Perspectives

Perspectives – The ‘classical musician image’ – and the falsities associated with it.

“Daniel, you need to read and read and read. You need to consume books on music, composers, interpretation, teachers, treatises, journal articles”

This was what was said to me upon graduating from my first undergraduate music degree. It is a statement that I followed with an almost religious obsession, consuming tonnes of books and pedogogical knowledge. You know what, though?

It’s a load of garbage. I probably use less than 50% of that knowledge base. As someone who constantly reads and researches, I only do so regarding what I love and what is pertinent to making me a better educated pianist and pedagogue. I developed the crucial skill of reading what is necessary and disregarding what isn’t.

I always hesitate to write on perspectives such as the above. The reason is because everyone leads their own musical life differently; it’s so inherently personal that it seems trite to say ‘this is how you become a great musician’.

The above statement has stayed fresh in my head over a decade later. I’ve thought about it and how to come up with some sort of retort. I was annoyed that it had stayed with me for so long, niggling at me to no end! This niggling took a huge turning point when I had a clean out of my cupboards.

THE CLEANOUT:

Last year, I made a huge personal decision: ‘I am not the sum total of my university qualifications’. I opened my old cupboard which housed hundreds of undergraduate assignments, postgraduate course work, and a few theses…

and I threw them all out.

I had a few friends who objected to this. Ultimately, it was a really good decision and one that illuminated a possible response to that teacher from many years ago. This response has to do with the composers Arnold Schoenberg and Guillame du Fay. (Please note, this is just a personal perspective of my own journey, however universal it may seem!)

I can tell you nothing about Schoenberg or Du Fay other than:

1) Schoenberg made some pretty crazy sounding music (based on my cursory knowledge of serialism and having performed a few of the Klavierstucke)

2) Guillaume du Fay was some guy who wrote some things (legitimately, I cannot tell you a single thing about this person off the top of my head)

Here is the thing: I wrote two undergraduate essays on both composers (2000 words each paper!). Not only that, but I achieved a distinction for both. So, why can’t I remember anything about either of these people?

It’s simple: I am not interested. I don’t believe I would have been interested then. I did it because that was what was required. It was at this point that I realised that you do NOT have to be an authority on all aspects of classical music in order to be a fantastic or WORTHY classical musician.

Since then, I have wasted no time in espousing this ideal to much criticism. Some replies I get are as follows:

  1. “Oh, Daniel! How do you expect to get a well rounded musical insight when you teach?” – the same way a lot of other pedagogues gain their musical insight: by reading about things when it matters. Researching what is necessary is a skill all on its own. Researching what is NOT necessary is a worthless mission.
  2. “How do you impart musicological knowledge to your students?” – in the same manner that a student will say “I don’t want to learn that piece”, I see no point in teaching anything detailed about Schoenberg unless my students are performing a work by him (or a contemporary). I advise on what to read and I teach what is needed. Anything beyond that is encouraged but not required. This is the same as when I am doing my own research.
  3. “Aren’t you grateful for being exposed to such composers, even if you did not like them? Don’t your students feel the same?” – firstly, I wanted a music degree and aimed to have music as my career. This isn’t the same as a student in year 9 who comes to their lesson after school, after soccer, after a movie date with friends, to sit and learn piano. Personally, yes, I am grateful to have been exposed to these composers. It further strengthens my obvious informed (?) disregard of them in my own musical life.
  4. “Do you think this skews your own teaching and performing?” – absolutely not. I have never told a student they couldn’t learn a piece because I don’t know anything about the composers or the style. In fact, I try and expose my students to as many varying styles and composers as is possible at their particular level. To do otherwise would be totally unrealistic (and stupid!) in today’s world. As for my performing, I am at the level in my life where I mostly perform what I like to, not what I have to. This may sound arrogant, but I am not totally dismissive of a composer like Schoenberg (I have performed his works before), it just isn’t my go-to when choosing a program (I have written an article of my journey with Modern Music down below)

There are more, but the answer to them is mostly in the same vein.

EXPECTATION VS. REALITY:

There is an almost unspoken expectation that if you are choosing a specialist area then you are required to know every corner of it. While this may be helpful in some jobs, unless you’re in the area of musicology, it is totally impossible to have a detailed knowledge on all composers over a 300-400 year period. Universities now, more than ever, are pushing for all musicians to be experienced in multiple areas. For example, we had a lecturer who used to say “as a pianist, you now have to be a jazz pianist, a church pianist, a wedding pianist, a popular style pianist. You need to be versatile” – and, yes, they are correct, but only in one aspect.

