When I Don’t Play the Piano

Schubert took piano lessons aged six, but don't let that put you off



By Stephen Hough

A concert pianist is someone who plays the piano in concerts. So far so good, although it may be worth adding the adverb ‘regularly’ to that description. Someone did once tell me that his Aunt Ada was a concert pianist. “She had a lovely touch and played to great acclaim in a concert in our church hall – ‘Rustle of Spring’ I think.”

To avoid any confusion the clip above was played by Semprini, not Aunt Ada.

I’ve written before on this blog about how much more time is spent practising secretly at home or backstage than in front of an audience. It’s the training leading up to the Wimbledon Final, the solitary punchbag months before the blood flies into the roaring crowds at the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship.

But between home and the stage there are many hours when I want to work and I can’t. It’s one of the greatest frustrations of my touring life that, unlike other instrumentalists, I arrive at a hotel without my instrument. There’s that hour before dinner or the time spent twiddling thumbs before doing an interview when I would love to twiddle all ten fingers and check through a passage in my concerto or just get loosened up after a long flight … and I can’t.

Or at least the effort involved in doing so can be enormous. A piano somewhere in the hotel is the best solution, as long as it’s far away from prying ears. It has been suggested to me in the past that I play in the atrium lobby, amidst the mingling guests, the palm trees, the pile-up of Samsonite suitcases. Not even ‘Rustle of Spring’ is thinkable in those circumstances, I’m afraid. If the hotel is a mere walk from the hall then that’s the next best scenario although, later in the evening, there’s unlikely to be someone waiting just for me at the stage door. It has to be planned in advance and it’s often hard to know my plans in advance.

Then the options start to get worse, a taxi ride to a distant hall in heavy traffic, for instance. Finding the venue itself is the first hurdle but then, how to find the stage door? I’ve spent many occasions circling the building, rattling rusty handles, banging my fists against flaking doors, pressing antique buzzers, shouting through glass walls, leaving voicemail messages … to no avail.

Sometimes a generous patron will invite me to use his or her piano. Now I don’t want to sound like I don’t appreciate such kind offers (and sometimes it’s been the beginning of a wonderful friendship) but in my experience pianos in strange homes often come with cats … or rattling photo frames perilously balanced on piano lids, or a vase of trembling flowers on the same, or an impossibly high bench, or a squeaky pedal. And worst of all is the person who, leaving the door open, says to me: “Oh, I love the piano. Don’t mind me. I’ll just be in the next room if you need anything. What are you going to practise?” Then I freeze. I simply can’t work if I know someone is listening to me. It’s a bit like writing when someone is looking over your shoulder. Self-consciousness makes self-expression (and self-criticism) impossible.

So for a long time I oscillated between these various unsatisfactory formats until in more recent years I just stopped trying to practise on the road at all. But then a few seasons ago I started renting an electric keyboard if I was going to stay in a city for more than a couple of days. It was wonderful, saving time and making time so much more fruitful. I’d turn the volume down very low and work away at any time of the day or night.

I’m just beginning a two-month tour, starting in Hobart this week with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and Marko Letonja, playing all five Beethoven concertos for the first time. And, also for the first time, I’ve brought along my own electric piano. It’s an experiment and so far (during a short stop at a beach in Thailand last week) it’s been invaluable. A full length keyboard of 88 keys is no good because, as well as being just that bit too heavy to maneuver, it won’t fit into a regular taxi.

But then I discovered the Nord 76-key Piano 2 with Hammer Action. Hand-made in Sweden (yes, I did a second take too) it’s the perfect tool for the job. There are lots of pieces of course which you can’t play from start to finish with a reduced keyboard (although only one note, occurring just three times, in all five Beethoven concertos is missing) but, like a ballet dancer at the barre, in just thirty minutes I can warm up, stretch the muscles, work at a few problem passages here and there and generally keep in shape without having to leave my room. Now when I don’t play the piano I don’t want to.

By Stephen Hough

Concert pianist, writer of words and music, governor of royal ballet companies, theology, art, poetry, perfume, puddings. Website: www.stephenhough.com Twitter: @houghhough

via When I don’t play the piano – Telegraph Blogs.

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