This is the fifteenth interview in my Classical Conversations Series and today British pianist Graham Fitch is in the spotlight.
Graham, based in London, maintains an international career not only as a pianist, but also as a teacher, adjudicator, examiner, lecturer, writer and commentator on piano playing and musical subjects. His workshops and classes, which he gives all over the world, have received high praise for their creative and illuminating approach to the subject. First Prizewinner in the Mieczyslaw Munz Piano Competition, he graduated with honours from the Royal College of Music in London as Hopkinson Gold Medallist. A Fulbright Scholarship then took him to the United States, where he completed his studies with Ann Schein and Nina Svetlanova, as well as participating in regular classes with Leon Fleisher.
During much of the 1990s, Graham’s career straddled the Atlantic with solo and chamber performances in England (where he taught piano at the Purcell School, St. Paul’s Girls’ School, the Centre for Young Musicians) and in Europe and North America. The New York Times spoke of his playing as “unalloyed pleasure”. In the UK he was recitalist at the Bournemouth Festival, and appeared in repeated engagements with the London Chamber Soloists on London’s South Bank. US activities included concerts with his trio, the Trio dell’Arte, various solo appearances (including a performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in Merkin Hall during the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death) and a performance of Bartok’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion with Jonathan Haas.
From 1997 to 2008, Graham was Associate Professor, Head of Keyboard and Head of Section of Practical Studies at the South African College of Music, University of Cape Town, from where he travelled extensively to perform and teach. An international tour of Bach’s Goldberg Variations elicited rapturous reviews on four continents, and invitations to return to Australia, New Zealand and the USA. More recently he has given a recital, a masterclass and a keynote address at the 7th Australasian Piano Pedagogy Conference, been in residence at London’s Royal Academy of Music, coached chamber music at the Franschhoek Chamber Music Workshop, and participated in the Stellenbosch International Piano Symposium.
A published author, Graham has written several articles on aspects of piano playing and musical style. He has also produced a generation of teachers through his influence as a teacher, and through his pedagogy programme.
Here’s the transcript for those who like to read my interviews:
MELANIE SPANSWICK: British concert pianist, Graham Fitch, has played concerts all around the world to great critical acclaim. He was Head of Keyboard and professor of piano at the University of Cape Town for many years and is in great demand as a teacher and an adjudicator so I’m delighted that he’s taken the time to join me today for one of my Classical Conversations here at Steinway Hall. Welcome.
GRAHAM FITCH: Thanks, Melanie.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Lovely to be here with you.
GRAHAM FITCH: Thank you. Same here.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: I’m going to start straight away by talking about all of your musical education. How old were you when you started to play? What was the catalyst and do you come from a musical family?
GRAHAM FITCH: I don’t come from a musical family. I’m geriatric by most people’s standards. I didn’t start until I was twelve and a half or thirteen which is quite old to be doing what I’m doing now but I think, when I look back I always had this burning desire to play the piano, even though we didn’t have a piano in the house. We just had access to pianos in…I think my grandfather had something that resembled a piano but it was horrifically out of tune and dilapidated but it didn’t stop me from going there every time we went just spending hours, and we also had neighbours who also had pianos. I had this burning desire but we didn’t have a piano at home and it just wasn’t thought about. Lessons were certainly not thought about in those days as far as I was concerned. The way I started, I told a little fib! in school when the schoolmaster said, “Hands up those boys who play a musical instrument.” My hand shot up because I absolutely deep-down wanted to be a musician and he asked me what instrument I played. I said the piano. I’ll never forget that sinking feeling I got in my stomach when he handed me a piece of music to play end of term concert because I didn’t read music and I didn’t know anything really so I had to get somebody to record it for me. I just listened to it over and over until I could play it by the ear which was what I did. I remember taking the page. It was only one page, putting it on the grand piano in the school hall, pretending to read it but actually, it was played by ear.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: That’s a very good thing to be able to do though, isn’t it?