VERSATILITY:

Modern musicians do need to be versatile. They need to adapt to many musical situations and take on roles such as repititeur and accompanist. Telling a pianist that they need to be experienced in all areas of music in order to be a success is not only grossly misleading, but is merely a form of blind optimism. It is the age old saying of ‘you can’t be all things to all people’. How about training pianists to be good pianists, regardless? Secondly, universities are demanding versatiliy in their musicians but then have separate strands for Jazz studies? Jazz aural? Jazz theory? Even then, you are asked to choose your ‘strand major’. Hardly versatile by any stretch…

What universities should say is: “we are going to expose you to everything, you would be well advised to follow your strengths and interests”. I once met an amazing classical pianist who could play a Mozart, Haydn, or Clementi sonata so well that it was life changing. I was then in a recital by the same pianist when he tried to thump through a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody with a horrendous outcome (it was cringey…). After the recital, I asked what the hell had happened. The answer was simple “I can’t stand Liszt”.

So, what’s the point? Why do that? Why program it?

IMAGE:

The issue here is image. Specifically, the classical musician image. You only need to attend a classical piano competition to see the push for pianists to be able to play all styles, speeds, and periods at an exceptionally high level. I understand this, especially considering how large the classical piano ouvre is. However, there are a few things that need to be considered from a purely subjective level:

– you only like what you like. Most good piano teachers understand this with their pupils. Students are, for the most part, brutally honest. They will tell you if they don’t want to learn something.

– you are not a lesser musician because you choose Hummel over Beethoven, or Haydn over Clementi. Similarly, if you like Miles Davis over Zez Confrey, or Noszkowski over Nickelback, you shouldn’t be subject to criticism.

– Versatility does not denote experience, professionalism, or success. Further, it brings to light the saying ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ for many musicians. For example, I simply adore Angela Hewitt’s Bach playing. It’s stunning and has cemented her as an authority on the master. Does this mean that everything she performs is of a similar excellence? Does her devoted mastery of Bach mean that she is poised to play any composer with a similar excellence? No. Personally, her Beethoven is less than ideal for my ear and her Chopin is so languid that it often lacks control for the sake of over-sentimentalism.

This all being said, this is a personal approach that is almost always condemned. The world does accommodate, still, for those who love to perform only Chopin, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. Being able to perform a rendition of ‘Hot and Cold’ by Katy Perry in a church service on an old pipe organ does not mean you’re versatile nor is it necessary to be ‘well rounded’. If you’re renowned for your improvisatory piano stylings in a Jazz bar, does that mean you are inherently better at extemporising Bach? No.

Do what you love. Play what you love. That’s what puts the butts on seats. And for teachers, listen to your students. Don’t force them to play something they don’t want to.

By the way: Guillaume du Fay was a Franco-Flemish composer of the renaissance – thanks, Google.

D

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Perspectives: What I have discovered when learning modern music

Recently, I launched my next series of concerts across the east coast of Australia called “New. Novel. Next” and in my own private practice and, recently, in performances, I have discovered a few things about what it is to successfully convey music of the 20th and 21st centuries.

“New. Novel. Next.” was borne out of wanting to step away from Chopin and expand my musical horizons with compositional styles that I had not played since my conservatorium days. In 2014 and 2015 I played 28 recitals which featured the music of Chopin, Mozart, and Liszt and, admittedly, I was tired. Whilst I can appreciate (and be HUGELY envious of) those high-octane recitalists with 200 concert-a-year calendars containing nothing but the Schumann Fantasie and Beethoven Sonatas, I felt drained and bored after barely 30 over two years.

So, at the end of 2015, I decided that 2016 would focus on modern music; trying to understand it better, and trying to expand my repertoire by including it more in programs. The end result was the recital series “New. Novel. Next.” which is a rotational recital program of 60 pieces (this means that 60 pieces are chosen and then rotated through each concert – no one concert is the same experience) that encompass everything from Debussy onward. For this recital series, I also commissioned a work from an American composer, Forrest Starling, to boost the experience of bringing something new to the table.

The following composers are represented on the programs:

Denes Agay, Miriam Hyde, Frank Hutchens, Forrest Starling, Aaron Copland, Robert Muczynsky, Alfred and Mirrie Hill, Peter Sculthorpe, Larry Sitsky, Bela Bartok, Glenn Hunter, Nigel Sabin, John Cage, Dmitri Shostakovich, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Alan Silvestri, John Williams, Zez Confrey, Jelly Roll Morton, Jesse Greer, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Rodion Shchedrin, Keith Humble, Dulcie Holland, Stephen Sondheim, Art Tatum, John Ireland, and Frank Bridge.

As is usual in all of my recitals, there is a strong Australian contingent. The reasons behind this (concerning ALL of my recitals) will be shared in another post. Essentially, I was trying to cover all areas within modern music – atonalism, post romanticism, aleotoricism, serialism, English pastoralism, stream of consciousness composing, jazz, novelty solo, transcription, popular music/musicals, film scores, and video game music. I think, for the most part, I succeeded in narrowing a lot of this music down in order to rotate it through a series of 20 recitals throughout the year. It has been an amazing experience so far (9 concerts down!) and I am sure the next 11 will be just as exciting. I have met interesting people, students, teachers, and fellow performers who have asked some interesting questions, including one I heard more than once: what have you discovered from doing this?

The answer is immediate: I have discovered contrast on a whole new level.

