Pianist, teacher and writer Lewis Kesterton is my guest writer today. He focuses on that very important topic – finding your motivation. I hope you find it of interest.
This article was originally published on Pianist Magazine’s website.
The first few months of the New Year can be an odd time for pianists. Often we find ourselves recovering from a hiatus in our regular practice routine, perhaps having not seen our teacher or musical colleagues for a while, and it’s likely that we haven’t been exposed to very much live music aside from the obligatory onslaught of Christmas Carols. Since the arrival of Coronavirus in 2020, our winter months have become even more difficult; many of us have few or no performances scheduled in our diaries, so unless you have a very clear plan ahead of you (which I certainly don’t) it can be very hard to regain your ‘mojo’. This year has certainly been no exception to the rule. A number of my students have recently come to me asking how they might find more motivation to practice, or even just play. So, in the hope of rejuvenating your love for the piano, I’ve put together twelve ideas to inspire you over the coming year. Whether you’re a keen amateur, professional, or just a music lover, I’m certain there will be something here to whet your appetite for the piano once more!
1. Rediscover your passion for piano
Not long into the second year of my undergraduate degree, my relationship with the piano became quite strained (and this has not been the only time I’ve felt like this during my career to date). At the time I was studying at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire with two outstanding teachers, had met some inspirational musicians who would become lifelong friends, and had devoted my whole life to music. In theory, it all seemed perfect, so I couldn’t understand why I had such little desire to practice. One day I arrived at my one-to-one lesson with Katharine Lam completely unprepared and opened up about how I was feeling. It was Katharine’s wisdom that almost certainly stopped me from throwing in the towel and giving up on the piano completely. It’s so easy for us all, no matter what stage in our musical development we’re at, to get caught up in constantly learning new repertoire or focussing on the next ‘big thing’, which is exactly what had happened to me. I’d lost sight of why I love piano. Katharine told me to take some time away from exam preparation and play the piano for me, so that’s exactly what I did. For a few days I forgot about deadlines and directed my energy into playing the music closest to my heart. This was just what I needed. Soon enough, I’d reminded myself why I wanted to spend so much time practicing and studying – because it enables me to communicate my innermost feelings through an incredibly powerful, truly honest medium which stretches far beyond the capabilities of human language. If you’re feeling the same as I did (which I might add is never something to be ashamed about) I urge you to do the same. Rediscover the music that inspired you at the beginning of your musical journey and play familiar repertoire which allows you to explore the piano without technical or contextual anxiety.
2. Explore contemporary music
At the other end of the spectrum, you may instead find inspiration in exploring something completely different. But, what if the time doesn’t feel quite right for you to make a start on that Bach Prelude and Fugue or Chopin Nocturne you’ve been wanting to tackle for a while? Maybe it’s time you pushed yourself out of your comfort zone a little and dipped your toes into something entirely new? I must admit that, when I was growing up and until only a few years ago, I was quite the classical music ‘snob’. My YouTube history comprised of very little other than Valentina Lisitsa, Martha Argerich and Vladimir Horowitz playing a hearty mix of Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, and Bach; anything outside of this would send shivers down my spine. Over the past few years though, particularly during the Coronavirus lockdowns, I’ve become more open-minded in my musical taste. Of course, I’m not suggesting you immediately start filling your piano with screws and rubbers and embark on a voyage through John Cage’s twenty Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano (although if you do, I admire you greatly) but even just refreshing your listening habits can do wonders for motivation. To start you off, I’ve compiled a short Spotify playlist of ten works outside my usual ‘go to’ music which I’ve enjoyed listening to, playing, and studying recently. I hope you might find something in there which sparks your creativity, too!