GRAHAM FITCH: It’s very, very important and certainly for a musician to be able to use their ear so that’s how I started. The lady who sort of recorded it for me came up and said, “This boy needs to have lessons.” She was my very first teacher for a year and a bit. Still no piano at home so I have a sort of lesson. It wasn’t really a lesson so I had a piano experience with this lady every day after school until she felt that she couldn’t do anything more then I went to a proper piano teacher.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: So, which teacher do you think was crucial in your development as a pianist?
GRAHAM FITCH: That’s such a tricky one because I don’t think there’s any one that I could single out and say this one. By saying this one is crucial; I am saying this one is peripheral and I see teachers as each one has something to contribute to my musical upbringing. They were all important. Just to give you a little perspective, my very first professor at the Royal College of Music was Stephen Savage. A fantastic teacher of piano, fantastic musician, hugely energetic lessons, a very skillful piano teacher and he would talk a lot about not just the music but how one achieves and how to play it or technique, if you want to put it in a narrow kind of frame. After that, I went to Peter Wallfisch who didn’t once talk about piano playing. He wasn’t interested in piano playing and yet, as a result of having gone through from Stephen to Peter, that was when I won the Hopkinson Gold Medal. I think it was because Peter didn’t talk…our mind is very attuned to how we manage things. I’ve got a teacher’s mind, I’m always analyzing and that’s not working because of this etc. Peter, by not talking about that…Can I give you an example? I remember a lesson that I had with him it was the Op. 109 Beethoven sonata, right now, I was a student and I was learning a piece. It wasn’t a polished performance by any means so I went for one of my mamouth three-hour lessons with him and I don’t think it could have been that good really, I mean my playing, because it was only a week or two old. I took the thing to him and I had one of those experiences walking down the garden path at the end of the lesson, because he taught from his home, where I felt like if somebody were to call me this evening and say, “Daniel Barenboim is indisposed, would you come and play it?” I would have been able to. Such was my complete understanding of that music from, how do I describe it, not from a pianistic point of view but from a conceptual, an artistic and creative point of view. That was the way Peter taught. If I hadn’t had Stephen first, I don’t know if I would have been able to manage what it was that Peter was demanding from me. And then Nina Svetlanova afterwards gave me something actually quite incredible. That was a real schooling in the Russian…..
MELANIE SPANSWICK: It must be quite different from anything you had had before.
GRAHAM FITCH: Actually, it was very different and very rich. If I look at those three main teachers, I would say each one of them had an invaluable input into my piano playing. I wouldn’t want to separate out anyone or put one ahead of the other. They were all vital to me.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: How did you develop your technique? Were you a study practiser …..
GRAHAM FITCH: I was a very, very keen practiser during my college years. I used to practice a lot and because I started so late, I sort of knew how I did things, I never went through what must be wonderful when you’re a child, a talented kid who’s got a good teacher and they end up playing not knowing how they’re doing it, not being self-conscious. I never had that. I was always aware of what it was that I was doing so developing my technique right. It takes hours and years, doesn’t it?
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes, it does.
GRAHAM FITCH: I wouldn’t even want to put a cap on it. I wouldn’t want to say that I’m still not developing my technique.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: You keep going with it.
GRAHAM FITCH: Yes.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Did you start with scales or studies, or did you learn everything in each piece, do you think?
GRAHAM FITCH: I wasn’t from the school of playing which says it comes from loads of exercises but I did a very, very few of those Czerny, Cramer or Clementi things and I don’t use them. I use them very sparsely in my own teaching. I will use them but I will do it for a very particular reason. I don’t believe in sitting there doing hours of finger exercises and the thought of people sitting doing Hanon just fills me with dread because they’re just perpetuating this myth that we play the piano with our fingers. I’m just thinking, if this is an example, you know this one *plays the piano* by sitting there doing this stuff. Actually that’s the biggest problem I face in my teaching, is people have been taught to do that.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: They’re not using their arms properly.
GRAHAM FITCH: No and if I had exercises I would do this. *plays the piano* Even the first one *play a few notes*, people seem to think that they have to do some Hanon.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: I just warm up with it I have to say, it’s useful for that….
