Vanessa Latarche in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

My Classical Conversations Series is celebrating its first birthday today! I started this series with Ukrainian concert pianist Valentina Lisitsa, whom I met in Cardiff on a very cold and wet day, before she performed Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto for Radio 3’s Children in Need concert; you can enjoy our interview here. My twenty-fifth interview features British concert pianist, Head of Keyboard and Professor of International Keyboard Studies at the Royal College of Music, Vanessa Latarche.

After studying at the Royal College of Music and completing her training in the USA and Paris, Vanessa was awarded many scholarships and prizes from international competitions. She has performed as a soloist with international orchestras and those in the UK including   the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC Concert Orchestra, BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra, Bournemouth Sinfonietta, working with many leading conductors.

Vanessa’s recital work has taken her to Europe, USA and to the Far East, as well as many festivals within the UK, including Cheltenham, Harrogate and Huddersfield. Her interest in Bach led to a performance of the complete 48 Preludes and Fugues at the Lichfield International Festival in 1992, the performances being given over four consecutive evenings.

She has broadcast for over 30 years for BBC Radio 3 and has also broadcast extensively on the BBC World Service and BBC Radio 4. She has been a juror for international competitions in Serbia, Italy,  New Zealand, and Hong Kong and has adjudicated the national keyboard final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year, which was broadcast on BBC television. In 2007 she was an advisor to the BBC TV programme “Classical Star”.

Since September 2005 she has been Head of Keyboard at the Royal College of Music having been previously a professor of piano at the Royal Academy of Music for fourteen years where she was made an Honorary Associate in 1997.

Vanessa frequently travels to give masterclasses, not only in UK conservatoires and specialist music schools, but also to such institutions as Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts, Tokyo College of Music, Beijing Central Conservatory, and Seoul National University. She is also a frequent visitor to Lang Lang’s music school, Lang Lang Music World, in Shenzhen, China where she has recently been appointed as a Vice- Chairman.

With many international piano competition prize-winners amongst her students, Vanessa was nominated for the FRCM, Fellowship of the Royal College of Music, for outstanding services to music which was conferred on her by HRH Prince of Wales in May 2010. In September 2011, Vanessa was appointed to the role of Personal Chair at the RCM, which has given her the title of Professor of International Keyboard Studies.

And the transcript, for those who prefer reading interviews….

Melanie: “British concert pianist and professor of piano, Vanessa Latarche, has performed extensively. She’s in demand as an examiner and adjudicator worldwide, and she’s head of keyboard and chair of professional keyboard studies here at the Royal College of Music in London.  And I’m delighted that she is joining me today for one of my Classical Conversations. Welcome!”

Vanessa: “Thank you, Melanie.”

Melanie: “Lovely to be chatting here with you today.”

Vanessa: “And you, too! Great.”

Melanie: “I’m going to start by asking you all about your musical education: how old were you when you started, what was the catalyst, whether you come from a musical family.”

Vanessa: “Right. Well, my mother, actually, is a piano teacher. And, in fact, she used to teach at the Junior Royal College of Music here years and years ago. But, as a child I suppose, I started at the age of nine, which is quite late.”

Melanie: “It is, yes.”

Vanessa: “You know, especially these days, when people tend to start much, much younger. But, before that, I was very interested in ballet. Still am actually, love ballet. And, as a teenager, went through, but realized very young that, actually, I wasn’t going to be able to be a ballerina. I was too big for that.”

Vanessa: “So, it’s one of my passions, but anyway there we are. I love music, of course, all the music and choreography and everything that went with it. My grandfather was – my mother’s father – was a piano- I suppose what you would call him these days- a piano technician. Although, in those days, they used to balk at any idea of that name. And so, he was a piano maker, worked for Bösendorfer’s actually, Monington and Weston’s the British  piano makers, though sadly no longer with us. And, he had this wonderful piano at home, because of my mother. He would encourage me to play and, even though I was dancing, my real passion was the piano. I would see it there and kept on trying to play by ear, and he would teach me things by ear and by rote. So, eventually, he and my mother decided that that was it. You know, get piano lessons. Get them sorted and, in those days, I picked up, I think, quite quickly. I think one of my biggest claims to fame in my life is that I managed to get through Mini Steps Book 1 in a week. Anybody who knows me will know that that is a hilarious story from my first teachers. Big claim to fame.”

Melanie: “So, which teachers then do you think were fundamental in your development as a pianist?”

Vanessa: “Well, I always think that the first teacher is probably the most important in development. How you set – Everything’s set up for you pianistically, and the most inspirational and formidable lady that I learned with Eileen Rowe in Ealing.  She teaches you – She taught you about sound and how to develop good sound quality. She was an amazing woman and a spinster and a big lady, but she really would work on sound as at the heart of what you did. And I suppose that to me was one of the most important aspects – still is to me – in my own teaching. And I still reflect on how she teaches these days. So, that was for a while. Then, I had a few lessons for a couple of years with Christopher Elton, and I came to the Royal College, and I studied with Kendall Taylor, who’s very interesting man to learn with. Beethoven specialist, of course. And then, when I left the college, I went to Alexander Kelly, who, I think, was one of the most inspirational teachers and somebody who could just bring you out of you.”

Melanie: “That’s interesting. Yeah, a lovely man.”

Vanessa: “Wonderful person and, it was just who I needed at that time. I think if you find the right teacher at the right time – that’s probably one of the crucial elements about finding the right teacher. It’s not necessarily the right teacher for you for your life, but it’s the right time of your life.”

Melanie: “Yes. So, how did you develop your technique?”

Vanessa: “Oh, difficult question. Well, I wasn’t brought up on sort of Hanon.”

Vanessa: “It wasn’t one of those things that I was drilled in. In fact, I suppose if anything, from the early days, always encouraged to play pieces rather than studies and to develop your technique around – you know, find the technique to fit the piece, as it were.”

Melanie: “Right.”

Vanessa: “But, later on, realized when you become serious in the teenage – teen years, that you actually have start learning and start doing some proper technical work I suppose. But technique, I suppose, can really encompass a lot things. And, it doesn´t necessarily mean playing fast does it? It’s how you do something. How you articulate. How you express, actually.”

Melanie: “So, you did a lot of competitions I think, when you were younger?”

Vanessa: “Yes.”

Melanie: “Do you think they were important? And, crucially, can they still establish a concert pianist today? Or do you think we’ve moved on from that? Are they still important?”

Vanessa: “That’s, I suppose, a loaded question.”

Melanie: “It is rather yes. Sorry.”

Vanessa: “No, it’s fine!”

Vanessa: “No! No! No! We often talk about it here at the college, and I’m very interested in the competition circuit. When I was in my teens, I used to do. As a kid, I used to do a lot of piano festivals. That was a thing. I loved doing it. It was an opportunity to perform, something that you could learn your repertoire for. It was a carrot at the end of everything.  You think ‘oh good’ I could play it in the festival. A very, very good performance experience. I still believe in the festival movement very strongly.  As regards International competitions, then, of course, I did quite a lot of those. With a mixed kind of response and that’s where I learned that, you know, there are many, many opinions on piano playing and what’s good and what isn’t. And it was a bit of a shock to me in the beginning, I think. But then, it was a very steep learning curve. And then, I appreciated that. Actually you know – You have to – There’s a sort of competition animal out there. And you get – You develop your ability to learn fast, to retain a lot of repertoire in your head, your memory. Some people tend to hike the same competition repertoire around all the competitions, and you know jury members often – I sit on juries myself now – you often hear some people play some pieces for years and years and years, and they don’t change very much. They just kind of suitable for a competition. So, it’s really interesting. I do think the value of competitions is important. I do think in a young professional pianist´s life, the piano in competition has its place. I think it’s very important to try them. Not everybody will be successful, and often the most individual people are not successful. Yeah, but often they are, you know. And sometimes, they go into a competition for the very first time and come out with the big first prize, and that, someone like Perahia for instance, and that does indeed, in those days particularly, launch their careers. It still does, to some extent, if there’s a very very special personality behind the player.”

Melanie: “Yes.”

Vanessa: “But, there are many competition winners, and of course, you’re only as good as until the next competition. And then, somebody else comes around and wins it. But, it still helps to launch solo careers, but you need much more versatility, as I’m sure many people tell you that, and you know anyway”

Melanie: “Yes. Which composers do you love to play?”

Vanessa: “Well, I’ve always been in love with Rachmaninoff and Russian and romantic repertoire. All the Rs. But, I suppose nowadays my slant has gone more to Bach and Baroque music, and I’ve just always been excited by Fugues.”

Melanie: “I remember that.”

Vanessa: Do you?”

Melanie: “Yes, yes you often played him – the Bach Preludes and Fugues”

Vanessa: “Yes, it’s not. It’s just something- how funny that you should remember that, must be something strange in my brain! ”

Melanie: Definitely, because I remember you playing on Radio 3, they are not easy to remember.”

Vanessa: “I make no, no apologies for playing with music these days.”

Melanie: “Yes.”

Vanessa: “Yeah, it’s not a problem as long as you play it well, that’s what matters.” But, I’m actually fascinated by the textures and complexities and the way that they develop. It’s not a form, it’s a device, and how they build. So yes.”

Melanie: “Yes, do you have a particular practice regime?”

Vanessa: “What a good question! I used to have, when I didn’t have this job. Now, with this job, which is full on”

Melanie: “Yes.”

Vanessa: “I practice as and when I can. If  I’ve got something really important coming up, I try and practice very early in the morning. At least I have a couple of hours of me time and space in my head. Because balancing a lot of things, as I do, is important to be true to yourself. So, the beginning of the day has always been a good time for me. So, early in the morning, before I come into the college. Oh, sometimes when I come in and put the blinds down and say, “Go away for a bit, I’m doing my stuff.” That’s it. And then, occasionally late at night as well. It’s very – It is difficult, and I’ve always always start with scales, if I did nothing else – I start with scales – I know I said I didn’t have any sort of technical training, but I always do about 20 minutes worth of scales. It keeps you keep a little bit more lithe”

Melanie: “Well, you’re head of keyboard here at the Royal College. What is it that you love about teaching, because you’ve taught for many, many years?”

Vanessa: “Yes, I have – I gave you some lessons”

Melanie: “You did indeed, a long time ago! We won’t talk about that! It’s too long ago!”

Vanessa: “Well, it’s always been a passion, as well as playing the piano. It’s always been very important to me, to nurture someone else as well as bring them, you know, along. And, I suppose, what I love about it – I love the communication. I love seeing somebody develop. I particularly – I’m very interested in teaching all people of all levels, but, you know, it’s at the college now there are some very special talents, and it’s just amazing to see them fly.”

Melanie: ‘You’re also Vice-Chairman of Lang Lang’s new music school in China. That’s fantastic, many congratulations!”

Vanessa: “Thanks.”

Melanie: “And you have worked a lot in the Far East. What are the differences in the approach to music between the Far East and here in the West?”

Vanessa: “Well, it’s – first of all, it’s a real privilege to be vice-chairman of his school because it’s in Shenzhen. It’s a piano school basically, and as you can imagine, the facilities are marvelous, and the students are great, and it’s only been going for two years. They’re really developing and working well. And my role there is an advisory role, I suppose to some extent. I go and give classes and train the teachers and help them develop. The work ethic in China and the far East in general – but particularly in China – is extraordinary. The students will practice for hours, even from little, little tots. So, I see a big development in them very early. They go forward very fast. Technically, they move forward fast. What they need help with and advice is in the big cultural divide. And I’m not saying that we know everything. We don’t. But, we can learn a lot from them, because they have this tremendous skill and also a real facility for playing the piano. There’s something about the work that they do that gives them a tremendous amount of polish and sparkle and brilliance.”

Melanie: “Yes.”

Vanessa: “What we can give is poetry, inspiration, culture, and background. So, I suppose, it’s very interesting when you see students that come to the college from different backgrounds. And they might come from a background where they have been maybe drilled, you know?”

Melanie: “Yes.”

Vanessa: “And not have quite so much exposure to art and culture. And then you have – you might have people from Europe – I don’t know – from America maybe even, that have had a lot of exposure to art and culture, but maybe not the – and this is big generalization, so you know, don’t quote me on this, or anyone. They may not have the same kind of discipline or have the same regimen, as it were. And – same as eastern European- you know, they have both kind of this tremendous determination and drive and technical foundation with also a huge foundation of culture. So, you know, when you get a combination of everything, then that’s when you get the real stars.”

Melanie: “What are you looking for when a young student comes to audition here?”

Vanessa: “Potential. Now, how do you judge that? Really hard. Thought about that long and hard for many, many years, and it’s something that, you know -You still sit at an audition, and you still think, “Goodness me! How far are they going to go?” But, you get a nose for it Melanie.”

