welcome!

I’m glad you’re here.

This site is a place for me to share some things I know about playing and teaching classical piano. And a place for me to work through things I’m still learning, too — because this business of piano playing is never ‘finished.’

My intention is that the videos, blog posts, and whatever else shows up here is useful not only for piano students, but also for piano teachers. In fact the idea of helping teachers through the thickets of classical piano is something I’ve been involved in for quite awhile: ever since I was in charge of the “Teacher Training” program at the Victoria Conservatory of Music. That program was begun by two peerless teachers: Winifred and Robin Wood. I had the great privilege of working as a colleague with Winifred Wood during my eight years in Victoria.

I’ve been influenced by many other fine teachers, as well. And although we all pass on to our students the best of what our teachers have given us, we also pass on ourselves; each of us is unique as a teacher.

Even if we consider ourselves students, rather than teachers, the idea of being “our own best teacher” is one of the ways towards real progress as a piano player, as a musician. I think that the best is to be some mixture of “student” and “teacher” and the audience I have in mind are piano players who are interested in both — even if our primary, or only, student is ourself.

I hope you’ll join me on this journey. You’ll see we’re just getting started, with lots of content still to come. I’m open to your comments and suggestions, too; after all, it’s always nice to know that someone out there is listening.

Mozart: the ultimate challenge

Having just posted a video on learning and teaching the B-flat Major Sonata, K570, I found myself thinking more about Mozart’s music: its challenges, and its rewards.

It took a long time before I became ‘comfortable’ learning and performing Mozart. Even as a fairly adept young professional, I steered away from programming Mozart in recitals; I knew I wasn’t doing the music justice — especially the slow movements. I’m more confident now (after playing Mozart for half a century!) but I still feel that Mozart starts out easy, gets harder the more I work on it, and then — if I‘m lucky — starts to sound and feel gracious, graceful, and easy again.

I still find Mozart challenging to teach. There are a plethora of details to absorb (voicing, pedalling, ornamentation, phrasing, pacing, articulation…) yet playing Mozart well involves transcending those challenges, so none of them actually draws our listeners’ attention. I think that, though the details can be taught, putting them together into a convincing whole is a real test of a student’s musicality.

That sense of the ease and inevitability in Mozart’s music is eloquently discussed in a new biography I’m reading. Mozart: the reign of love, by Jan Swafford, is a thorough and entertaining look at Wolfgang’s life, loves, and music. I recommend it. And when you get to page 420, feel free to listen to this. It’s my live recording of the slow movement from the C Major Sonata, K330. Some of my favourite music.

Sonata in C Major, K330, second movement: Andante cantabile, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Jamie Syer, piano. Live performance at the Victoria Conservatory of Music’s Alix Goolden Performance Hall, Victoria, British Columbia.

ah, chopin!

Everyone should have a party piece or two. One of mine is the Chopin Berceuse. My piano teacher played some of this for me when I was a young teenager, and I remember clearly the first time I heard those magical grace-notes, which ornament the melody near the beginning of the piece.

I finally learned it, many years later, and incorporated it into my CD piano among friends. The iridescent flourishes of the melody are made even more beautiful because of the contrasting simplicity of the left hand accompaniment, which remains almost unchanged throughout the lullaby. While practising this (and other works by Chopin) I use the same techniques which I demonstrate in my video about learning to play Chopin.

When I perform the Berceuse I usually pair it with the Barcarolle, and its dreams of Venetian gondolas and gondoliers. Now I can hardly imagine one, without the other. Here are both of them. I hope you enjoy.

Berceuse, Op. 57, by Frédéric Chopin.
Barcarolle, Op. 60, by Frédéric Chopin.
Both recorded at the Banff Centre’s Rolston Recital Hall.

the unbearable lightness of french piano music

While preparing a video on teaching the piano music of Debussy, Satie and Ravel, I can’t resist posting this live performance of mine. From a concert in Victoria, BC called “Notes from Paris” here is the Fugue from Ravel’s suite “Le tombeau de Couperin.” A piece of music called ‘tombeau’ (tomb) is a ‘memorial.’ The poignancy you hear is even more compelling when you know that each movement of the suite was dedicated to a close friend of Ravel’s who was killed in WW I. The French still call it La grande guerre. During that war, Ravel was a truck driver, stationed at Verdun.