Let me explain…

When I play the music of Chopin, it’s the same. The music itself is different from piece to piece, but the execution remains the same; the touch and tonal control needed in Chopin remains the same, even when it is pushed to its limits through various virtuosic technical hurdles. It seems like I am diminishing the craft of performing his music, but what I am really saying is that the technique and style for Chopin is inherent regardless of difficulty or ease. I believe this can be said for Mozart, Liszt, etc as well. With modern music, my scope and range was tested and tested again. I have since used elbows for aggressive tone clusters, I have well and truly ripped skin off the back of my hand playing glissandi (especially in one piece that utilises them non-stop!), I have plucked strings, clapped, whistled, made whale noises, I have thumped and flogged the keys with my fist, and I have done things with pedals that I didn’t think was possible. Another advantage is the copious amounts of reading I have done in the last few months – biographies, technical treatises, research papers, essays, and textbooks on modern piano playing and interpretation, composers, and history. I found myself constantly aware of trying to mentally break free from the classical constraint of thinking of “tone”this and “tone”that, and, as a result, became much more of a learning experience than I could ever have imagined (this is not to say that modern music is to be played without attention to tone! On the contrary, tone is of the utmost importance but with many different elements and freedoms! Anti-Classicist, if you will)

I won’t wax lyrical any further other than to say that I am enjoying this series of recitals very much. I’m enjoying the reading, the history, the listening, the practicing, the different technical approaches, and the myriad of responses (emotional and otherwise) that I have received from audience members. The after concert talks have been excellent and inspiring to say the least.

One last discovery – the guest home that I generally stay in when playing in Sydney has a neighbouring dog who remains silent when I practice…

I can report that he absolutely hates the music of Arnold Schoenberg.

D.

 

Perspectives: Why Miriam Hyde?

Perspectives: Why Miriam Hyde?

Easy: because her music appeals to every aspect of my teaching and performing practice.

Over the years, especially as a ‘student’ pianist, I always wondered if I was going to find my niche. Much the same as Ashkenazy, Lortie, and countless others have traversed the complete works of Chopin, I wanted to find the composer who was going to be just for me; I was so frightened of becoming a modern-day pianist who was required to “specialise” in everything. It’s not that I don’t see the value in being multifarious in an approach to music, I just wanted a composer where the passion would be continually ignited; playing their music would be “my” thing.
Thankfully, I found that in the music of Miriam Hyde. Oddly enough, this has been going on for years without me recognising it.

It began with a grade 6 exam – my first ever piano exam, I might add. I remember hearing a piece by Hyde called Woodland Sketch and wanting to learn it. The girl in my class who used to play it was, herself, a marvellous pianist and I was forever asking her to perform it for me; it was my first Miriam Hyde experience. The piano exam allowed for the last piece to be an “own choice” item, so I leapt at the opportunity to play Woodland Sketch. The rest is history and I have recorded it and performed it ever since. I use it for encores, I teach it to my students, and I am fairly certain that it will remain a piece very close to my heart for years to come.

This lead to experiences with other, beautifully characteristic pieces on the AMEB exam list: Ear Rings from Spain, Minarets, Study in A minor, Water Nymph, and Scherzo Fantastico. At university, I performed many of her concert works and even accompanied a few of her songs. This opened the doors to many of her poems and her autobiographical work, Complete Accord. Among all of this, I got to perform The Fountain and Study in Blue, White, and Gold for her in a workshop environment. I always viewed her as quite a stern woman in her approach but, after the workshop, I experienced a gentle nature which I continue to remember fondly; it remains my last interaction with her.

Since then, my research has been concerned with investigating her pedagogical and concert works for piano. Miriam was a fine concert pianist with a formidable technique – the evidence of this can be found in the recordings of her piano concerti among others. These pianistic elements filter their way through to her compositions from Preliminary to LMUSA and many of these works (Woodland Sketch included) remain the favourites of piano student and piano teacher alike.

With companies like The Keys Press in Perth, Wirrapang Publishers in NSW, along with wonderful people like Dr. Rita Crews, Phillip Wilcher, Hyde’s daughter Christine Edwards, and Professor Larry Sitsky, there is now a growing collection of information regarding her life, pianism, and seemingly endless list of achievements. I am fortunate enough to be adding to that with what is the largest recorded collection of her works for piano (80 videos so far on youtube!). Even though I have a long period of work ahead of me, I am indebted to many of these Australian luminaries for their help. Their writing and, in some cases, their friendship, has helped motivate me even more. I am always discovering new things about Miriam Hyde – there is never a dull moment. I continue being in love with the process of shining light on her work as I progress with honours and masters research.

My first CD will be released in August. It has been recorded and is now in post production. The Complete Piano Music of Miriam Hyde Volume 1 is a labour of love. I specifically searched for recording studios in Sydney and was over the moon when I found Sound Heaven Studios in The Blue Mountains – a place Miriam admired. It felt good to record this music surrounded by such beautiful scenery, which, in essence, is what Miriam’s music is all about.

Enjoy!

Dan
xo

Woodland Sketch: