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PIANO FOCUS

British pianists?

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t international piano competitions and at conservatoires there seems to be an abundance of brilliant young virtuoso lions from

Eastern Europe, China, Korea and Japan, but a notable lack of numbers from the UK. Last year’s Leeds International Piano Competition, for example, had only one single Brit, Sam Armstrong, amongst its selected first round pianists. In this respect it was fairly typical of most international competitions in recent years, where the British have tended to keep a low profile, to say the least. And if you venture into the internal

competitions of the Royal Academy and Royal College in London these days, a similar picture often emerges. There are fabulous young artists performing to an outstanding level in each institution, but sadly very few of these high-ranking pianists hail from our shores. Is Great Britain therefore in a state of terminal pianistic decline? I don't think so, though my reasons require some explanation, as well as some robust reminders. The British have always craved the exotic

in art. Performers from abroad carry glamour, internationalism and take us away from what we are used to, and they have rightly been made welcome in our concert halls. London still has every right to call itself the musical capital of the world and many of the world's greatest performers and conductors choose to make the city their home. But there is also a strong tradition of outstanding home-grown pianists, artists of the highest calibre – the likes of Dame Myra Hess, Solomon, Sir Clifford Curzon, Moura Lympany and Cyril Smith, for example. Their recordings show that the best of British is indeed glorious and remain as inspiring testaments to future generations. I would argue that their achievements have inspired younger British artists. Peter Katin, John Ogdon, David Wilde, John Lill, Bernard Roberts, Peter Donohoe, Martin Roscoe, Imogen Cooper, Barry Douglas, Stephen Hough – and many even younger pianists – have achieved so much on the international stage that one cannot seriously argue that there have been too few British pianists on the concert circuit in the last fifty or so years. But one could well say that many of these names have not had quite as much recognition or ‘success’ as they deserved on their home soil. Are British pianists under-valued as ‘prophets in their

own land’? I prefer to leave the question open, but it does naturally lead to an examination of how piano playing as a profession is viewed in society as a whole in the UK and, crucially, parental attitudes to piano study.

Pianos and Parents

These days parenting in the UK has to often be juggled with demanding professional careers. All too often parents feel guilty for being absent from their kids’ lives and try to make up for this by enrolling their offspring in as many leisure activities, hobbies and pursuits as possible. Just how practising the piano can fit in with this intense and expensive schedule is hard to imagine, and in any case, if practice does happen, Mum or Dad may be far too tired and busy on the home computer with their own work in the evenings to have any time left to supervise it. Contrast this scenario with what happens in China or Russia when there is a promising pianist in the family. Having recently visited the Central Music School in Moscow I was deeply impressed by the commitment, not only of the many outstanding young pianists I heard there, but also by the dedication and energetic involvement of the parents (usually mothers) who sat through all of the piano lessons which the youngest students (aged from five to eight) were given at the school. I was amazed to hear a six-year-old called Roma effortlessly tackling the first movement of Bach’s F minor concerto, but even more startled by the fact that the teacher spent just as much time in the

Murray MacLachlan

sixty-minute lesson discussing points with Roma’s mother as he spent working with Roma at the piano. When successful, music education is usually

very much a team effort at the highest level in eastern Europe and the far east. The piano seems to demand a huge range of family sacrifices that would appear to be incompatible with family life in our country. Of course in China the ‘Lang Lang’ factor has had a big influence, with many parents hoping that their child will be able to emulate this extraordinary artist’s success. We hear stories of jobs being abandoned so that one parent can spend literally their entire day coaching, encouraging, motivating – and doubtless scolding – their child into pianistic shape.

Leaving it too late

Of course generalisations are dangerous, and it is certainly over-simplistic to paint the UK picture solely as ‘fun’ and the Chinese-Russian scenario as dangerously obsessive. I would not wish to ruin the childhood of any musical talent through insisting on hours and hours of practice, but equally I am not happy about the common misconception that exists in this country, that it is vital to ‘keep options open’ by having as many irons in the fire as possible. Time and time again I have seen promising pianists waste their opportunities by leaving serious study of the instrument too late. Technical faults are left uncorrected, repertoires remain small, and numerous other interests are pursued before finally it is decided in the sixth form that music college entrance is what is desired. There then follows a mad scramble to get into shape for auditions, but it often comes too late. It may well still be possible to enter university for an academic music degree, but hopes of a high flying performing career will have gone. Other UK factors that get in the way of

piano playing at school age include peer pressure, excessive demands on time from academic subjects, teachers who plan programmes of work exclusively around the piano grade and diploma exam syllabuses, and parental suspicion of music as a viable career path. The grade exam/diploma issue is too big for this discussion. Let’s just say that there is nothing wrong with music exams at all, but that sadly there are too many teachers in the UK who teach only exam materials. Clearly outstanding pianists need to develop a great

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