Back to Chetham’s


After reading, please view Sarah’s Kickstarter to help her build a new piano.

Arriving in Manchester for the Chetham’s International Summer School and Festival for Pianists 2019 was a surreal experience.  It felt like I hadn’t been back to Chetham’s since my school days (Murray McLachlan later reminded me I’d done a talk in the early 2000s) and driving down Deansgate was bizarre. I couldn’t spot any of our favourite haunts! The next morning as I looked out of my drizzily hotel window, I spotted Chet’s – an historical island in an otherwise changed and modernised Manchester. Wow, was that really where I’d spent those four intense years of my life?

Chetham's through the drizzle
Chetham’s through the drizzle from my hotel window

Down at ground level approaching Chetham’s, things were just as different. The road by the cathedral, now pedestrianised as much of it is around there, didn’t boast the best barm shop any more, run by local women who showed me you could put salt on tomato to spice up the most basic sarnie. Now instead it was Zizzi and other ubiquitous brands. As I walked closer, I realised the school buildings were also very different indeed. I was excited as I walked through the arch into the main yard – up high on top of Millgate was ‘the flat’ where I lived for my final year (scene of much drama!), the old girl’s house corridor windows, then down here the lovely old Baronial Hall where I’d slipped on the stone step as I came on stage for my first concert, to play the Beethoven Variations in C Minor. But now I’m walking across the yard towards Palatine…and it’s gone, simply disappeared! There just remains a gate staring out into an abyss – as I approach, it’s just an empty site, some unremarkable grass 2 floors down. A truly existential moment, as the place where so many hundreds of hours were spent, so many memories formed, has vanished.

So now I walk back through the arch and along the stunning new bridge to the new building. Did Chet’s own all this land before? We used to sledge here in winter – the grass bank opposite Victoria Station. The whole place is transformed now into a massive cruise liner of a building, pleasingly curved and beautifully designed. The full height metal door slides open for me and the Oglesby Atrium beckons – several floors of bright white and internal windows, a fantastic architectural space which inspires a feeling of openness without being too big for normal-sized humans congregating at the bottom.

The lovely chaps from Pianospeed: Powered by Yorkshire Tea!

Kathryn Page is wonderfully welcoming and the first thing we have to manage is the delivery of my piano – arriving any minute. A piano mix-up ensues, as, directed by the porter: my re-configured Erard grand is delivered (by the brilliant Pianospeed) into a small practise room. It turns out that Forsyths had turned up at the same time with an upright, which might have been heading for my spacious teaching room if we hadn’t intercepted. Who knows how many pianos are arriving but once we eventually get the right pianos in the right places, I take time to appreciate the two other grand pianos in my room (!) – a good Yamaha and a gorgeous Kawai Shigeru, all soft and silky, still partially wrapped in plastic.

The rest of the day is spent constructing my piano and playing, then meeting people as they begin to arrive, one of them, Henry Lewis, turns out to be a piano relative – more on that later. I find Sarah Beth Briggs who I haven’t seen since my youth in Newcastle, and my old school friend and peer Leon McCawley (we both studied with Heather Slade-Lipkin at Chet’s and a few days in, we have a fun session reminiscing about her memorable teaching techniques). Then we’re straight into concerts in the Stoller Hall – an opening gala evening with maybe nearly 2 hours of music – and it’s clear that the hall can handle the most sensitive sound amazingly; it’s a beautiful space. Joseph Tong, who I also haven’t seen for years, plays Schumann easily and sensitively, with real fluidity and humility.

Me, Sarah Briggs, Leon McCawley, Janet Nicolls (my mum!) & Nikki Isles having a nice time!

The next day we start teaching and the regime is strict and tiring – 6 hours a day, start 9am. I have to admit it is slightly abrupt on the first morning, as I dash across from the hotel breakfast but immediately the talent and friendliness of my first pupil has me absorbed. 14-year-old Ruth plays completely in the moment, she is really inhabiting the music. Where I can help is in making choices – which cadence is the most important?, which corner the most special?, if this happens here, what could happen there? We work through the piece and that wonderful thing happens, when a piece just comes more alive. She is a great listener and I’m delighted. Next up, I have an improvisation pupil who is a little shy. I decide we should just play together and gradually, with each new piece, I sense she is starting to find a tiny bit more confidence. We talk about having a tool box of parameters – what could be changed just using dynamics, texture, pitch, character, articulation, tessitura and I use a technique taught to me by Sean Gregory at Guildhall School of Music. He made me improvise in front of a room of piano teachers and I was totally alarmed at this thought (despite having played probably billions of notes in front of audiences by then). He gave me one note – D. That was it. So, I was forced to experiment with everything else – rhythm, texture and so on. That moment taught me I could do this terrifying thing. By the end of the session, Mary is growing.

