András Schiff and His Love for Music

Dialogue with: András Schiff
25th October 2018, 7.30pm
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, Orchestra Hall

This evening, I had the opportunity to attend a dialogue session with Sir András Schiff, which was held the day before his recital at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall, where he would be playing Brahms’ late works accompanied by music from other composers. What initially was supposed to be an hour’s long session turned into a nearly two-hour-long one filled with a variety of topics, great conversations and plenty of wise words from the great musician himself.

The discussion began with the moderator (whom unfortunately I do not know his name) asking Schiff about how his musical development started and developed, in particular on the playing of Bach’s music. To which, he replied, when he was a young boy, many of the performances of Bach’s keyboard works he listened to were akin to the 19th Century way of playing. It was not until he listened to Glenn Gould as a 12-year-old that made him realise that Bach’s music could be played another way, without the pedal and the “molto legato”, but instead very clear counterpoint. He also talked about his first encounter with the harpsichordist and conductor George Malcolm, how he started off page-turning for Malcolm’s concerts before studying under him.

Schiff and Malcolm discussed in great depth together about performing Bach’s works on the modern piano, and Malcolm influenced Schiff greatly on refraining from using the pedal. In that note, Schiff cautioned us about the dangers of misusing the pedal, not just for Bach’s works, but any piece of work. He pointed out that many pianists today use the pedal for everything in Bach’s music (placing the feet on the pedal seemed like a default thing like “stepping on the gas pedal”, he quipped), yet when Beethoven had an unusually long pedal marking for the Moonlight Sonata, they tend to ignore it. With that, he advised us that as long as the fingers can do the work for us, then we can consider whether to use the pedal or not. I strongly agree with this statement, as sometimes many of us tend to take the pedal for granted, and we misuse the pedal at the expense of creating a beautiful singing tone with our fingers, blurring out the counterpoint as a result.

Regarding Malcolm (as he was not only a harpsichordist, but also a composer among other things), Schiff also briefly mentioned the issue of “specialisation” in the music scene today, where musicians nowadays seem to only work on one thing, and disregard the other aspects of music. For example, pianists only work on the piano, but do not know anything about other genres, which to him was a rather “myopic” perspective.

When asked about how he had the time to learn such a wide range of repertoire, Schiff replied “the clock is the dictator of time”. To him, we have a lot of time because we live longer now. He brought up composers like Mozart and Schubert who died in their thirties, and although Haydn and Beethoven lived longer, it could not be compared to people who live till their eighties today. Schiff pointed out that the issue we should think about, rather, is about the quality of time — “what are your priorities?” he asked. He said that discipline is very important, which can be cultivated by creating a rhythm for ourselves, which will continue to drive us in the long term.

Besides quality of time, he also talked about learning the art of practice. Students nowadays “practice too much clockwise”, he said. Students focus too much on how long they practice, instead of what goes into the practice. He emphasised on the importance of focusing on tone quality above other things. He has heard too many students regurgitating the entire piece in full tempo, at least five times straight. By focusing on quality of time and the art of practice, only then we have the rest of the time to do other things, to be creative.  Schiff once again returned to the topic on specialisation. “I know many scientists who know a lot about music, but many musicians do not know about Chemistry, about Physics, about Architecture”. Only when we understand about other things in life, will we have a deeper understanding about music.

Schiff spoke briefly about why he do not wish to return to his home country of Hungary. He is unable to separate arts from politics, because the arts rely heavily on it. He mentioned that if society supports the arts and puts resources into it, we should not take it for granted. “Arts is not compulsory”, yet the country is building infrastructure and setting aside funds to develop the arts, when the resources could have been used on other areas.

On musical interpretation, Schiff quoted the great cellist Pablo Casals as having said that musical form give us the “freedom, but with order”. Everyone has a different way of playing the same music, but we are limited by a “set of rules” to follow, and the rules come from the composition itself. He brought out the issue of repeats, and said that we should follow the repeats because whether the repeats were indicated or not were deliberately thought out by the composer himself. For instance, Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat major, D.960, where the first ending before the repeat was often disregarded. With that in mind, Schiff said that we have to ask ourselves “Where my licence is and where does it end?” as interpretation is “not a matter of taste”.

