Of Gannets and Rachmaninoff
2017 Awardee for Music, Piano and Composition
Learning from the best in Piano and Composition
I had never been to the UK, though I had heard of some of the great opportunities it offers to aspiring classical musicians. When my opportunity came to travel there as a BBM Youth Support Awardee, I was still surprised by the sheer variety and amount of musical events, schools, and ensembles active, even just in London alone, where the majority of my trip took place.
My two main areas of music making are piano playing and composition. I have done practically all my musical studies in Sydney, Australia, so was very interested to see what other points of view I could discover in the UK.
I organised piano and composition lessons in London by contacting teachers from the major music schools, including the Royal Academy and the Royal College.
In addition, I organised a workshop of flute and piano composition through my friend Chloe Chung’s (flautist) flute contact in Edinburgh: Alison Mitchell, principal flautist of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. I prepared my favourite current repertoire to play for the piano professors and prepared compositions and ideas to discuss with the composition professors, in addition to inquiring about what the courses offered at their institutions are like.
As I said, the majority of my trip took place in London, where I was accommodated by a combination of lovely Air Bnbs and friends from high school, who had moved there in the past few years. I also visited Edinburgh, which I will discuss a little later.
The first thing I’ll describe are my composition lessons and piano lessons in London, of which I had three each. All my lessons were very different, but I’ve chosen my favourite one of each as an illustration of what happened and what I learnt.
“Phrasing the voices” – Lessons in Piano
I had piano lessons with three teachers from the Royal College of Music: Ian Jones, Gordon Fergus-Thompson, and Andrew Zolinsky. In my lessons, apart from getting new ideas for the repertoire I was playing, I observed the different teaching styles of each teacher and how they made me feel in my lesson as a student. I teach piano in Sydney, so am very interested in learning about teaching styles in this way by observing other teachers. I observed both things that I liked and would want to emulate, and things I didn’t like and would want to avoid in my own teaching.
I will describe my lesson with Ian Jones in detail. I found Ian Jones to be a polite, quick-thinking man and a perceptive listener. I played him the first movement of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier piano sonata. Rather than proceed through each bar telling me how he thinks I should play it, he gave me a number of general ideas for different parts of the piece which I could apply myself where ever they were relevant. I appreciated this method as we only had one hour, and we might not have gotten through the entire piece if we had focused on every detail.
One of the first things he said, which has stuck clearly with me, is that if you look at Beethoven’s texture, you can almost always imagine it as either a full orchestra or as an intimate chamber group such as a string trio or quartet. For example, the movement opens with an obviously orchestral motif, followed by a more intimate continuation in three voices. Imagining the three voices like a string trio made me want to phrase each voice in its own expressive way and take care to differentiate the articulation of the voices; sometimes, the melody might take a breath, while the other voices continue legato. Earlier, I was phrasing the voices more homogeneously.
Another main point he made was that he wanted my pedalling to be more considered to add more clarity. He advised that I follow Beethoven’s pedal markings, which for some reason, I tend to ignore; perhaps because pianists are used to making up their own pedalling all the time. He also preferred no pedal where it wasn’t marked except to aid legato, as he thought it disturbed the contrapuntal clarity of the lines. I appreciated the greater clarity this gave the sound, but I still wanted to use a little more pedal than he suggested for the sake of colour and the ‘depth’ of the sound.
He brought my attention to micro-phrasing; the subtle inflections between each note of the phrase which give more nuance to the melodic lines. I had only recently learned the piece and performed it just once, so it is natural that we were now talking about these details which I had overlooked because my mind had been on the big picture. I reminded myself to ‘zoom in’ and ‘zoom out’ more often when practising, because it is easy to get focused on either all the little details or just playing the piece through. He gave some useful advice regarding this micro-phrasing; I can develop physical gestures that automatically create the phrasing I want.
For example, with the ubiquitous falling interval, almost always phrased as a ‘sigh’ with the second note softer, by moving the hand away from the keyboard as you strike the second note, it will tend to naturally come out softer. Learning to repeatedly use a gesture like this is simple and saves you having to think about the micro-phrasing (we were talking about a passage where lots of these ‘sighs’ occurred rapidly in succession), leaving you more room to think about the larger phrase.
