On piano teaching and performing



by the late Dame Fanny Waterman 


This excerpt is the final chapter from the book Fanny Waterman on Piano Teaching and Performing


When I go to a concert fresh, alert and expectant, I sometimes find that, after a time, instead of listening to Beethoven’s opus 110 or Chopin’s Second Ballade, my mind is wandering on to other matters:


5 lbs of potatoes

2 lbs of carrots

2 lbs of onions

1 lb of tomatoes


What connection can this possibly have with music? There is none. I have focused on tomorrow’s shopping expedition to the supermarket; try as I will, I cannot concentrate on the music, which passes over me and becomes incidental.


‘To know whether you are enjoying a piece of music or not,’ wrote Samuel Butler in 1890, ‘you must see whether you find yourself looking at the advertisement for Pears Soap at the end of the programme book.’


Why does one switch off like this? And yet, on other occasions, when one is tired and not in the mood for listening to music, why does one find the performance compelling and wish that time could stand still? The answer lies in the performer’s artistry – that elusive, almost magical quality that is the hallmark of all great musicians and transcends the boundaries of age, class, language and race to unite us all. Without that elusive magical quality, no performer can make the listener listen.


Heinrich Neuhaus, one of the greatest Russian teachers, asks: ‘What must be done to make a performance live? Is it patience, work, suffering, joy, self-sacrifice?’ He says: ‘It is to play our magnificent piano literature in such a way as to make the hearer like it, to make him love life still more, make his feeling more intense, his longings more acute and give greater depth to his understanding.’



Neuhaus's famous book, The Art of Piano Playing


Here is my list of emotions and moods garnered from piano literature over many years, to which I refer time and time again when teaching; these emotions, and many more, are to be found in the music of the great composers:


Charm · tragedy · tranquillity · resignation · happiness and sadness · humour · brilliance · playfulness · anger · fury · loving · romance · threatening · ominous · proud · powerful · noble · agitated · excited · grand · tender · mysterious · joyful · confident · ecstatic · simple · rippling · joking · passionate · dramatic · vivacious · striving · triumphant · questioning · amusing · sparkling · despondent · silence · watery · melancholic · majestic · lyrical · reflective · dreaming · moving and flowing · light · capricious · fire-y · tempestuous · stormy · whimsical


The performance is the culminating experience of an artist’s intensive work. Something extra happens during a performance that never happens during practice. A performance compels continuity, courage and great concentration. An audience is necessary to give the performer that vital inspiration and spontaneity. Rubinstein said that each audience stimulated him afresh, no matter how familiar were the works he was playing – and indeed one of the unique qualities of his playing was always his spontaneity.



Rubinstein performs Chopin Piano Concerto No 2, with André Previn as conductor


Alan Schulman, a cellist in the NBC Orchestra, in talking about one of the greatest teachers of the past, Toscanini, epitomised what I feel about music and its performance: ‘When I think of Toscanini’s performances, I think of the clarity of texture, architectural unity, his liner sense; his phrases were marvellous arcs. I think of the flexibility, the forward motion, and yet the repose. The ability to milk every note of the phrase with Italian warmth, intelligence and good taste. And the electrifying, incisive rhythm. Yet none of the musicians I knew, or who wrote about him could describe the final magic of his performances. He relied on his innate musical sense – “Cantare, non solfeggiare”, that is “Sing, don’t play exercises.”’



Toscanini conducts Verdi's La forza del destino overture


This magic cannot be taught but only stimulated. I advise all aspiring performers to develop a wide appreciation of the arts in general, to listen to as many live performances as possible, to study folksongs of many cultures, to take part in chamber music and accompany other musicians (especially singers), to sing in a choir, be an active listener in the concert hall, and to learn also to absorb the sights and sounds of everyday life.


Listening to birdsong helps one to understand the sound of the many of Beethoven’s trills. Messiaen, too, recorded birdsong and used it in his music. Bartók was influenced by the sounds of insects in the night. Think of the rhythmic beat of the wheels of a train – the triplet rhythm done to perfection; feel the lilt of a swing – 6/8 rhythm; observe the to-ing and fro-ing of waves on the shore – directly invoked in such music as Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse and La mer; savour the silence of the night; the tolling of bells… all these, recalled at the right moment, will perhaps help to illumine otherwise dull playing.



Seong-Jin Cho performs Debussy's L'isle joyeuse


Something makes people want to perform. I would never urge anyone on to the concert platform who does not wish to be there, and no teacher ever should. But for those who want to perform, the only way to learn the job is to do it. What the teacher must do is to help in creating the most favourable conditions for the individual artistry to emerge and flourish.


When I am asked what qualities a musician must possess to become a great performer, I would answer only half-jestingly: first, you must have inclination and imagination, backed up by application, concentration and determination. There will be perspiration and at times frustration, even tribulation. But with inspiration you will receive appreciation and possibly adulation!


This is the final excerpt from Fanny Waterman on Piano Teaching and Performing. Reproduced by permission of Faber Music Ltd.  If you have enjoyed this series, why not treat yourself to the book (ISBN-13: 978-0571525195), which also features Dame Fanny’s advice on preparing for a recital, preparing for a competition and formatting lessons.