21 February 2022
By Lewis Kesterton
The first couple of months of the New Year can be an odd time for pianists. Often, we find ourselves recovering from a hiatus in our regular practice routine, perhaps having not seen our teacher or musical colleagues for a while. It can be very hard to regain your ‘mojo’ in the first month or two. This year has certainly been no exception to the rule. A number of my students have recently come to me asking how they might find more motivation to practise, or even just play. So, in the hope of rejuvenating your love for the piano, I’ve put together twelve ideas to inspire you over the coming year. Whether you’re a keen amateur, professional, or just a music lover, I’m certain there will be something here to whet your appetite for piano once more!
1. Rediscover your passion for piano
Not long into the second year of my undergraduate degree at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, my relationship with the piano became quite strained.
At the time, I was studying with two outstanding teachers, had met some inspirational musicians who would become lifelong friends, and had devoted my whole life to music. In theory, it all seemed perfect, so I couldn’t understand why I had such little desire to practise. One day I arrived at my one-to-one lesson with Katharine Lam completely unprepared and opened up about how I was feeling. Katharine told me to take some time away from exam preparation and play the piano for me, so that’s exactly what I did.
Soon enough, I’d reminded myself why I wanted to spend so much time practising and studying - because it enables me to communicate my innermost feelings through an incredibly powerful, truly honest medium which stretches far beyond the capabilities of human language. Rediscover the music that inspired you at the beginning of your musical journey and play familiar repertoire which allows you to explore the piano without technical or contextual anxiety.
2. Explore contemporary music
Maybe it’s time you pushed yourself out of your comfort zone a little and dipped your toes into something entirely new. I must admit that, when I was growing up and until only a few years ago, I was quite the classical music ‘snob’. My YouTube history comprised of very little other than Valentina Lisitsa, Martha Argerich and Vladimir Horowitz playing a hearty mix of Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, and Bach.
Over the past few years though, I’ve become more open-minded in my musical taste. Of course, I’m not suggesting you immediately start filling your piano with screws and rubbers and embark on a voyage through John Cage’s twenty Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano (although if you do, I admire you greatly), but even just refreshing your listening habits can do wonders for motivation.
To start you off, I’ve compiled a short Spotify playlist of ten works outside my usual ‘go-to’ music which I’ve enjoyed listening to, playing, and studying recently. I hope you might find something in there which sparks your creativity, too.
3. Try creating your own music
I’m the first to admit that composition really isn’t something that comes naturally to me. In fact, a friend of mine recently had to compose her own cadenza for a Mozart concerto - just the thought of this absolutely terrified me. However, just because these skills don’t come naturally to us all doesn’t mean we aren’t all free to be creative and think outside of the box every so often.
Having done whatever I could to dodge improvisation classes throughout my conservatoire training, in 2019 I found myself in a situation where I had no option but to embrace it; I was tasked with creating an atonal improvisation to accompany a scene from a silent film. I suddenly realised that I had this enormous resource of sounds in front of me which I could draw out of the piano whenever I wanted to enhance what I was seeing on the screen.
If you haven’t tried anything like this before, find yourself a short clip on YouTube, mute the sound and let your creativity unfold. As the great jazz improvisor Thelonious Monk once remarked, “The piano ain’t got no wrong notes.”
4. Refresh your technique
If you are finding yourself struggling with your motivation at the piano, perhaps with a specific piece, it might be time you thought about refreshing your technique and trying something new.
I am firmly of the opinion that one size certainly doesn’t fit all at the piano; we’re all beautifully different and need to embrace our individuality when forming a healthy technique. Last year I wrote an article for Pianist about enlivening your scale practice. In it, I provided a multitude of ways to vary your scales which can be transferred to many other aspects of piano technique. However, my main point was (and still is) that you need to make technical work, whatever it may be, relevant to the music you’re working on.
