Tom Poster discloses the gruelling piano rehearsal regime behind his new Edition Classics disc.
Ever since Liszt effectively invented the solo piano recital, the image of the concert pianist has had a powerful hold on the public imagination. But alongside the romance of the dashing heroic figure on stage, single handedly conquering pinnacles of the repertoire (at least that’s how I like to see it!), a less glamorous image often comes to mind – that of the lonely, disheveled figure locked away in a small room, furiously practicing scales. You don’t end up as a concert pianist without having spent many, many thousands of hours in a room with no other company than the strange, magical 88-keyed beast; there’s simply no alternative to intensive practice. So this article is to try to explain, from my own point of view, a little of what goes on behind those closed doors.
I always feel pianists have to work particularly hard when it comes to concert preparation. A solo piano recital conventionally contains about 90 minutes of music, usually performed entirely from memory. And in a collaborative role, whether playing concertos, chamber music or songs, the pianist almost always has several times as many notes to play as anyone else involved. Because I thrive on the breadth of the piano repertoire, positively enjoying the variety of roles it offers, I often find myself practicing for five or six hours in a day in order to get everything covered; beyond this amount, I’ve found my practice ceases to be so productive.
It’s exciting and challenging to learn new repertoire – the sense of building from slow, hesitant starts (sometimes it feels almost like being a beginner again), and gradually trying to coax the music into the fingers and brain, overcoming technical challenges, discovering and growing into the musical world of the piece, and striving for a meaningful, truthful interpretation. I’m a huge believer in slow practice, even when I know a piece well. There’s a danger that technically orientated practice can get a bit mechanical; I try not to separate it from considerations of sound and phrasing, but it can be a challenge not to fall into an obsessive mindset. In any case, however much I practice a new piece, when I get on the stage with it for the first time it rarely feels quite as I’d expected – this can be slightly alarming, but also thrilling.
Revising familiar repertoire is generally less time-consuming than learning new material and at its best is like coming back to an old friend. But it presents other challenges: you need to see the score freshly on each occasion, rather than simply recreating a past performance. Sometimes I record myself and listen back – an occasionally painful but invariably useful experience.
Memorising can be a challenge in itself, and the various strands of memory that musicians draw on – aural, digital, visual and analytical – have to be assimilated. Practice doesn’t always need to involve the keyboard, and indeed studying scores away from the piano can sometimes reap the richest rewards. At times, this mental approach is a necessity rather than a choice – on the road, there’s not always a piano available when you want one.
As I child, I always loved playing the piano, but was often resistant to what I thought of as ‘serious’ practice. Although there are still occasions when I don’t feel like practising, as I grew up it became increasingly clear to me that the rewards of good practice are tangible and powerful: providing the confidence and freedom to let go of the considerations of the practice room, to explore and create new worlds and to fly with the music. Paradoxically, submission to the discipline of practice is often the key to greater spontaneity.
For my first disc for Edition Classics, I’ve chosen three of my favourite works, by Beethoven, Schumann and Chopin. One I’ve been playing since student days, one for about a year (after a brief attempt in my schooldays), and one I’ve learned specifically for this disc. Although my approach to practising each of the three is different, I hope the end result will make it impossible for you, the listener, to guess the nature of all the private practice underpinning each performance.
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