A Guest Post by Frances Wilson: The Pianist’s Solitude

“The loneliness doesn’t worry me……I spend most of my life alone, even backstage…….I’m there completely alone. I like the time alone….”
– Stephen Hough, concert pianist

The pianist’s life is, by necessity, lonely. One of the main reasons pianists spend so much time alone is that we must practice more than other musicians because we have many more notes and symbols to decode, learn and upkeep. This prolonged solitary process may eventually result in a public performance, at which we exchange the loneliness of the practice room for the solitude of the concert platform.

Most of us do not choose the piano because we are loners – such decisions are usually based on our emotions, motor skills or the aural appeal of the instrument. For me, as a child – and an only child – the piano was a companion and a portal to a world of exploration, fantasy and storytelling. It remains a place to retreat to and time spent with the instrument and its literature can be therapeutic, rebalancing and uplifting. For many of us, being alone is the time when the sense of being at one with the instrument is strongest.

In addition, there is time alone spent listening to recordings – one’s own (for self-evaluation) and by others (for inspiration and ideas on interpretative possibilities, or purely for relaxation) – and time simply recovering from practicing and refocusing in readiness for the next session. Many pianists tend to be loners – the career almost demands it and self-reliance is something one learns early on, as a musician – but that does not necessarily make pianists lonely or unsociable.
The life of the concert soloist is a strange calling, yet many concert pianists accept the loneliness as part of the package, together with the other accessories of the trade. The concert pianist experiences a particular kind of solitude (as noted by Stephen Hough in the quote at the beginning of this article). The solitude of traveling alone – the monotony of airport lounges, the Sisyphean accumulation of air miles, nights spent alone in faceless hotels. Dining alone, sleeping alone, breakfast alone, rising early to practice alone. And there is the concert itself: waiting backstage, alone, in the green room, and then the moment when you cross the stage, entirely alone….. The pianist Martha Argerich has described the “immense” space around the piano that has always made her feel alone on stage. But it is this aloneness, this separation, which the solo pianist exploits for the purpose of captivating and seducing the audience, drawing them into his or her own private world for the duration of the performance.

I suppose being an introvert in a ‘public performance’ profession has been my greatest challenge. It isn’t straightforward, of course – I seem to have a deep need to communicate music to an audience and get their reaction, and I love to be appreciated, but there are many other aspects of being ‘on show’ that don’t come naturally. I’m very interested in people, but I’m quite a private person and need lots of time to myself.
– Susan Tomes, pianist and writer

The traditional positioning of the piano on stage, so that the pianist sits side on to the audience, heightens this sense of separation and aloneness. In a concert, the pianist must navigate a path between private, subjective feelings and public expression in a curious display of both isolation and exhibitionism. The power of performer, and performance, is this separateness from the mass of audience. Some performers may exploit this to create a sense of “us and them”, while others are adept at creating an intensity or intimacy of sound and gesture during which the audience may feel as if they have a private window onto the pianist’s unique world, in that moment.

Up there on the stage, one can feel more alone than anyone would ever care to be, yet it can make one better than one thinks possible because one’s ego is constantly being tested when one plays. To meet a Beethoven sonata head on, for example, it stops being about you – how fast you can play, how technically accomplished you are. Instead it is about getting beyond oneself, becoming ego-less, humble in the face of this great music, developing a sense of one-ness with the composer…..

After the performance, when the greeting of the audience and CD signing is over, the pianist may happily retreat to his or her solitary practice room or studio. Many of us long for this special solitude and actively relish the time spent practicing alone.

Frances Wilson is a UK-based pianist, writer, concert reviewer and blogger on classical music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist


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The value of studying short Romantic era Character pieces

Piano teachers often welcome the opportunity to use student repertoire requests as a springboard to nourish new learning adventures. Such pupil-driven musical endeavors can lead to deep-layered immersions in short, Romantically framed character pieces.

The value of dipping into miniature variety compositions encompasses taking on a learning challenge in compact form. For example, Schumann’s Album for the Young Op. 68 has a repository of picturesque musical samples that have dual artistic and pedagogical merit bundled into a page or two. The same economy of space/expression applies to Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Pieces Op. 39. Burgmuller, Dvorak, and Shostakovich, join many other composers in this genre, who have produced anthologies of program music in attenuated form.