Schiff mentioned that he had the opportunity to play Beethoven’s Broadwood piano in Hungary, which he felt was a great honour, despite later saying that it was not in good playing condition with many broken strings. He enjoyed playing on Mozart’s Walter piano, as it was in good playing condition. He also talked about piano makers in the Romantic era, namely the French piano manufacturers Pleyel and Erard, where Chopin preferred to play on the Pleyel because of his lean build.  Schiff pointed out the difference registers of the various pianos, and it was because of that he felt that each of the period instruments were best suited to play music of their respective eras. He encouraged pianists today to try to play on period instruments as it is a good experience.

What brought to my attention was when Schiff talked about the existence of extreme softness (like ppp) and their nuances in music. On a period keyboard instrument, it is much easier to play very softly, but it is harder to do so for a modern piano, which is created to play in halls that seat at least two-thousand people. Being able to play very softly is a “dying art”, said Schiff, especially when “the world is getting noisier”. Playing very softly requires a lot of concentration.

The final part of the session was about Schiff describing his thought process when deciding on the programme for the next day’s recital. He explained that he intended to play Brahms’s late works, but felt that it was not suitable to curate an entire programme based on Brahms himself (Brahms can make people feel depressed, he said). Therefore, he decided to fill in the rest of the programme with music from other composers, but he did not want to explain further as he was intending to do so on Friday’s recital (oh that tease!).

Finally, Schiff touched on concert etiquette, where he questioned the need to applaud every time a performance ends, and when is it appropriate to applaud. When the music ends in jubilance, people will naturally want to applaud and cheer. However, Schiff despises people who applaud right after a piece of music that ends in silence. This gave me flashbacks of his last recital here, where there was a lone person who applauded right after the last note of the Goldberg Variations, which visibly annoyed him quite a bit. Schiff was wondering whether that lone person was showing off to everyone that he knows the music has ended, which was really unnecessary. It is not about keeping silent, he clarified. Rather, it is about everyone as a community feeling something out of that silent ending, and feeling the need to take “a minute of silence”. People are increasingly more uncomfortable with silence, mentioning that music needs to be in the background everywhere, in restaurants and even in the lavatory. Also, “whistling is ugly” he says, it’s “not refined”. It is definitely a reminder to us in lieu of Friday’s concert, since many of the pieces in the programme end in silence (and for other concerts in future as well, of course)!

Three questions were raised to Schiff that night, but I would like to touch on the last question, which was asking about his thoughts on music as a career for musicians today, as many musicians are relying on winning competitions and social media to get their name known. To which he said, there are two types of musicians, the amateur and the professional. The word “amateur” comes from the root word (in Latin) “amare”, which means “to love”. He observed that amateur musicians love music more than many professionals. “The love of music is gone, it is a disaster!” he lamented. He does not envy musicians who work under “bad conductors”, those who play music they do not enjoy. “Music is not a job, it is a privilege.”, said Schiff.

For people wanting to be professional musicians, he encouraged us to play more chamber music or involve ourselves more in the chorus, as pianists can sometimes be very lonely, and we should not keep ourselves in isolation. He mentioned that he loved working with amateurs, and felt that music education should not just be for professionals, but should also be focused on the amateurs, as we really need good listeners now. “Focus on the love for music, and the rest will come”, he advised.

Schiff also declared himself as the “greatest opponent” of music competitions, as he does not equate music to sports. Furthermore, in music competitions the judgement is very subjective and personal. Unfortunately, there aren’t any alternatives to competitions, although he has been helping young musicians to get themselves out there through concert opportunities, albeit to only a selective few.

Having gone through the dialogue, my greatest takeaway was how much Schiff was driven purely by his love for music. To him, it was not about the fame and the fortune, but his love for music that drives him to be where he is today. Schiff taught us to focus on what really matters, encouraged us to get out of our comfort zones and see music in a more holistic sense, and reminded us to never take music for granted and to always have a good balance in life. If something that we do is against our nature, then something is really very wrong.