Listen to this ethereal music, and remember lives of young soldiers lost, and lives of survivors forever changed.

Jamie Syer, piano. Alix Goolden Performance Hall. Live performance of the Fugue from “Le tombeau de Couperin” by Maurice Ravel.

sight-reading matters

If you’ve watched my sight-reading video https://vimeo.com/528132450 you may be interested in a list of the suggestions there, including some things that I only referred to in passing. These are things I’ve found useful — both to my students, and to myself.

MOVE YOUR EYES TO LOOK AHEAD

Get past the challenging spots, and especially be determined not to let your eyes get stuck at the end of a line, or other visual division point.

KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE SCORE

Looking up and down between the music and your hands, really slows down your sight-reading. We actually have a ‘lower peripheral vision‘ which means that we can see where our hands are (sort of) without taking our eyes off the music.

LEAVE THINGS OUT

Learn to see what’s important and what’s not. It does take practise to not play something that you see in front of you.

MAKE IT UP

Particularly if you’re sight-reading a popular song, which you know. Use your ears as well as your eyes, and make it sound ‘right.’ Don’t get stuck with what’s on the page.

FIND A REASON TO SIGHT-READ OFTEN

Give yourself a chance to get better; it will happen more quickly than you might imagine.

MAKE SIGHT-READING OPPORTUNITIES FOR YOURSELF

Here are suggestions I didn’t get to in the video:

• you’re a parent with a kid learning the violin or the clarinet? Sight-read their accompaniment, or learn to play it.

• you sing in a choir? Sight read the music, or the accompaniment.

• you’ve got a kid brother or kid sister also playing the piano? Say YES when your piano teacher asks if you’d like to play a duet together

• you’re in your high school band? Ask your crush if they’ll play some music with you. Get your music teacher to find music for the two of you, or search online.

• you’re in college, studying music? Never say no to chamber music or accompanying, even if you think you don’t have time.

• you’re in college, not studying music, just playing piano for fun? Go to the music department, and read the notice board until you find someone who’s looking to make music with someone at your level.

• you’re an adult learning to play the piano, or improving the skills you have? Ask your teacher if there are any other students (kids or adults) at your level, who want to play piano duets.

KEEP GOING!

Once you’ve started to play, be determined to maintain the rhythmic beat. You can always go back and check on the hard spots later.

FIND SOMEONE TO PLAY WITH

It could be a singer, a piano duet partner, another instrumentalist … sight-reading is much more fun together with someone else.

If you’re isolating because of COVID, and you can’t find a duet partner, why not record one part of a duet, then sight read the other part, as you play along. Try recording without a click track!

What are your favourite sight-reading techniques, which I’ve missed mentioning? Leave a comment and let us know.

in praise of sir donald

Donald Francis Tovey, that is. Know him? He was a musicologist and composer, active in the UK during the first third of the twentieth century. But that potted description doesn’t do justice to his writings about music: always perceptive, insightful, erudite — and witty. Here’s a DFT classic, on Beethoven:

We do not expect a return to the home tonic to be associated with a theme we have never heard before, any more than we expect on returning from our holiday to find our house completely redecorated and refurnished and inhabited by total strangers.

Beethoven, Oxford University Press 1945.

I first made my acquaintance when, early in my teens, I bought a copy of the Associated Board edition of the Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues: the Well-Tempered Clavier. Each Prelude and Fugue is preceded by a short essay, describing the musical and technical challenges, form and interpretation, and including such bon mots as this:

The old reading that adds a low B-flat octave in an additional bar is perhaps the most Philistine single printed chord in the whole history of music.

The tempo is lively enough for the last four bars to give considerable trouble, however they are fingered.

both from Forty-Eight Preludes and Fugues, J. S. Bach, Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, in print since 1924.

And I haven’t even mentioned his Companion to Beethoven’s Pianoforte Sonatas, or the best essay ever conceived on the piano concertos of Mozart. Sir Donald was writing 100 years ago, with knowledge and humility: a potent combination.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e8/Sir_Donald_Francis_Tovey.jpg

A fine new Beethoven biography

Jan Caeyers is a Belgian conductor, who has written a fabulous biography of Ludwig van B, first published in Dutch in 2009, and recently translated into English. It’s a pleasure to read a book like this, sympathetically written by such a literate musician.