Melanie. “Over the years?”

Vanessa: “Yeah, you do, and you get sort of a feeling for a personality. If there’s a person inside there, this personality within in them that you could really unlock, and you think, “Yes, this person has a bit – has something about them. They might have entrepreneurial skills or they might have something that’s just a little different. And, of course, we’re looking for a basic level of great foundation as well. Too often you get people who are unaware of the standards now, and in an international institution such as this. When I was a student here – which was a long time ago, probably also when you were a student here as well.”

Melanie: “Absolutely, it’s quite a different standard I think.”

Vanessa: “Yeah, well, I didn’t think it was a different standard. I think it’s more a different make-up of the student body. So, there are different elements to it. When I was here studying, there were basically English people studying with occasional overseas students.”

Melanie: “When I was here, it was about 50%, 50 to 60 %.”

Vanessa: “Right. Oh, okay. That’s interesting. So, it’s developed further than that now.”

Melanie: “OK”

Vanessa: “In my faculty, we’ve got 160 students. Very big – very, very big faculty and I think, probably- I can’t remember how many there are – but probably about 75 are from overseas. That means outside of the EU, and then there – We are a lot from the EU as well: France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Greece. So, it’s very interesting, the mix of students. So, although it might not seem as if we’re supporting our own as much, they’re in a different field. They are having to compete internationally at audition. Perhaps when I was here, they were certainly not having to. That’s the difference.”

Melanie: “Which venues have you loved playing in?’

Vanessa: “I love the Wigmore Hall, always come back to the Wigmore Hall. It is just so wonderful. The sound is wonderful. The feeling of intimacy, but it’s big. It’s the classic shoebox shape. It’s a wonderful, wonderful hall.”

Melanie: “What exciting plans have you got for the future?”

Vanessa: “Gosh! For the future? Well, I suppose to continue to develop myself in terms of my repertoire, because you’re always learning. To continue learning from my students, which I do learn – I hope – as much from them as they learn from me. I hope so. I like to think I do, because there’s never ever the same person that walks through the door. It’s always a different issue with a student, always problems – sometimes in terms of talent – so you have to handle it. It’s very, very interesting. To develop a little bit more with my work with Lang Lang’s school, and try to incorporate them here with bringing them here, and have them come play for us actually, and to keep that liason and collaboration going.”

Melanie: “What does playing the piano mean to you?”

Vanessa: “I used to say that I was married to piano, and I suppose now I would say it’s my life blood. It’s what makes me tick. Music, not necessarily the piano. And I don’t know – If that was taken away from me, I don’t know what I’d do.”

Melanie: “Thank you so much for joining me today.”

Vanessa: “Pleasure, thank you.”

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


In Praise of Slow Practice

There are so many different ways of practising the piano and whilst it’s relatively easy to identify those that are ineffective or plain incorrect, it’s much harder to establish fail-safe methods which will work every time on every piece. Many believe slow practice is of little use and can be distracting or even damaging, but if worked at regularly and accurately, it promotes a much more thorough approach. In fact, practising at very slow speeds employing total concentration can transform a pianist’s playing.

The first obstacle to successful slow practice is encouraging students and young pianists to view it as a valuable process. Many think it is a good idea in theory, but when it comes to practice time, it’s far easier (and more pleasant too) to play as usual; up to speed with the usual hesitations or errors. It takes vast amounts of discipline to play at a fraction of the speed, which is  no easy feat, but once a student is able to see the value, they will generally work at it. All pianists can gain by practising slowly whatever level or standard, including professionals.

Slow practice can help with so many different aspects; establishing correct fingering (particularly of rapid passagework), understanding chord structure, promoting suitable hand positions, wrist/arm movement, articulation, dynamic range, phrasing, and just good old note accuracy too! It can help a pianist to grasp the complete picture or structure of a work and gives the brain more time to assimilate every corner or angle of a piece. Whereas playing up to speed often exacerbates ‘hesitations’ or rhythmic/note errors, stumbles and rushing, slow playing gives the feeling of space, time, serenity, clarity and precision. I have written many times about the value of practising separate hands, especially the left alone, and this can be taken one step further by practising separately AND slowly. Slow practice and preparation also really helps a pianist when they want to memorise a piece.

One further aspect that may be alleviated with careful, slow work is tension. Many of us feel tense and stiff whilst playing fast most notably if we haven’t prepared passagework or tricky, demanding sections very well, but if we take time and learn slowly, our upper body will simultaneously relax allowing for free movement and better sound quality. Once accustomed to the motility of playing certain passagework slowly, playing up to speed won’t be an issue because your brain will have already assimilated all necessary movements so speed is literally just a matter of thinking slightly faster. This is crucial if you are working on a piece with leaps or large chordal passages where a loose, free wrist and arm is imperative to the success of the performance.

When learning a new piece, start by playing each hand separately and of course, slowly. Next play hands together (small sections at a time can work well), once you can play the whole piece up to speed (or almost) it’s time to work very slowly. Perhaps a quarter to half the speed of the suggested metronome mark. Make sure your mind is fully engaged when practising in this way. It is easy to rush, but instead, give each beat its full value; it can be useful to sub divide beats here, accounting for every single note for total accuracy and control (I prefer to count in semi-quavers if the main beat is in crotchets for example). Play through your work from beginning to end with the metronome (you may be surprised at just how much concentration this requires). The metronome can really help when practising slowly giving a base from which to work and increase speed; it also quells the urge to speed up which is a perpetual habit especially if you are used to playing and ‘hearing’ a piece at its normal pace.

If you are playing a slow piece, conversely, fast practice may be of some benefit. In slow pieces it’s all too easy to lose the pulse, allowing for rhythmic inaccuracies, so playing a piece slightly faster than the expected tempo can reveal a work’s true sense of direction or musical line. It will be easier to hear and feel the shape of phrases and rhythmic structure when you eventually play the piece at the real speed.

Once a piece has been learnt completely, slow practice comes into its own, providing a sense of security, confidence and calm which are almost certainly not found when playing works at their marked tempo. Routinely playing through pieces at very slow speeds can be an effective way of preparing for important performances or exams.  Try it – you may find it quietens your mind during practice sessions, helps you play with more confidence and you’ll definitely notice an overall improvement in your playing.

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


Salon Music

The piano is the perfect vehicle for Salon music; music more suited to the drawing-room as opposed to the concert hall. This genre was popular in Europe in the Nineteenth Century. During this period, many composers were also performers, and they loved to write little pieces to perform at house recitals or soirées, showcasing their talents in relatively short but nevertheless effective bursts of flamboyance. Salon or Parlour pieces can be elegant, attractive works. They are usually brief and in a Romantic style, focusing on virtuoso display or emotional, sentimental character. Salon style pieces have continued to be very popular throughout the Twentieth and Twenty-First Century too, and whilst ‘house party’ recitals which were so popular in the Romantic era, are less common today, many performers still enjoy presenting these exquisitely formed miniatures.

Composers who wrote works that fall into this genre include Thalberg, Chopin, Chaminade, Moscheles, Paderewski, Satie, Gottschalk, Moszkowski, Grainger and Franz Liszt. Some of Liszt’s many Operatic Transcriptions could be considered Salon music, and the ultimate Salon piece must surely be the Grand Galop Chromatique S.219 which was a regular  addition to Liszt’s recitals. Complete with popular tunes of the day, Liszt’s transcriptions were suitably taxing technically to have no doubt impressed all who heard them. Salon style works weren’t really intended to be profound, but rather viewed as enjoyable ‘entertaining’ outpourings, however, many of these works are beautifully crafted and to dismiss them as irreverent is surely a mistake.

Norwegian composer Christian Sinding (1856-1941) was regarded as the successor to Edward Grieg, primarily because he wrote highly romantic, lyrical music. His compositions include a large number of songs,  pieces for the piano, the violin (he was a violinist) and chamber music (however, he also wrote symphonies, concertos and choral music). Whilst popular in his lifetime, his music is now relatively obscure except for one piece; Frühlingsrauschen, Op. 32, No. 3, normally known as the Rustle of Spring. This delightful little piece has been very popular with pianists over the years and was composed in 1896. It falls consummately into the Salon genre and provides a wonderful opportunity for pianists to explore colour as well as demonstrate dexterity.

The Rustle of Spring is defined by its beautiful melody which is mostly resplendent in the left hand and consists of sweeping dotted note phrases and rapid scalic patterns. This is  accompanied by rippling, scintillating arpeggio figurations which cascade around the keyboard creating waterfalls of sound, and are occasionally split between the hands. There are a few technically challenging sections, but generally this work falls easily under the hands and the restless, agitated atmosphere creates the excitement of Spring-time, as suggested in the title.  Marked Agitato, the tempo is equally as important as expression; too fast and the character and sentiment will be lost.

Like many Salon works, the success of this piece relies on the frequent repetition of the theme in various guises and the florid, forward moving figurations which create an urgent, passionate feel. Sinding employs chromatic shifts which briefly move away from the home key of D flat major, generating drama and restlessness. This piece requires judicious pedalling as it’s easy to swamp the rapid passagework. I recorded the Rustle of Spring in 2002 at the Wigmore Hall in London and had the good fortune to play it on a fabulous Steinway model D instrument. This recording hails from my album Liebesträume.

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


Clara Rodriguez in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

The twenty second interview in my Classical Conversations Series features Venezuelan pianist Clara Rodriguez and I was delighted to chat to her earlier in the week at Steinway Hall in London.

Clara is one of the most distinguished of the present generation of international artists and has often been described as an Ambassador of her homeland music. Her programmes have consistently contrasted traditional classical music with the output of South American composers.

Since coming to London at the age of 16, to study at the Royal College of Music with Phyllis Sellick, she has performed extensively as a soloist at Southbank Centre, Wigmore Hall, Barbican Centre, St John’s Smith Square and Saint Martin-In-The-Fields as well as touring in Europe, India, Egypt, North Africa and South America.

She has commissioned and premièred many works including Federico Ruiz’s Second Piano Concerto which she recorded with the Orquesta Municipal de Caracas. Clara Rodriguez founded and directed the San Martin Music Festival of Caracas from 1993 to 1997.

She has recorded and produced CDs of works by Frédéric Chopin, Moisés Moleiro, Federico Ruiz, Teresa Carreño, and Ernesto Lecuona. Her latest productions are Venezuela for the Nimbus label and El Cuarteto y Clara Rodriguez en vivo– Caracas. They are consistently played on BBC Radio 3 and networks worldwide.

Clara Rodriguez teaches the piano at the Junior Department of the Royal College of Music.

Clara in action……

And for those who prefer to read interviews, the transcript……….

Venezuelan concert pianist Clara Rodriguez plays solo and chamber concerts all around the world. She’s renowned for her interpretations of South American music and she’s professor of piano at Royal College of Music, Junior Department here in London. So, I’m delighted to welcome her today for classical conversation here at Steinway Hall. Welcome!

Clara:   Thank you, Melanie. It’s lovely to see you again.

Melanie:  It’s lovely to be talking to you.

Clara:  And yes! I still remember playing for your book launch.

Melanie:  Yes my book launch, it was wonderful wasn’t it? It was such fun.

Clara:   It was just very nice.

Melanie:   I want to start by asking, what about your musical education? What age were you when you started? And what was the catalyst? And whether you come from musical family?

Clara:  Right. My father was a writer but my mother had learnt music when she was young. And she kept in touch with her piano teacher who was a very well-known composer from Venezuela, Moisés Moleiro.

Melanie:  Okay.

Clara:   Right here who I played the Joropo a few times.

Melanie:   Yes. Yes.

Clara:   And she introduced me to music and took me to music school because in Venezuela you go into your normal day school and afternoon you go to music school or to different activities. So, yeah, music was around but there aren’t any musicians in my family. So I really loved music school, the atmosphere was great. Being in touch with fantastic musicians and really really, you know, friendly people. It was great. So, I think that’s, you know, what drew me to music.

Melanie:  So, which teachers then do you think were most crucially in your performance as a pianist?

Clara:   Well, from the beginning I had Guiomar Narvaez, a Venezuelan concert pianist. She studied in Venezuela and also in Vienna. And she was very strict didn’t give me, you know, too many compliments or something like that. You get used to that sort of thing with … you know, never needed that, actually. It was actually embarrassing if someone said that something was good. So, that was very good and in terms of music conservatories in Venezuela, you follow a programme. A little bit late the Associated Board exams, yeah, except that they are more academic, in a way. You have to present a number of Czerny studies a year or Hanon’s studies a year.

Melanie:  That’s interesting.

