Summer courses

I got back last Thursday from a piano teaching course at Chetham’s in Manchester which has given me lots of fresh ideas for the new teaching term! But before writing about that, a couple of reflections on taking part in the accompanist course at Oxenfoord Summer School again a few weeks ago, in Musselburgh near Edinburgh. As when I went a couple of years ago, I’ve learnt, and re-learnt, an enormous amount about the complex art of the accompanist – wonderful coaching from all of the tutors, and particular thanks to the inimitable Robin Bowman, to Gary Matthewman for waking up my fingers and accompanying brain and to Serge Rybin for really waking my ears up again! I was also struck once again by the influence of Oxenfoord’s presiding genius Malcolm Martineau, even though I had less of a chance to work with him directly due to signing up late for the course. Whenever he plays a unique energy enters the atmosphere, that sense of a musician who’s capable of throwing the singer’s way, extemporaneously, something completely new and unexpected, yet with an instinct for never undermining musical coherence or the singer’s sense of security.

Since I wasn’t able this time to take a singer with me and work as a duo, I had to team up with bursary students for the classes. I’d thought this would be a bit challenging, but they were all without exception so affable, polite and generally pleasant to work with, as well as being really gifted young singers, that this turned out to be a very positive aspect of the course. The other thing I was especially appreciative of this time was the great general atmosphere of the entire summer school, enabling everyone to work together in a positive, accepting and cheerful disposition – this is due above all to the great work of the star admin duo, Steve and Warren, making everything run smoothly and keeping everyone in a good mood. As always with these kinds of courses, it takes me a couple of days to adjust, and I tend to feel that I won’t particularly fit in socially, especially as I feel that I’m not a very sociable person in general. So it’s always remarkable to me that, when the atmosphere is right – as it has been on so many courses I’ve been on, such as the Zongora piano courses in Hungary organised by Maggie Grimsdell – I find within a few days that I feel quite at home, can talk happily even to those people with whom I thought I had nothing in common, and honestly feel like quite a different person. I then start to wonder whether I really am by nature such an unsociable, socially awkward person or whether this isn’t rather the effect of too solitary a working life. It’s almost like a small miracle… But I know it doesn’t happen without a lot of people working hard to create a beneficial and nurturing environment. So thanks to all!

'Touch' in piano playing


I've been thinking recently about the phenomenon of 'touch' in piano playing, in particular when noticing that different pianists have a 'touch' as distinctive as the voices of different singers, and as personal. My feeling is that touch is a kind of 'instinct' that interposes itself on a micro level in the last instant of contact with the keys. It needs plenty of practise and the development of a considerable technique to completely free this instinct and allow it to operate in an unfettered way, but the instinct itself is the one thing in piano playing that is, I think, genuinely unteachable. And it's this that means that pianists who may have been trained in exactly the same 'school' of technique can sound so utterly different from one another (a similar kind of instinct also governs timing at a micro level, pedalling and other aspects of playing). This aspect of 'touch' is intimately linked to a pianist's identity, to who they are and to the unique thing they have to say about different pieces of music that no other pianist can say: Sviatoslav Richter's very Russian but also very individual combination of heavy, melancholic poeticism and eruptions of volcanic fury, or Pollini's brilliant fire and ice. To me it's this unique and particular dimension a musician can bring to the music that is the only really interesting thing in pianism, in singing or in any musicianship. And ultimately teaching is about liberating this instinct!

More Beethoven

Here are some more Bagatelles - Soundcloud won't add no. 2 because it's got an automated scanning thing which claims that this one is suspiciously similar to someone else's recording! This has happened before, and the other recording turned out to be nothing like mine, so hopefully it will be sorted soon...

Recordings of Bagatelles

Here's a taster for the recording of the Beethoven Bagatelles I made last summer - many thanks to Maggie Grimsdell for the use of her excellent Steinway, and to Luke Ellis for extensive help with the editing (happily this particular track needed much less editing than others, almost a complete single take!)