Keys to success: masterly performances to inspire the next generation
Classical Music: piano masterclasses in Dublin and mesmerising skill in Kilkenny offered young musicians much to aspire to
Alison Balsom gave a wry trumpet commentary as part of Camerata Ireland’s Shostakovich performance
It’s been a week full of piano playing, from the tutors and students of the new Dublin International Piano Festival to the Dublin debut of West Cork resident American pianist David Syme, and Barry Douglas directing Camerata Ireland from the keyboard at Kilkenny Arts Festival.
As part of the piano festival there were also public masterclasses, where young hopefuls sought that extra key to future success. Listening to them, I couldn’t help but make a few calculations. The first had to do with the idea that expertise is somehow tied to the investment of 10,000 hours of practice. For musicians putting in four hours a day – and lots of them probably do a great deal more than that – that tally would be reached in seven years or so. The heavily committed eight-hour-a-day sloggers would need only half that. And yet, 10,000 hours or no, the gap between most of the students I heard and a seasoned professional is still yawningly huge.
The second calculation related to the levels of accuracy that are involved. Everyone loves it when a masterclass produces some kind of eureka moment. Edmund Battersby had one when dealing with a student who was struggling with some rapid fingerwork.
The problem sounded like a physical one, as if the muscles weren’t yet at the point of being able to control the fast flow of notes. The solution, you might have thought, was going to be yet more hours of practice dedicated to the specifics of the problem. Not at all. Battersby patiently manoeuvred his young charge into hearing exactly what he needed to do; once he heard it, he could do it.
“Your technique is in your ear,” Battersby explained, “it’s not in your hands. That’s the most important thing I can tell you today. If your ear is not working, your hands aren’t worth anything.” And, given the sudden sharpness and accuracy of the fingerwork, the point was well made.
My own calculation about all of this was rather more mundane. The piece, a prelude by Rachmaninov, has a metronome mark of 80 for a minim, and was running in semiquavers. Simply put, that’s a throughput of 640 notes a minute, or just under 11 notes a second. At that kind of speed, an error of a hundredth of a second would cause a note to be misplaced by 10 per cent.
That’s not the kind of thing you might expect to notice, and it’s unlikely that anyone – player, teacher, or listener – would perceive it in those exact terms. But notice it you would, whether as a kind of roughness, a slight stuttering, or simply as something drawing attention to itself in a way that it shouldn’t. And if you were presented with a properly controlled performance for comparison, you would spot the difference straight away. Sport isn’t the only activity where milliseconds matter.
Perfectly poised classicism
Milliseconds and microseconds apart, the musical differences between Battersby, Syme and Douglas were still huge. Battersby peaked at the start, presenting Haydn’s Sonata in C minor, Hob XVI: 20, with a perfectly poised classicism, everything in balance, nothing strained: Haydn as Haydn should be. There were wonderful moments in the Schumann and Schubert which followed, but never a repeat of the same sense of consistent rightness.
Syme is a player of more excitable temperament. He also played Haydn (the Sonata in E flat, Hob XVI: 52), but with an almost boyish eagerness, as if at certain moments he knew he should be reining himself in, but ended up giving in to a what-the-heck impulse. He’s a fearless player, with a go-for-it, heart on sleeve approach, as his programming of Liszt’s daunting arrangement of Wagner’s Tannhäuser overture made clear.