Overall, it was a wonderful and meaningful dialogue session with András Schiff and I learnt a lot on music and about life in the process.

 

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[10 Thoughts Today] 10 Things I Learned from Trying a 7-Day No Added Sugar + Fried Food Diet.

  1. The ingredients list and nutrition facts are my best friend.
  2. There are so many food options with added sugar in them! My daily recommended intake should be no more than 25g.
  3. Many supposedly “healthier” options outside can have some unhealthy ingredients hidden inside, like the fried anchovies in ban mian, or the sauce you choose in a Subway sandwich. Gotta be careful with those.
  4. I’ve been consuming way too many cakes, bubble tea, sweets, chocolates and chips in the past year (and my lifetime). They don’t seem much then, but only when you stop consuming them then you realise how much junk you have been eating.
  5. Benefits of consuming less sugar includes: clearing up my skin, less chances of falling into a food coma, saving money (although snacks and food with no added sugar could be really expensive if I wanna do this long term).
  6. Home-brewed iced green tea without sugar is really really good (like Ayataka but better).
  7. This is really good. Great fuel to start my day too.
  8. Peel Fresh has a range of juices that have no added sugar, and certified by the Health Promotion Board.
  9. It’s easier to avoid fried food than no added sugar. Luckily I didn’t crave for fried chicken this whole week (I seldom crave for it anyway).
  10. I have learnt to be more deliberate with my food choices from now on.

Till next time, take care everyone.

Xo

On learning and self-motivation

Self-motivation to me is fuelled by being able to take responsibility, being proud of what I do and having a clear a vision. If people take away ownership of my own work, drag me around in circles, make me lose all sense of direction, then as time passes I’ll have no motivation to do the work well. If people only know how to command me to do things, then don’t expect any good results from me. I need guidance and supervision, but not a nanny. The least I want to happen is that I do something people tell me to do without any direction/context whatsoever and I do it wrong, which is so unproductive.
 
What I learnt as an adult is that, we understood something because someone had the patience to explain it to us step by step when we were younger. We just forgot how we learnt it and took the learning process for granted. As a result, we don’t have the same patience when teaching/explaining things to the younger generation. We just tell them to do it, but in fact there is so much background knowledge that they are lacking and we just assume they have it. Sadly, I have observed that the more educated/experienced/talented a person is, the more they unknowingly/unintentionally do it. I am guilty of it sometimes, but luckily being a teacher to beginner and lower-grade piano students has taught me many lessons.
How is this relevant to me? It still applies to me because there will always be people more talented, experienced and educated than me while there are still an infinite number of things that I do not know and understand. I still need guidance towards the right direction, otherwise I will be swimming in the large sea all by my own without any direction. I tend to become too focused and rely heavily on the little knowledge I have and try to expand on that knowledge, but turns out it is not what is really need. At the same time, there are people telling me what I should do, without any context/reason. How will I know what to do if I don’t have any direction? With a sense of direction, it allows me to plan out what to do because I have a vision, and work towards that vision.
All I know now is that, I have a job to do, but I don’t know where to get started. I don’t know what I ought to know and what I got wrong. This is making me lose motivation…I have already lost motivation.
I am told that this is normal and many people go through the same experiences as me. This is wrong, this should not be normal.
If you can’t do your job well, then why are you hired, right?
Also, why you even here?

4 Years

I wonder how you are

I wonder what you are doing now

I wonder if you’re okay

I wonder if you still hate me

I wonder if we’re still friends

I wonder if you still care

Because I still do

Happy four years- one year of unrequited friendship

Xo

The Biggest Irony

This is what I get for asking for a favour.

Never in my life has someone willingly done something for me and then blame it on me afterwards for the trouble I caused him. Worse, I receive a personal attack. It’s a favour for a reason, the person asking shouldn’t expect yes for an answer, and once the favour is done, it’s done because it’s out of goodwill.

I was very upset and disappointed with the response I got.

I didn’t demand for my needs to be tended to, nor did I want to trouble others at the expense of my own welfare. The fact that someone willingly did a favour for me and blamed me afterwards was really hurtful and contradicting at the same time.