It’s all very well starting your practice session with twenty minutes of Hanon, but if you’re currently working on a programme of Satie and Debussy is this really the most useful thing you could be doing? In this instance, improvising a sequence of large chords and working to bring out different voices and colours could be a far better use of your time. Similarly, if you’re working on a Mozart Sonata, perhaps pick out some of the scalic passages and experiment with different touches. In short, technical practice should be guided by your ear and your repertoire, not your fingers.
Read "How to transform your scales from 'boring' to 'engaging'" here
5. Participate in festivals or masterclasses
Thankfully, as our world continues to return to some form of ‘normal’, many festivals and other performance platforms for musicians are beginning to run in-person once more. Having the opportunity to play alongside fellow musicians, compete in friendly competitions and receive feedback from inspirational teachers and performers in masterclasses can be a huge boost for our confidence.
There are hundreds of suchlike events around the country which I’d encourage you to explore, even if only as an observer, this year. If you live near London, the North London Festival of Music, Speech and Drama will be running in person again and is a great chance for young pianists to showcase their hard work. Alternatively, Morley College London hosts weekly Masterclasses with eminent pianist and pedagogue Martino Tirimo as well as a range of other group performance platforms for musicians of a wide array of abilities.
If you think you might find inspiration through participation in events like these, Musical Chairs and Alink-Argerich Foundation provide a wealth of free resources to help you find something that’s right for you, no matter where you are in the world.
6. Create your own performing opportunities
There are so many creative ways to devise your own opportunities to perform. If you’re new to performing, organising a small house concert – perhaps jointly with a fellow musician – can be a wonderful way to dip your toes into sharing your artistry. Of course, one benefit of this intimate kind of performance is that you can choose who to invite, allowing you to sculpt your own supportive audience.
If you’re more interested in getting yourself out into the increasingly competitive performing world, there are plenty of options for you, too. A brilliant starting point is to do some research into small venues near you (churches are usually open to concert proposals and often have wonderful acoustics) who may be interested in hosting a recital. If you’re willing to raise donations for them in return for the use of their space, this can really add to the appeal for them and sometimes eradicate a hire fee if they don’t already host a regular concert series.
However, as is so frequently highlighted today, it is simply not enough to just play well; when curating your own performances it is essential that you market yourself well. My dear friend, Young Steinway Artist and distinguished pianist Haley Myles, has recently developed a comprehensive resource following vast amounts of research on marketing for musicians. Her innovative ideas cover all aspects of marketing, from website design and photography to writing a captivating biography and gaining presence on social media.
7. Connect with fellow pianists
If you find yourself lonely in your practice space, I fervently suggest connecting with some of your peers. There are many ways you can do this, both online and offline. If you have some free time on your hands, piano courses such as those run by Finchcocks and Jackdaws offer you the chance to be fully immersed in music with likeminded players at a similar level.
However, if your budget doesn’t stretch that far or your schedule is tighter, there are a multitude of groups on meetup.com, some of whom also meet online, who would offer you the chance to meet new people and offer you occasional performance opportunities.
8. Play with other musicians
Ever tried forming a duo or a small group with musicians other than pianists? The chamber music repertoire is vast, and just looking into this may open so many new avenues for you; music for piano four hands can be (although often quite intimate) extremely good fun, and what better way to motivate oneself than through laughter?
It may be the case that you’re not sure where to start when looking for a musician to partner with. But don’t worry, there are many options to try:
- If you’ve recently graduated or studied music at a higher education establishment at some point in your life, a good starting point may be to contact them, as they may be able to put you in contact with other graduates.
- For those who piano is a more recent venture or hobby, there are many groups on Facebook such as Piano Network UK and forums on the internet which may offer you the chance to find someone eager to work with you.
- Music stores such as Chimes Music and Schott in London, or Forsyth in Manchester usually have noticeboards in their entrances. If you’re really struggling to find a partner, it may be worth asking them if you can pin up an advert.
