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GéNIA at Schott Music in London

5 Oct

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Another successful and well-attended session of the London Amateur Piano Group was held today, Saturday 5th October at Schott Music, just off Oxford Street. The group is the brainchild of, and hosted by, the affable, good-humoured and selfless duo of London piano teachers Fran Wilson and Lorraine Liyanage who both lit up the venue with their presence today.

Lights musical and spiritual also emanated from our guest GéNIA, the Russian-born pianist and inventor of Piano-Yoga. I arrived a bit late courtesy of National Express but downstairs in Schotts was another, more peaceful and purposeful world, a refuge from the sclerotic flow of humanity so many of whom death had undone (TS Eliot). Some 15 souls there gathered to pay homage to amateur piano music and to our distinguished guest. The first thing Génia said that truly caught my attention was how we need to ‘purify’ ourselves in order to play well. I love this idea, because it is exactly that miasma of unwanted, jumbled thoughts and distractions that I want so much to banish when I play. She has studied in depth the relationship between the physical and artistic acts of performance, drawing on the ancient Hindu wisdom of Yoga, to produce a most fascinating and efficacious set of principles and practices that we can all use to improve our levels of achievement. Posture, bodily awareness and ‘grounding’ feature in this approach; I found it persuasive.

Our first performer treated us to a delightful and impressive rendering of…something…. Génia confidently diagnosed some physical shortcomings that she gently conveyed and which our artiste graciously and gratefully took on board. One thing about Génia is that she is very articulate, tactful and persuasive, the marks of a good teacher, having us all willingly affirming on the spot the validity of her suggestions. I shall try out her methods at home before judging but fully expect to vindicate her.

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Next up was Bruce with a polished and thoughtful rendering of that most beautiful of Chopin’s melodies, the Étude Op. 10 no. 3. Genia saw a posture issue here and before long we were all trussed like amateur parachutists in ‘Yoga belts’, designed to pull the shoulders back and thus psycho-physically dissipate tension in hunched shoulders. There is a lot of logic in this, certainly more than in my return bus heading, as it is now, along the M4 in an unlikely attempt to reach Portsmouth (!?)

Last up myself, delivering an embarrasingly small snippet of Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 62/2, but as it happened the brevity was timely, the end of our session looming. Génia gave me some really helpful feedback in terms of the contrasting roles of right and left hand in this exquisite piece, recommending an action from the finger joints in the flowing left and a more marked articulation in the right with flatter fingers, to deliver a strong melodic line.

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A brief but pleasant chat with Fran about ‘monkey thoughts’ and with Lorraine about her impending visit to my home Isle of Wight to attend a harpsichord event at Wolverton Manor sent me skipping back to Victoria on a high.

The bus did get to Portsmouth at 8:45, just in time for the last hover.
Pictures courtesy of Lorraine Liyanage.

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Graham Fitch at the London Piano Meetup Group

8 Sep

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Picture a rugby second row forward and you have some idea of the imposing physical presence of Graham Fitch, piano teacher of repute, author and star turn at yesterday’s gathering of the London Piano Meetup Group. The event was hosted by the indefatigable teacher and writer Fran Wilson, whose Crosseyed Pianist blog is one of the richest sources for London-based concert reviews and all things piano-related. Fran and colleague, teacher and harpsichordist Lorraine Liyanage organise regular meetings for the Group including yesterday’s excellent session.

One of Graham’s areas of expertise is the theory and practicalities of music practising. Sometimes neglected by teachers, the principles of effective practise are absolutely crucial for successful playing. This was an opportunity for several amateurs, some dozen souls gathered yesterday at Peregrine’s Pianos in Grays Inn Road, collectively to benefit from Graham’s skills and knowledge.

The intended format was not that of a masterclass although at times that is what it became. Three students played extracts from pieces they are preparing and shared with Graham and the audience their particular practice issues. Our first brave participant was a young lady preparing Chopin’s Etude Op 25 No. 9. She played it through very well and with an attractive lightness. Graham then sat at the piano to demonstrate his approach and quickly dispelled any doubts we may have had about his performance abilities as he confidently and from memory played through the opening bars, bringing another, maturer level of interpretation to the piece. One of the student’s difficulties was maintaining the leggierissimo bass line in the closing bars. Graham demonstrated how to achieve a marvellous effect using a half pedal, that maintained the staccato articulation Chopin specified, whilst creating an attractive corona of sound to round off the piece.