After the Beethoven, we had only around 15 minutes to spare, so I played him the opening of my second piece, Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano sonata. As we were being ushered out of the teaching studio by the next teacher, he gave me a lightning fast critique of what I had played while standing outside the room, commenting on how difficult the structure of this piece is to communicate to the audience, and how a consistent tempo, and clearer structural ‘arrival points’, helps with this. All in all, a very dense, very useful lesson!
“Advancing the language of music” or “Expressing the thing I wish to express”
For composition, I also had lessons with teachers from the Royal College of Music; two with Alison Kay, and one with Kenneth Hesketh. For the past two years, I had been having some wonderful, thoroughly engaging composition lessons with Richard Gill, who is primarily an educator and conductor, so I was interested to see how composition lessons with people who are primarily composers would compare.
For my first composition lesson with Alison Kay, I travelled to the beautiful nearby town of Tunbridge Wells. Originally a spa in the 1600s, Tunbridge Wells is about a half hour train ride from London; an affluent town with some beautiful parks. Although sunny when I arrived, it suddenly started raining, and then hailing just as I arrived at Alison’s doorstep! Alison was very thoughtful and interesting to talk to. We began the lesson by listening to one of my pieces with the score, so she could get an idea of what kind of music I write.
I chose to play her a portion of my most recently performed piece, ‘Winter, Heartache and Transfiguration’, for violin solo and orchestra. I had told her that I was interested in getting listening recommendations for contemporary music (music from the past 70 or so years), so she suggested a number of composers who she thought would be a good entry point for me to new musical ideas, based on the type of music I wrote. She thought it was specifically in the areas of tone colour (the use of a large variety of different sounds) and rhythm (my music is fairly rhythmically regular) that I could experiment and explore different directions. She told me about a ‘first assignment’ she might set her new students to develop their inner ear. She played me a set of notes – 5 or 6 notes – as a chord on the piano, and asking me what I heard in that. That is, what musical qualities stuck out at me when I heard those notes. I mentioned a few chords that were contained in the set; she mentioned its whole-tone quality. The idea was to both train your ear by listening intently to the qualities these notes possessed, and to find ways of hearing or seeing the set of notes in a way different to usual; for example, I tend to think in terms of tonal harmony, so I would at first see tonal harmony in the set, but I could try to see different scales, modes, or intervals as well. The assignment would be to compose a short piece based on that set, exploring those qualities that you decided were important. Apart from that, we talked about more abstract compositional questions, such as how I approach composing a piece and how we assess the value of new music.
A sentiment both my composition teachers expressed, though perhaps it was more pronounced with Kenneth Hesketh, was that they want to hear something that advances the musical language and modes of expression that we currently have. Personally, advancing the language of music is not on my mind when I compose; I’m more concerned with accurately expressing the thing I wish to express, in whatever mode it happens to come out in that situation, even if that’s a ‘traditional, well-worn’ mode. If what I am expressing is really genuine, then I trust that, even though the superficial ‘style’ might be a well-known one, the piece will sound new and fresh. It strikes me that it may make perfect sense for some professors of composition at a university to want their musical vocabulary and horizons to be broadened by the new music they listen to – after all, universities are traditionally a place to conduct research and open up new horizons.
One of Alison’s current students gave me a tour of the RCM building, so I got to see a snippet of student life. Another of her students played me a short excerpt of his new opera, which he is organising a performance of (all by himself, contacting his musical friends and colleagues!). I also got to spend some time in the RCM library and admired their large collection of both classical and contemporary music.
Studying the Alexander Technique of Mindfulness
One of these was to visit the Constructive Teaching Centre (CTC), an Alexander Technique (AT) school. I had been learning AT in Sydney for about two years. It has been incredibly useful to me in my piano practice, performance, and teaching. AT, relatively well known among classical musicians, is a mindfulness technique developed by F. M. Alexander in the 1900s that can be used in-the-moment to affect the quality of movement, making it lighter and more coordinated. This is achieved by building the skill to think about movement holistically, being mindful of the prime point of unnecessary tension, the neck – remembering to keep it free during movement – and thinking of expansive directions along the body to counteract the tendency to tense unnecessarily.
