Frank McNamara gives a masterclass in how to handle mistakes

The pianist shows students how to handle the pressure of improvisation

Frank McNamara was genial, resolute and even-handed as a task-master – and encouraging as a teacher. Photograph: Jason Clarke

It was a sorry scene at the Methodist Church on Brighton Road in Rathgar on Sunday. Around a dozen young people were assembled for the purpose of having teeth pulled. Well, that’s what the facial expressions were communicating, as a group of pianists queued to take their turn at the keyboard during a workshop on improvisation given by Frank McNamara as part of the Dublin International Piano Festival’s Summer Academy.

There was no screaming to go with the squirming body-language. But the message was clear. Get me out of here, no matter what it takes.

As a student I was told that the great composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni always said that pianists needed to have fingers of steel and arms of India rubber. McNamara showed a similar combination of firmness and flexibility.

He was free and easy in demonstrating what he was talking about. He laid out the basics succinctly, and never tut-tutted when one of them was mostly ignored for the rest of the evening: rhythm without pitch is a better identifier of a melody than pitch without rhythm.


He followed his short discussion of some of the core principles with a call for volunteers. When he ran out of new volunteers he started picking names from a list. And then, finally, he went comprehensive. He called on all of the students, row, by row, to have a go in turn. That’s when it became glaringly obvious that some of those standing in line would probably have preferred a trip to the dentist.

He was dealing with a highly accomplished group of players whose repertoire lists include the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto, Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit, sonatas by Rachmaninov and Liszt, and even a note-rich sonata by the jazz-influenced Russian composer-pianist Nikolai Kapustin.

Yet, when they sat at the piano and were forced to improvise, it seemed that any novocaine that had been administered was affecting their fingers not their gums.

The challenge was a big ask. They seemed to have been anticipating an evening of demonstration by McNamara. So they were not just being required to grapple with the unexpected but they were also being put in the spotlight in front of a group of their peers. However difficult the whole process might have been in a one-on-one lesson, it was hugely more daunting with so many keenly-attuned and critical ears listening in.

McNamara was genial, resolute and even-handed as a task-master. And he was encouraging as a teacher. He accepted in good spirit whatever they came up with. The point of the exercise was not to uncover a master of the art. It was more like an early swimming lesson, where you learn that if you let nature take its course it’s easy to float, and if you wiggle your hands and your feet you can move around while you’re floating.

He was well rewarded for his patience and tenacity. It was remarkable how, in just under two hours, inhibitions began to fall away. Players gradually unfroze and started to seek a little adventure, allowing themselves to go with the flow and follow an idea. More and more they began to call on routines of technical display – mostly flying arpeggios – and tag them on to the material they had been set, or simply buy time by creating some padding while they figured out what to do next.

Over the evening they progressed from dealing with randomly selected groups of notes and nursery rhymes, to popular tunes and the famous theme made out of the letters of Bach’s name – BACH (B is the German name for the note we call B flat in English, and H is the German for B).

Finally, and quite out of the blue, McNamara announced that the final task would be an improvised cadenza for a great concerto, Beethoven’s Third. If the ground could have opened and swallowed them, every victim – sorry, student – would have disappeared straight away.

But they all stuck it out and took their turn. What was clear at the end was that they were all on the way to developing strategies to deal with the fact that there is no guide to what will happen next when you are improvising.

They might well take consolation from a story by the American pianist and teacher Amy Fay, about her time as a student of Liszt. "He was rolling up the piano in arpeggios in a very grand manner indeed," she wrote, "when he struck a semi-tone short of the high note upon which he had intended to end. I caught my breath and wondered whether he was going to leave us like that, in mid-air, as it were, and the harmony unresolved, or whether he would be reduced to the humiliation of correcting himself like ordinary mortals, and taking the right chord."

The experience was clearly not new to Liszt. “A half smile came over his face, as much as to say ‘Don’t fancy that this little thing disturbs me,’ – and he instantly went meandering down the piano in harmony with the false note he had struck, and then rolled deliberately up in a second grand sweep, this time striking true.”     Fay was delighted. “I never saw a more delicious piece of cleverness. It was so quick-witted and so exactly characteristic of Liszt. Instead of giving you a chance to say, ‘He has made a mistake,’ he forced you to say, ‘He has shown how to get out of a mistake.’”

McNamara's young wards are all now that bit better equipped to do the same themselves.