After the break, Matthew arrives, chipper and chatty – his wife has bought him the course as payment for agreeing to a third child who is now 7 weeks old. I suspect the payment might not be equal to the task but am so impressed that he is also a doctor – how do these committed amateurs find time in busy lives to play the piano? It is absolutely humbling that at the end of what must be an utterly exhausting and no doubt emotionally intense day that Matthew wants to sit at a piano and play Brahms. He explains it is curative, that actually the music provides a space to visit emotional intensity without having to say a word and I see that the therapy that I am so lucky to enjoy as a career must help thousands of people who sit outside a career in music. The first lesson we have is on how to solve problems with efficient practise. I teach him that spending 5 minutes on that bar – dissecting the challenge, understanding it with his brain, isolating the natural motions he’ll need to overcome those broken chords or that jump – will mean that then, when he plays from the beginning, he will arrive at the newly sorted area and actually be able to go through it rather than stumble at it. He agrees that if he can start each 10-minute session (usually at about 9.30pm at night, when he’s really tired already) with this problem-solving, that his overall enjoyment will go up.

On arrival: my piano awaits building in my lovely & spacious teaching room

Next to appear is Tom, holding two scores – one Einaudi, the other Philip Glass – and saying he loves what I’m doing with the inside piano and he’s a computer programmer and he’d love to learn to compose and he’s had a severe trauma in his life and he’d like to express something about that in his music. We begin with some playing and he’s not completely in the zone – technical things are challenging and it’s hard for him to connect what he hears and imagines with what his fingers will do. We go over some technique and find smoother, easier ways of playing perpetual arpeggiac figures as are so common in Glass. But there’s something much deeper happening when we go to my piano and begin to experiment. Suddenly Tom is listening absolutely intently and he’s creating, he’s exploring the sounds. And we both get lost in it and by the end his eyes are sparkling. We’re both looking forward to seeing where his music will go.

My last two pianists are both virtuosi in different ways. The first is 16 and very accomplished. He plays Liszt impressively and it’s only left for me to talk to him about phrasing and structure, re-finding the music after the many hundreds of hours he’s obviously spent on the learning and mastering.  The second is 8 and has only been learning for 2 years, mainly self-teaching as his current teacher isn’t sure what to do. He’ll come to Chet’s next year and I see why. He is not only playing a Beethoven Sonata with a certain command of the material but he is also a total delight. When I suggest that we should re-think the introduction as a little sketch (between his little sister playing in a meadow with beautiful flowers and a big, hairy man who shouts “get off the grass!” at her) he is beaming and plays it again with more passion and conviction. There is so much I can teach him – phrasing in pairs, technical tricks, ways to put together difficult sections, how to practise octaves (isolating the thumb for guidance, ensuring you are still playing the octaves, rather than than just sticking in octave shape. I learnt that tip from a fantastic pianist and very modest chap Philip Howard who won Gaedeamus playing Xenakis – he was amazing and I should know, as I page-turned for his Evryali, which was terrifying!). I can’t help feeling a tiny bit jealous of this young boy’s future teachers: to come across such natural and effervescent talent in an 8-year old is kind of mind-boggling and utterly delightful and to sense you have the tools to help is a fantastic feeling. 

The next day I have a new pupil, a lady who I later discover shares gorgeous gardening photos on Instagram, who has bravely brought along some George Benjamin pieces, in theory written ‘for children’. They are complicated and challenging, using fast 5 rhythms, or difficult pitch groupings. I quickly realise that everything Diana is doing is in her brain, her head and we need to get these rhythms down into her body. We turn to stomping around the room, swaying, clapping, chanting and gradually I convince her that thinking of it just as beat and offbeat is possible and ultimately easier. We even make a short film of me illustrating this. Over the next lessons we make some progress but it is hard to unlearn the thinking she’s already embedded – I’ve realised that although it’s written in 5/16 it’s much easier to feel (and therefore think) it in 5/8. So the challenge that modern music can pose can be as much about learning to interpret the score and make it your own, as simply to read and learn it. (A strange addendum here is that I was the first ever person to perform George Benjamin’s music at Darmstadt, the terrifying German new music summer course that gathers the brightest, best and often most complicated composers together for intensive concerts and lectures).

Leon McCawley and Ashley Wass get ready to play Beethoven’s Ninth on two pianos

As the week goes on, we see more amazing concerts – two to note are the Beethoven’s 9th for two pianos played by Leon McCawley and Ashley Wass and also Sarah Beth Briggs’ lecture recital in memory of Denis Mathews. The former made me very nostalgic for the Palatine corridors – two muscular yet totally sensitive peers playing with total joy and energy. I love how quietly Leon dared to play his opening and the second movement came to life wonderfully. Ashley played with such ease and beauty, perfectly voiced chords. The whole experience was brilliant. Sarah’s concert/lecture was delivered with the best version of BBC Radio 3 knowledge and fluidity, she told anecdotes that helped us listen and then played with ferocious strength and delicious delicacy, I really felt captivated.