9. Go to concerts
Watch Ilya Kondratiev play Schubert-Liszt: Gretchen am Spinnrade S558 at St Mary's Perivale in 2019
There’s nothing like the buzz you get from witnessing your favourite pianist perform, especially if they’ve played something close to your heart. Sadly, the reality is that concerts can be quite expensive, especially if you have to factor in travel, food, and perhaps even accommodation. For those of us on tighter budgets though, there are still so many options which are bound to remind you why you want to dedicate so much of your life to those 88 keys.
As I’ve already hinted, the internet is such a rich musical resource these days, with a huge number of concerts being streamed online. Well known venues such as Wigmore Hall now regularly film events, some of which can be streamed for free.
There are also many smaller venues to be found around, too, offering free lunchtime recitals. One of my current favourites is St. Mary’s Perivale in West London, which I’m fortunate enough to live just down the road from. St Mary’s gained prominence during the pandemic having run their entire concert series online with a team of extremely dedicated volunteers. Now back in person, their success continues both on the internet and back in their beautiful, intimate building with a particular focus on supporting young and emerging artists. Recent highlights include recitals and talks from esteemed pianists Peter Donohoe, Norma Fisher and Leeds Competition finalist Thomas Kelly, with forthcoming events including a cycle of Mozart’s 18 Piano Sonatas played by 18 different pianists.
10. Learn more about your instrument
It's very important to remember that so much of the repertoire we play was not conceived on the instruments we are so familiar with today, so it really is worth delving into the instrument's history. If you aren’t yet acquainted with the sound of Chopin’s piano, then I urge you to spend some time on YouTube listening to some of his works played on early Pleyel instruments; the purity of their tone will undoubtedly give you food for thought on your own interpretations.
Watch pianist Eric Clark perform on an 1837 Erard piano at the International Chopin Competition in 2018
There are many places in which you can experience these instruments for yourself if you’re brave enough to ask; museums, conservatoires and even a few historic houses are home to period instruments and are often more than happy for you to give their keyboard instruments a try if you show an interest (providing they are in good condition).
If you’re keen to learn more about modern day instruments, or even just try out some of the finest pianos on sale today, visit your closest piano showroom and spend a few hours there. You’ll be amazed what you can learn about the intricacies and peculiarities of modern-day pianos.
11. Find yourself a teacher or mentor
It may come as a surprise to some, but most of the top pianists still periodically see teachers or have mentors to offer them advice on their playing or career direction. We have already touched upon the point that there is always more to learn in music; as Igor Stravinsky so eloquently put it, “I haven’t understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt it”. To that end, if you find yourself losing motivation having plateaued in your playing, you may like to find a teacher or mentor to help get you back on track.
There are plenty of resources available today to help you find a teacher. Contacting universities, conservatoires and specialist music schools can be a great place to start, with institutions such as the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama offering lessons with their Junior Department professors to the amateur community. EPTA UK and the ISM both also offer directories of highly skilled teachers around the country.
12. Set yourself manageable goals
One of our greatest pitfalls as humans is trying to take too much on in one go. It’s wonderful when we get excited about learning a new piece, but if we’re not careful, this enthusiasm can soon snowball uncontrollably until we have a pile of music on the side of our pianos the height of a medium sized mountain.
The question you must ask yourself is, ‘Am I musically satisfied with my current repertoire?’. Unless you’re Stephen Hough or András Schiff, the answer to this question is probably no. Spreading yourself too thinly can be detrimental to our ambitions as pianists.
The solution is to set small, manageable goals. My students are forever asking me what my thoughts are about how long they should practise for and my answer is always the same: little and often is far more effective than trying to do too much in one go. So, if you’re working your way through a Beethoven Sonata, task yourself with getting to the end of the exposition in the first movement by the beginning of the next week, not the end of the whole movement. That way, you’re likely to have a far deeper and more musical understanding of what you’re playing, which in the long run will save you a great deal of time and effort.
So, there you are, my twelve tips to help you rediscover your pianistic spark during this tricky time of year. I can’t guarantee that all my ideas will work for you, but whatever route you choose to go down, I wish you all the very best of luck and a hugely rewarding year of music making.