3. Try creating your own music
I’m the first to admit that composition really isn’t something that comes naturally to me. In fact, a friend of mine recently had to compose her own cadenza for a Mozart concerto – just the thought of this absolutely terrified me. I look up to composer-pianists and improvisers such as Gabriela Montero and Melanie Spanswick with huge admiration. However, just because these skills don’t come naturally to us all doesn’t mean we aren’t all free to be creative and think outside of the box every so often. Referring back to my classical music ‘snobbery’ in days gone by again, I used to see improvisation as something only jazz musicians did (of course, I was so naïve back then that I didn’t realise Bach, one of my most idolised composers, was indeed one of the world’s greatest improvisers). More recently though, after getting past the mental barrier of my cringeworthy GCSE and A-Level attempts at composition, I’ve come to discover the joy that can be found in composing and improvising at the piano. As pianists, we’re constantly searching for perfection whilst translating someone else’s music from the score to the keyboard, so it can be extremely liberating to have no limits. Having done whatever I could to dodge improvisation classes throughout my conservatoire training, in 2019 I found myself in a situation where I had no option but to embrace it; I was tasked with creating an atonal improvisation to accompany a scene from a silent film. This seemingly simple task proved to be a huge amount of fun and really challenged me to reconsider the way I think about music. I suddenly realised that I had this enormous resource of sounds in front of me which I could draw out of the piano whenever I wanted to enhance what I was seeing on the screen. If you haven’t tried anything like this before, find yourself a short clip on YouTube, mute the sound and let your creativity unfold. When it comes to note learning, there’s almost always a right and a wrong in the majority of our repertoire, but as the great jazz improvisor Thelonious Monk once remarked, “The piano ain’t got no wrong notes.”
4. Refresh your technique
Music is an art in which it is impossible to know everything, and as such, we pianists will never stop learning. As an educator this is something I find myself reiterating frequently; there seems to be a huge misconception among learners that we’re all in search of a ‘perfect’ technique, but I for one am not convinced that such a thing really exists, or at least, is attainable in our lifetimes. Piano technique is a gargantuan topic which I certainly don’t have the word count to even scratch the surface of! However, if you ever find yourself struggling at the piano, maybe losing motivation with a specific piece, perhaps it’s time you thought about refreshing your technique. I am firmly of the opinion that one size certainly doesn’t fit all at the piano; we’re all beautifully different and need to embrace our individuality when forming a healthy technique. Last year I wrote an article for Pianist about enlivening your scale practice which can be viewed here. In it, I provided a multitude of ways to vary your scales which can be transferred to many other aspects of piano technique. However, my main point was (and still is) that you need to make technical work, whatever it may be, relevant to the music you’re working on. It’s all very well and done starting your practice session with twenty minutes of Hanon (indeed, I often walk past practice rooms and hear young pianists furiously thrashing out these exercises), but if you’re currently working on a programme of Satie and Debussy, for example, is this really the most useful thing you could be doing? In this instance, improvising a sequence of large chords and working to bring out different voices and colours could be a far better use of your time. Similarly, if you’re working on a Mozart Sonata, perhaps pick out some of the scalic passages and experiment with different touches. In short, technical practice should be guided by your ear and your repertoire, not your fingers.
5. Participate in festivals or masterclasses
Naturally, the pandemic took its toll on festivals, competitions, and masterclasses, with some sadly not making it out the other side. Of course, it wasn’t all doom and gloom though, as the lockdowns encouraged many musical organisations to embrace the digital age and make their events accessible online. Thankfully, as our world continues to return to some form of ‘normal’, many festivals and other performance platforms for musicians are beginning to run in-person once more. When most of us think of competitions, our minds usually jump straight to most prestigious such as the Tchaikovsky, Chopin, and Leeds. There is no doubt that these competitions are hugely exciting to watch and can be a great source of motivation in their own right. Realistically, though, most of us can only dream of playing in such competitions because of their incredibly high standards and often cut-throat nature. As pianists, we are generally the most isolated of musicians, spending most of our time alone with our instruments. Having the opportunity to play alongside fellow musicians, compete in friendly competitions and receive feedback from inspirational teachers and performers in masterclasses can be truly liberating and a huge boost for our confidence; these experiences allow us to share our love of music in a huge variety of settings to suit whatever level we’re at. There are hundreds of suchlike events around the country which I’d encourage you to explore, even if only as an observer, this year. If you live near London, the North London Festival of Music, Speech and Drama will be running in person again and is a great chance for young pianists to showcase their hard work. Alternatively, Morley College London hosts weekly Masterclasses with eminent pianist and pedagogue Martino Tirimo as well as a range of other group performance platforms for musicians of a wide array of abilities. If you think you might find inspiration through participation in events like these, musicalchairs.info and alink-argerich.org provide a wealth of free resources to help you find something that’s right for you.