Clara:   Bach inventions or, you know, 2 parts, 3 parts inventions that no one’s seems to play anymore, you know, and so on and so forth, you know, English Suites, French Suites, Preludes and Fugues So, that’s the basic….

Melanie:  That was my next question, how did you develop your technique but you obviously played a lot of Czerny’s and Hanon’s?

Clara:  And Bach…..the Mozart sonatas, of course. You know, all the classical sonatas, you’re … maybe might not playing at a very very high standard, I don’t know, but I cannot remember now. But you certainly have to learn the whole sonata, not just one movement. And you have to about 3 sonatas a year, plus Impressionists works, Contemporary, and Venezuelan and Modern American music. In July, the teacher is to give me this list of works you have to do because at least one concerto, you know, César Franck Variations. So …

Melanie:  Quite a lot to get through … ?

Clara:    Yeah. You have to get through a lot of music …

Melanie:   Yes.

Clara:  And 3 exams per year.

Melanie:   Then you came over to studying here in UK.

Clara:      Yes! It was fantastic. There was an invitation to audition for new … I’m sure remember them, the two directors of college at that time …

Melanie:   Yes?

Clara:    Michael Gough Matthews and Barbara Wassard went over to Venezuela and well, I took part in these auditions. You had to play some pieces, Scales, Sight-reading, Aural, you know, harmony and all that and we were given a scholarship to come to Royal College. That was really very very nice.

Melanie:   Yes and you studied with Phyllis Sellick?

Clara:    Exactly! So, Barbara Wassard when she heard me and Michael Gold Matthews thought, “Oh, she’s a good one for Phyllis Sellick.” And I’m so grateful to them for having thought of that.

Melanie:   Yes. I can imagine.

Clara:   So, then a few months later, I was in London and it was fantastic, beautiful experience and then I was really made welcome in this country. There was a lot of warmth …

Melanie:  That’s good.

Clara:  from the people I meet here. And I was really when looked after … but, you know, perfectly. So, that’s why I’m still here.

Melanie:   Yes, of course. Did you take part in a lot of competitions as a young pianist? And, more crucially, do you still feel that very important for young pianist today? It’s quite a debate now I think, whether if it’s a good way of establishing yourself?

Clara:    I’m afraid I didn’t take part in too many competitions. It wasn’t in my culture, or ego, or, you know, for me, I just … the most important was to be able to play a piece of music really well. So, if it took me a long time it didn’t matter. So, I wasn’t in that frame of mind but, you know, I know people whose careers just took off from winning major competitions. I don’t think I was made for that, you know. I wish I had been. So, I admire it a lot, people that knew what they wanted and went for that. Nowadays, I can see young people very ambitious, young people, excellent talents and a brighter way of getting somewhere, I suppose, I don’t know, if it still works like that.

Melanie:  I think for some people probably.

Clara:    Right.

Melanie:    I think the argument is that there’s so many competitions these days it’s hard to know which are.

Clara:   Of course.

Melanie:    I suppose which will be the most helpful I guess.

Clara:   I know and opportunities are very few. So, the most important thing for me, and that’s the programme. And the most important thing is personality, musical personality. Someone has the technique but also has inherent … who knows what to say, what to, you know, what to do. I think the worst thing and something I don’t like is ego, you know, ego going through … when the ego is more important than the music, that doesn’t work for me. I don’t know if people, the public and the general public realizes that. Probably they do. It’s difficult, but if you are an artist, you look for depth and you want to approach music through history, in a way, and because what we do is very much related to history and we’re lucky to have so much to go back to and …

Melanie:  Yes.

Clara:   so many recordings to listen to old recordings. And also there’s a freedom of repertoire now that is fantastic because I organized a festival in Caracas in August this year. And I invited a few brilliant pianists and many of them played pieces that I had never heard before. Many composed some pieces and they’re very good pieces. So, for me, that’s really amazing and important and we will, you know, pick-up the attention of the public.

Melanie:   Yes. Which composers do you love to play?

Clara:   Well, I love I would say, all composers.

Melanie:   But you made special study of South American music.

Clara:    Yes.

Melanie:    You’re renowned for that. That’s partly your heritage, but what really attracts you to that style? It’s quite different I think from the mainstream.

Clara:     Yes. True. A few things to pushed me towards that style, as I said, when I was young I couldn’t stand that music. I didn’t like the music folk music of any kind. I didn’t like salsa, I don’t, you know, I just got the giggles when I heard something I didn’t like, but … because I was very much into Bach, Debussy, Mozart, Beethoven. Those were, and Schubert, those were my … that was my life, you know, and …

Melanie:   So what changed then?

Clara:    … everything outside that …  Then, actually when I started thinking I’d like to make a recording, the record company at that time sort of said to me “Look, you should record these pieces we’ve heard you do, Venezuelan pieces.” And that’s what I did. That’s why I recorded Moisés Moleiro who was my Mum’s piano teacher.

Melanie:  That’s interesting, yes.

Clara:    And that was my first CD and I loved doing that. Also, even though classical musicians tend to enjoy very much playing their Venezuelan music, folk music. And you hear the most fantastic versions of folk music or songs played by classically-trained people. I mean, a few examples like, you know, the leader of the Paris orchestra right now, is a Venezuelan violinist, Alexis Cardenas. And he plays Venezuelan music beautifully, popular Venezuelan music …

Melanie:   Okay.

Clara:      a little bit of jazz in it … The thing is that folk music from Venezuela is very difficult to play. You know all these off-the-beat.

Melanie:   I can imagine, yes.

Clara:  Rhythms and Hemiolas and so, and it’s very fast. It’s either very very fast or waltz style, but always very interesting and very rich and extremely happy. You will just feel great just by listening to Venezuelan music. So, you know, when I started approaching, getting close to that music through these ideas of making recordings. Because I think the English are very welcoming, very warm, as I’ve said, but also they are very good at making you understand something about your own country. You know, it’s not as probably in the States or something where everywhere has to become Americanized …

Melanie:   Okay.

Clara:    You know …

Melanie:   Yes.

Clara:   Here, it’s different. So, I think I was encouraged.

Melanie:   Because you established an ensemble too of playing Latin American music.

Clara:  Yes, that was a lot of fun.

Melanie:   So, what kind of repertoire and where do you play?

Clara:    Well, I’ve done that here in, you know, in the Purcell Room or Bolivar Hall,  different halls here and but even so, I’ve done quite a lot of concerts with different musicians especially with this ensemble called El Quartetto, and it’s four very well established classically-trained musicians of … you know, Choir conductor, Flutist, Double-Bass player, and Guitarist, and one of them actually, was one of the founders of Aircam in Paris, contemporary music.

Melanie:  Yes.

Clara:   So nothing to do with the Venezuelan music that we play together but it’s just that something that, they’re so fantastic, these guys. They’ve been playing together for over 30 years. So, it was great that they adopted me to play.

Melanie:  I see.

Clara:    It’s chamber music but Venezuelan music with the piano. And here, I’ve created, as you said, this ensemble with a flute player as well, who lives in Germany. It’s difficult to get them together because the Mandolin player lives in Paris, the Double-Bass player lives in Spain, and the Percussionist lives here, like me. So, we get together and we do more Latin-American music, I mean some Venezuelan music, but we have also included music from Haiti, Columbia, Cuba, Brazil, lots of Argentinean Tangos, and so it’s very very fulfilling and it’s fun.

Melanie:   Yes, I can imagine.

Clara:    And for me, I call it the syncopation school, they teach me to keep in rhythm, it’s a very good school and you never stop learning, you know, and you have to just try to keep going and keep up.

Melanie:  Do you have particular practice regime?

Clara:   At the moment, I would say it’s more like sleep routine, I haven’t done much recently but it depends on the work and unfortunately life takes you away from the piano quite a lot sometimes.

Melanie:   Right.

Clara:   When you have family and so on and …

Melanie:  And you’re busy teaching as well.

Clara:    Yes, I teach. I do some teaching, yes, but when I have concerts I just, you know, prepare hard for the concerts. I like to look at different repertoire all the time and people send me lots of compositions, new compositions. So, I look at them and if I’m hooked I play them and I like to play new things, you know, I don’t like to play all the same pieces. So, I take risks.

Melanie:      Important. Which venues have you love to play in? What are your favourites.

Clara:   Oh, God. Anything, anybody that has a lovely piano.

Melanie:    Okay.

Clara:      And a lovely audience, you know, is fine, it’s great.

Melanie:   So, what you were exciting on to the future or what have you got coming up?

Clara:       Well, I’ve got some concerts outside London coming up and actually I should be working on some recordings, new recordings. I’m playing at St. Martin-in-the-fields in January. I played there last year as well.

Melanie:             Is that Venezuelan Music or is that more mixed programme?

Clara:                     Mixed.

Melanie:             Mixed.

Clara:                     Appassionata, sonatas, Bach as well, I haven’t played Bach actually, for a long time in public, so I’m doing that.

Melanie:             That will be interesting.

Clara:                     Yes. Yeah, organizing some festivals and things, so …

Melanie:             What does playing the piano mean to you?

Clara:                     Yes. The piano is life. It’s funny because, you might see an object that is lifeless you know, but when you really think about it, you know the way it’s made, it’s very natural. It’s wooden.

Melanie:             Yes.

Clara:                     Wood, felt, you know, well, sometimes a little bit of ivory.

Melanie:             Yes, sometimes.

Clara:                     So, and metal. So it comes from the earth it’s earthy, and it’s … when you get the harmonics sounding its air, isn’t it?

Melanie:             Yes.

Clara:                     So, it’s life from that point of view, but from psychological point of view, the piano is a kind of tunnel you go in and you explore sentiments and feelings and experiences that only through the piano you can reach. So, it’s vital.

Melanie:             Thank you so much for joining me today, Clara.

Clara:                     Thank you.

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


Celebrating the Left Hand

Many students have ongoing problems regarding their left hand. These difficulties may include inability to read the bass clef properly, weaker fingers or just lack of co-ordination and movement. A languid left hand can be caused by so many culprits, so today I thought it may be a good idea to examine the reasons why the bass clef is crucial, along with a few suggestions about how to alleviate various left hand issues.

Left hand concerns usually start (as with so many difficulties) with insufficient guidance from teachers at the beginning (or perhaps a student who has tried teaching themselves). Many piano tutor books can also be of little help; there are books on the market which focus solely on learning the right hand (or treble clef), rather ignoring the left until perhaps much later when, of course, it’s too late. Fluent reading must start with both hands and both staves (where all the notes live on the score) being negotiated at the same time. The bass clef is arguably harder to read and assimilate than the treble clef, so it’s imperative the left hand is given equal attention from the outset.

 Here are a few reasons why:

  1. Left hand notation, (how the notes are laid out on the stave) is different to that of the right, and the differences must be noted and learnt properly. This may take some time but will be completely worth the extra effort.
  2. Without thorough bass clef knowledge, proper hand co-ordination is challenging and sight-reading is impossible.
  3. The bass line is imperative in piano music; it often provides the accompaniment (especially in Classical and Romantic music), supporting the right hand’s melodic line. The accompaniment can be much more complicated and widespread than the melodic material too, so the left hand requires an easy facility in order to move all around the keyboard.
  4. In the Baroque style particularly (such as that by J S Bach and contemporaries), the left hand must equal the right in terms of phrasing, articulation and agility because the contrapuntal writing pervading this music, demands exacting rhythmic perfection.
  5. Whether the piece you are playing consists of a simple chordal accompaniment or is a much more florid and elaborate affair, harmonic structure and stylistic understanding frequently originates in the bass part due to Western harmonic structure.
  6. Good pedalling requires proper listening, but so often pedalling must coincide with the bass line because it is the basis of harmonic foundation.
  7. If you plan to play or learn your piece from memory, the importance of the left hand comes to the fore; left hand memorisation can be really helpful and sometimes vital.
  8. Mastering a work’s bass part can aid stability and confidence in performance.

So how can we overcome these difficulties and encourage your left hand to work properly? Once the notes and left hand layout have been properly understood and grasped, then there is the necessity (in my opinion) of working regularly at the bass line.

The best advice is to play exactly the same material in each hand (in unison); whatever you learn in the right hand should also be practised in the left. This works well with studies, scales, arpeggios and short exercises. Most pupils are probably introduced to this idea via scales and arpeggios, but to really progress, studies such as Czerny and Hanon (particularly the latter) can be very helpful. I do often mention these studies (sorry!) and they can be dull, but if played correctly will really aid flexibility.

Repetitive patterns, such as the following example, taken from 101 Exercises  Op.261 by Czerny, encourage hands to work equally, regularly work each finger. This type of repetition (if practised fluently with a free, rotating wrist and relaxed arm) strengthens fingers allowing them to work independently, which is what is needed for secure left hand playing. Try the following left hand exercise with the suggested fingering (Czerny’s own) making sure your arm, hand and wrist is always relaxed. Start by playing the left hand alone (memorising it so you can completely focus on your hand and finger movements).

