I’ve been so fortunate as a pianist to have had some wonderful teachers, mentors and experiences. I’m simply bursting to share some nuggets of advice with you, as well as reinforcing them for myself! I much prefer the number eleven to ten, so here are “11 Invaluable Musical Lessons”.
A better rhythmic acuity will make you a much better musician.
It is surprising to discover how much of a piece of music just falls into place when you can really feel the pulse with every part of your being. Of course being able to feel this consistent pulse takes practise, so work on it daily!
A musical line is played legato by the ear, not the fingers.
At the piano, it is possible to play a legato line WITHOUT using legato fingering! Use the pedal, focus on shaping the musical phrase, and the result can be better than a literal finger legato. I understand if you don’t believe me. But I dare you to try it with octaves!
Never stop searching for the sound you want.
I can recall countless depressing times I felt I was so far from emulating the glowing, resonant sound of my teacher. There are so many complex little combinations of movements that go into producing a particular sound that, naturally, it takes A LOT of experimentation over a period of time. Once I was told to go and put on 15 kilograms to improve my sound at the piano – this is rubbish. Disabilities aside, there is nothing about your body that is hindering you from producing a pleasing sound. It takes perseverance, curiosity and a keen ear. There will be breakthroughs, I promise.
A good interpretation should make complete sense to you.
If a passage seems forced or unnatural because you are trying to do as the score, your teacher, or stylistic convention tells you, there is more interpretative work to do.
There are always better technical solutions.
We know that a good technique requires relaxation of the muscles that are not necessary, but sometimes it takes a psychological “trick” to reveal exactly how few muscles are necessary. Problem solving can help very difficult technical passages become much more manageable. Often something so simple as grouping the phrase in a different way helps dramatically. Sometimes the most counter-intuitive methods are the best. For example, pianists: if two hands are leaping, try letting the hand that has less distance to cover go first!
Injury due to playing your instrument can be totally avoided.
Injury among musicians is very common. However, if playing your instrument is causing injury, you need to change something about the way you are playing in order to avoid it! There is a healthy way to play and, for the sake of your body and longevity of your career, I urge you to seek this out.
If performance nerves are attacking you, go further into the music.
The issue of memory in performance, in particular, is a source of anxiety for performers. If a moment of insecurity catches you during a performance, immerse yourself deeper in the music. If a memory lapse occurs, or a wrong note, move forward like a ship.
Play plenty of chamber music.
Some of my best lessons have been learnt rehearsing and performing chamber music. Provided you don’t hate the other member(s) of your ensemble, it can be endless fun. And relax – memorisation isn’t required.
Play works by living composers.
Playing contemporary works by living composers can be so rewarding for performers, composers and audiences. Less familiar works can be particularly thrilling. These are exciting times; there is a staggering amount of wonderful music that is begging to be heard. And relax – memorisation isn’t required.
I need to remind myself of this constantly – it’s got to be about the music rather than your ego, so learn to celebrate criticism that isn’t malicious.
It gets better.
The life of a musician is not easy to navigate. You have to be resilient yet vulnerable, systematic yet flexible, confronting yet conforming. As a young musician, of course I deal with feelings of insecurity from time to time. During those particularly challenging times, I make it my mantra: it gets better. We must remain optimistic – so much depends on it.