Performing – just do it!

With my students’ concert fast approaching, this article, which I wrote for a colleague’s student concert programme, seems particularly apt…..

Never underestimate the value of performing, whether at home for family, friends and pets, or in a ‘proper’ concert venue on a really special grand piano. Performing for others, and the ability to just get up and do it, is an important life skill as it encourages confidence and self-reliance.

The rush of adrenaline that comes with performing often forces you to ‘raise your game’ and play better, and interesting things can happen to your music when played before an audience, which may not occur during practice. It is also important to experience the difference between practice and performance, and to put your music ‘out there’ and offer it up to other people. Performing endorses all those lonely hours we spend practising, and reminds us that music is for sharing.

It is important for students to hear each other perform too: if you have an opportunity to hear what other students in your teacher’s studio are working on, especially the more advanced students, you will feel inspired and keen to progress. It is also a means of sharing and discovering new repertoire: you may hear a piece you’ve never heard before and want to learn it.

Performing adds to one’s credibility. Whether a professional or an amateur, it is important to prove that you can actually do it, and, for the amateur pianist, the benefits of performing are immeasurable: you never really demonstrate your technique properly until you can demonstrate it in a performance. Music and technique are inseparable, and if you perform successfully, it proves you have practised correctly and thoughtfully, instead of simply note-bashing. This works conversely too, for if you are properly prepared, you should have nothing to fear when you perform. The benefits for younger students are even greater: preparing music for performance teaches them to complete a real task and to understand what is meant by “music making”. It encourages students to “play through”, glossing over errors rather than being bothered by them, instead of stop-start playing which prevents proper flow. It also teaches students to communicate a sense of the music, to “tell the story”, and to understand what the composer is trying to say. And if you haven’t performed a piece, how can you say it is truly “finished”?

The auditorium at London's Wigmore Hall

Opus and Köchel, Fitzpatrick and Deutsch

How music is catalogued

To help us identify and organise pieces of music by a particular composer, individual compositions or sets are usually given an “Opus” number. The word “opus” is Latin and means “work” or “work of art”. The abbreviation is “Op.”, or “Opp.” in the plural. The practice of assigning an “opus number” to a work or set of works when the work or set was published began in the seventeenth century. Opus numbers were not usually used in chronological order and did not necessarily denote when a work was actually composed. Unpublished works often were left without opus numbers.

From the 1800s onwards, Beethoven in particular assigned opus numbers to individual works and sets (including piano pieces, songs and other short works) as they were completed and published: low opus numbers indicate early works, while high opus numbers (for example, the Piano Sonata Opus 110) are works composed and published at the end of Beethoven’s life. Works published posthumousaly (after death) were also assigned high opus numbers, while some works were not given an opus number at all, and were later catalogued in the 1950s as WoO (Werke ohne opus/’works without opus number’). These include the three ‘Electoral’ piano sonatas, written when Beethoven was a very young man, which are not usually included with the main body of the Piano Sonatas (32 in total, whose opus numbers range from Opus 2 to Opus 111).

Not all music has an opus number. The music of Bach is given a ‘BWV’ number, which is an abbreviation of “Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis” (literally, “directory of Bach’s works”), and was the cataloguing system for Bach’s music used by Wolfgang Smieder in the 1950s.

Similarly, Mozart’s music is catalogued with “K numbers” from the name of the cataloguer, Köchel. A low K number indicates a piece written when Mozart was very young, while a high number indicates a piece written at the end of his life. Some people know the works by their K numbers alone.

Ralph Kirkpatrick catalogued the numerous works of Domenico Scarlatti in a facsimile edition, and so these pieces are also given a K number, usually written “Kk” to distinguish it from Mozart’s Köchel number. To make matters slightly more confusing, Scarlatti’s works also have a “Longo number” after Alessandro Longo’s edition for the piano. The Kk and Longo numbers do not correspond, which can make identifying a particular work by Scarlatti tricky; fortunately, there are tables of Kk and Longo numbers available online to help clear up such discrepancies.

Confused? Read on…..

Haydn’s works are generally referred to by their Hob or Hoboken numbers, after the cataloguer Anthony von Hoboken’s classification, though some have Opus numbers alone. The works are also grouped into categories, for example, I for symphonies, or XVI for the piano sonatas. The Piano Sonatas have both a work number and a Hob. number, which, like the works of Scarlatti, make identification more confusing.

