Advice to a Young Pianist
The Grade system, with its carefully planned plod through music of escalating difficulty, not all of it thrilling, accustoms us to the principle that students should develop their technique incrementally, brick by brick, raising the mansion of technique on the firmest foundations.
This is a process that can turn a young pianist to stone. I was eleven years old and playing Clementi when I first heard the Chopin Études. I have never looked back. Even with a ropey grade five technique I wanted to be playing the Revolutionary Study and The Winter Wind. I wanted to be responsible for all that transcendental thunder and lightning, and I wanted it yesterday. My piano teacher, the long-suffering Mr Benton, picked up on my interest with carefully controlled amazement. I remember telling him I had seen a film about the great composer 'Dauphin', and was very impressed ('D'you mean...Chopin?' 'Yes, his etchews were incredible', 'Oh! Oh, the Études, yes') and Mr Benton sat down at the piano in the music room and zipped out a warm-up arpeggio, 'You'd like to play fast?' he said, whip-cracking the upper treble register. 'Yes...Yes', I said. 'Or like this?' He hit the opening chord of the Revolutionary Study and let a cataract of semi-quavers rush down the piano, his thick fingers working the yellowed ivories like a runaway tarantula on coke. I nodded feverishly. Suddenly Mr Benton, the depressed organist of our school services and stoic witness of a thousand soul-destroying piano lessons, was revealed as a closet virtuoso. A world opened to me. In my remaining years at the school he played me all his old Royal College war-horses (a ripping finale of the Moonlight Sonata and a blitzkrieg G minor Ballade). I was bedazzled every time and desperate to learn these pieces.
It's not just that, at the age of eleven, I had found a new way to show off (a life-long priority). I had chanced on the peaks and chasms of the virtuoso repertoire and it appealed to a boy's love of speed, danger, intensity, momentum and tumult.
Mr Benton was kind enough to let me learn Chopin's Waltz in Ab major, op 42. I gave a crashingly enthusiastic and heavily-pedalled performance of it at the end of term concert. The elderly headmaster and the exquisitely musical Mr Soames (later incarcerated for paedophilia) were thrilled to smithereens by my curly-haired barnstorming, and at the end of term prize-giving I waltzed smirkily off with the Best Pianist's Cup. This was the beginning of a new identity for me. I had discovered Formula 1 thrills in the drawing-room of music
None of the above defies the fact that serious pianists need a well-grounded technique and the grade system is actually, in fairness, a great way of building the early stage keyboard skills, of consolidating and stretching in balance. My thesis is simply that teachers and musical parents should flash up the north face of the Eiger when kids are still on the South Downs, around Grade 4, so they know what's out there. One of the big thrills of the virtuoso repertoire is the 'How the hell did he do that?' factor, a big hook in my experience.
I remember looking over Mr Benton's shoulders at the score of Beethoven's op 110 sonata, as he played the banger in the year five classroom (in his legendary 1972 traversal of the Late Beethoven sonatas – for my exclusive benefit) and seeing the ominous demi-semi quaver passage coming up and thinking 'Golly! How will poor old Benners get round that thicket?' before seeing his stocky right hand flutter over the keys with unbelievable dexterity. This was a huge thrill. Score reading took on new meaning. Indeed, because an eleven year old player knows enough to know how difficult piano playing can be, if you were to show him the sheet music of Liszt's Transcendental Studies – say Mazeppa, with its opening cadenza of a trillion tiny notes compressed into waves up and down the staves, or the demi-semi riot of Feux Folet, the likely result would be absolute astonishment: 'How could anyone play that?' followed by 'I want to hear it', followed by 'Could I ever play like that?' Even today, when I listen to Boris Berezovsky or Freddie Kempf play these pieces the effect is the same: amazement, marvel, rivalry. The virtuoso repertoire is an arena for titans with lightning reflexes and the spirits of Valkyries, and there's a good chance that a musical youngster will hear all that and say: 'I want in.'
So my counsel to teachers and pupils is to keep the grade thing rolling, but be sure to give young pianists something equivalent to the profound shock that Liszt and Chopin received when they were first exposed to playing of demonic virtuosity, the shock that electrocuted the whole virtuoso repertoire into existence: that is to say the sight and sound of Niccolo Paganini playing his violin caprices in the 1820s which transfixed a generation of European audiences, and set the composer pianists on a mission to outdo him.
Finally, the show-off aspect of difficult piano music must be admitted – and understood. It is one of the great mating signals of all time. I'll never forget seeing Rach 3 at the Festival Hall played by a corpulent Russian virtuoso and hearing my lady neighbour saying afterwards: 'I'll go to bed with any man who can play like that.'
I remember nodding and thinking: 'Better get back to my scales and arpeggios.'