In both the Schumann and Tchaikovsky collections, colorful titles inspire the imagination while requiring a satisfying fusion of affective, kinesthetic, and cognitive approaches to learning. The process of absorption is still layered and developmental but it must be focused on a mood-set that is promptly captured and sustained. (Contrasts in middle sections must include a shift in affect, and an alteration of tonal expression within a short musical space.)

Schumann’s “The Reaper’s Song,” Op. 68 no. 19, is a pertinent reflection of piano study that requires an in depth examination of “voicing” despite its brevity. This particular learning dimension includes an awareness of how an opening thematic melodic line in 6/8, (duple compound meter) meanders from the “Soprano” range into the “Alto,” while the bass line provides an important fundamental underpinning. One might consider the interweaving of voices as reflective of Romantic era “counterpoint.”

In addition, there’s a syncopated rhythmic dimension that evokes the machine-like mechanism of the reaper that appears initially in the bass, but fans out to the upper voice.

Finally, any and all key changes, though ephemeral, must be noted and assessed for emotional/expressive impact.

In summary, this particular musical undertaking via “The Reaper” requires an attendant balance of all voices as they interact and move along with the enlistment of an expressive “singing tone.” (Arms must be relaxed, while wrists are supple in order to realize vocal modeled expression)

A “counter-melody” springs up, (though not readily apparent), that if fleshed out, will relieve thematic repetition and provide more nuanced artistic expression/phrasing. Rubato and dynamic variation also become integrated components in this learning venture, while an embracing rhythmic flow in TWO is musical wrapping.

As contrast to the opening fabric of voices that supports a singable, meandering theme, Schumann inserts an Interlude of rolled out UNISON triple-grouped 8th notes in Forte that smoothly transition back to the initial theme. Repetition of this particular mid-section with a doubled VOICE octave spread between the hands affords an opportunity to nuance it differently, perhaps with a less intense dynamic upon the second playing.

At the piece’s conclusion, the composer charmingly adds a Coda of lighthearted staccato chords in choir where the soprano remains, without doubt, the lead voice. A parallel harmonic third to fifth to sixth sequence in this addendum hearkens Schumann’s signature “hunting horn” motif, though I’m not convinced that the REAPER, relentlessly harvesting crops would have stumbled into this particular milieu. (but who knows?)

Other samples of short character pieces that require in depth probing of voicing/phrasing/dynamics etc. include these two gems that I’ve recently learned.

Robert Schumann

“A Little Romance,” Album for the Young, Op. 68
(This miniature requires playing after beat chords as harmonically rich supports, but not intruding upon an impassioned melodic line. Once again, “voicing and balance” considerations are pivotal to playing this piece expressively.)


Antonin Dvorak

“Grandpa Dances with Grandma” (No. 2–Two Little Pearls)

Lots of thematic repetition requires expressive and dynamic variation. In a relentless 3/8 meter frame, a player must resist the temptation to sound mechanical and metronomic. A contrasting middle section that’s homophonic and in a modulating KEY, demands a shift in mood, needing prompt awareness and attention to tone/touch shifts. A Voicing dimension expectedly permeates the entire tableau.

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“Listen to the Long Notes”

Five words resonated profoundly through a Masterclass given by Pianist, Andras Schiff at the Juilliard School. They framed a myriad of movements in Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras.

Three students offered selections by Bach, Schubert and Schumann. (The event was Live-streamed)

While Beethoven did not grace the program, Maestro Schiff’s mentoring had far-reaching implications for piano teachers sifting through suggestions about attentive listening, phrasing, spacing, harmonic rhythm, instrumentation, voicing and much more. They flowed into repertoire well beyond the limits of programming.

In my domain of mentoring and eternal music-learning, the words, “Listen to the Long Notes” struck a riveting chord. The idea of hanging with a note, especially one that stood out as a destination in an unwinding melodic thread, was pivotal to beautiful phrasing. By coincidence, such instruction nicely trickled into a Classical work I’d been poring over.

The recurrent, heart-throbbing theme from Beethoven’s Adagio Cantabile, Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 (“Pathetique”) was a Masterclass beneficiary.

The well-known middle movement, framed in Classical terms, but reaching toward full-blown Romantic effusion without over-exaggeration, requires “attentive listening” that underlies many dimensions of playing expressively.