Schubert’s works have both Opus and “Deutsch” numbers (after Otto Erich Deutsch’s catalogue). The first set of Impromptus for piano, for example, are both Opus 90 and D899. (I tend to refer to Schubert’s piano music by its D number, because that is how I have always known it.)

Music specialists and academics often also refer to the “autographed score” or “autograph version”. These are original scores, written out by the composer, or transcribed by an assistant, and represent the first finished version, and are important historical documents in the scholarship of a particular composer’s works (over the years, music is subjected to editing; in recent years, scholars have gone back to autographed editions to understand the composer’s original intentions or to clear up questions of attribution or interpretation). Very occasionally, an original autographed score will come to light, which was previously thought to be lost, or non-existent, which can create a lot of excitement amongst music specialists and academics, as well as fetching significant sums at auction. In 2009, researchers unearthed two pieces of music thought to have been written by Mozart when he was still a boy, and earlier this year a ‘new’ piece by Mozart was premiered, after an autographed notebook was found in the attic of a house in Austria.

Autograph score sheet of 10th Bagatelle Opus 119 by Ludwig van Beethoven

A History of Classical Music – Part 4: Romantic

'The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog' by Caspar David Friedrich

Just like the Baroque and Classical periods before it, the Romantic period in music coincides with the Romantic period in art and literature. The Romantic period in music starts around 1820, a few years before Beethoven died (in 1827), and Beethoven’s music can be considered to bridge the gap between the Classical and Romantic periods. Schubert was also a Classical-period composer whose music can be considered very Romantic: his music expresses deep feelings and a great variety of moods and emotions.

The Romantic era also coincides with a very turbulent period of history: Napoleon had been defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and in the subsequent years, the European powers (including Great Britain) worked hard to establish political stability following the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. However, conflicts and revolutions continued to rage across Europe: this was a difficult period to be alive, and this is often reflected in the music, art and literature of the time.

Romantic music is all about feelings, and how to express those feelings in music. Music from the Baroque and Classical periods was for entertainment, at home or at court, or for the church, while Romantic music is ‘music for music’s sake’. Romantic music used and extended the structures set down in the Classical period (such as the Sonata, Concerto or Symphony) but extended these in an attempt to create music that expressed deep or passionate human feelings and truths. Romantic music drew inspiration from other art forms such as literature and painting, from history (and historical figures), and from nature. Some composers are described as “romantic” though they lived outside of the Romantic period, such as Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (1874-1943).

During the nineteenth-century the symphony orchestra (and its instruments) developed further and grew much bigger, and the invention of an iron frame for the piano made it a stronger and more versatile instrument, capable of a bigger sound. Romantic composers took advantage of these developments to produce music that is often broad in scope, with contrasting dynamics, melodies, colour and mood. The key features of Romantic music are:

  • A strong sense of melody (tune), often very beautiful, lyrical and song-like
  • Freedom in structure and design: Romantic music is a more personal expression of the imagination, fantasy or adventure
  • More unusual and daring use of harmony and modulation (changes in key)
  • A rich variety of types of pieces, such as songs, ‘piano miniatures’ (short pieces), tone poems to enormous symphonies lasting over an hour, with spectacular dramatic and dynamic effects.
  • Connections and unity within a work through the use of themes or musical “mottos” (also called leitmotif). Richard Wagner is perhaps the most famous for this, particularly in his operas.
  • Greater technical virtuosity (skill), especially in pianists (such as Liszt, violinists (Paganini) and flautists.
  • The concert as a ‘spectacle’, or ‘occasion’ – much as the modern classical concert is now.
  • The performer as a celebrity (Liszt, Paganini)

Some of the greatest composers of the Romantic period are:

Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849): composed a huge amount of music for the piano, often ‘miniatures’ (small-scale works) such as Nocturnes, Preludes, Etudes, Scherzi, Ballades. Also music inspired by the folk dances from his homeland (Poland) such as Polonaises and Mazurkas. He transformed the Waltz from a drawing room dance to an elegant concert piece (his most famous waltz is the ‘Minute’ Waltz (Opus 64/1), so-called, not because it should last only a minute, but because it is small.) Most famous works: Piano Sonata in B-flat minor (includes the famous ‘Funeral March’), Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2, Fantasie-Impromptu Op 66, ‘Raindrop’ Prelude.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856): Wrote songs, works for orchestra and chorus, many piano works, his most famous being Kreisleriana. His piano concerto is one of the most famous of all piano concertos. His music displays many contrasts in mood. His wife, Clara, was a fine virtuoso pianist and a composer in her own right. Most famous works: Papillons (Butterflies) and Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood), Piano Quintet in E flat, Dichterliebe (a song cycle).

Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt (1811-1886): As well as a composer, Liszt was also a virtuoso pianist, who turned the piano recital into the showpiece it is today. He was also a revered teacher and championed many young composers such as Wagner and Berlioz. He wrote a great deal of music for the piano, much of which is very difficult to play, and is considered some of the finest music ever written for the instrument. He wrote the first ‘symphonic poem’, a piece for orchestra which tells a story, and a lot of his music was inspired by literature and art. One of his most famous works for piano is the Années de Pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage), a suite of pieces which describe his travels around Switzerland and Italy, conjuring up images of mountain streams, thunderstorms, countryside and art works. Other important works include: ‘Faust’ Symphony, the B-minor Piano Sonata, Hungarian Rhapsodies (inspired by the music of his homeland, Hungary), Transcendental Etudes (very technically difficult pieces for piano).

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901): Italian composer most famous for operas, including Aida, Rigoletto and La Traviata, which contain many well-known and much-loved arias (songs) and choruses (such as Nessun Dorma).

Richard Wagner (1813-1883): German composer famous for operas (including the ‘Ring’ cycle), and other music which is large in scale and scope, with complex harmonies and rich textures.

Pyotyr Illyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893): Russian composer who is perhaps most famous for his ballet music (Swan Lake, Romeo & Juliet, The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty). Also, symphonies, piano concertos, piano miniatures.

Other Romantic composers to explore: Felix Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms, Edvard Grieg, Hector Berlioz, Gustav Mahler

Romantic playlist

Reblogged: Stage Fright – 5 tips

I am reblogging this post from pianist Melanie Spanswick’s ClassicalMel blog as it contains some very helpful advice for anyone preparing for a performance (or exam), whether amateur or professional.

Over the past few days I have had several requests from readers for a blog post dealing with stress and nerves associated with performance. I have written on this subject before but there is always plenty to write about.

Nerves can a big problem for many musicians; it really doesn’t matter whether pianists (or any instrumentalists for that matter) are amateur or professional. Sometimes professionals can get even more nervous because so much depends on the quality of their performances. I have frequently suffered from nerves during my career as a pianist so here are a few tips to implement in your daily practice regime to help combat this problem.

  1. Before feeling comfortable in front of an audience, you really need to know the piece or pieces that you are going to play inside out – literally. Practise them every day (both slowly and up to speed) and then make sure you play them through to yourself at least once at the end of the practise session. Whilst doing this don’t stop to correct mistakes – just keep going as though you are already playing to an audience. This will help you become accustomed to ‘giving a performance’.
  2. Once you have done the above, try to ‘talk’ yourself through your piece. We all have a little voice in our head that is often very uncooperative under pressure. Tame this voice! Tell yourself that you already play your piece very well and nothing is going to stop you sharing it with your audience. This technique can be amazingly effective. I have used it many times as you can probably tell.
  3. It can be useful to locate different points in the music (this is especially important if you play from memory) where you can ‘regroup’ in your head. It might be a favourite section or passage. It really doesn’t matter where or what it is in the score but thinking about it or acknowledging it at a certain point (or points) can give amazing confidence. I don’t know how that works but it does so try it!
  4. Cultivate the practice of ‘thinking’ under pressure; the ability to ignore your audience to a degree and concentrate fully on the music. This is why it’s so important to love what you are playing and lose yourself in the music. Points 2 & 3 will help with this but you can also focus on what you particularly enjoy about your piece. List all the elements or features that you love and then mark them on the score (your music). Again, this will keep your mind occupied during your performance; more time focused on the music is less time worrying about your audience and potential mistakes.
  5. One of the most effective ways of learning to perform is to arrange a little piano group (if the piano is your instrument). Even if you are taking Grades 1 or 2, you can still find a few others who are a similar level to yourself and play to them – preferably once a week. You may be able to persuade your teacher to arrange a group for you. After a few (probably wobbly) sessions you will gradually become much more confident. It may even cure your nerves completely.

One other point that I feel is important and often ignored; never play pieces that are too difficult for you at your present level. This will merely make you miserable when faced with the huge and stressful task of performing them. Pick easier works so you play them well and with confidence.