Czerny 5

Build up your strength gradually and you might be surprised at how strong your left hand will become; eventually functioning as well as the right. Once you have practised the above left hand exercise, don’t forget to do the equivalent for the right hand too. The wrist should feel ‘free’ at all times and it can help to divide up with exercise into crotchet beats i.e. working on just four semi-quavers at a time.

When you feel both hands are working equally well without any strain or tension, introduce Hanon studies. These require the same finger movement in each hand; the left hand must learn to work fluently  so not to ‘lag’ behind the right. As with all studies, start slowly building up strength and speed. It is easier to notice rhythmic or note irregularities or unevenness when hands play exactly the same material.

The following example is the from the first exercise from Hanon’s The Virtuoso Pianist.

piano sheet music of The Virtuoso Pianist Part 1 (1-20)

Another strategy is to reverse practice or play the right hand line (treble clef) in the left hand and vice versa. This can be helpful too if done occasionally. It can be confusing to start with and you don’t have to play complete works in this fashion, but you can benefit from small sections. This can be a particularly useful method for learning to memorise a work.

Also useful is to practice the left hand material alone but two octaves higher than it is written on the page. This aids clarity, allowing you to really hear what is being played because notes can sometimes sound ‘muddy’ and unclear in the bass register. Try playing your piece hands together but then play the left hand part above the right; ostensibly the left hand will play exactly the same notes as written, rather like the suggestion above (playing two octaves higher) but with the right hand playing its material underneath. This is quite a tricky option but can be helpful nevertheless.

Thorough separate hand practice can be very beneficial. Students should be encouraged to learn each hand on its own when looking at new pieces, and if pupils focus on the left hand as much if not more than the right, this is also a successful strategy for swift learning. Try practising the left hand from memory and see how much you can remember. Probably not much to start with, but as you hone your memorisation skills, you will find that memorising the left hand comes into its own. This method is particularly useful when studying counterpoint. However you chose to practice do not neglect your left hand, because until both hands work securely you will find mastering most piano pieces a gargantuan task. Good luck and enjoy.

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


Structuring Your Piano Practice

Practice Makes Perfect

This week’s piano post has been suggested by many of you; ‘structured practice for the more advanced pianist’ has been whirling around my inbox recently. I have written about it several times for beginners, but it does take on a different mantle for those of you who have clearly passed that stage. Piano practice has frequently been cited by pupils as the main reason for wanting to quit, after all it can be boring even when the piece being studied is a favourite. However, without sufficient practice, the piano is a challenging instrument to tackle indeed (it is that with practice too). So the conundrum is how to make practice more compelling and possibly less work, or rather involve a shorter practice time as well as making progress. Here are some tips and ideas for those from around Grade 6-8 level and above.

Always warm up. Many don’t believe in this, but it does help free your muscles and make you feel better too; it can provide mental stimulation for your practice session. Many eminent pianists have mentioned the importance of doing this (see my interview series where I chat to many pianists about their practice regimes and techniques). It doesn’t need to be longer than a few minutes, but it is best to start very slowly building up speed, working your fingers to the full, producing a large sound. Scales are good for this as are Czerny or Hanon studies. Both hands should work equally well during warm ups; avoid a ‘dragging’ left hand.

How many pianists actually do any technical work? If you can work on your technique in the right way (it’s best to be guided here by a good teacher who knows how to teach technique), you will find your pieces much easier to play. When you start doing technical work make sure your shoulders are down with no tension in your upper body, then work on simple studies for a further 5 or 10 minutes, this can really help with weak fingers especially the fourth and fifths. When doing this type of work, watch your hands and fingers and try to avoid the ‘collapsing hand’ syndrome. Knuckles should protrude rather than buckle! There are lots of elements to focus on here; developing strong fingers and crucially a free wrist, agility and speed,  and producing a good sound, so this should stop your mind wandering and not knowing what or how to practice next (this is a really common complaint amongst young or inexperienced pianists and is how boredom sometimes sets in).

After 10/15 minutes (or a lot longer if you have ample practice time) of warm-ups and technical work, you are now ready to work at your pieces. When asked, many pupils have no idea where to start beyond playing the pieces through and perhaps going over sections that have caused concern. How about starting with the left hand? In my opinion it’s possibly more important than the right, because it often contains fast-moving accompaniment and needs to cover a large amount of keyboard. It often provides the key to the harmonic structure and many stylistic features too.

After working out the fingering, rhythm and notes, try dividing your piece in sections (look for any obvious repeated passage-work or structural signposts as this speed up learning). Practice the left hand in each section until you can play fluently and from memory. Then work at the right in the same way because this will really help when you start playing hands together, and you will know the piece in a much more detailed, thorough way.

If the piece being studied is fairly complicated, then work at very small sections without pedal (as this will just mask errors at this stage), and with the metronome if possible. Even if the piece you are studying isn’t particularly difficult, you will find there are so many benefits from practising in this fashion. Once you can play fluently, using a metronome is always a good idea for a while at least. The more you focus on small passages, the better you will know the work. Work at several pieces concurrently, frequently swapping them around so your mind is constantly challenged and engaged.

Another consideration is the sound being produced; think about the type of sound you want for each piece because then it will be much easier to ‘produce’ it at the keyboard. This is a personal element, but it does go hand in hand with dynamics, expression and phrasing too. Musical concerns need working on at the same time as the technical issues; always be aware of the stylistic traits of composers, their genres or the historical periods from which your piece hails, as this will affect the way you play it.

Working in detail as suggested above could take hours, but it’s easy to put a time frame on it by deciding what you want to achieve when you sit down for each practice session. Be realistic and try to resist the temptation to set lots of goals for every session. One suggestion is to divide a work into four (or perhaps more) sections; work at the last two sections meticulously one day, and the first two the next (I prefer working backwards but you don’t have to!). If you can train yourself to really think about what you are doing during practice sessions you will achieve so much more in a shorter time frame (sounds ridiculous, but wasting practice time is sadly very easy to do).

This method eliminates the desire to just play pieces through. You could finish your practice session with some sight-reading; not everyone’s favourite thing, but necessary all the same. If you don’t have any suitable material just get hold of a hymn book (with four-part harmony) or some Bach Chorales; these are great for reading and are tuneful too. As with all sight-reading practice, start slowly and do not stop.

Finally, remember that concentration is the key factor so the minute your mind starts to wander stop practising and go and do something else! The more you focus, the quicker your practice session will fly by and the more you will achieve. Train your mind to think clearly at all times and enjoy.

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


Hungarian Dances at The Musical Museum

Finding a new venue is always an exciting discovery; I had never visited The Musical Museum at Kew Bridge in West London, but it is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year and in addition to housing some interesting musical artefacts it also hosts a concert series as well as many other activities. The Museum’s concert hall is a delightful space, set with a high stage and beautifully ornate early Twentieth century grand piano; it’s akin to stepping back in time and provided an intimate setting for a Sunday afternoon of music making.

Hungarian Dances is a novel written by author and music journalist, Jessica Duchen. It was published in 2009 and traces the life of a Gypsy violinist and her family. Jessica has turned her highly acclaimed book into a concert which effectively incorporates extracts from the novel with Gypsy inspired music. Words and music are most certainly a winning combination, and the performance was a wonderful mixture of expressive narrative punctuated with music for violin and piano by composers from various genres and historical periods.

This format is becoming an increasingly popular feature in concert programmes. It’s a happy marriage of two eloquent art forms and is so successful because it bestows the perfect opportunity for storytelling. Jessica’s narrative was both powerful and poignant, and her delivery commanded total attention. The balance between words and music was very well judged, with neither dominating.

The heroine, Mimi, is taken from her Gypsy roots, and introduced to a different world through her intensive training as a classical violinist. The audience are taken on Mimi’s journey which is full of twists and turns; love, loss, displacement and personal transformation. Romance was juxtaposed with grittier topics such as references to concentration camps and inevitable death. At each stage an appropriate work was presented, nostalgically characterising the various landmarks in her career, family life and ultimately the life of her Granddaughter too; the music evocatively reflecting the mood of the story.

David Le Page (violin) and Viv McLean (piano) offset Jessica’s narrative exquisitely. They treated the audience to a veritable feast consisting of ten mainly Gypsy influenced pieces from Dohnányi’s Andante rubato alla zingaresca which opened the concert, to Monti’s ever popular Czardas, the piano part of which was imbued with some interesting chromatic (that’s jazz to you and me!) chordal additions and this rendition brought the house down. Claude Debussy’s Violin Sonata closed the first half and really demonstrated their skill, both with regards to ensemble (they have quite clearly worked as a duo for years) and in creating a shimmering sound world of Impressionistic colour.

Mimi’s introduction to Professor Bela Bartók coincided with an account of the composer’s Romanian Dances which were delivered with gusto, rhythmic drive and total commitment. No self-respecting Gypsy music recital would be complete without Ravel’s Tzigane, which was, for me, the highlight; played with real panache and flare, and full of essential Gypsy inspired rubato. A couple of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances (arranged by Joachim) were choice inclusions, and less familiar but equally lovely were the Valse Triste by Franz Von Vecsey and Hejre Kati by Jenö Hubay. The selection was an eclectic, fragrant pot- pourri of different musical textures, styles and sentiments.

Hungarian Dances – The Concert was an impassioned, mellifluous and emotional voyage; a snapshot of human life and in a sense, of humanity too. The audience loved every minute and were totally absorbed by the enduring, compelling partnership of words and music.

You can purchase the novel, Hungarian Dances here.

Do visit and for more information on forthcoming performances.

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


Piers Lane in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

My twenty-first Classical Conversation is with Australian concert pianist Piers Lane, who chatted to me last week at Steinway Hall in London.

London-based Australian pianist Piers Lane has a flourishing international career, which has taken him to more than forty countries. Highlights of the past year include world premiere performances of Carl Vine’s second piano concerto with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Hugh Wolff, the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Sinaisky and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra under Marko Letonja, a standing ovation for Busoni’s piano concerto with the American Symphony under Leon Botstein at Carnegie Hall, New York, the Grieg concerto with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis and the John Ireland concerto with the La Verdi Orchestra in Milan. His three Wigmore Hall appearances this season included a sold-out recital of the complete Chopin Nocturnes, a Schubert lieder recital with the German tenor Markus Schaefer and a late-night performance with actress Patricia Routledge of Admission: One Shilling, a presentation about Dame Myra Hess’s wartime concert series at the National Gallery. He also appeared as pianist and narrator in the London Philharmonic’s Prokofiev Festival, curated by Vladimir Jurovsky at the Royal Festival Hall.

His diverse discography of over fifty CDs includes acclaimed recordings of Romantic concertos, transcriptions of Bach and Strauss, complete sets of etudes by Saint-Saens, Skryabin, Henselt and Moscheles and the piano quintets by Arensky, Bloch, Bridge, Dvorak, Elgar, Harty and Taneyev with the Goldner String Quartet. His most recent releases feature twentieth-century encores and rarities (Piers Lane Goes to Town), sonatas by Strauss. Respighi, Walton, Britten and Ferguson with violinist Tasmin Little and Liszt’s transcription of Berlioz’s Harold in Italy with violist Philip Dukes. Five discs await release on the Hyperion and ABC Classics labels, including the six concerti by Malcolm Williamson and two Mozart concerti.

Piers been Artistic Director of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music since 2007 and the annual Myra Hess Day at the National Gallery in London since 2006. In the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Birthday Honours, he was made an Officer in the Order of Australia for services to the arts as pianist, mentor and director.

Piers in action….

And for those who prefer to read interviews, here is the transcript….

Melanie:   Australian concert pianist Piers Lane came to prominence in 1977 at the inaugural Sydney International Piano Competition and has since then gone on to develop a wonderful career playing with all the major orchestras and conductors around the world.

He’s won many prizes for his piano playing and is artistic director for several music festivals and I’m delighted that he’s taken the time to come and chat to me today as part of my Classical Conversations series here at Steinway Hall in London.

Welcome, Piers.

Piers:   Thank you, Melanie.

Melanie:  Lovely to chat to you today. I’m just going to start by asking all about your musical education, how old you were when you started, what was the catalyst, and did you come from a musical family.

Piers:   I certainly did come from a musical family. My father was a Londoner and met my mother when they both auditioned at the Royal College of Music. My mother was Queensland-born from Australia and so I started life actually in London and I was only five months old when I was shipped south. But there was always that umbilical connection which meant something to me later in a strange way.