Our second student played a beautiful (if slightly long) extract from Debussy’s Estampes ‘Pagodes’. I was moved close to tears by this exquisite creation of the French master. Graham’s enthusiasm for his subject is boundless. One technique he presented for practising around big leaps in the left hand, is to focus on the central notes of the chords that are closer together and thus geographically less challenging than the ‘outer’ notes, which will take care of themselves. For the approach to performance and coping with nerves Graham had much to contribute. He described how performing can be seen as analogous to tightrope walking. At home or with friends, the tightrope is close to the ground, so falls have little negative consequence. In front of an audience the height of the rope is much greater and the fallout from losing one’s footing is potentially devastating. To help with this Graham advocates meditative visualising of the performance environment in advance, seeing hearing and even smelling each feature of the venue and the performance as if one were already there. Psychologists have shown how this can improve performance and help conquer nerves not only for musicians but athletes and indeed anyone facing a daunting task.

1024px-Piano_practice_handsShort of time, our last performer could not present fully but Graham showed his skill and empathy as a teacher by putting her at ease, praising her and pointing to various things she could do to make practise more effective. Of course the benefits of slow practice were extolled, Graham remarking, to some personal embarrassment as it hit home to me, that often students just don’t practise slowly for long enough, his recommendation being to practise a phrase or piece slowly for at least a week to start getting the benefit.

Thoroughly impressed with the lessons learnt and elevated by some beautiful piano music, we repaired to the pub. On the way I managed to corner Graham about a practise issue I have – balancing the volume and quality of sound in the left hand in Chopin’s Nocturne Op 62 No.2. In this piece, the lower bass notes are single, the higher ones being chords; a combination found everywhere in piano music but in the quiet, reflective modes of the Polish master, sounding awful if done wrongly. Graham’s advice, that I am keen to try this coming week, was to play only the top note of each tri-chord in practice, to familiarize the mind and body with the quality of sound needed, then to add the other notes later. One of Graham’s areas of work that I am fascinated with is the psycho-physical process of learning music. Understanding this better would be a worthy goal for any student because how we learn to play well is influenced not just by the exercise of mental or physical faculties in isolation but by a symbiotic process that involves many aspects of our being acting in coordination.

Altogether a brilliant event of real value and a great chance to meet other amateurs. Contact London Piano Meetup Group for details of future events.

London Piano Meet Aug 10th 2013

11 Aug

At 12 midday this Saturday a small group of amateur pianists gathered outside Peregrine’s Pianos in London’s Grays Inn Road. They had arrived for the August session of the London Piano Meetup Group organised by Lorraine Liyanage and Fran Wilson-she of Cross-Eyed Pianist blogging fame.

At the appointed hour the doors opened and performers and listeners entered a downstairs rehearsal room furnished in one corner with an intriguing and attractive harpsichord and under the barred window, a small but rather magnificent Schimmel grand, the instrument upon which we would be playing.

I have written before about nerves and the manifold forms they may take. One manifestation is a heightened state of awareness of one’s mental processes. Thoughts become sharper and one’s inner conversation bubbles to the surface. You can hear yourself meditating on the likelihood of fluffing it, negative countered by positive affirmative. If the negative side reasserts itself and wins, the resulting short-circuit increases fear because weakness begets fear. Weird cogitations. My own defence against all this is just to accept the process, try to remain aloof from it and practice long and hard to gain confidence. In the end it is all about hard work: intelligent, efficient practice yes, but nonetheless work.

In Fran’s absence our mistress of ceremonies was Lorraine, who with charm and friendliness encouraged our first performer to step up. She played a series of Stephen Hough’s adaptations of something by Mozart. Attractive and beautifully played, the adaptation seeming to me to consist mostly of augmenting and diminishing the chords à la Nelson Riddle.

Next up was myself with a kind of car-crash rendering of the Capriccio from Bach’s Partita No 2. One thing I notice in performance to an audience as against practicing alone, is the sheer physical demand of playing a fast piece with repeats, when one is emotionally frazzled. It requires considerably bodily and mental fitness. These experiences are part of what makes the Meetups so valuable to amateurs.

