Grand passion

28th June 1996 at 01:00
At 10 Michael Church was obsessed with the piano. Forty years on, still an enthusiastic player, he investigates the exam pieces available for today's young pianists.

My parents bought our first piano - a beaten-up old crock costing Pounds 22 - when I was ten. Until that moment I had regarded pianism as something for ever beyond me. The thicket of black dots on the page were one mystery, and the un-named, un-numbered keys were another: the process of reconciling these things seemed a kind of magic.

With the piano, came lessons from a fiery lady in a wheelchair who lived across the road. She was a tyrant, but she had a Bluethner grand, and even my pedestrian exercises sounded wonderful on it. Everything we did was geared to the graded examinations of a mysterious body called the Associated Board. When I was 13 we moved to a different town, where I was entrusted to another tyrant. "Festina lente" was his watchword - "hasten slowly" - and he urged me on, as though we were scaling Mount Everest, towards the same board's upper grades.

Each exam was a daunting event: a chilly encounter in a strange room with a man - always a man - who scribbled in silence. Compared with other friends who played, I was not especially talented, but the instrument became an obsession. I began to haunt the local library, carrying home scores which were way beyond my capacities, but through which I painfully picked my path night after night. Liszt was impossible, but Beethoven was fascinating. Almost without realising it, I had stumbled on the pleasure of "playing through" complex music - a pleasure which has nothing to do with whether you can actually "play" it. Following a composer's train of thought, especially if it's as ceaselessly inventive as Beethoven's, is a journey worth making for its own sake.

I went to Proms and stood as close to the piano as possible. I listened to Third Programme concerts - in the Fifties, most BBC music was broadcast live - with the Penguin book, The Concerto, in hand. I was the pianistic equivalent of a trainspotter, and I loved every minute of it.

My brief dream of becoming a concert pianist evaporated with sudden finality when, at 14, I heard a boy in the year below me at school do a warm-up before giving a concert at the end of term. (Stephen Savage, to be precise: a pianist I now hear on Radio 3, and always with pleasure.) He very obviously had what it took: I just as obviously hadn't. But I went on through the grades, passing very decently, until Grade VIII stopped me in my tracks: it took 20 minutes simply to play once through the set pieces, let alone practise them, and there weren't enough hours in my A-level day.

Belatedly discovering jazz, I made strenuous efforts to emulate Thelonius Monk, Count Basie, and Art Tatum. (Well, forget Tatum - only virtuosos need apply.) I could learn a jazz piece from sheet music, but I couldn't improvise to save my life. Try as I might to prevent it, my fingers would insist on falling into classical harmonic resolutions. Jazz was a language they had no wish to speak. So I went back to Bach and Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin. And thus it has been, give or take a bit of Bartok and Granados, for most of the past 30 years. I have had no lessons, but I have hammered away at the same few dozen pieces with considerable pleasure. But also with frustration: the bad habits I got into during my adolescence - tension, leading to hurrying, leading in turn to more tension, in a vicious spiral - have become deeply ingrained.

I blame this partly on the malign effects of the cult of virtuosity, the assumption that pianism is essentially a matter of athletics. Until the end of the 18th century, composers wrote primarily for amateurs playing at home. In his earlier years, virtuoso though he was, even Beethoven wrote for amateur performers: only in later life did he leave such considerations behind. But from Liszt, Chopin, and Schumann onwards, the whole game became skewed: their concert works are wonderful, but they opened up an unhealthy divide in the musical world.

Interviewing the Japanese pianist Mitsuko Uchida last year, I was taken aback by the example she gave of a work which she was loath to perform in public: Mozart's simple little C Major sonata. So simple, she said, that it was fiendishly difficult to master. Yet this is an examination perennial. Keyboard athletics have nothing to do with the challenge it poses: the exam boards fudge the point.