                                Anyway, I loved – when I was a little boy – listening to lessons taking place in the home. You know, I would lie under the dining room table while my father taught adult students and then I’d hear them discussed at the table. So, I was always very much part of my parents’ teaching life.

                                I didn’t start lessons till I was seven, in a little class that my mother had, and went ahead quite quickly. And I think I used to read through the rest of the book, you know. I used to love pulling music out of the cupboard and sight-reading, and I remember when I was nine, finding the Grieg Concerto and just thinking, “Ah, this is fantastic!”

Melanie:    Yes.

Piers:    Yes. So, I did have a musical upbringing and that counts for a lot, I think. It was always very natural.

Melanie:    So, which teachers then do you feel were most influential or most inspiring?

Piers:    Well, my mother was my first teacher and I studied with her till I was about twelve. She used to hate it later when I’d say that many of my lessons were called out from the ironing board, but it was true, and there were just lots of little things.

                                I remember sight-reading through the Mozart K. 488 – slow movement once and feeling a little bit pleased with myself – I was only very young – and my mother said, “Yes, but it’s supposed to be very sad.” And I thought, “Oh, I haven’t done it right,” and I went and played it in a totally different way. Just that sort of thing, there was instant response to what I did at home – very important.

Melanie:  That’s a big help, isn’t it?

Pier:     So, mum was a terrific teacher.

                                And then, I went to Dr. William Lovelock – you may have heard of him because he wrote endless textbooks on harmony and counterpoint – and he wasn’t an academic sort of piano teacher at all, funnily enough. He himself would study with Henry Gayle who left a set of hand development exercises, mainly with the intention of getting rid of the webbing between fingers so that you could increase span and that sort of thing, and independence. But Gayle had studied with Leschetizky so there was that sort of connection which was lovely. I went to him originally to study Bach and, when I was twelve, took the C minor Toccata. But I think I only ever learned one other partita with him and he asked me the next week to bring Aquarelle by Dr. William Lovelock. So, it was quite fun because he was interested in that salon style as well which was of great use in my life as we’ll hear later perhaps.

But after Lovelock, I went to Nancy Weir. You may not have heard of her but she was a great pianist and she was a very great person. A wonderful raconteur as well. She had been a child prodigy. She grew up in a tiny town in outback Victoria where her father was an Irish publican and guests in the pub used to hear this little child do whatever they asked for on the piano. She could play by ear amazingly. And someone said she should be with the nuns in Melbourne and she was sent to Melbourne, studied the rather formidable Ada Freeman – later Ada Corder – who was a phenomenal teacher and she was the first in Australia to play the Elgar Piano Quintet, and a lot of Ravel. She had telegrams from these people thanking her for performing in Australia. Amazing connections there, but Nancy, when she was twelve, played Beethoven 3 with the Melbourne Symphony. There were mounted police keeping back the crowds on the way in as she was a celebrity at twelve sort of thing. But the people of Victoria raised funds to send her to Berlin at thirteen to study with Artur Schnabel, and Schnabel loved Nancy, and she was part of his class for three years, and used to holiday with his family in Como during the summer, and that sort of thing.

When she was seventeen, she came to London and studied at the Royal Academy of Music with Craxton and later with Matthay, and at the same time as Moura Lympany they were there together.

When the war came, she joined the WAFS. She was in Air Force intelligence actually because, of course, she had totally fluent German from having lived her teenage years in Berlin. And so, she became a code-breaker and that sort of thing. Fascinating.

Melanie:    Yes.

Piers:   She was highly intelligent and played in Egypt and Italy – where she was stationed during the war – with extraordinary orchestras composed of big names later on from the string world and that sort of thing. They were serving at the time. Amazing years those. But she returned to Australia in 1964 after touring out there with Galliera, the great conductor, and had never been home since she was, you know, twelve years old. But stayed in Melbourne to begin with and then moved to Queensland and that was where I studied with her when I did a degree at the Conservatory of Music, when my father was a great lecturer in Harmony and Counterpoint, and director of studies. I still meet many people all over the place who loved his lectures and loved him. He was a marvellous teacher. I know that Brett Dean attributes his compositional knowledge to dad and that’s a lovely thing that Brett has gone on to become such a figure in the world. I learned a lot from him.

                                And then, when I left Nancy, it was probably the biggest influence in my life. I should say a bit more about her style, really, because she studied with Schnabel so she had all that German background and the English school as well. But she had known Shura Cherkassky from when she was twelve and he was sixteen on his first international tour. They’d met in Australia and they were friends for life, and I think she almost was slightly jealous that she hadn’t studied with Joseph Hoffman in America the way he had. And she loved the Russian style of playing – Russian colour and Russian high jinks on the piano. And so, her teaching focused on that as well, very much. She had a very great breadth of understanding of pianism and of music. And I think I was the beneficiary of that, really.

                                From her, I won a Churchill Fellowship. In those years, they offered a two-year special performance award which took me away to America for eight months where I studied with Béla Síki, Hungarian. And I’m very glad I had that influence. He had that rigorous Hungarian background himself. He’d studied with Dohnanyi and he also studied with Lipatti, and in fact, took over for Lipatti when he died in Geneva. He’s still alive in Seattle and he had such lucidity of mind, very simple outlook in a way. Great sense of structure of the music and a really crystalline sound on the piano, and that was a great counter-influence, in a way, to Nancy’s rich German approach, and colourful Russian one.

                                After Siki, well, while I was in America, actually, I played to Jorge Bolet as well, and he invited me to come to his master classes in the Edinburgh Festival. So, when I moved to London in ’79, the first thing I’d do was go to the Edinburgh Festival and worked for a week with Bolet in a class he held there, and that was a magical time. His sound was just extraordinary and this small room was almost overwhelming the cantabile that he had. And we worked on the Liszt Sonata, on the Liszt E flat Concerto, on Petrushka of Stravinsky, Gaspard (de la Nuit) we’d worked on in America, and his way of thinking, and his way of peddling, of thinking of sound, of fingering, all of that has stood me in great stead. I didn’t have a lot of contact with him but it was very influential, actually.

                                I went then to the Royal College of Music and studied with Kendall Taylor who had taught my mother all those years previously. And so, it was lovely to continue that tradition. But then, I also studied with Yonty Solomon for a little time there and Yonty was such a fabulously imaginative musician. He had a great ear for sound. He had great understanding of psychology as well as music, many things, all of the arts, and this wonderfully liberating sense of imagination. So, he remained a friend for life, really.

Melanie:   Lovely man.

Piers:   Oh, he was a terrific person, wasn’t he?

Melanie:  Yes, I had a few lessons with him. He was wonderful.

Piers:     Yeah.

Melanie:    Yes, really.

Piers:    So many people miss him at the Royal College and outside. So, they were the main influences.

Melanie:   And how did you develop your technique?

Piers:   Well, I think I was lucky I had a natural sort of technique from childhood. Probably watching two pianists at home – not that mum and dad had much time to play themselves. But my mother was a very fine teacher of young people, and older ones. But she gave certain precepts, I think, at the start that held me in good stead always. She gave me the Wieck Exercises which are wonderfully natural. It’s just a five finger thing where you da-da-dee-dee-dee. But when you reach the top there are thirds and it teaches you to relax into the keys, to release at the end, and then go up to the next note.

                                There was a little exercise which I always recall with great affection, run and float. It might have be a Joan Last exercise.

Melanie:    It sounds like one of hers.

Piers:   Yes. But Mum gave me that, and all children that, and it’s just a matter of starting on middle C and then releasing the wrist. And, of course, you do a swan’s neck, and when you’re a child, you do a swan’s neck sort of as high as you could reach, and then come down, onto to the next group and up again. But it’s training the wrist to release the whole time. And I find when I give master classes in all sorts of places, now there are so many brilliant young pianists but they have no idea how release their wrists and their muscles, you know. They hang onto chords. Once they play them, they grip them still, and they don’t know about breathing with the wrist and just releasing the arm.

So, I think my foundation was very good. It set me up in a way where I was very free in the arms and the wrist. I didn’t practice scales or anything religiously at all. I was always very naughty. With Dr. Lovelock, he gave me these Gayle exercises and Hanon to be played in all keys, and he felt that if you could play the first five studies of Opus 740 of Czerny, you could play anything.

Melanie:    Yes.

Piers:    He’s very probably right.

Melanie:  Yeah.

Piers:     I certainly think I got from an early age the sense of using economical use of the shoulder to get you across the keys as economically as possible. That is a great thing, you know, if you can play arpeggios up and down very easily with a very natural thumb position. That holds you in great stead later. But I used to turn the corners of the pages down. I’d go for a lesson, to look as if I’d practised them a lot and he’d say, “Now, don’t do too much. You can do too much of this sort of stuff.”

                                But, when I went to Seattle to study with Siki, I did for eight months really concentrate on technique in a way I hadn’t before. I used to practice scales with pairs of fingers like one-two-one-two-one-two in all keys, and two-three-two-three, and four-five-four-five, and chromatic scales just with two fingers or with three fingers. And that’s another thing that Mum put me onto very early was chromatic scales – not one-three-one-three but using one-two-three and one-two-three-four – so that you float up and down, and it became like glissandi, and again, with a very natural use from the shoulder.

Melanie:  Yeah.

Piers:   That was very useful for later on, too. But that work I did in America, practicing with metronome pianissimo scales, making sure that every note was even, that was very timely, I think. I had to leave it afterwards, you could get crazy. I practiced various Chopin Etudes like the Winter Wind, doing all of the Cortot exercises religiously. And it really did refine my technique.

                                When I came to England, I let go of all that and really played as being the greatest teacher of technique, I think. Knowing what you want in your head first, hearing the sound you want first, and then replicating that usually teaches you how to cope with something technically. If there is a problem, often you’re playing it too fast, and so, if you put a metronome on, discover what you’re doing, often you’re concentrating on the wrong thing. You’re not actually aware of what you’ve got to actually sort out in the texture. When you do actually look at the texture, you think, “Oh, that’s happening in that little phrase. That’s happening there. Actually, I’m totally neglecting the left hand,” and you realize that priorities of the texture, it’s amazing what sorts itself out technically.

Melanie:    Yeah, fascinating.

                  You’ve played in a lot of competitions as well.

Piers:   I didn’t, actually.

Melanie:    Yeah, but you did?

Piers:    No, I stopped doing competitions when I was twenty-three and I used to enter them after that. Like, twice I entered the Tchaikovsky competition. It didn’t go either time. So, I didn’t do that many. I did several small ones. I was in the first Sydney International Piano Competition and won a prize for The Best Australian Pianist and that did lead to concerts afterwards. The ABC asked me to play with the West Australian Symphony of Queensland and the Adelaide Orchestra’s the next year which was lovely. And, of course, it was a great thing to do. I learned Rach 3 for the finals. I wasn’t in the finals. I was in the semi-finals but, when I was asked to do a concert with the Queensland Symphony, they asked for Rach 2. I said, “Could I possibly do Rach 3?” because I wanted to do that for the competition. And so, it made me reach new levels.

                                The year before, I had entered the Liszr-Bartok Competiton in Budapest when I was eighteen and that was a fantastic time. I, again, played in the semi-finals. Met all sorts of people, including Annie Fischer, and it was wonderful. She invited me to her house and I became too scared to go and play for her. It’s funny when you’re young, you know, I had no fear of the competition until I started to do well and then suddenly started to become a bit self-conscious. Then, she invited me to my first Wagner opera. I went along to the opera house in Budapest and thought I’d be in the stalls, and they said something in Hungarian. I ended up being in the second-best box in the house which was her box. It was next to the royal one which was only used by Communist party heads in those days. And she later joined me with her sister. We went to a restaurant where all the waiters lined up and bowed to her. And, you know, that was heavy stuff for an eighteen-year-old from Brisbane. And I was invited to give various concerts in and around Budapest, and that was a great experience as well. It was a real eye-opener. And to be in a Communist country at that stage was fascinating, too. The Hungarians were wonderfully rebellious, I think, and they had to do their Marxism exams before they could do their piano exams. But it was fascinating to meet people my own age in those circumstances and I’ve always loved Budapest. I was there a few years ago, standing in the top of the opera house to watch a ballet performance. There were no tickets left and I looked back fondly down at the box where I sat as an eighteen-year-old.

Melanie:  Which composers do you love to play?

Piers:    Well, that’s a hard one. I love to play so many different composers. I probably play more of the Romantics than anything else – certainly a lot of Chopin.

Melanie:   We talked about Chopin the other day and you were playing the complete Nocturnes.

