we listened to two solid days of audio recordings, one after the other. Our selection of those pianists who would go forward into the competition was made purely by listening – we weren’t given their names, ages or any other information about the entrants, they had to make their impression on us solely by the sounds they made. There are viral performance on YouTube of young pianists playing their exam pieces. Judging by the number of hits and likes they receive, they are (all) destined to be the next Horowitz. I wonder if the wow factor has anything to do with the antics they have been taught to do, such as swaying around and flailing their bodies across the keyboard? This may look impressive to the layman, but I would invite you to experience such a performance in two ways. Mute the sound and just watch. Now for the acid test, replay the clip but turn the screen off and just listen. Doing this experiment, I have been struck by the disparity between the way the playing has been packaged to look and the actual quality in terms of skill – musical comprehension and technique. There’s something of a gulf here. In my adjudication work I notice constantly how excessive physical mannerisms detract from the quality of the playing. It is often the most musically intense who seem to need to do this. In their desire to be expressive, their bodies contort as a substitute for the real thing – having a sound in their head and calling on the body to produce the sound in the most natural and economical […]

But I Can Play It Perfectly Well At Home!

Of all the comments students make in lessons, the assertion that they can play it perfectly well at home has to be among the most common. I would guess that this is probably universal, and even though I don’t think the statement is a lie I am not sure I always buy it. I think what they mean is there was nobody at home to judge, or that stopping somewhere in the piece, making a sly correction and restarting were either not noticed even by the players themselves or if they were, these errors had no obvious consequences. Surely the whole point is the (vast) difference between playing in the comforts of your living room, and the stresses and strains of performance where other people are listening. What felt easy and natural when we were alone suddenly becomes treacherous and untrustworthy when in the presence of others. And it doesn’t seem to matter much whether the audience is knowledgable about music or not. One programme I like to catch on the TV is The Gadget Show. In a recent episode, the presenter was demonstrating a new virtual reality game called The Pit. In reality he was slithering across a plank on the floor, in virtual reality he was crossing a plank over a vast chasm. The experience was made to feel real by the cameras that tracked his movement – even though he knew he was perfectly safe and at ground level, his intense fear of falling kicked in and he was paralysed. When we perform, we need to be responding on many different levels – emotionally, physically, even viscerally. We need to get into character and fully live the music on stage, there is room […]

By |February 23rd, 2013|Teaching|7 Comments

Q&A: How Do I Get A 12-Year Old To Practise Slowly?

A reader sent me in the following question, which feels more like a plea! I have been teaching a 12-year old boy for a couple of years now. He has a flair for piano and is quite talented but his playing is always so messy and out of control. I’ve told him he needs to practise slowly and I can get him to do it in the lesson (sort of) but he lacks the discipline at home. I get the feeling he would rather be out playing football. Any suggestions? Thank you so much for this question. There is no doubt that slow, mindful practice is an essential ingredient in our practising, no matter how old we are or what level we’re at. The first step is to get your pupil to appreciate this. You can philosophise, demonstrate and remonstrate all you like but unless he sees the value in practising slowly, he’s not going to do it. Simple! Help him to realise that there are even greater rewards to be had from delaying gratification – remember the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment? – and that even great pianists practise slowly! Seeing as he is into sports, you might want to help him summon up his inner coach by imagining his ten fingers (and his right foot!) are the players in the football team he is managing. He is in charge of every movement they make, every position they need to adopt. He calls the shots, and without his leadership he doesn’t have a team. My best suggestion would be to give him something concrete to do regarding slow practice. If it is a fast piece, you can decide together on the eventual performance tempo and give him a series […]

By |December 7th, 2012|Teaching|3 Comments

The Monkey And The Typewriter

If you gave an infinite number of monkeys an infinite number of typewriters, would they eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare? This favourite question of barstool philosophers seems relevant to us pianists when it comes to why we do what we do as we practise. Eavesdropping outside practice rooms (as I have been known to do), it seems that after countless repetitions an interpretation, or a solution to a problem, is supposed to emerge fully formed out of thin air. If I hack away at it for long enough, I’m bound to get there eventually… This week I was directed to a short video clip of Leon Fleisher. He is coaching a group of students, and quotes from his teacher, Artur Schnabel: “Hear before you play. If you play before you hear what you’re going for, it’s an accident, and everything is built then on an accident.” Leon Fleisher, Carnegie Hall YouTube Channel Liszt had a similar maxim: Think Ten Times, Play Once. The problem with embracing this in our practising is the mistaken belief that unless we are moving our fingers, training muscles and making sounds, we are not really practising. In reality, thinking ten times and playing once would mean pausing regularly in our practising, awakening our imagination, inwardly hearing how we want the phrase to sound, rehearsing this in our mind until it is vivid, and only then playing. Extremely challenging, enough to try the patience of a saint, surely? As a student, I recall lessons where my teacher would talk about a passage in my piece with such incredible insight, making the character and the meaning so vivid and real to me that the penny dropped and I would replay with […]

By |September 5th, 2012|Performing|4 Comments

Piano Graffiti

Recently I ordered a new item of furniture, and when it arrived the delivery man plonked his clipboard onto my piano and there began to do his paperwork. This gesture made me quite uncomfortable, not only because the piano is my workspace and therefore personal, but also because I like to think of it as some sort of altar where certain things simply don’t belong. Those who think nothing of putting stuff on their piano are perhaps less likely to be concerned with the sounds that come out of it. One of the things that irritates the HECK out of me is when students doodle at the piano during a lesson. My regular students know I will not tolerate this at all. If this happens – horror of horrors – while I am speaking, I will immediately stop until they have finished. “What was that?”, I might even ask. Actually, I sometimes wonder if they are even conscious they are doing it at all. They are probably peppering their daily practice with this brainless doodling, which makes it difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff, namely what is meaningless scribble and what is worthy of refinement, repetition and retention. It’s the mindless drivel that gets my goat. It is hard to imagine a painter placing a brand new canvas on the easel at the start of a working day only to begin by scribbling in a corner until inspiration strikes. The spirit of craftsmanship that I have written about before needs to be summoned up every time we start our work at the piano. We need to be conscious of every sound we make and why, and to allow silences and pauses for thought and […]

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