Scientific studies in the past few decades have shown that the technique first and foremost affects the postural system, but the effects of using AT, especially regarding music performance, are the attainment of an easier technique and a new psychological state of mind during performance; more mindful, aware and a greater feeling of freedom. AT is very big in London, much more so than in Sydney, with all Conservatories employing AT teachers to work with the students. The CTC school is one of the oldest AT schools in London. I attended two 4-hour training sessions at the school. It was interesting to experience their more traditional teaching style and contrast it with our more ‘activity-based’ teaching style in Sydney.
Exploring the London Music Scene
Apart from these learning activities, I took huge pleasure in the London music scene. I saw a handful of concerts and was impressed at how much there was going on; performances by so many different orchestras and ensembles at so many venues, seemingly all the time. Concert highlights were seeing Sir Simon Rattle conduct the LSO in a performance of Mahler 9 and a new composition by Helen Grime, Stravinsky’s Firebird suite and Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto, watching a string quartet concert (three Haydn quartets in a row…) and struggling to stay awake during an evening of film music in the Royal Albert Hall. The sleepiness was caused by first-day-in-London jetlag, not boredom!
Now for some more practical compositional activity. During my stay, I went to Edinburgh, Scotland, in the company of flautist Chloe Chung to meet Alison Mitchell, the principal flautist of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra who is originally from Australia. For Chloe, also on a BBM Award journey, it was a chance to get lessons from one of her favourite teachers with whom she studied in Sydney years ago. For me it was a chance to workshop my recent composition ‘Ballade for flute and piano’, which I premiered on live radio with Chloe with a professional flautist and receive useful feedback.
Edinburgh: Collaboration with another BBM Youth Awardee and her former Sydney Teacher
We had two sessions with Alison at her home on consecutive days. I was expecting to be playing my piece with Chloe, but it turned out there was no piano in the teaching studio, so I observed Chloe and Alison play and talk about my piece and responded to questions from Alison to confirm that her instincts about how she thought I wanted my piece to sound were correct. My piece is very long – 17 minutes – so we planned to start somewhere in the middle and then focus on particular sections we thought we’d like to run past Alison. Alison, who had listened to our recording of the piece already, requested we start from the beginning, and over the two days we got through the entire piece with Alison offering perceptive, passionate and very effective suggestions for phrasing, colour and line in practically every bar of the piece.
From my point of view, I was surprised and extremely happy that she seemed to grasp my musical intentions from the first moment without me having to really say anything. Our musical ideas were 95% aligned. At many points, she made phrasing or colour suggestions which I had not thought of but which made the phrase sound better. So, it can’t be said that the composer knows everything worth knowing about their own piece – it takes on a life of its own in the hands of other performers. We also took the chance to see a wonderful performance by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra of some Mozart and Poulenc.
We did have one day off in Edinburgh – and we took the chance to have a day trip to the nearby coastal town of North Berwick. It took just half an hour on the train. It was beautiful with long beaches, wild sea and huge offshore rocky outcrops, home to the world’s largest breeding colony of Gannets, a type of seabird. A cruise took you right around ‘Bass Rock’ where the Gannets were nesting in such vast numbers that the rock looked white and shimmering from a distance. A highly recommended non-musical day trip near Edinburgh!
The Opportunities Ahead
I am very glad and grateful that I could undertake this trip as it was wonderful to experience the musical life of other countries and cities. The experiences I have gained will inform my growing teaching, performing and compositional practices in Australia. I am excited to continue expanding and evolving my teaching methods and continuing to collaborate with other musicians as a performer and composer.
I was recently invited by the Theme and Variations Foundation, which has supported me an many other young pianists in the past, to give a short recital at their showroom in October, and they invited me to include a composition of my own in my program. I was very excited by this invitation as it will be an opportunity to present the revised version of my Flute and Piano Ballade with Chloe Chung for the first time in a live performance and use what we have learned in the workshopping of the piece with Alison in Edinburgh, on stage.
I would like to give a huge thank you to the BBM Youth Support for giving me the opportunity via this award to spend a month in the UK and Europe furthering my musical education and experiences. At this moment in time, I would also especially like to thank Richard Gill, whose support and inspiration in my lessons with him have meant a lot to me over the past two years, and who has done so much in the past decades to revolutionise the musical education of children and young people, including myself, all over Australia.