6. Create your own performing opportunities
Not every performance opportunity I’ve discussed so far is going to be the right fit for you, and there is absolutely no shame in that whatsoever. Furthermore, with many festivals and similar events receiving hordes of applicants, in reality it can be hugely difficult to be accepted for participation. Despite this, whether you’re an amateur or professional pianist, there are so many creative ways to devise your own opportunities to perform. If you’re new to performing, organising a small house concert, perhaps jointly with a fellow musician, can be a wonderful way to dip your toes into sharing your artistry. Of course, one benefit of this intimate kind of performance is that you can choose who to invite, allowing you to sculpt your own, supportive audience. If you’re more interested in getting yourself out into the increasingly competitive performing world, there are plenty of options for you, too. A brilliant starting point is to do some research into small venues near you (churches are usually open to concert proposals and often have wonderful acoustics) who may be interested in hosting a recital. If you’re willing to raise donations for them in return for the use of their space, this can really add to the appeal for them and sometimes eradicate a hire fee if they don’t already host a regular concert series. However, as is so frequently highlighted today, it is simply not enough to just play well; when curating your own performances it is essential that you market yourself well. My dear friend, Young Steinway Artist and distinguished pianist Haley Myles has recently developed a comprehensive resource following vast amounts of research on marketing for musicians. Her innovative ideas cover all aspects of marketing, from website design and photography to writing a captivating biography and gaining presence on social media. Whether you’re ready to break into the world of performance for the first time, or are in desperate need of a marketing refresh, Haley’s Marketing for Musicians course is an invaluable tool.
7. Connect with fellow pianists
As I’ve already touched upon, playing the piano is not always the most social activity and, in my opinion, this is one of the biggest reasons why it’s often easy to lose motivation. It must be said that it is extremely important to focus on yourself as a musician; it can be very easy to concentrate too much on what others around you are doing. I recently discussed this very issue with my current teacher, the ever-inspirational Mengyang Pan, who really stressed to me the importance of being kind to oneself after I found myself feeling a little overwhelmed by the musical world around me. However, if you find yourself at the other end of the spectrum in your lonely practice space, I fervently suggest connecting with some of your peers. There are many ways you can do this, both online and offline. If you have some free time on your hands, piano courses such as those run by Finchcocks and Jackdaws offer you the chance to be fully immersed in music with likeminded players at a similar level. However, if your budget doesn’t stretch that far or your schedule is tighter, there are a multitude of groups on meetup.com, some of whom also meet online, who would offer you the chance to meet new people and offer you occasional performance opportunities.
8. Play with others
Following on from connecting with other pianists, it can also be a great motivation to actually work with other musicians. Playing with someone often means working towards a deadline, something which we often find ourselves without as freelance or amateur musicians. Of course, forming a duo or chamber group doesn’t mean confining yourself to just working with pianists, it opens up a plethora of opportunities to work with all kinds of instrumentalists. The chamber music repertoire is vast, and just looking into this may open so many new avenues for you; music for piano four hands can be (although often quite intimate) extremely good fun, and what better way to motivate oneself than through laughter?! It may be the case that you’re not sure where to start when looking for a musician to partner with, but don’t worry, there are many options to try. If you’ve recently graduated or studied music at a higher education establishment at some point in your life, a good starting point may be to contact them, as they may be able to put you in contact with other graduates. For those whom piano is a more recent venture or hobby, there are many groups on Facebook such as Piano Network UK and forums on the internet which may offer you the chance to find someone eager to work with you. Music stores such as Chimes Music and Schott in London, or Forsyth in Manchester usually have noticeboards in their entrances. If you’re really struggling to find a partner, it may be worth asking them if you can pin up an advert!
9. Go to Concerts
This might seem like the most obvious way to regain some of your enthusiasm for piano, but over the past couple of years, attending concerts hasn’t been as straightforward as it used to be. For many of us, there’s nothing like the buzz you get from witnessing your favourite pianist perform, especially if they’ve played something close to your heart. Even if you’re listening to an artist for the first time, the surroundings of a recital venue and sense of occasion are often enough to get you rushing home to brush up your octaves in Schumann’s Papillons or, dare I say it, break out the metronome to keep your Bach prelude in time. Sadly, the reality is that concerts can be quite expensive, especially if you have to factor in travel, food, and perhaps even accommodation. For those of us on tighter budgets though, there are still so many options which are bound to remind you why you want to dedicate so much of your life to those 88 keys! As I’ve already hinted, the internet is such a rich musical resource these days, with a huge number of concerts being streamed online. Well known venues such as Wigmore Hall now regularly film events, some of which can be streamed for free. There are also so many smaller venues to be found around, too, offering free lunchtime recitals. One of my current favourites is St. Mary’s Perivale in West London, which I’m fortunate enough to live just down the road from. St Mary’s gained prominence during the Pandemic having run their entire concert series online with a team of extremely dedicated volunteers. Now back in person, their success continues both on the internet and back in their beautiful, intimate building with a particular focus on supporting young and emerging artists. Recent highlights include recitals and talks from esteemed pianists Peter Donohoe, Norma Fisher and Leeds Competition finalist Thomas Kelly, with forthcoming events including a cycle of Mozart’s 18 piano sonatas played by 18 different pianists.
