The other day the Guardian published a front-page article about the startling number of people of all ages who suffer from mental health problems, such as depression, without receiving any treatment. It was suggested that the cost of drug treatments and cognitive therapies, as well as a lack of trained counsellors in certain parts of the country, were factors in why too few sufferers manage to get sufficient help. Even when help is available in the form of medication or talking therapy, some people suffering from depression find that these treatments do not work for them.
The Guardian online letters page has many replies and comments, including one from me reminding people of the power of music, and particularly of music-making, to combat depression.
I wrote recently about the piano duets played every night at piano camp in France – not just two people at one piano, but sometimes three people at one piano, or four people at two pianos. Famous works of music arranged for multiple hands, with one or two piano keyboards being used to their utmost, and players forced into intriguing proximity.
After all this many-players-at-one-instrument music, I had the opposite experience this week, of seeing one person playing two instruments at once. In this case they were a piano and a bandoneon, the South American concertina which accompanies tango music. Normally the bandoneon requires two hands to play, but the delightfully poker-faced Finnish musician Mikko Helenius – playing with Argentinian singer Martin Alvarado at the Edinburgh Fringe – had found a way to sit at the grand piano, wedging the bandoneon against his right knee such that he could play the piano with his left hand and the bandoneon with his right. Helenius played an unusual solo version of Astor Piazzolla’s beautiful slow piece ‘Oblivion’, the melody on the bandoneon and the rippling harmonies on the piano – quite a feat of co-ordination.
Billy Mayerl, the pianist-composer who was hugely popular in the 1920s and 30s, used to do a music-hall ‘turn’ where he played two pianos at once. Before the advent of YouTube clips, I had always imagined that this must be done by placing the two piano keyboards in a V shape with the pianist sitting in the angle of the V, so as to bring the two instruments as close together as possible. But I learned recently from this clip that Billy had made it even more difficult for himself by having the two piano keyboards face one another, forcing himself to play with hands outstretched to each side. He precedes this portion of the performance by saying chirpily, ‘And here’s a glimpse into the future’. I’m still trying to work out what he meant by that!
I’ve spent the past week teaching a piano course in the south of France. Stormy weather accompanied our music-making, and the temperatures were unseasonally low, though we were sometimes grateful that cooler weather made it easier to work.
My class of pianists was a very interesting group to teach. All of them have demanding day jobs, but have managed to keep piano playing as a serious hobby, if ‘hobby’ is not too light a word for an activity which clearly means so much to many of them. Despite being short of time to practise, they all contrive to make time for the piano, and indeed claimed that playing the piano brings essential balance to their lives. They get up early to play, stay up late, and have sometimes managed to have pianos delivered to unusual and far-flung workplaces so that they can continue to play in the lull between meetings or other exciting events. Many of them devote some holiday time to attending piano courses. We had some interesting discussions about the best way to practise if you are ‘time-poor’, as many of them are.
Participants had brought libraries of music for piano duet (four hands at one piano) or piano duo (four hands at two pianos) and even more – six hands, eight hands and so on. These duets were played late into the night. We were reminded that back in the nineteenth century, before the age of recording, transcriptions of orchestral or chamber works for piano duet were a standard way of getting to know this music. Many music-lovers only knew these works as piano duets, as opportunities to hear a live orchestral concert may have been rare in their home town. In fact, I had brought along an old 19th-century edition of some Schumann solo piano music, and when I got it out during the week to practise it for a concert, I noticed for the first time that the title page described it as a work ‘for two hands at the piano’. The fact that a publisher thought it worth stating that only two hands were involved seemed to indicate that it was very common back then to buy piano music for multiple players. These days, no publisher would think it necessary to state that a new piano piece was for two hands.
It is always a pleasure to teach people so highly motivated. They are hungry for information, and they know how to deal with it when they get it. You can see appreciable change during the week. And when things go well for them in performance, their success is greeted with genuine and uncomplicated enthusiasm by the rest of the group. I remarked on this, and was told that I was not the first visiting tutor to comment on how different this is from some professional scenarios.
I’ve just been alerted to the fact that on Saturday 19 July, from 2-4pm, Radio 3 is repeating my episode of ‘Saturday Classics’, in which I choose music of personal significance and talk about the reasons for my selections before they’re played.
I seem to remember that when the programme first aired, in May last year, an awful lot of people wrote to say they’d missed it for one reason and another, so I hope that it may be possible for them to catch up with the programme this time (though perhaps that is a vain hope in fine weather). I’m quite intrigued myself, because at this distance I find I can’t recall all the musical choices I made. Would I choose different music now? Well, maybe I’d update my choices with music which has made an impact on me during the year. But some old favourites are evergreen.
Tune in on Saturday afternoon at 2pm. As before, ‘Saturday Classics’ will be available on iPlayer for a week afterwards. More information about the programme here.
I went to a wine and cheese tasting session the other night in an atmospheric old building in Edinburgh. All the cheeses were made in Scotland. The evening was fun, but over rather quickly. One wine followed hard on the heels of another and I rather wished there had been some way of creating pauses between the tastings – with some gentle folk music, perhaps, for us to listen to as the sun went down. A Scottish singer, a harp or clarsach, a Highland violinist or two – that would have been a delightful way of complementing the wines and cheeses, as well as separating them enough that we could digest them and let the taste linger before moving on to the next.
So when the organisers asked, at the end of the evening, if anyone had any suggestions for improvements that could be made to the next such session, I popped up with my idea of introducing some live music between the tastings. The organiser’s reaction was interesting. ‘Oh no – that wouldn’t go down at all well with our neighbours!’ he said with a smile. ‘They wouldn’t thank us for keeping them awake late into the night with loud music.’
Who said anything about loud music? I didn’t. I had been thinking of something intimate, something full of character and history, to fit with the old building. I suppose I’d been imagining the traditional music equivalent of freshly made goat’s cheese, soft and piquant. I was surprised by the assumption that live music meant loud music. The two are not necessarily linked, of course, unless amplification is used. In the kind of music I like to play (and hear), the music is only loud when the composer calls for it to be loud, which is only now and then, and only in contrast to quiet music. I hope people aren’t starting to think that live music is synonymous with loud music – it’s not!