The opening melody recurring in many musical “attires,” has a directional pull toward the very long notes that can be easily over-anticipated, or played before their time. (i.e. the dotted quarter note) Time, in this case, is not metronomically measured. It is has a breathing pulse that hearkens the arrival of a note in a fulfilling place. (The decay of a preceding one must be felt to its last in order to “know” kinesthetically and affectively what comes next.)

Instrumentation and voicing also apply to this universe of peak musical expression. (Schiff made many references to strings, trumpets, even percussion through his class that ignited the imagination of students who refined their thinking about phrasing.) His prompts and metaphors gave more context to their musical expression.

As pertains to the opening of Beethoven’s middle Adagio movement, a “violin” plays the lead melody within a Trio that includes a viola and cello. The viola renders wavy broken chord-like figures, while a significant underlying cello bass line provides a necessary Fundament-driven richness to the texture. Voicing decisions encompass how to balance the “instruments” especially as the “score” shifts to 4-voices, adding a “second violin.” By increasing the voices, the dynamics shift upward.

What needs formidable mention, notwithstanding Long Note to Long note emphasis, is an understanding of how harmonic flow or rhythm influence the crafting of phrases. (shaping, sculpting lines, etc.) A Dominant to Tonic progression suggests a dip down, but it can become a cliche if over-observed. Because there’s so much repetition of the theme, the idea of varying each statement, even with an unexpected diminuendo can create a heart ripple that is otherwise lost by rigid harmonic thinking.

And finally, without reference to supple wrists and relaxed arms, expressive music-making would be under-“played.”

While I’ve veered for a moment from the LISTEN to the LONG NOTES rubric, I’ve best communicated the value of Schiff’s all-embracing wisdom in my two video offerings.

1) A Play through of the Beethoven Adagio Cantabile

2) An analysis of theme repetition in the context of attentive listening that includes LONG NOTE awareness, scoring, notation, sequences, harmonic rhythm, dynamics, etc.

Note: Juilliard Masterclasses (Andras Schiff and Murray Perahia) can be revisited at Medici-TV

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A worthwhile Journey to George Li’s triumphant Davies Hall piano recital

Facebook was abuzz with reminders of George Li’s touchdown in the Bay Area’s glittering Davies concert hall, a venue that absorbs a splash of pastel beams from the neighboring flagship government building. Glass panels reflect back montages of color that provide a rush of excitement for ticket holders slipping into seats right under the bell.

FB “friends” and faithful George “followers” were PAGE alerted to a MEET and GREET event in the lobby following the recital. It would be a shower of support for a pianist we’d seen and heard by LIVE-Stream from exotic locations including Moscow and Verbier. Frames in progress had included George’s Silver Medal triumph at the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition, magnified on computer screens around the world!


The Back Story

From my humble perch in Berkeley, I’d set aside 75 conscientious minutes to get to Davies Hall. It was a conservative travel measure, given lax Sunday train schedules and my propensity to get mired in Civic Center traffic as a clueless pedestrian in foreign urban terrain. (San Francisco’s maze of complex street crossings and intersections, bundled in congestion, had always seriously confused me, impeding on-foot progress in any direction).

Yet, despite well-intended, precautionary travel efforts, I couldn’t have anticipated a vexing single platform BART crisis that launched a crescendo of complications right up to my shaky finish line arrival at Davies. There, at its entrance, my concert companion/adult piano student stood patiently, dispatching block-to-block text messages to keep me on track.

With good luck and concerted teamwork, we made it to our first tier balcony seats just as George advanced toward a shining model D Steinway grand.

It was a pure bliss erasure of prior travails:

Melted deceptive cadences rippled through a crystalline rendering of Haydn’s B minor Sonata (No. 30) as trills and ornaments immaculately decorated clear melodic lines in a liquid outpouring of phrases. The middle Minuet movement was charmingly played passing with grace to a culminating Presto in brisk, bravura tempo with unswerving attention to line, shape, and contour.

Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata in F minor, op. 57, followed with tonal variation and keen structural awareness. The performance was both gripping and directional, wrapped in ethereal tonal expression.

Li’s singular sound autograph permeates his performances amidst an array of varying nuances and articulations. He has what pianist, Uchida terms “charisma” and a singular tonal personality.