Piers:    Yes, I’ve been playing them as a set since the bicentennial year, 2010, when the Chopin Society asked me to open the year of celebrations, playing all the Nocturnes in St. Paul’s Church. And it was a wonderful experience. It’s such a voyage. You would think playing twenty-one slow pieces in a row would be terribly boring, but it’s not with the Chopin Nocturnes. I do them chronologically and it’s fascinating hearing Chopin’s language change right throughout when you compared the early E flat say with the last E major. There’s a world of difference in the language and in the profundity. You hear Chopin getting older but also there’s extraordinary variety within them. It’s an amazing journey and I’ve done it so many times since. I did it at the Wigmore late last year but I’ve played them in Bridgewater Hall in Manchester and many places around the world. Just last week in the Machynlleth Festival, Julius Drake’s Festival up in Wales. I did them across two nights then, candlelit. Next year, six people in America have asked for them and it’s funny. It something that seems to be going on and so I do play a lot of Chopin.

                                I’ve always loved Bach. More and more, I play Schubert. I couldn’t live without Schumann and Brahms and certain Liszt. Mozart I’ve played since I was a child. The Russians as well. I love playing Rachmaninoff and Scriabin – I suppose that follows on from Chopin. So, I’m a bit greedy, really.

Melanie:  Now, I want us to talk about the less well-known composers because you’ve done a whole series of rare Romantic composer Concertos for Hyperion and that’s fabulous. So, what makes you want to play slightly less well-known pieces that perhaps most people wouldn’t know?

Piers:    That all started in Australia. I think that was the great thing about growing up in Australia compared with London, or anywhere else. There was no particular school of piano playing and there were no boundaries, really. It worked both ways.

                                When I was seventeen, I said to my teacher Nancy Weir, “I found a piece in the cupboard at home last week by Liszt that I think’s rather good.” She said, “Oh, what is it?” I said, “Oh, it’s a sonata in B minor.” She said, “Oh yeah, it is rather good.” She didn’t let on that it’s sort of the acme of the romantic period of piano composition. And I learned it in ten days and played it at concert practice at the conservatory then, you know, then included that in concerts. I really wasn’t aware just what standing it had, and that’s great in a way, you know?

Melanie:   Yes.

Piers:     There was no problem attacking something like that at seventeen. But likewise, I’ve found things, when I was sixteen, I was staying with my grandparents in North Queensland and at Christmas-time there were two programmes on the telly featuring Isador Goodman who was originally English but lived in Australia and was a wonderful pianist. And there was the Schulz-Evler transcription of the Blue Danube, Concert Arabesques Beside the Beautiful River Danube, and I thought, “Wow! I’d love to play that!” I, that year, played Dohnányi’s Naila Waltz arrangement of Delibes and that virtuoso sort of salon piece appealed and I tried to get hold of it but it wasn’t in print and I was a bit shocked by that. Amazingly enough, later that year, my German teacher, wonderful chap to whom I played the Naila Waltz said, “I’ve got a piece that’ll fox you,” and he pulled out this dog-eared old copy of the Blue Danube. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

                                So, I learned it and I played it, and that piece always brought me good luck. And once, sometime in the 80s, I did three Queen Elizabeth Hall recitals and I finished one of them with the Blue Danube of Schulz-Evler. I think, funny enough, playing it after the Op.23 Preludes by Rachmaninov and the next year, there was a message on my answer phone from Mike Springer from Hyperion and he’s the sales manager there but he’s an extraordinary pianofile as well and responsible for a lot of the decisions about pianists to be recorded and piano pieces to have been recorded by Hyperion over the years.

                                Anyway, he left a message saying that Hyperion had some money given to them to start a series of rare Romantic piano concertos and he thought I might be the sort of person who might be interested in that, and I thought, “Not half,” and I rang in the next day and I said, “What sort of things are you thinking of doing? Things like the Moszkowski?” And he nearly dropped the phone because that was exactly what they wanted to start the series with, Moszkowski and Paderewski. And I knew the Moszkowski because Nancy had played it. Michael Ponti when he visited Australia in the early 70s was shocked to discover that Nancy had already played the Moszkowski that he was playing there with orchestra. And she had played that on the BBC, for the BBC, way back in the 40s. And when I came to play it somewhere in England, there was this old BBC library copy with cuts marked and she had to make cuts – because of the size of the programme or something – on the spot for this live broadcast that she’d done all those years before and it was probably the same copy that her conductor had used.

                                Anyway, I said, “What made you think of me?” It was because he’d been in that Queen Elizabeth Hall recital performance and heard me doing the Schulz-Evler and thought that I was a pianist who liked having fun at the piano as well. And so, he was quite right. That was the start of that.

Of course, once you start recording unusual works, people love to put people in boxes.

Melanie:   Yes.

Piers:   It can be a great problem as well. And so, many times I’ve been asked to play unusual pieces, but not the unusual ones I already play. People want me to play their rare music. I’ve ended up accruing a great deal of rare repertoire. But I do love looking at the texture of history as well because it didn’t lurch from one genius to the next. There was a whole texture behind things. Chopin wouldn’t have been Chopin without all sorts of other composers at that time doing things, and Chopin wouldn’t have written the E Minor Concerto without Hummel having first written his B Minor Concerto and A Minor, and I’ve played both of those and, you know, it makes so much sense of the Chopin then when you play that afterwards.

                                It’s lovely finding out about history and the fabric of history through these rare composers. Of course, you’re not going to find a Beethoven 4, or very, very unlikely to. But there’s often great musical fun to be had, and a lot of depth as well. I love sharing those pieces, too. It’s great fun when you can produce a piece that nobody’s heard of before.

Melanie:   Definitely, yeah.

Piers:    And they find they love it, and that’s a great joy.

Melanie:   You’re artistic director of the annual Myra Hess Day at the National Gallery.

Piers:    Yes!

Melanie:   And also, you do a performance with the actress, Patricia Routledge.

Piers:     Yes.

Melanie:  I just wanted to ask how that all came about really.

Piers:   Well, it was all thanks to a marvellous lady called Carmel Hart who is full of brilliant ideas and she wanted to put on a day in memory of Dame Myra Hess’ wartime series. You know, that series is legendary. People speak of it always. But there had never been an actual celebration of it at the gallery. And so, in 2006, she called a group together, including the Jewish Music Institute and various others of us and Myra’s nephew, Nigel Hess, the composer, her other nephew – various people. Anyway, we got together and she asked me to put the programme together. And so, I organized a lunch-time concert and an evening concert and an event in the afternoon which included nine pianists sharing Carnaval which was great fun. That was something that they’d done on New Year’s Day in 1940, I think, and in the actual wartime concerts.

                                Anyway, it was a big success and all sorts of people came out of the woodwork. In fact, I had Yonty Solomon play the Goldberg Variations as the lunch-time concert and it was one of the last times Yonty played before his brain tumour caused too many problems and that, I was always feel so grateful for and Yonty  of course, along with Stephen Kovacevich had been one of Dame Myra’s main students. But it was a great success and there were some people there who had actually performed in the concerts. There were many who had been taken there when they were teenagers or younger. And so, we thought, “Maybe we should do a second one,” and the gallery asked if I would direct it. And then, the third year, we put it to the gallery that maybe it should be an annual event and that’s what it’s become. There’s an Annual Dame Myra Hess Day which I still direct and love doing as well. The next one’s on November 22nd this year.

                                I also direct the Australian Festival of Chamber Music. I’ve done that since 2007 and that’s a great joy to have. Well, it’s just over about three weeks ago, actually. We had forty-four artists this time, I think, and that twelve from this part of the world, and the rest were Australian. And we have ten days of concerts – three concerts a day, plus the winter school and master classes and other events. Always a concert outside Townsville where it’s based. Funny enough, my mother and her parents were all born in Townsvillle and it’s odd that I now direct a festival where they were all born. It’s on a barrier reef in far north Queensland and it’s winter-time there but that means 21 to 26 degrees which is ideal. We always have a concert outside Townsville. This time it was on Magnetic Island and it was just amazing hearing a wind quintet, and brass quintet, and an accordionist, and Nick Daniel on oboe with David Malouf reading from his own An Imaginary Life,  about Ovid between the six pieces of the Metamorphoses of Britten on oboe, and all sorts of exciting things happened there. But yes, I love directing things as well.

Melanie:    Putting things together. Which one’s been your favourite venue around the world?

Piers:       Gosh. Well, the Wigmore Hall springs straight to mind.

Melanie:    Yes.

Piers:     Just up the road from here. Funny enough, when I first played in the Wigmore Hall years ago, I found it slightly intimidating because it was such as small stage. I was used to having a lot of space around the piano and, the Wigmore, there isn’t that much space. You know, now, I adore playing there. You just have to touch a note and it sings to the background of the balcony. I love that intimacy that it has.

                                There are all sorts of venues I’ve loved though. Gothenburg, there is a hall that is a simple wooden shoebox. We were always told they had the best acoustic sound and they really do. That place, it’s the only time I’ve played Tchaikovsky 1 when I felt I haven’t had to bash out the opening. It just sings and the orchestra does rehearsals in there, does its concerts in there, and records in there.

                                Some of the most exciting places I’ve played, of course, the Royal Albert playing at the proms – nothing quite like that. I remember my first prom, people standing just there. It was terrifying in a way but so exciting and so supportive, at the same time, this enormous warmth that comes from Prom’s audiences.

                                And I remember in ’91, playing for the centenary after Bliss’ birth, the great piano concerto of Sir Arthur Bliss which meant a lot to me because my father was 14,000 miles away at 5:00 AM in the morning, listening. He’d attached some wire outside and could pick up the broadcast from BBC out in Australia while it was happening live and he’d introduced that piece to me, the Solomon performance, when I was about twelve. So, that was a lovely circle completed.

                                The greatest thrill venue-wise in recent years has been Carnegie Hall. December before last, I played the massive Busoni Piano Concerto there to a packed hall and got a standing ovation afterwards. It was terribly exciting. But, to walk out a few days before when I went to try the pianos to select which Steinway I’d use, surrounded by the ghosts of that place, they’re palpable, you know? Rachmaninov played there. It’s thrilling and that wonderfully elegant massive hall that was a great excitement.

                                But there have been small venues that have meant lots of things to me, too. I remember playing in the church once in some little outback place in Zimbabwe to sixty-five people. But some of those people had come from dozens of miles away to come to this concert. I thought the little Broadwood piano wouldn’t take it. I was playing an opus of Chopin Etudes and Pictures at an Exhibition. I thought, “How’s this going to go?” It did. You know, miracles sometimes happen.

                                And I remember with Tasmin Little, the violinist, once gave me a concert in Loja in Ecuador. We had this frightful flight where you were flying between spurs of a mountain and had to corkscrew the land and then a jeep ride. And this wonderful audience – it seemed like the whole town had turned out – the page-turner wanted me to play some British contemporary music to see what it was like, and the party to end all parties afterwards.

                                There have been amazing venues around the world, in unexpected places, apart from the sort of big ones.

Melanie:   Sounds like it. What’s your most treasured musical memory?

Piers:      Well, going back to when I was a child, hearing my parents’ play two pianos together was a very special thing and I think that set up my love for two-piano work and for working with others. They, as I said before, didn’t get much time to practice. They had five children and my mother had seventy students at one stage. My father was often away examining and adjudicating apart from lecturing and that sort of thing. So, it was a treat when they got together and would play Bach arrangements or something, or Rachmaninov, or Mozart on two pianos. But, playing-wise, gosh! It’s so difficult. Those venues I was talking about before, they’ve led to very memorable concerts.

Yeah, I don’t know if I had to select absolutely one concert, what it would be. Certainly Carnegie Hall, Busoni, in recent years, many times at the Wigmore, the Proms certainly, special things like playing in Bombay – the first professional performance of Rachmaninov 2 with the Bombay Chamber Orchestra – that was a special thing. You rehearsed at 7:00 AM back when I did that because it was hot there during the day and a lot of people had full-time jobs as well. But nearly the whole orchestra shook my hand as they came off-stage and then stacks of people flocked around.

I’ve played in some unlikely places in the world and have loved doing it and its left very special memories.

Melanie:   What exciting plans have you got for the future?

Piers:     Well, more the same, really. Recital-wise, I’m playing in the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in December which is very exciting. That’s a new place for me but lots of exciting plans there. We were going to talk about Patricia Routledge and the show before in connection with Myra Hess Day. You asked how that came about and it’s an on-going thing.

                                When we did the first Myra Hess Day in 2007, Patricia Routledge was in the audience. You know, she’s a musician as well and she goes to a lot of concerts. Oh, yes, she’s a wonderful singer. She’s got a glorious contralto voice and, actually, she does a show at the moment with Edward Seckerson talking about her musical life and she sang in twenty-six musicals or operettas or whatever, including premiering Bernstein on Broadway. Fascinating, but she was in the audience and we had met, funnily enough, in Melbourne. I was playing Rach 2 with the Melbourne Symphony back in 2000 and she was doing Oscar Wilde in Melbourne at the time and couldn’t come to one of the concerts and so came to one of the rehearsals and that was where I first met her. But anyway, we met at the National Gallery, and I said, “If ever we did anything portraying Myra Hess, would you consider playing her?” Because a friend in the audience that day got the fright of his life – he looked around and he thought he saw Myra Hess sitting in audience. It turned out to be Patricia Routledge and that’s what put the seed in my head which sowed something. And so, two years later, I approached Nigel Hess, Dame Myra’s great-nephew, the composer, about putting our scripts together from Myra’s diaries, and from interviews with her, and from Kenneth Clark’s book about the wartime concerts. And he put together a script, and Patricia, and he, and Chris Luscombe, the director and I met for lunch – it turned into four or five lunches, wonderful times which extended for hours. It was full of laughs and we went through every word, editing it together. We were all on the same wavelength and produced this show. Nigel and I selected the music and I play ten short pieces, about three minutes long each, from Myra’s repertoire, and Patricia narrates the story, basically, in Myra’s words. And there are images projected on a screen behind us from the time and they add a lot to it as well. And so, we did that at the National Gallery in 2009 and there were four or five festival directors in the audience and Cheltenham invited us to go and do it at the festival and we wondered how it would be away from the National Gallery where people loved it, and then, we were asked to do it in Canterbury – wonderful school there – and we had about 800 in the audience and we thought, “Not necessarily all musicians in this audience,” they loved it. And so, we realized it had appeal and we’ve done it dozens of times now. In fact, we’re doing it later this year, several times in Belgium. I’m absolutely thrilled that Patricia, at her stage of life, has agreed to come to Australia next year and we’re doing about twenty-six performances throughout Australia in May next year so it’s terribly exciting.

Melanie:   Yes, fantastic.

Piers:    Well, that’s been a treat. But other future things in different directions, well, more Australian Festivals of Chamber Music. I’m already planning next year. You know, we only finished the last one. It’s something that takes up every week of my life. Concerto wise there’s Grieg, more Busoni on that horizon next year and Nights in the Gardens of Spain which I’ve never done before, Beethoven threes, I’m doing a three Beethoven fives with the Czech Philharmonic, there’s Liszt 1, all sorts of lovely concertos ahead.

Well, lots of travel.

Melanie:    What does playing the piano mean to you?

Piers:     Oof! It’s been the whole focus of my life. It was the focus of my childhood, it took me through young adulthood, it made me shift to England from Australia, it’s directed the rest of my life, really. It’s taken me, well, I travel almost every week of my life, I would say at least every month, and most weeks. And that’s all been directed by the piano. It’s led me to develop other areas of myself. I’ve written and presented many radio programmes for the BBC. I’ve written a lot of articles and CD notes and things like that so

. I’ve written and presented many radio programmes for the BBC. I’ve written a lot of articles and CD notes and things like that so it’s developed that writing side. It’s led me into artistic direction, led me into teaching, I taught at the Royal Academy for many years. I’ve stopped for the moment but will, no doubt, come back to that later. I don’t know. It’s allowed me to find meaning in life, I suspect, and it’s allowed me to express meaning in a way that nothing else could. I don’t know how people who don’t love deeply one of the arts cope as they get older. I think music has so many layers. It always has more there than you can ever bring to it. And so, deeper and deeper levels available to you as you mature.

At some times, it’s even made feel better physically. I sometimes realize I haven’t played for a few days and I might be feeling slightly off-colour or something and I play the piano and I’m actually fine. It’s just missing that connection with the piano. So, I think the piano keeps me well – psychologically, and emotionally, and even physically.

Melanie:    Thank you so much for joining me today, Piers.

Piers:      Thank you.

Melanie:    Thank you.

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


Angela Hewitt in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

This is the Twentieth Classical Conversation in my Series, and I’m delighted to welcome celebrated British Canadian concert pianist Angela Hewitt to mark the occasion.

Angela Hewitt is a phenomenal artist who has established herself at the highest level over the last few years not least through her superb, award-winning recordings for Hyperion. Completed in 2005, her eleven-year project to record all the major keyboard works of Bach has been described as “one of the record glories of our age” (The Sunday Times) and has won her a huge following. She has been hailed as “the pre-eminent Bach pianist of our time” (The Guardian) and “nothing less than the pianist who will define Bach performance on the piano for years to come” (Stereophile). She has a vast repertoire ranging from Couperin to the contemporary. Her discography also includes CDs of Granados, Beethoven, Schumann, Rameau, Chabrier, Olivier Messiaen, the complete solo works of Ravel, the complete Chopin Nocturnes and Impromptus, a Handel/Haydn album, and three discs devoted to the music of Couperin. Her recordings of the complete solo keyboard concertos of J.S. Bach with the Australian Chamber Orchestra entered the billboard charts in the U.S.A. only weeks after their release, and were named Record of the Month in Gramophone magazine. A cycle of Mozart Concertos has begun, the first of which features the Orchestra da Camera di Mantova. In 2012 Hyperion will release her recording of solo works of Debussy, as well as the works for piano and orchestra by Robert Schumann in which she is partnered by the Deutsche-Sinfonie-Orchestra conducted by Hannu Lintu.

Angela has performed throughout North America and Europe as well as in Japan, Australia, Singapore, New Zealand, Israel, China, Mexico, Turkey and the former Soviet Union. Highlights of recent seasons include her debuts in Carnegie Hall, the Concertgebouw and with the Cleveland Orchestra, as well as a North American tour with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Her recitals have taken her to the festivals of Edinburgh, Osaka, Prague, Hong Kong, Schleswig-Holstein, Brescia/Bergamo, and Oslo to name but a few. Her frequent Wigmore Hall and Royal Festival Hall recitals in London sell out months in advance.  As a chamber musician she has joined international artists at Lincoln Center in New York and in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London.  With cellist Daniel Mueller-Schott she recorded the Bach Gamba Sonatas for Orfeo, and the complete works of Beethoven for Hyperion. With flautist Andrea Oliva, she recently recorded the Bach Flute Sonatas for Hyperion.

Angela’s entire 2007-2008 season was devoted to performances of the complete Bach Well-Tempered Clavier in major cities all over the world, including London (Royal Festival Hall), New York (Carnegie Hall), Los Angeles, Berkeley, Portland, Vancouver, Denver, Ottawa, Toronto,  Mexico City, Bogota, Singapore, Tokyo, Seoul, Macao, Sydney, Melbourne, Warsaw, Milan, Lisbon, Venice, Bilbao, Zurich, Stuttgart, Glasgow, Pretoria, and Hong Kong.  A special DVD lecture-recital entitled “Bach Performance on the Piano” was released by Hyperion to co-incide with the tour. Before the end of the tour, she re-recorded the work which was released by Hyperion in 2009 to great critical acclaim from around the world.

In July 2005, Angela launched her own Trasimeno Music Festival in the heart of Umbria near Perugia. Now an annual event, it draws an international audience to the Castle of the Knights of Malta in Magione, on the shores of Lake Trasimeno. Seven concerts in seven days feature Hewitt as a recitalist, chamber musician, song accompanist, and conductor, working with both established and young artists of her choosing.

Born into a musical family (her father was the Cathedral organist in Ottawa, Canada) Angela began her piano studies aged three, performing in public at four and a year later winning her first scholarship. During her formative years, she also studied violin, recorder, and classical ballet. At nine she gave her first recital at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music where she later studied. She then went on to learn with French pianist, Jean-Paul Sévilla, at the University of Ottawa. She won First Prize in Italy’s Viotti Competition (1978) and was a top prizewinner in the International Bach competitions of Leipzig and Washington D.C. as well as the Schumann Competition in Zwickau, the Casadesus Competition in Cleveland and the Dino Ciani Competition at La Scala, Milan. In 1985 she won the Toronto International Bach Piano Competition.

Angela Hewitt was named Gramophone Artist of the Year in 2006.  She was awarded the first ever BBC Radio 3 Listener’s Award (Royal Philharmonic Society Awards) in 2003. She was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2000, and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.  She was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2006. She has lived in London since 1985 but also has homes in Ottawa, Canada and Umbria, Italy.

Angela in action…

The transcript for those who prefer to read interviews…..

MELANIE:  Celebrated British-Canadian concert pianist Angela Hewitt gives recitals and concerto performances in major concert halls all around the world. She’s renowned for her interpretation of the works of J.S. Bach and was awarded the OBE in 2006. So, I’m thrilled that she’s joined me here today at Jacques Samuel Pianos in London for a Classical Conversation. Welcome.

ANGELA:  Hi Melanie.

MELANIE:  Lovely to meet you.

ANGELA:  It’s nice to be here.

MELANIE:   I want to start by asking you all about your musical education, how old you were when you started, what was the catalyst and whether you come from a musical family?

ANGELA:    Yes, I do come from a very musical family. My father was organist and choirmaster at the Christ Church Cathedral in Ottawa, Canada. He’d come from England and had gone out to Canada as a young man and so he was a really marvellous musician. And I heard him play from probably before I was born. And my mother was his student but was a pianist in her own right and had a girls’ choir at high school where she taught Music and English. And so music was very much a part of everyday life at home. And I think even before my 3rd birthday, my mother started me at the piano which I took to naturally and by evidently I asked for a lesson every day or twice a day. But I didn’t just do piano. I did violin from age of 6, also recorder very seriously. I did the Classical Ballet. I did Highland Dancing. I sang. So I did really have an all-around artistic education.

MELANIE:   Which teachers were most influential on your development as a pianist?

ANGELA:    Well, besides my parents who taught me up until the age of 5 or 6, I guess I was 6 when I started going to The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. We never lived in Toronto but I would make the trip there, first by train and then by bus and then by plane every 2nd week for lessons. And there I have some very good teachers. Earle Moss when I was very young who’s great with children and a wonderful pianist himself and then Myrtle Guerrero, who had been the wife of Alberto Guerrero, who was the only teacher of Glenn Gould but she wasn’t a pianist herself but had benefited from her husband’s teaching. And then, I decided to stay in Ottawa because a pianist who had come from France, Jean-Paul Sévilla, to teach at the University of Ottawa and I had heard his students and heard what progress they have made and was amazed. And so when I was just 15, I started with Jean Paul at the University of Ottawa, first as a special student and then enrolled in the national music programme in performance and he was fabulous. He had such a wide repertoire he could sit-down play anything; the Goldberg Variations, the Brahms-Handel, the Liszt Sonata, the complete works of Ravel, of Faure and gave us much more than piano teaching. He really taught us all about art and opera and took us to France every summer and had a wonderful joie de vivre and all of his students were friends. And it was a really terrific to have him in Ottawa. And then I went to study in Paris in 1978, he was back in there on Sabbatical that year so I finished up a lot of French music with him. I took some private lessons from Catherine Collard, a wonderful pianist, now dead, but who was a great Schumann player, especially. And Vlado Perlemuter who had studied with Ravel, but I really, by then, wanted to study by myself because Jean Paul had given me such a good beginning and I needed to find my own way. And so that’s what I did.

MELANIE:    So, how did you develop your technique?

ANGELA:    Well, technique, of course when I was young, I did my scales, my arpeggios, my broken chords, my Hanons. I mean, we have to do that for the Conservatory exams. That’s a good thing because I think it’s too often neglected but I always got technique more through the music. First of all, Bach is the best thing for developing your technique, and I always did love Bach, for developing your 4th and 5th fingers, you know. Every finger of every hand has to be strong in Bach. And even playing things like the Liszt Sonata which I did when I was 17, in all the octave passages, okay, you practice them with just the thumb only da … da … da … da …


ANGELA:   You know but still I always practice hard bits musically with the phrasing already in place, never purely mechanically. So the two were always very much linked with me. And I was had a good technique but I really had to build up the strength and my technique. I was never one to rattle off all the Chopin Etudes when I was 13, I still can’t rattle them off, but it doesn’t matter. I could rattle off all the complete Bach.

MELANIE:   That’s right.

ANGELA:   And octaves always suited me more than double thirds, for sure. But I think, it was this thing that I always developed technique through repertoire and not just, you know, thinking notes.

MELANIE:  You won many prizes both national and international, what, impact do you think this had on your career? Do you think it was crucial or not so important?