Each year the boards announce a fresh syllabus, but these syllabuses don't change much from decade to decade. Since the Trinity College board has just published a new-look syllabus, with additional components devoted to electronic keyboard work, it seems appropriate to ask for their rationale.

What Trinity's chief examiner says about the examination process would have been - forgive the pun - music to my adolescent ears. "We want to make the experience pleasurable, with approachable examiners who use their eyes as well as their ears. And we want pupils to regard the exam as a performance. It may only be the initial stage, but for them it's still the equivalent of a Wigmore Hall debut. The important thing is to evaluate the substance of the performance, not to respond merely with arid marks and comments."

For each grade they offer a wide selection of pieces grouped in three sections: one for pure dexterity, one for a Romantic piece, and one for something in a 20th century idiom. The pieces have been chosen to allow pupils to follow the technical fast-track if they want to, but musicianship per se is all-important. When I ask whether the musicianship involved in playing electronic keyboards is not a trifle bogus, the examiner produces the perfect riposte. "You could say the same of the organ, which has been using stops on the same basis for the last 200 years." Trinity proudly point to the presence, in their Grade 2 syllabus, of a piece by Harrison Birtwistle, and to a Richard Rodney Bennett piece a few grades on. This highlights a contemporary crux: composers are busily adding to the pile of big virtuoso works on offer, but scarcely at all to the educationally-vital repertoire of pieces lasting two or three minutes.

And this was the spur for a remarkable new collection of short pieces - published by the Associated Board - which the pianist Thalia Myers has just compiled. The 20 pieces in Spectrum represent most of the leading composers in Britain today. "I had no educational intention when I commissioned these works," says Myers. "I simply wanted them to be accessible to good amateurs, and to advanced students who were not virtuosic but wanted to try contemporary music for the first time."

As an "average" amateur, I found some difficulty in reading the intention behind some of these pieces - the idioms are often uncompromising - so I got Myers to play them through. And yes, I was convinced: there are pieces in this book which I shall hack away at for years to come. But I do think the publishers should produce an accompanying cassette: there's nothing more dispiriting than practising a piece without having any idea how it should sound.

Myers believes that Spectrum offers the late 20th-century equivalent of Beethoven Bagatelles. Two or three of these pieces might (just) claim that honour, as might the recently-published Collected Piano Pieces of Howard Skempton. But while Spectrum errs on the rebarbative side, Skempton - whose book is sensibly accompanied by a CD - tends towards the anodyne. We still await someone with the requisite blend of fancy, wit, and intellectual grit to rival the great Viennese master. In other words, we are back where we started.

But what a marvellous place to be. For Beethoven's Bagatelles were only the tip of a musical iceberg. Schumann's short pieces are nearer perfection - and aesthetically more interesting - than many of his larger works. Three quarters of Chopin's output is never played in recitals, and it contains gems of startling originality. Try Bach's Partitas, or dig into Scarlatti's 600 sonatas; investigate Clementi, and the lesser-known sonatas by Haydn. Or come forward to Ravel - try the minuet from his Sonatine, or his Pavane Pour une Infante Defunte. Come forward a little further to Satie - exquisite musical thoughts, and very easy to play. And then try some of the short pieces in which Bartok married folk tunes and avant-garde experiment.

Brief is beautiful. With stuff like this you've got a world under your fingers. A world, moreover, which could take a pleasurable lifetime to explore.

Play them again - and again

Spectrum Associated Board Publishing Pounds 7.95

Collected Piano Pieces by Howard Skempton. Oxford University Press Pounds 11.50

Well, Well, Cornelius: works by Howard Skempton played by John Tilbury: Sony Sk 66482

The best available CD of Bartok's collected piano music is by Zoltan Kocsis (boxed set, Philips 446 368-2)

Trinity College is the principal sponsor of the Music Education Conference at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on July 8

This year's European Music for Youth prize is for pianists. The competition will be held at the Purcell Room on July 8

You've got a world under your fingers. A world, moreover, which could take a pleasurable lifetime to explore.

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