GRAHAM FITCH: Yes, it can be but what I do is things like, instead of doing it in C major, why do it in C major? We need black notes there. *plays the piano* You can go like this or even crazy things like this. *demonstrates on the piano* slidding in and out, to experience nothing in the finger whatsoever. That is the equivalent. I am not going to do something as crude as a glissando but it’s the equivalent of nothing in the fingers as a glissando would be just sliding in experiencing zero finger or even this one *plays some notes on the piano* The finger’s just there very alive. I think when I look back a very, very important component of my technical education was, apart from all the wonderful things I got from my teachers, working for a little while with Julian Martin. He’s on the faculty of Julliard. He introduced me to the rotation techniques of Dorothy Taubman because he was working with her at the time so that added a huge dimension. He explained it to me because he’s a brilliant mind. He explained it to me in such an incredibly illuminating way that I find that that is absolutely a cornerstone of what I believe without technical training but it’s very hard to let go of this stuff. We’re all taught it, aren’t we?
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes. You won the Munz Piano Competition. How did this shape and change your career? Do you think it was an important moment or did it not change anything, because people think all different things about competitions, don’t they?
GRAHAM FITCH: I think it’s nice to put down on the CV. It looks nice doesn’t it? To say that you won first prize in something is nice. You just put it down and people say, “Oh, you won first prize in…” I don’t know that it did anything much more than that.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Do you advise your students to do competitions? Do you think I can help establish their career or do you think that is something obsolete now?
GRAHAM FITCH: Yes. Well, isn’t it Justin Bieber who gave us a lesson on how not to go through normal routes? He was a YouTube phenomenon. I don’t think it’s quite the same as it used to be but anything that gives profile and publicity has to be a good thing but I always tell students, and I’ve had people that have won, just as I’ve won some and lost some. My students will win and then they’ll lose because that’s just the way it is. That’s just life. You’re never going to win everything. I do think it’s probably a good thing to do. I do encourage it if somebody is very ambitious and I have had those that have done well in them. I’ve also had those that are wonderful pianists but haven’t won, then what? Your self-confidence can take a huge knock from it.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Which composers are you particularly drawn to, what do you really enjoy playing?
GRAHAM FITCH: I’m very, very conservative.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: There is nothing wrong with that.
GRAHAM FITCH: No. In terms of repertoire, there is nothing that I find more satisfying than the core classical repertoire from Bach, actually even before Bach, I am going to play some Rameau, not that he’s before Bach but sort of high Baroque, even earlier Baroque.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes, I noticed on your bio that you love doing early Baroque music.
GRAHAM FITCH: Yes. I wouldn’t necessarily perform early Baroque. Louis Couperin, I love the music. You can’t really do it on the piano but François Couperin, I can’t make work on the piano. Some people can. Angela Hewitt does it beautifully but I can’t make it work for me. Rameau, I can make work for me but it took me a long time find the sound that I wanted. Okay, so I love Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, I’m particularly fond of. That sort of mainstream Schumann, I couldn’t live without Schumann, Schubert. And then, I don’t play a huge amount of Liszt but I played the sonata at one point and it’s an incredible music. It’s just that temperamentally, it’s not really me. I don’t play an awful lot of contemporary music either. Much as I admire it, I’d rather be doing other things.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: You’ve performed extensively as I’ve said in the introduction but you really enjoy teaching. What is it about teaching that really attracts you or what do you love about it?
GRAHAM FITCH: Okay. I do love teaching. I just love the idea that I get a creative buzz out of it so that if I’m working with somebody for an hour, the hour goes like that. It’s something to do with communicating. It’s something to do with being in contact with the music and the creativity and of being in contact with the music and working with somebody to overcome barriers and illuminating hopefully, that’s my job, to illuminate the music and to show somebody how. One of the things I find really important about my teaching is…it’s already well to have an idea of how you want music to be but unless you can show somebody how to do that…
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Oh yes, that’s crucial.
GRAHAM FITCH: Isn’t it?
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes. You’ve got to be able to do it yourself. Well, I think anyway.