ANGELA:  It was important and I was one of the pianists of my generation at least of my age and those years who did the most competitions. I started international competitions I guess when I was 17, with the Bach competition in Washington D.C. where the Goldberg Variations was the test piece. It was all done behind a curtain so the judges had no idea who was playing and that gave me my American debut at the Kennedy Centre. Anyway, but I started doing them early on and I looked at them … I was successful in some, I was kicked out in the first round in many others. But I always look at it as a chance to, first of all, prepare repertoire, to perform it and especially to listen to others because I remember my first international competition in Europe was in 1976. I went to the Bach competition in Leipzig. And so I played I think I’ve drawn an early number so, and then I listened to everyone. And it was good because no matter what the result was in the end what the jury thought, I could form my own opinions and hear the Russians, and hear the Germans, and hear the Americans and then every nationality possible. And just sort of feel where I felt I was situated or just feel that yes, maybe I do have a chance at this. So, that was good. And so I tried to look on it positively. But then, when I finally won, I had won several but when it was Bach in competition in Toronto that they held in memory of Glenn Gould, and where Messiaen was on a jury with Yvonne Loriod and Leon Fleisher. That was in 1985. And when I saw the programme I thought that’s really my programme,  a combination of a lot Bach and on choice stuff and Classical sonatas, so when I did win that my first thought was great I don’t have to do anymore. Because that gave me enough of a launch but then, that was it. But it was more necessary perhaps in those days you couldn’t make a career on YouTube in those days.

MELANIE:  Well, that was my next question, do you think it’s still valid, it’s still important for young  pianists to take part in competitions?

ANGELA: Well, I think they can be but I think there’s so many of them now that even winners of big competitions tend to get lost. That’s one problem I think another problem is that too often winners of competitions are taken and pushed beyond all you know, what they should be by agents and record companies in too an early an age. And that I’m very much against. You know, I won my prize when I was 26 I guess but I’d already made my New York debut, my London debut at Wigmore Hall. But I already had a huge repertoire and a lot of concert experience but still it was another … I would say another, what even 10 years after that before I got in my contract with Hyperion and so … and I don’t regret at all those years of still working hard. There is your repertoire and living a life.

MELANIE:  Yes that’s right!

ANGELA:  Other than on the road.

MELANIE:  Yes, very few pianists play Bach convincingly, you’re one of the few, what draws you to this music so much?

ANGELA: Well, I’ve mentioned my background already so having heard all those great organ works, you know, as a child and wonderfully played so that they weren’t boring and they were fascinating. And I heard the structure and love that. I love the strength of the themes and what Bach did to them. You know, I think I always had it in my nature to take something complicated and then unravel it and make it simple, which I think that’s why I enjoyed just now working on the Art of Fugue ,the last sort of big project I’ve been … Bach project that I’ve done and, yeah, there’s for sure, something in my nature that enjoys taking the complicated and making it easy and that should be for Bach because of course there’s nothing written in the score so you have to know the style, you have to see how you can translate that to yourself using a modern instrument. But and also I love the dance aspect of it because of course, most of Bach is dance music whether it has the title of Minuet and Bourrée or a Prelude and Fugue could be dance music. So, a lot of the spirit in it that wonderful joy comes from the dance and that I feel inside me. And then just the great beauty of it. I mean, it’s simply beautiful music no matter on which level you appreciate it. It is, you know, beautiful melodies, and harmonies, and … but yeah, and also because you can keep playing it and never get tired of it in a way that you would in some other pieces.

MELANIE:  You played a lot of French music as well from Couperin, Rameau, right through to Messiaen, so what acttracts you to this country’s great music.

ANGELA:  Yeah. Well, I guess it was beginning my study with Jean Paul there when I was 15 and all the way I’d already played some Ravel and Debussy but he was the one who first gave me Messiaen and Faure and Chabrier, and right in those early years and I just loved it. I think again it was, well I had a wonderful teachers before because, you know, he was really steeped in the tradition and knew how this music should be played and we … you know, when I learned Faure, I didn’t just play the piece that was put in front of me, I listened to all the songs which I loved. I was learning French at the same time so the combination of the language and the music and when you’re playing French music, even when you’re playing music without words, it’s very important. The poetry in Ravel. The colours that one could get at the keyboard, the challenges of playing things like Gaspard de la Nuit. But it was just … the French wit, going to their country, living there because I lived in Paris from the age of 20 for seven years. So, yeah, it was … I don’t know, in Canada of course, we have French and I was taught it at school from an early age but I always did more than I needed to because it fascinated me so much.

MELANIE:   Who other composers do you really love to play?

ANGELA:  Well, I love Schumann, and then Mozart, Beethoven, of course. I’m recording at the moment all Beethoven sonatas and all the Mozart concerti but Schumann is another great love again I think through Jean Paul and Catherine Collard. When you are 15, 16, 17 those are big influences that hit you. But Schumann it was the Sonata in G minor Op. 22, that was my first big solo romantic piece. And Jean-Paul gave it to me and I came back a week later playing with the notes but then he sat down and showed me what could be done with it and I went “Wow!” And I never realized all the passion and everything that could go into an interpretation at the piano and so, I took it away and sort of imitated him a bit and found my own way and then that was it, that really got me going. So, yeah, I love Schumann for the combination of rigor and yet total fantasy, improvisation and quick changes of mood and craziness. Just what one can really give of oneself.

MELANIE:   Yes. Do you have a particular practice regime?

ANGELA:  Nothing set, but I usually start with Bach because I usually have some to play and so it’s good to get going in the morning get the brain alert and the fingers warmed up. The older you get, I think the more you have to sort of, you know, not start with the Liszt Sonata. It’s very important to warm up the muscles, actually, somehow before you begin to play more complicated things. But I work hard at practice now as much as I did when I was kid. There’s no slacking off at all. In fact I work probably much more attentively and carefully now. I work just as much on memory in fact, even more and more consciously, as well because you have to when you’re older and that’s a good thing. I study a lot away from the piano too when I’m in airplanes as if I have a new piece to memorize then I find that’s a very good to do that away from the piano….

MELANIE:  …away from the piano..

ANGELA:  … and just visualizing yourself playing in and memorizing and fingering. But, yeah, I do a lot of slow practice also but again with the phrasing already in there, I’m very careful with my fingering especially in Bach..

MELANIE:  Especially in Bach.

ANGELA:  99% of it is fingering. It’s all linked to articulation, to phrasing, to the clarity between the voices. Yeah. So, I’ve worked very carefully looking at everything in the score, the articulation mark. Because you know, so often, things like that are forgotten and if you all do is listen to 10 great pianists playing  Beethoven sonata then just, you know, sort of imitate them all and that’s probably the worst thing you can do.

MELANIE:   Yes. You set up the Trasimeno Music
festival in Perugia in Italy in 2005. Lots of pianists are setting up their own music festival, what’s the catalyst behind yours?

ANGELA:   Well, I bought this piece of land, rather unexpectedly, in Umbria on Lake Trasimeno. Friends of mine at that time were fixing up a house near there and I thought that it wouldn’t be bad to have a place in a country where I didn’t have neighbours, you know, where I could practice as much as I wanted. And so I looked on the map and found this lake, Trasimeno. I’m a Canadian I need to see water, and never had a cottage as a kid so, and to make a long story short, I found this piece of land for sale and I built a house. And I knew that there was the  Castle of the Knights of Malta, just a few minutes away in Magione and … the following summer after my house was ready, I went and saw … saw the inside of it. I saw this 15th century courtyard with a stunning acoustic. And thought ‘Wow, I have to have a festival here’ and the next summer in 2005, I already did. And so, it’s grown over the years and in 2014, we’re having our 10th festival already. And people come all over the world and I, we present seven concerts in seven days and I play in six of those had people said, “why do you play in so many concerts”

MELANIE:  That’s a lot….

ANGELA:  It is a lot but then, that’s the big pleasure from me. I don’t think I will do all the work for this festival. It’s simply too much all year round. Fund-raising and putting programmes together and, you know, I see every reservation that comes in, I mean, I work so hard at it, but I don’t think I will do that unless then I have the pleasure of playing with people like Anne Sofie Von Otter or, you know, that’s only one name, but all wonderful instrumentalists we’ve had and orchestras and conductors that … Yeah, so when they come rehearse at my house and we perform that’s really the pleasure for me. And also to see all my friends and fans all over the world get together in one place and they form friendships and that’s also wonderful.

MELANIE:   Sounds fun.

ANGELA:  Yeah.

MELANIE:  What exciting plans have you got for the future?

ANGELA:  Well, lots and lots of concert all over the world, that’s for sure. I’m about to go to Australia and Japan for 6 weeks. On the recording front I have a Faure disc just now coming out. I have a fourth album of Beethoven. I’ll be recording a fifth in January. I just recorded the Art of Fugue that will be out and I’ll be doing a video also explaining it, I think. I’m going to start Scarlatti before too long not all of it not all 555 sonatas but some, you know, a good selection and Mozart concerti continue with the third volume, I just recorded it in Ottawa, So, Turangalîla recording in Helsinki in the new hall next January – Messiaen, which is a big thing. So, yeah, lots of things to learn, lots or repertoire that still interests me which is good, lots of concertos that I still want to play,  Brahms Concerto in D minor, and Ravel Left Hand Concerto, which is the only piece of Ravel I’ve never performed. So, always lots to keep me going, which is good.

MELANIE:  Yes. Good. What does playing the piano mean to you?

ANGELA:   Well, it’s my life. It’s what I do to express myself. It’s what I do to … I mean, I’m very lucky in the way that I get to earn my living by doing something that gives me and so many people a lot of pleasure. But, yes, if on a day I don’t play, unless I’m sick or something, I don’t feel quite right you know, you physically get quite restless.


ANGELA:  And … this week I have a few days off but then there’s so much business to do that I am still busy but, yeah, it’s my life and it has been since when I was a tiny child and it will be I hope   always. But, I think, music is the greatest way to communicate with people, to build bridges, to builds friendships, to spread something happy and meaningful.

MELANIE:  Thank you so much for joining me today Angela.

ANGELA:  Thank you, Melanie

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


Listening and focusing

This might seem a rather unusual blog title, but it’s a topic that I have been musing about for a while. There are, of course, many considerations when playing any instrument but particularly the piano. Elements requiring much thought include; co-ordination, notes, fingering, rhythm, pedalling, colour, sound and so on. The success of all  important technical and musical issues depends on how carefully we listen and focus totally on what we are doing.

It’s so easy to play with closed ears; not really focusing on what we are playing and perhaps not being fully engaged either.  That may sound daft, particularly as we are making music, but really it’s a very common problem and we are, more often than not, all guilty of these musical crimes. There are several issues here; the first is being able to hear what is being played beyond the notes, and the second, is to be fully focused and engaged as we practice.

It’s all too easy to practice physically, striving to improving technique, subsequently blocking out the actual sound being produced. Another mistake is to play without really thinking about what we are doing, merely ‘going through the motions’, our minds engaged elsewhere. So how do we learn to listen and focus on our own playing objectively every time we practice?

All musicians must adhere to the score so this has to be learnt thoroughly, but beyond the notes, musicianship takes over, or it should do. If you find that you are not dealing sufficiently with technical issues, then perhaps learn a slightly less demanding piece which will allow you to concentrate fully on the music. This may be the crux of the problem; technique often demands so much mental work that the sound world and musical structure can sometimes take second place, when really it should reign supreme.  When practising, there is a tendency to enjoy the physical sensations of playing and not really focus on the sound being produce.

One way to ensure total focus and complete concentration is to ‘hear’ the music in your head before you play it and then try to reproduce those sounds as you are playing. It’s a form of singing but in your head; visualisation but in sound instead of pictures (but visualising pictures may be useful too!). This technique can be especially helpful if you are memorising a work. Singing is a crucial element in any form of music making, but is particularly effective when applied to piano playing. It’s not actual singing (although this can be a good idea) but more specifically hearing melody lines in your mind, deciphering which musical lines need to be emphasized and coloured, and which can be allowed to disappear within the texture.

Thinking about musical texture in this way requires much mental work, so it’s not really possible to do it without engaging our ears and minds fully. This especially applies to pedalling, where far more can be achieved by listening to the sounds that are being produced as opposed to purely observing written signs. Whilst thinking about musical lines and textures, appropriate tonal sonorities are created too and chances are, you will produce a more beautiful sound. You will also learn to ‘hear’ where the music is going and be able to deliver a convincing account of a work.

Pianists generally don’t have as many opportunities as other instrumentalists or singers to work in a group; whether that be a choir or ensemble. This is a pity because playing with others also helps to focus our minds, forcing us to really listen. Whether chamber music or piano duets, it’s not possible to play successfully without total compliance. So if you find yourself losing impetus, then perhaps it may be time to find a musical partner or join a choir. Working with other musicians can be such an inspiring experience which can only help to improve mental discipline. We owe it to ourselves (and those we work with) to work at our playing with open ears and embrace the music by being totally present and ‘in the moment’ every time we touch the instrument.

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.