adult piano instruction, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, Lara Downes, music study and ripening, patience, pianist, piano, piano blogging, piano learning, piano study, piano teaching, San Francisco Classical Voice, Stephen Hough

Pianist, Stephen Hough talks about growing a piece over time

Stephen Hough

In this excerpt from Lara Downe’s San Francisco Classical Voice interview with Stephen Hough, the universe of growth and musical ripening is explored.

Lara Downes: Your teacher, Gordon Green, was a great influence and inspiration to you, and you’ve quoted him as saying to you, when you were a young student: “I don’t care how you’re playing the piece now, what I care about is how you’ll play it in 10 years.”

Is that still true for you? As a deeply spiritual person, how do you experience the balance of making personal effort, and also just waiting for the revelation part of that learning process?

Stephen Hough: With this business of searching, I feel that I’m still very much a beginner. The idea of being patient for 10 years is not something that comes naturally to me at all! But I do think that it’s important for us to develop this kind of patience. It’s almost like farming. I mean, if you want to grow beautiful fruit, you do have to let the trees grow. You can dump chemicals on them and get them to produce very quickly, but if you want delicious fruit that’s going to grow season after season, even beyond your own lifetime, there’s a certain sort of time that simply has to pass, and I think it’s the same with learning music. We can learn a piece of music very quickly, but we have to be aware that it’s going to get so much richer over the years..

– See more at:

I applied Hough’s philosophy to a lesson on Bach Invention 13 in A minor. What I’d extracted from Hough’s poetically framed response, centered on the quality of study from the very start with its continuum of stages. If learning was quick and haphazard, it would not grow and blossom over time.

Naturally, as I taught an adult student last night, front and center in my mind, was laying a solid foundation in the early learning phase of a new piece:

1) Fingering had to be decided and solidified. (not a dice throw experience from one playing to another) It had to be a “musical” fingering that realized a phrase’s shape and contour. Sometimes replacing a thumb with an alternate finger at a cadence could make a qualitative difference. This applied to a segment in Bach Invention 13 in A minor where the student’s choice of a thumb instead of finger 2, forced an undesirable accent.

2) Rhythm, note durations, etc. needed specific attention.

3) Slow, separate hand practice with a framing pulse, factored into foundation building that would be the best bank deposit for future musical growth. It “banked” on good fingering choices and an awareness of context: what was happening structurally and harmonically to frame the learning process. (Included was a recognition of SEQUENCES)

Context reinforced each learning stage, and CONTOURING or SHAPING LINES was part of this phase, using singing as an aid to phrasing with equal attention to dynamics.

4) Spot practicing: Where finger trapping or redundant glitches occurred, making a conscious effort to work through specific measures that needed extra focus and attention became another solid, interest bearing bank deposit for optimum musical growth. (It’s opposite was meaningless repetition)

5) FRAMING ALL OF THE ABOVE was Hough’s PATIENCE mantra, that for me, was his most resonant theme.

Bundled into such wisdom, was an avoidance of tempo charging, or driving the learning process at a rate that failed to preserve quality in the present in order to insure ripening in the future.

Stephen Hough on the Practice of Practicing

Excerpt from a Masterclass (Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody)


Alfred Cortot, Arthur Rubenstein, Artur Rubenstein, Artur Rubstein and Chopin, Artur Schnabel, Butterfly by Edvard Grieg, Chopin, Chopin Waltz, Chopin Waltz in Ab Major Op. 69 no. 1, Chopin Waltz in Ab Op. 69 no. 1, Edvard Grieg, Frederic Chopin, iMac, Leonard Pennario, Mary Kunz Goldman, Mary Kunz Goldman authorized biographer of Leonard Pennario, pianist, piano, piano repertoire, piano technique, Piano World, pianoworld,, playing piano, Romantic era music, Romantic music, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Kirsten blog, Shirley Smith Kirsten, Stephen Hough, tempo rubato, The art of phrasing at the piano, the art of piano playing, Uncategorized, whole body music listening, word press,, Yeti mic, Yeti microphone, you tube, you tube video

Chopin Waltz in Ab Major, Op. 69 No. 1–considerations of mics, recording conditions, and tempo, with performance comparisons

First, I have to admit that my prized Yeti mic suffered yet another break-down. “Break” is to be emphasized. I tripped over the wire on the way to Haddy Haddorff, and the sensitive connector from iMac’s USB port to the mic itself was altered. Yeti wouldn’t register on “Preferences” as an external no matter how I tweaked that little metal doo-dad that plugs into its host. The more I twisted, turned, cajoled, and said any number of prayers, the less anything registered with the powers that be.

So I didn’t want to abandon my recording session in any case, and decided to wing it with iMac’s own built-in job. Ugh! I had awful experiences that preceded this one, so I wasn’t expecting an overnight miracle or transformation.

Just the same, I figured, I’d swoon over the Waltz and hope some Romantic flavor seeped through one way or another. And then I reminded myself of those old, scratchy recordings where Arthur Schnabel played divine Beethoven, or Cortot lectured about Chopin with those hard-to-decipher playing samples. Still, people listened.

What about Grieg performing his “Butterfly” piece under less than perfect conditions, or any number of keyboard legends leaving bare traces of themselves on audio?

So what. While I was far from legendary, I could leave behind a less than perfect mic-ing of the Chopin Ab Waltz.


Well, since composing the previous apologia, I remedied the mic, and subbed in this video:

Next consideration: Tempo. So did I care what so and so pianist did with the Waltz in the way of pacing it? I certainly wanted a good example of tasteful rubato, and hunted down a few readings with that in mind. Stephen Hough was the first that popped up on my screen. (radar screen, perhaps) He was flashing back to the past, I think, coming toward the piano with a 40’s era hat. Everything was in black and white evoking an earlier time, but nowhere near the period that Chopin lived.

It was a creative mood painting.

I liked most of what he did in the way of interpretation, dynamics, give and take, but I couldn’t envision myself playing the Ab Waltz quite that fast all the way through, though his reading was very well styled. Would it fit me in the same way? There were sections that seemed a bit too casual, but still valid. He plied the phrases nicely. In all, I like parts of the whole, but the whole had parts I wished were more lingering.

My next stop was Leonard Pennario and his reading which I instantly doted upon. The only question I had related to the tempo change on page two. Suddenly everything took off, though I didn’t notice directions in the score to that effect. Perhaps I had been under the wrong impression all along about that specific section?

Pennario’s interpretation, overall, was my preference as compared to Hough’s. (I did note, however, that both pianists had apparently used different editions because there were some note changes between scores)

Regardless, I felt that Pennario registered a contemplative Chopin with a nice, fluid rubato. His tone was gorgeous, and he well paced the composition playing it significantly slower than Hough.

Finally came Artur Rubenstein, and as expected, I knew that I would embrace his performance. It seemed plaintively beautiful, effortlessly delivered, as if the music were allowed to play itself.

Similarly, I didn’t find any abrupt tempo shifts between sections, though, like Pennario and Hough he quickened the pace on page two, but less conspicuously.

Regardless of whether I favored one of these performances over another, a salient feature of all was the personality and conviction that came through. If nothing else, an individual and creative expression among pianists would be something to emulate.

To summarize, this You Tube outing proved to be a thoroughly valuable learning experience

For certain, tomorrow I’ll try to round up a decent mic and do my best to realize what the composer intended. Best case scenario, it should be without the handicap of a built-in sound system that could compromise a pianist’s playing in an any time or era.