10. Learn more about your instrument and the piano’s history
It amazes me how many pianists I encounter who have very little understanding of how the instrument they spend so much time with works and where its origins lie. It also astounds me how knowing just a little about the mechanics of the piano or what it feels like to play a period instrument can positively influence and inspire their playing. Indeed, it is important to remember that so much of the repertoire we play was not conceived on the instruments we are so familiar with today. If you aren’t yet acquainted with the sound of Chopin’s piano, then I urge you to spend some time on YouTube listening to some of his works played on early Pleyel instruments; the purity of their tone will undoubtedly give you food for thought on your own interpretations. There are many places in which you can experience these instruments for yourself if you’re brave enough to ask; museums, conservatoires and even a few historic houses are home to period instruments and are often more than happy for you to give their keyboard instruments a try if you show an interest (providing they are in good condition!). I recently had the pleasure of visiting Robert Morley & Co. in Lewisham, who were extremely welcoming and spent a great deal of time demonstrating some of their fascinating collection of instruments to me. However, if you’re keen to learn more about modern day instruments, or even just try out some of the finest pianos on sale today, there are many alternatives for you to visit. Makers Steinway and Sons, Yamaha and Blüthner all have stores in London where you can explore their beautiful instruments, and the country is littered with fantastic showrooms where you can learn more about the intricacies and peculiarities of modern day pianos.
11. Find yourself a teacher or mentor
It may come as a surprise to some, but most of the top pianists still periodically see teachers or have mentors to offer them advice on their playing or career direction. We have already touched upon the point that there is always more to learn in music; as Igor Stravinsky so eloquently put it, “I haven’t understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt it”. To that end, if you find yourself losing motivation having plateaued in your playing, you may like to find a teacher or mentor to help get you back on track; you never know what new avenues they might be able to open up for you. Personally, I have been extremely fortunate thus far in my career to have studied with an outstanding roster of teachers and taught and mentored many wonderful musicians. With each new pedagogue I have always discovered something new about myself. With Trinity Laban professor Penelope Roskell, this involved completely reforming my technique which, over the course of three years, enabled me to consider tackling repertoire I would once have never thought possible. There are plenty of resources available today to help you find a teacher. Contacting universities, conservatoires and specialist music schools can be a great place to start, with institutions such as the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama offering lessons with their Junior Department professors to the amateur community. EPTA UK and the ISM both also offer directories of highly skilled teachers around the country.
12. Set yourself manageable goals
Arguably, one of our greatest pitfalls as humans is trying to take too much on in one go. It’s wonderful when we get excited about learning a new piece, but if we’re not careful, this enthusiasm and desire to broaden our repertoire can soon snowball uncontrollably until we have a pile of music on the side of our pianos the height of a medium sized mountain (yes, as you can probably guess, I’ve found myself in this situation many a time). Naturally, if you’re blessed with the gift of being a fast learner (which I most certainly am not), you may find it relatively easy to get an enormous number of notes under your fingers in a relatively short space of time. The question you must ask yourself in this situation, though, is “am I musically satisfied with my current repertoire?”. Unless you’re Stephen Hough or András Schiff, the answer to this question is probably no; spreading yourself too thinly can be detrimental to our ambitions as pianists. For most of us who aren’t full-time performers, we have to be realistic; once we leave formal training, or if we’re learning alongside our full-time jobs, we simply don’t have enough time to practice everything we might want to every day. The solution is to set small, manageable goals. My students are forever asking my what my thoughts are about how long they should practice for and my answer is always the same: little and often is far more effective than trying to do too much in one go and only practicing once or twice a week. So, if you’re working your way through a Beethoven Sonata, task yourself with getting to the end of the exposition in the first movement by the beginning of the next week, not the end of the whole movement. That way, you’re likely to have a far deeper and more musical understanding of what you’re playing, which in the long run, will save you a great deal of time and effort. If in doubt, ask your teacher to help you set some feasible goals each week; before you know it, you’ll be making tremendous progress!
So, there you are, my twelve tips to help you rediscover your pianistic spark during this tricky time of year. I can’t guarantee that all my ideas will work for you, but whatever route you choose to go down, I wish you all the very best of luck and a hugely rewarding year of music making.
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.