GRAHAM FITCH: Otherwise you could just have lessons with other fantastic musicians like a violinist, there’s nothing wrong with that. I think that you could learn tremendous amount from working with other musicians. Just the idea that being able to help somebody develop as a pianist, as a musician, that’s what I love about it.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: How does your teaching evolved then your career? I think we should mention your wonderful blog practicingthepiano.com. It’s really fantastic. I love dipping into it and certainly, you’ve got a great following so that’s obviously helped your career as a teacher?
GRAHAM FITCH: Thank you. I think it comes down to, I mean, so often when I get students, I’ll ask them how they’re practising. They’ve got a problem with the passage. They think it’s technical. A lot of the time people would think it’s technical and I’ll say, “Well, how are you practising?” then I won’t get anything much. They may say, “I do it slowly.” Then I ask them to show me, it’s not slow. It’s just not.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: That’s the thing, isn’t it about playing slow. I think you play much faster than you actually think you do.
GRAHAM FITCH: Yes, also when you’re practising slowly, what are you doing? I always think practicing slowly is preparing us for playing fast so if whe’re practicing slowly, we’re making slow movements across the keyboard, we might as well not bother with it. That will imprint it on your ear to some extent but…To get back to your question, how’s my teaching evolved? I think that’s a very difficult one to answer.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Has it changed over the years?
GRAHAM FITCH: Yeah. I think it has a lot. Now, I would rather infect somebody with a passion for playing that piece and creatively, not so much talking about how we’re moving at the keyboard but what the poetic content of the music is and what the music means because it means different things to different people. That’s the thing and I’m not one of these teachers that would ever say, “This passage here, this is how it should go. It’s gotta go like this.” Then, they’d copy that. That for me is a killer. So I suppose, talking first about the meaning of the music, the spirit of the music, what that is and then finding the ways of achieving it, helping people to achieving it.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Now, we both adjudicated earlier this year out in Hong Kong at the 65th Hong Kong Music Festival and we both had a fantastic time. What do you think is the most important thing about adjudicating? Why do you love it so much? Why are you attracted to it?
GRAHAM FITCH: I do love it. I think it’s one of those highlights of my year when I got festivals to adjudicate. I’ve just done the Abingdon festival. That’s a beautiful festival because what happens is that the person comes up to play and instead of getting a mark, they get a report form with comments but then I get the opportunity to work with them for anywhere between 2 or 10 minutes sort of individual little classes and you can change. You could get some magical results very quickly. I think it has to do with supporting somebody in performance. I think you’ve got to be very kind as an adjudicator, extremely kind because when you come up to perform, it’s the same for us, you bear your soul. You take your bow and nobody can see that, hopefully, you take a bow and you smile, you exude confidence but actually you really are bearing your soul. For a child to come up and play, even for an adult to come up and play in a festival, I, as a performing adjudicator, absolutely know what that is and if they should have nervousness and accidents, they could be devastated so to give them the opportunity to develop confidence with constructive and honest feedback. I just remembered, when I was growing up, during my teenage years doing festivals, I remember every little detail about all those adjudicators. There was one I remember, I think he’s passed away now, what I remember about him was his yellow-stained fingertips because he used to smoke those filterless cigarettes whilst he was still working.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: It’s amazing what you remember, the details you remember.
GRAHAM FITCH: He’d come up and do his adjudicating with his cigarette in his yellow fingers and I remember that. It was a very important/crucial part of my upbringing actually to have those performing experiences.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: I think it’s really important. You can’t underestimate festivals.
GRAHAM FITCH: Beautiful work, isn’t it? Really beautiful.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: What does playing the piano mean to you?
GRAHAM FITCH: It was a passion from the very early years even before I had lessons. I can remember sitting there at the piano when I was about this big, thinking, music can come out from these notes that are sitting in front of me. I think that my journey with the piano has been that, just that, finding how to get the music out of these 88 keys so it means…I can’t really put it into words because it is a passion and it’s everything really, isn’t it? It’s the core of my life. The piano, what it represents to me is not just playing, it’s teaching. It’s still magic, isn’t it? I think this is a magic box.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Thank you so much for joining me today, Graham.
GRAHAM FITCH: Thank you, Melanie.
Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.
For more information, please visit the publications page, here.