If you are taking a music exam or planning a public performance don’t leave it too late to prepare – if you leave it to the day of your performance you may be very nervous indeed and will not play your best. My book, So you want to play the piano? has many helpful hints about performing and is especially designed for beginners. It will be available as an ebook soon.

A History of Classical Music – Part 3: Classical


The Classical Period in music falls between Baroque and Romantic. Music from the Classical period was composed between c1750 and c1820. But, as I explained in the first section of this history, ‘Classical’ has become a general term and includes music from the Baroque to present-day.

Like the Baroque, the Classical period in music coincided with the classical period in art and architecture. During the classical period, many of the features of music which we understand today were established such as composition, presentation, and style. The basic organisation of the orchestra was laid out and expanded, the piano and clarinet were invented, and instruments such as the oboe and bassoon were refined.Traditional Baroque instruments such as the harpsichord fell out of use, to be replaced by the newly-invented piano. Musical “forms” (structures) such as Sonata Form were developed during the Classical period.

The “symphony” (a work for orchestra, usually in three or four “movements” or sections) developed as a distinct musical form (the composer Joseph Haydn was instrumental – forgive the pun! – in the development of the symphony) and the “concerto” (a piece for solo instrument, such as the violin or piano, and orchestra in three or four movements) became an important piece for virtuoso (“showing off”) playing skills.

Key features of Classical music:

  1. Melody: music from the classical period has a distinct tune or melody which is heard above an accompaniment. There is less weaving together of tunes (“counterpoint”) than in Baroque music, which makes Classical music sound simpler and clearer.
  2. Contrasts: changes of sound (dynamics), mood, and texture (things like staccato, legato, accents), melodies, rhythm
  3. Shape: greater use of phrasing and “cadences” (stopping points in the music) to mark out distinct sections of the music.

Some of the most famous pieces of music were composed during the Classical Period, such as Haydn’s great choral work The Creation, Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachmusic (‘A Little Night Music’), and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

The best way to get to know more about Classical music is to listen to it.

Top Classical composers:

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): often called “the father of the symphony” (he wrote over 100, some with famous nicknames such as the Surprise, the Hen, the Clock, the Drumroll) or by his nickname “Papa Haydn”. Also wrote many piano sonatas, developing this form more fully. Also string quartets, choral music, and more. Haydn was Beethoven’s teacher for a while.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): considered by many people to be not just the greatest classical composer, but the greatest composer ever. Mozart was a “child prodigy” (very gifted) and started composing music when he was 5. He played and wrote for kings, queens and other royalty all over Europe. He composed over 600 pieces of music, including symphonies, concertos, sonatas, string quartets, operas and choral works.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Like Mozart, Beethoven is one of the greatest composers of all time. He wrote 9 symphonies, and his last symphony was revolutionary with its ‘Ode to Joy’ in the final movement, a song for solo singers, chorus and orchestra. He wrote 32 piano sonatas (including the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata), which span his entire adult life and show how his musical style developed and changed, and 5 concertos for piano. He wrote string quartets, sonatas for piano and violin, and for piano and ‘cello, choral works and even an opera (‘Fidelio’). He was fiercely independent, and had a reputation for being very grumpy. Of course, the most famous fact about him is that he went completely deaf – and yet still managed to compose some of the greatest music ever. His music was so original that he invented a completely new style of music – Romantic.

Franz Peter Schubert (1797-1828); Schubert greatly admired Beethoven, and was very nervous the first time he met Beethoven. He asked to be buried next to Beethoven when he died – and he was. Despite dying at the age of only 31, he produced a huge amount of music, including over 600 songs, as well as sonatas for piano, and piano and violin, symphonies, string quartets and choral music. He bridges the Classical and Romantic periods in music. Romantic music is all about moods and emotions: Schubert’s music can be very emotional, with rapidly changing moods and colours, from desperately sad to amazingly beautiful. He had a fine sense of melody and when playing Schubert, you should never forget that he was a composer of songs.

Other classical composers: Hummel, Weber, Boccherini, C P E Bach (one of J S Bach’s sons), Gluck, Clementi

Classical playlist

A History of Classical Music – Part 2: Baroque

J S Bach

Baroque (“baah-rock”) is a style of art, which includes music, architecture and painting, and which lasted from around 1600 to around 1750. The greatest composer of the Baroque period is Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).