Henry Lewis (centre) with the new Inside-Out Piano moving team…

The late-night 10pm concerts were a treat, too. (It’s funny, new music on Radio 3 is often banished to ‘Hear and Now’, 11pm on Saturday, which we all referred to as ‘Where & When?). Adam Gorb was the featured composer and this was where I saw Henry Lewis in full flow. It was rather nice that at one point he did a proper pounce onto the piano for a low cluster and someone jumped in their seat and then smiled in response. Henry really was in his element and I found his playing alive, brilliant, exploratory and a fantastic mix of intellectual understanding and musical play. What I then discovered was that we’d both studied with Kate Miller, and as soon as I heard him say that it all clicked – of course he had! We phoned her the next day to celebrate that we’d met and she was delighted.  

As the teaching progressed, there was a really satisfying journey with each pupil. The improvisation became more and more authoritative and confident, the 8-year-old got the hang of certain techniques and the idea of story, Tom ended up making a new piece using software on his own computer and we were both very moved, the doctor found a new determination to practise for a few minutes in a problem-solving way to then enjoy his emotional outpouring. And we had some lovely workshops, up to 30 people coming to find out what on earth my piano is all about. Various people popped in to visit the piano and it was great to have the opportunity to show it up close to many enthusiasts. The piano was also lucky enough to be not just tuned but basically reborn at the hands of the amazing Peter Lyons, a piano technician of incredible skill, who I absolutely loved meeting during the week. The piano sounded better than it ever has!

Angela Hewitt’s concert of the Goldberg Variations was an extraordinary feat of playing and of listening. Apparently, she used to be a ballet dancer and the way her arms moved so fluidly and towards the end, increasingly dramatically, really was a visual feast. The control of the sound and the architecture was phenomenal and I did recognise that I was seeing probably a once in a generation performer, so committed to her very particular art. She did seem to be sort of floating above us mere mortals, sitting reverentially soaking up every profound corner, each virtuosic phrase. The last slow movement was absolutely static in the best kind of way – time literally stood still – I can recall it clearly right now, as I sit writing on a busy train. She really has poise in spades and I feel lucky to have been able to witness her performance as part of this enormous feast of piano recitals.

One of the challenges of the week was finding any time at all to think about my own concert and I was very sad to miss Murray’s performances, as I would have really liked to see him in action. Sorry, Murray! However, I did manage to grab a few practise hours and my recital on the Monday evening was thoroughly enjoyable, a bit more of a riot than I’d planned, really but the audience was so warm (even heckling with jokes!) and the hall so beautiful that I just had a lot of fun. My mission was to introduce my incredible piano and the sounds that it makes.

Performing at Stoller Hall, with audience participation heard afterwards…!

What was rather lovely was that, having given a couple of workshops, afterwards people said “oh, you didn’t play the rubber ball” or “I missed the slate!” and I was touched by how much they’d fallen in love with these sounds, exactly as I have. I actually made a little film on Youtube of my favourite sounds, so, if you missed any during the concert, you can see those here:

I also performed one track from my 12 Years recital. It felt like quite a risk to do so but I feel so strongly that the climate crisis is something we need to push into all of our conversations that in the end I did decide to include it. Several people were extremely moved, with the very kind Mark Hagger saying on Twitter that he thought it should be prescribed listening.

I do agree that absolutely everyone should hear the words of Greta Thunberg, which is what features in the piece I played. Her truth is clear and direct.

It was such a pleasure to have time during other week to meet other pianists and I was thrilled when Nikki Isles (recent award winner of an Ivors Academy Golden Badge Award) said that I had good rhythm! I wished she’d been my improvisation teacher somewhere along the way. I enjoyed chats with many other staff, including Ben Frith and Mark Tanner and I even managed to grab Murray and Kathryn for a brief moment, to thank them for having me.

What was lovely for me is that I really don’t teach at all currently and it was just great to have that feeling again of sharing in someone’s journey, of being helpful and of being able to offer advice which leads directly to something impactful. It is a humbling thing and totally energising. Although I left thoroughly tired, I drove away with a very complete sense of having communed and shared with people who care about the piano just as much as me and who spend their own hours, shaping and perfecting emotional experiences at this most monolithic of instruments.

Please view Sarah’s Kickstarter to build a new piano. Some names in this article have been changed to protect anonymity.

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