Other performances included a ravishing Szymanowski Etude, No 3 I believe, that had real depth and meaning; a Spanish Dance of Granados executed with great polish and not a little panache, by José, and some delightfully crafted Grade 5 pieces.

Lorraine treated us to something by Bach, I can’t remember what but it was fiendishly dense and complex. I loved it and she conquered it, demonstrating in so doing her high level of pianistic accomplishment.

So that was it. I wanted to play again, but the hour was gone and we repaired to a nearby pub for socialising. I had to dash soon afterward to keep my appointment with a Yamaha grand at Chappell (annoyingly now referred to as ‘Yamaha Music London’-almost as naked a corporate name-grab as can be found), before heading back to the Isle of Wight infused with a renewed determination to improve my performance skills.

The highlights for me were the Szymanowski Etude and Lorraine’s Bach, followed by an interesting conversation with José about the Middle Eastern influences in Spanish music and the great age of Muslim/Christian cultural efflorescence in Andalusia and elsewhere.

Finally can I say that it was a pleasure and privilege for which I am profoundly grateful, to be able to attend these sessions and perform. Thank you Lorraine and Fran.

London Piano Meet

2 Jun

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It has taken me a while to get to writing this but here goes. On Saturday 17th May my wife Judy and I took part in the inaugural meeting of the London Piano Meetup Group at Peregrine’s Pianos in central London.

It was an experience fraught with personal sadness for us, due to the loss that day of a close relative. For this reason my recollections, whilst fragmented and obscure in some aspects, are somewhat heightened in  others.

The group is organised by two doyens of the London amateur piano scene, Frances Wilson, who blogs famously as The Cross-Eyed Pianist, and Lorraine Liyanage. Their assiduous efforts in providing performance opportunities for amateur pianists are worthy of much praise and are of the highest value and importance in making real the aspirations of the would-be artist. Only in the fire of tests can the precious metal of artistry be forged. Details of the group may be found here.

My wife Judy and I waited at 5:15pm excitedly outside the venue alongside some thirty other performers and observers. Peregrine’s appear to be Schimmel main dealers, so after the doors opened, the walk to the upper floor took us past a succession of rather beautiful instruments bearing that name.

For me, performance is a challenge to be relished, but a pretty nerve-wracking thing. As well as all the outward signs such as sweating and shaking, there is the adrenalin surge coursing around the system, rendering one’s familiar mind-body coordination comfort zone all undone. One can either surf this turbulence and get inspired by it, or sink ignominiously under its waves.

Introductions over, the first brave artist took to the gleaming Fazioli grand. The instrument was really too powerful for the small venue and this created some problems for all the performers, especially in fortissimo passages. Nevertheless the opportunity to play such a fine piano was a precious one appreciated I am sure by all.

The standout performer for me amongst the amateurs was the second, a young lady who played a really touching Brahms Intermezzo. She seemed to convey real honesty and took great care over the accuracy of her playing.

She was followed by a young man who bravely (perhaps rashly) took on Rachmaninov’s C# Minor Prelude, a fiendishly difficult piece. and faltered about a third of the way through. We all felt for him and he will have learned much from the experience. His basic musicality and piano playing potential were actually really good and he will no doubt return successfully. As Fran later observed, being able to play a thing very nicely at home is a world away from performing it live in front of one’s peers.

Then it was my turn. It’s hard to describe to place one finds oneself in (or at least I do) when faced with such a challenge. Confidence is everything when performing but it has to be matched with some decorum and dignity, something I failed quite miserably at. It was more a case of getting to the instrument without falling over; getting through the piece without stalling, and getting back to one’s seat without looking a complete Wally. I chose Debussy’s Valse Romantique, mainly because it is one of three pieces which I can make some semblance of playing. The heightened nervous state does strange things. Mind-hand connections can just dissipate altogether, memorisation get lost and awareness of one’s self and surroundings turn into a kind of altered reality. Focusing entirely on not getting it wrong blocks musicianship, whereas forays into the latter risk losing the musical thread altogether. Worst of all is the enemy ego, that can send one unexpectedly into a delusional fantasy of “aren’t I doing well”, or “move over, Kissin, this is how it should be played”. Such horrors always end with an embarrassing exposé of one’s weaknesses. That said, I had a few brief moments of what is most wonderful about performing: getting into a space where the art takes on a life of its own, where the music hints at something sublime. It happened for me in the pianissimo sections of the piece. I did forget the last two or three chords, though that was brought on perhaps more by mental fatigue than uncertainty.