He tells Beethoven’s story well — puncturing a few myths along the way, but portraying with eloquence and empathy Beethoven’s personality, foibles, and struggles. The book is not overbalanced with musical analysis, but does cover the pivotal works (Eroica, Fidelio, Missa solemnis, among many others) in a way that can be appreciated equally by professionals and amateurs. Several times, I found myself going to YouTube to fill the gaps in my aural memory.

Caeyers is also good at discussing Beethoven’s personal relationships. Not only the love affairs (including the mysterious ‘immortal beloved‘) but his tempestuous friendships, and of course, the long and ultimately tragic episode involving his nephew, Karl.

It’s a big book (almost 700 pages including indexes) but I came away with a rekindled understanding of the man, his time, and — above all — his music.

this brave new world of music festival adjudicating

I love adjudicating. I love the travel; the chance to evaluate the results of keen and dedicated work by students and teachers; the opportunity to say encouraging things (along with perhaps a few corny jokes); watch proud parents; get to know the kids who play more than once; find the best coffee in town; check out the local bookstore; agonize over award choices; breathe the spring air (it’s almost always spring); explore a town that’s new to me, or one I’ve been to many times before.

I just finished adjudicating, from home, a very fine music festival in south-eastern BC. It was a rather different experience, as you can see. But minus the coffee shops and the evening walks (often snatched from a crazy schedule) a couple of things remained the same.

The kids were great. I couldn’t see them as well as I would have in person — I couldn’t watch them walk to the piano, or notice who welcomed them back to their seats afterwards. I couldn’t enjoy the buzz of the audience, or the kibitzing with my secretary. But the dedication that went into their performances was clear; and, behind the scenes, the determination of their teachers, the encouragement of their parents and friends. They still dressed up to perform. Many of them still bowed after they played.

When I recorded my video adjudications, I couldn’t adjust what I said based on the expression on their faces. I couldn’t ask them questions. But I could pretend they were there in front of me. Though I probably won’t find out what they thought of it all, perhaps “being in the Festival” was one kind-of-normal thing in a difficult year.

Adjudicating another competition a few months ago, I had the opportunity of brief Zoom meetings with each performer afterwards. Then too, I was moved by their dedication, and the directness of their response when I asked “how are you doing?” Sometimes it was clear that “not good” was the answer.

It’s our young people who may have suffered most from this calamity, a year old and still not done. May those of us who can, find ways to help them get their lives back.

all i really need to know i learned at the music festival*

When I was a young piano student, spring was always Music Festival time. “Everything memorized by Christmas” was the rule; then the subsequent three months were a crescendo of practising, extra lessons, and anxiety. Students, teachers, parents were all involved, to the extent that ‘life after the Festival’ sometimes seemed to be a mirage.

One of the greatest humiliations you could suffer was to be ‘pulled’ from your Festival class by your teacher, for lack of preparation — or, as in the case of a fellow student of mine, because you went skiing the weekend before the Festival, instead of staying home to practise. Even the threat of being ‘pulled’ was enough to inspire renewed commitment in those last stages of polishing your pieces. Competition was intense. My piano teacher took tranquilizers before heading off to listen to the Festival classes. On the way to the Festival, one parent — trying to relieve the tension, of course — wondered whether they could arrange to break another kid’s fingers. Everyone laughed.

But it was also the era of the great adjudicators: true piano pedagogues such as Phyllis Schuldt, Sandra Munn, Boris Roubakine, and especially Robin Wood. It would be standing room only when Dr. Wood got up to adjudicate.

Fortunately, music festivals in recent years have begun to downplay the stress-making aspects. We refer to players as ‘performers,’ rather than ‘contestants.’ The adjudicator doesn’t ring a bell when it’s time for you to start playing. Marks are not usually announced any more, and class placings have become gold and silver instead of first and second. We want to honour excellence while still recognizing everyone’s personal achievements — and that’s a good thing.

Last fall, I was delighted to be asked to adjudicate — remotely, of course — the British Columbia Registered Music Teachers’ annual competition. Aside from the utter enjoyment of hearing such fine playing, the result of much dedicated teaching and learning, it gave me an opportunity to think again of my philosophy of piano-playing, and of competitions. Here’s some of what I wrote:

I want to congratulate, first, all of the performers. You were each worthy to be chosen by your local BCRMTA chapter, and all of you gave performances that impressed me with your technical skill and preparation, and moved me with your musical interpretations. I was impressed, too, by the quality of the videos you submitted. Knowing how to use technology to capture your performances has always been important, but now more than ever. I also congratulate your teachers, for the hours of expert guidance and never-ending encouragement they give to you; as well as your families, your friends — all those who help you find the time to practise, and who support you when you need it most.