Meaning and musical context are core ingredients of Li’s artistry and his wide palette of colors are at his liquid disposal through deeply felt effusions of expression. (While Li is a natural, intuitional performer, his sensitive fusion of aesthetics and intellect is always on display, exposed, as well in media interviews.)

A Presto Classical set of queries elicited thoughtful responses.



The Davies Hall recital, continued after Intermission with a rippling roll-out of works by Rachmaninoff and Liszt, all imbued with a permeating spirit of mature music-making that’s intrinsic to Li’s ongoing ripening process. And as a cap to a memorable evening of inspired artistry, George played his final encore–a pyro-technically charged Bizet/Carmen transcription that drove listeners to their feet in a chorus of BRAVOS!!! (This snapshot was provided by a friend who had permission to publicly post it, thanks to Li’s generosity and that of his representatives)

In a culminating MEET and GREET event, post-recital, audience members had an opportunity to share IN PERSON enthusiasm and appreciation of George’s artistry, while purchasing the artist’s newly released CD.

For me, a tete a tete with George, provided an opportunity to thank him for his generosity as a teen when he delivered well-conceived responses to my reams of technically framed questions about practicing, technique, and repertoire.


Finally, here’s an encore of gratitude to George for his inspired love of music, and for his reach into our hearts with each memorable performance. Come back soon!

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Attitude and Adult Piano Study

What is under-emphasized in discussions about satisfying piano study, is the role of a student’s attitude toward lessons, practicing, and progress.

Particularly within the realm of adult music learning, an individual’s decision to return to a structured instructional environment after a weighty absence from childhood lessons will often attach a set of negative associations:

1) Previous piano-learning experiences were colored by authoritarian parents who enforced excessively strict practicing routines while they embraced unattainable standards of “perfection.”

2) A former teacher might have been emotionally abusive leaving a student with feelings of insecurity and self-doubt. (“Mistakes” were fleshed out as “failures.” Creative interpretations, improvising, and any inclination to express opinions about playing a piece were received with a crushing blow of harsh criticism.)

For retired adult pupils who had inhabited a tense work environment, an unconscious “competitive” carry-over into lessons can adversely affect preparation and performance. (The corporate world, in particular, is known for its focus on SUCCESS measured by PROFIT and promotional advancement. Its built-in deadlines, time capsules, and dollar-driven goals are in glaring opposition to a creative, non-judgmental music-learning process)

Among employed adult piano students, some will face pressures managing work and family obligations that limit their practice time and intrude upon lesson scheduling. These impediments increase frustration and self-reproach to the point that some piano learners quit before they’ve become fully immersed in their studies.

Above and beyond issues enumerated that interfere with a fulfilling course of study, the most formidable barrier to a gratifying musical experience relates to ATTITUDE.

In my view, a crushing wall of SELF-JUDGMENT and PROJECTION are the biggest inhibitors of progress and attendant satisfaction in the piano-learning environment.


Pupil to Teacher:

“I don’t know how many times you’ve told me about voice parceling in the J.S. Bach Allemande, and I still can’t seem to get it right.”

The student is COUNTING how many times the mentor has suggested changes that will flesh out the beauty of the work. The TEACHER is NOT counting reminders and is not grading the student who is governed by absolutes of RIGHT AND WRONG. (It’s a case of distortion with embedded projection of what the student believes is going on in the teacher’s head.)

In fact, the mentor is determined to work with the score, the composer’s intention, and what can improve musical expression given the period of composition. She emphasizes this approach, assuring her pupil that repeated reminders are not tallied on a scorecard. (In truth, the student, alone, is acting as a self-appointed scorekeeper and referee, issuing self-imposed penalties that create a cyclical set of last ditch efforts.)

A resonating chant:

“I keep hitting the wrong keys so let me try again.”

The student resists relaxing as the teacher suggests numerous strategies that encompass breathing techniques, mental images and cues, with demonstrations of supple wrist, weight transfer, and unimpeded flow of energy down the arms. (“Hitting” notes, even if not to be taken literally, is discouraged.)

The pupil tries again, makes another mistake, tenses up in response, lunges repetitively at the keys and finally gives up.

The teacher assesses the situation, framing her suggestions in an objective way. These are dispensed without a hint of invective or biting criticism. Nevertheless, the pupil has decided she just can’t seem to “get it RIGHT,” and ends the lesson on a note of pessimism.