I regained my seat without incident, having sought on the way to give the impression of indifference to any audience reaction but in reality listening keenly for any hint of something more than tired applause.

Our next two performers made accomplished work of some challenging repertoire and thus to a performance from Fran of a lovely piece by Takemitsu. A seasoned amateur performer, possessed of considerable musical sensitivity, she raised the bar rather higher into the interval. We were informed then by Fran and Lorraine that the next performer was late arriving, and would someone care to play again. Someone did, giving a convincing rendition of the same Rachmaninov Prelude that our intrepid earlier performer had met with some resistance from. Some might think this was a little insensitive as the former individual was still recovering.

Soon our star turn for the night arrived, a little breathlessly, in the form of Emmanuel Vass. He headed straight for the Fazioli and, after a short introduction, treated us to a flawless account of Bach and some other classical repertoire, followed by his rather amazing ‘mashup’ of James Bond themes, including the Barry original and individual themes from the various films, all woven together with Liszt-like (or was it Liberace-esque?) artistry. He raised our spirits with his no-nonsense, exuberant playing, then sold and signed CDs afterwards.

We had to leave at that point but the evening had helped us through a few difficult personal hours and remained uplifting for some time afterwards.

There are to be more such gatherings and I highly commend them to anyone wishing to test their playing skills in a friendly, appreciative environment.

Piano practice at SJ Pianos

22 Oct

Learning to play piano on a digital instrument has advantages. If, like myself, you live in a flat then the ability to pop on headphones and render your efforts silent to the outside world is a real benefit for your neighbours. This is especially true if you are taking exams with their requirement to perfect endless, frankly rather boring scales and arpeggios.

What a digital piano cannot do though, is to reproduce faithfully the full range of tonal and harmonic sounds that come with playing a real piano. The almost tactile quality of sound produced, I assume, by the circulation of air around a vibrating string; the complex blending of beautiful harmonies produced by the recursive stimulation of strings and their neighbours and harmonic relatives; the subtleties of pedalling: all these are missing from the electronic shadow instrument.

So when preparing on a digital for an exam to be played on an acoustic piano, there are important differences to cope with. To avoid being put off by a Pandora’s Box of unfamiliar sounds and effects coming out in the fraught atmosphere of the exam room, it behooves the digital student to spend as much time as possible playing real pianos in advance of the exam and for this reason I hired a grand piano for four hours this morning at Samuel Jacques Pianos in Edgware Road, London. It’s remarkably inexpensive: £7/hr for an upright and £11/hr for a grand. With free coffee and wi-fi and beautifully appointed and sound-proofed rooms and good quality pianos, it’s well worth the money.

The instrument was a Kawai and beautiful it was. I got straight to work with relish but as I launched into some scales, the degree of my ill-equipped-ness quickly showed. The individual notes were lost in a miasma of muddy noise set up by my clunky keystrokes. No matter how sophisticated the mechanical action and electronics of the digital, it can’t ever replace the real thing.

It took a good two hours of practice to feel that I was starting to be in control. After three hours I was delighting in the power at my fingertips to produce a totally superior kind of sound, lingering on the notes and chords to enjoy the pure, ringing tones. It is a little disconcerting though, to have the keyboard shift to the right when soft pedalling!

I played Bach for about an hour in a kind of reverie, but the four hours ended sooner than I expected. I finished by singing a couple of favourite Rogers and Hammerstein show songs, “Younger than Springtime” and “Hello Young Lovers” and noticed how much more naturally the voice and string sounds blended together than when I do this at home.

One anomaly to deal with is the fact that on any real piano, some notes may be out of tune or may be of different quality to others. This you don’t get on a digital, where tuning is pre-set and the mechanics are much less prone to mis-calibration.

At the appointed hour I left through the basement area, an Aladdin’s cave of pianos, stools and paraphernalia, some instruments in pieces or on their sides, stacked in piles or half-assembled, up into the gleaming showroom with its treasury of Steinways, Kawais and the rest.

To sum up, please get me a detached house with a decent space for a baby grand. Then plug your ears because there will be a lot of noise coming!

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