Baroque is a style of music, rather than an exact period of time. In other words, some composers lived during the Baroque period, but their music isn’t necessarily “totally Baroque” in style (for example, Domenico Scarlatti, or Georg Frederic Handel). The best way to get to know Baroque music is to listen to it (this is true for all classical music!). When you listen to Baroque music, you will begin to notice two distinct features:

  1. ‘Twiddly bits’. Baroque music has lots of twiddles on notes. The proper name for these twiddles is “ornaments”, “decoration” or “trills”. These were often used to add interest to the music, especially during a repeated section, or to add “sound” if the piece was played on the harpsichord which cannot sustain sound in the same way as the piano. If you look at Baroque architecture, you will see lots of twiddly bits in that too. All this decoration helps to make the architecture much more interesting – just like in the music. One of my students, Eli, is a big fan of Bach’s music and describes the trills and mordents (a kind of ornament) in the Menuet in G minor which he learnt for his Grade 2 exam as “the last bit of topping on the pizza”, or the “icing on the cake”.
  2. Baroque music is made up of many different strands or “tunes” which all come together – or sometimes oppose each other – to create the whole piece. This is called “counterpoint” and is a key feature of music from the Baroque period.
Baroque decoration

Baroque music often seems very ordered, and logical, but it’s never boring. Italian Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi (1674-1741) wrote The Four Seasons, which is a wonderful piece for orchestra which describes the different seasons: try listening to the Tempest (storm) in from ‘Summer’ for some really descriptive music.

Baroque music remains very popular today and is widely performed, sometimes on “period instruments” – instruments which are either from the Baroque period (and therefore very rare) or are authentic copies of Baroque instruments.

The piano as we know it didn’t exist during the Baroque period, so composers such as Bach and Scarlatti were writing for other keyboard instruments, such as the harpsichord, spinet (baby harpsichord), clavichord and organ. Today many pianists play Baroque music on the piano. One of the most famous works for keyboard is the Goldberg Variations, by J S Bach. Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982) made two definitive recordings of the Goldberg Variations, in 1955 and 1982. Here he is playing the ‘Aria’, which is the first piece of the work:

Further listening:

J S Bach: Brandenberg Concertos, the Well-Tempered Clavier, Cantatas, Harpsichord and Violin Concertos, St John Passion (written for Easter)

George Frideric Handel: The Messiah (includes the “Hallelujah” chorus), Water Music, Music for the Royal Fireworks, Keyboard Suites, operas. (Although German by birth, Handel lived in London, and you can still visit his house and play some of the harpsichords there.)

Antonio Vivaldi: The Four Seasons, many concertos for solo instrument (for example, two mandolins) and orchestra, operas

Domenico Scarlatti: 100s of keyboard (harpsichord) sonatas, of many contrasting styles and moods

Other composers from the Baroque period: Teleman, Rameau, Couperin, Albinoni, Allegri, Lully, Purcell, Corelli, Pergolesi

‘Summer’ from The Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi, performed by Europa Galante

Baroque Playlist – a short playlist of some of the best known Baroque pieces

50 Best Baroque Pieces

Handel House Museum

Seating plan: the modern classical orchestra & the piano

The modern classical orchestra has a distinct ‘seating plan’, and is organised by different groups of instruments – strings (violins, violas, ‘cellos, double basses), woodwind (flutes, oboes, bassons, clarinets), brass (trumpets, trombones, horns) and percussion (drums, cymbals, triangles, xylophones). The conductor leads this group of musicians, reading the music from an ‘orchestral score’, which is a copy of all the music for each instrument. The modern classical orchestra looks like this:

You can find out more about the modern orchestra here, including information on each group of instruments.

The piano is usually a ‘solo’ instrument, and is not part of the general orchestra. It is brought onto the stage specially for a particular piece, usually a ‘Concerto’, a large-scale work for piano and orchestra in three or four movements (or sections). The piano is usually positioned to the left of the conductor, in front of the first violins. A modern concert grand piano is between 2.2 and 3 metres long. Here are a few of the most famous concertos written for piano:

Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 21 (‘Elivira Madigan’ – so called because the famous slow movement was used as a soundtrack for a film of the same name)

Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 5 ‘Emperor’

Grieg – Piano Concerto in A minor, Op 16

Tchaikosvky – Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor

Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No. 3

Saint-Saens – Piano Concerto in G minor

Listen to some piano concertos here

A concert grand piano on stage with the rest of the orchestra's seating