I was glad to see, reading your biographies, that many of you have a wide range of activities beyond playing the piano. We pianists can be a solitary lot, if we’re not careful, and you are all doing well in making sure that, although piano is an important part of your lives, it’s not the only important thing. Several of you are finding creative ways to share your music with others, and to explore interests beyond music, too. Bravo for your imagination, your energy and your enthusiasm.

The results of a competition are always just a snapshot of one moment in your musical careers. In any contest, if you don’t win the award you were trying for, know that there are always more opportunities, should you choose to take them. And of course, in the long run, it is the joy that music brings to ourselves and others which is most important, not whether we have won first place.

Thanks again for including me in your music-making. Most of all, I hope that I am able to hear you in person sometime.”

Dr. Jamie Syer – Bergen, Alberta

https://bcrmta.bc.ca/piano-competition-2020/
*with apologies to Robert Fulghum

words about music

Maybe we musicians are just too particular, but have you noticed, as I have, that even the best writers of fiction have trouble creating believable prose about music and musicians? Especially about classical musicians? Perhaps because we have our own ‘lingo’ which is easy to get just a little bit wrong. Or maybe it’s because the world of the classical musician is difficult to translate, by someone who’s not part of it.

Fortunately, there are some notable exceptions. One of the best writers about music (and musicians) is the Canadian author Robertson Davies. In his professional life he was deeply involved in the world of music (he wrote an opera libretto, among other musical projects); and when music is a big part of his novels, he makes things utterly believable. The two outstanding examples are A Mixture of Frailties and The Lyre of Orpheus.

Vikram Seth gets a B+ from me for An Equal Music. He produces a compelling description of the life of a professional violinist; though I find the premise of a pianist losing her hearing but still able to successfully perform Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet a little sketchy.

If you want to combine a fascinating musical story and outstanding historical fiction, you can’t do better than Music & Silence by Rose Tremain.

Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann contains a wonderful passage where the character of Wendell Kretschmar gives an inspired lecture on Beethoven’s last piano sonata, Op. 111. I confess to having been inspired by this fictional creation to improve my own lectures! And E. M. Forster’s description in Howard’s End of the Scherzo from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony stays in your mind for a long time: “the music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end…”

Among more recent authors to have successfully tackled the “music and musicians” quandary , I must commend Erin Frances Fisher: a pianist herself, a former student of mine and then a colleague at the Victoria Conservatory of Music. Read “Da Capo al Fine” in her remarkable 2018 collection That Tiny Life — and then read all her other stories, too.

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practising beethoven with a dog in the house

waiting for Beethoven

You know the old joke: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice.”

We musicians have a strange relationship with practising: we know it has to be done, but we develop a wide range of strategies not to do it. Procrastination is one of the most effective, but anxiety over the fast-approaching performance is usually sufficient to overcome the inertia. Strangely, the gift of an empty day with ‘nothing to do but practise’ is sometimes less productive than a concentrated hour or so snatched from a busy schedule.

Gary Graffman, the concert pianist, wrote a memoir called I Really Should be Practicing. I recently saw a flow chart posted near a music studio— a sort of list of activity choices. No matter what you chose, the result was the same: “Go practise.” Artur Rubenstein was well known for choosing partying over practising; and Fritz Kreisler had to be ‘encouraged’ by his wife and friends to open his violin case. He sometimes said he’d check, shortly before a concert, to make sure it still had four strings on it. Jascha Heifetz was more disciplined: “If I don’t practise for a day, I notice; two days, the critics notice; three days, everybody notices.”

I have a partner in my practising: our resident Border collie. At first he seemed only to notice violin music, but now he’s expanding his repertoire. Just about any music, but particularly Beethoven, provokes not only howling, but warbling, keening and vocalizing of impressive range. I can hear him warming up ahead of his favourite passages.

It doesn’t stop me from practising, and I sometimes feel a responsibility to keep both of us in shape. For more about dogs and Beethoven, see Billy Collins’ hilarious poem Another Reason I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House.