Students who have self-defeating attitudes for whatever reason, are difficult to work with because they lack trust in themselves and the teacher.

Finally, for a musical journey to be satisfying for the adult pupil and mentor, both must embrace an attitude of love for the learning PROCESS without the attachment of deadlines or tallied measurements of success. Each partner must individually work on advancing a relationship to the piano that integrates patience, self-nurturance and acceptance on behalf of musical growth and development.


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Practicing Challenging Pieces: If we’re over a barrel, we can still learn something valuable

I’m the first to admit that not every learning journey through a particular composition will produce results we might have hoped for. After weeks or even months of methodical practicing in baby steps, we can find ourselves literally over a barrel, wading through ornaments, for example, that are crystal clear in slow tempo, but suffer paralysis otherwise.

I came up against this very wall of resistance when I dared to take on J.S. Bach’s Gigue from the composer’s C minor French Suite No.2, BWV 813. Mordants and trills permeate treble and bass, and these dare-devilish ornaments must often be executed simultaneously without taking an easy way out. In my case, after weeks of hand parceling, enlisting various articulations and rhythms in back tempo, I couldn’t clearly realize all the indicated ornaments within the ideal brisk, animated pace I’d internalized.

Immersed in a frustrating journey through a difficult dance movement, perhaps a maiden voyage at best, I refused to give up hope that in time I would integrate a plethora of ornaments into a resilient, energy-driven Gigue. Most importantly, it was during my period of introspective practicing, that I gained valuable insights about wrist spring forward motions that permitted trills and mordants to roll out without keyboard impact. Such suppleness of movement freed up energy in an uninterrupted flow down my arms. This particular insight, alone, could fuel further advances through this piece without a time deadline attached.

Because all piano study has a positive dimension regardless of short-term outcome, it’s valuable to record epiphanies as they unfold. These feed our future learning challenges and they trickle down to our students who share their individual awakenings with us.


Practicing the Gigue movement from J.S. Bach French Suite No. 2 in C minor, with a focus on wrist spring forward motions:

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Sound imagination and tactile, tonal expression at the piano for diverse compositional eras

Often a posted comment about a You Tube video inspires a blog topic that is of interest to pianists and teachers. One such public addition to my Channel quickly streamed into a comparison between two well-known compositions in the piano repertoire.

The commenter was asking about the grade “level” of Debussy’s The Girl with the Flaxen Hair as compared to Schumann’s Traumerei from Kinderszenen. She asserted that it was “easier” to read through the Romantic era character piece based on her supportive reasons.

“Would you recommend this piece for an Intermediate student (grade 4-5)? I had a very hard time even reading through it! (The Debussy) I learned Schumann’s Traumerei pretty quickly to a decent level, so I thought La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin was going to be feasible too, since the difficulties are more musical than technical. But just figuring out the fingering is proving more challenging than I thought.”

Initially, I’d planned to underscore my reluctance to comparatively “level” the pieces, having to spell out too many variables bundled into an assessment of each composition from distinctly different eras. (Romantic and Impressionist) In addition, by enlisting a narrow focus, I would pin myself into a rigid pedagogical corner.

Instead, I set out to explore the separate challenges of each work, fleshing out the expressive vocabulary that best realized each individual period of composition in partnership with its composer. My demonstration would incorporate a desired tonal palette that called for an imbued physical approach at the inception of study. It would encompass sound imaging springing from the imagination, reinforced by physical suppleness and weight transfer. Qualitative differences unique to the cosmos of each piece would be a pivotal dimension of my recorded reply.

While teachers can take a circuitous route in their mentoring, drawing on mental prompts to engage an internal representation of sound or tone, they must naturally be equipped to demonstrate what works choreographically, if you will– not proposing fixed motions in musical space, but engaging the student in what physically advances various forms of musical expression. (Naturally, fingering decisions are part and parcel of the journey.)

Mood sets, internal harmonic shifts, and structural considerations unique to each composition, must be at the fore in the developmental learning process regardless of suggested leveling. (And it’s a given that a mentor should not recommend pieces that he/she deems significantly out of reach for a particular pupil.)

Finally, in the attached video below, I synthesized in physical and musical terms, what words alone could not amply express.

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