This incident prompted me to reflect on the purpose of doing a favour for someone. As a giver, you give expecting no return. Knowing that someone done something that I requested and then blaming it on me afterwards, goes to show the level of sincerity he has towards me. I fear that he’s giving for something in return. It doesn’t have to be tangible things, but perhaps he’s looking for things like praises, and words of affirmation.

When I request a favour, it’s done with no expectations, I can expect no for a reply. I’m very grateful for the people who have stood by me and never given up on me, and helped me through hard times. But if people willingly do a favour for me, and then blame me afterwards for the trouble I’m causing them, then I rather not rely on them in the future. Who knows, they have ulterior motives in their pursuit of giving.

On side note, is the favour done even willingly if the asker gets blamed afterwards? If it’s not, then I’ll feel even more bad about it. If people are not willing to do something, don’t do it. I hate formalities, and it makes the deed look really insincere. What an irony.

Till next time, take care everyone.

Xo

Last Year, Worst Year

I am already in BMus4, and I am still struggling with the same problems that I had in my first year.

“Do not accent on a cadence.”

“Do not jab the end of a phrase.”

“Why is your tempo so slow?”

“You have to let the music move you.”

etc, etc.

I listened, I wanted to learn more. I read more, listened to more music, I tried to apply.

I tried, I really tried.

When I first entered NAFA, I was really bad at practicing. No one taught me how to practice before, I only knew I had to clock in the hours, but I didn’t know what to do with them. Being in NAFA, I learn how to practice, I read books on how to practice, I studied how others practice. Being a music student, practice takes up most of my life, when I’m practicing I’m always thinking about the music…Even when I’m away from the piano, I practice. Since my second year I taught myself to read music away from the piano. To analyse, to find connections, to find meaning and emotions inside of me before I begin to make any sound. After every semester I recall my mistakes and sternly remind myself never to make them again. Stupid mistakes that break the fundamentals.

I believed that as long as I am wary of the fundamentals and know where to apply them in any score, I will not make those mistakes. I play a passage, I listen, I correct. If I know the old me is going to jab unnaturally at this note, I will make a note of it on the score before I even play it.

But time and again, I play for the teacher, and then I hear the same things again…

“Do not accent on a cadence.”

“Do not jab the end of a phrase.”

“Why is your tempo so slow?”

“You have to let the music move you.”

…and then as I get older, I hear:

“Haven’t I said this before?”

“Why didn’t you realise this?”

And then back home I tell myself:

“Evangeline, I already told you all these things, why didn’t you follow?”

“Why did you have to be so stupid to make the same mistakes over and over again?”

“Are you waiting to be nagged at?”

“Are you waiting to be spoon-fed?”

“Didn’t we talk about this already?”

I tried, I really tried.

I figured that my practice strategies weren’t useful enough, so I read more. I read more on how to practice, I read about what to look out for, what the best performers are thinking. I figured that I might be nervous or anxious, so I read up on performance anxiety. I watched videos and listened to podcasts of interviews with people who have to perform under stress on the daily. I wanted to know why can’t I do it, and how to make it better.

It’s been four years, four years since I stepped into NAFA a clueless nineteen-year-old. From my first year, I had a mission for myself- to learn as much as I could, and to learn the ways of a serious musician, which was something I never had.

I am already in BMus4, and I am still struggling with the same problems that I had in my first year.

I wish someone can understand that I’m trying, I’m struggling, I know I’m failing and want to pick myself up again.

What the heck is wrong with me, why can’t I get things right? Why can’t I get thing right despite knowing what’s wrong and already working towards the the right in mind?

I feel stupid. A part of me is really really stupid.

And I am hating myself more and more every single year.

 

[Concert Review] Lim Jing Jing and Pan Chun- Piano Solo & Duo Recital

This post was originally published on my Facebook page, under the “Notes” section, and was shared by Appassionata Limited onto their Facebook page, who were the organisers of this concert.

24 July 2018
Victoria Concert hall

As a millennial, Lim Jing Jing and Pan Chun were unfamiliar names to me at first, but to the older generation, Lim Jing Jing is probably household a name within the local classical music scene. This was something that was brought to my attention while observing the general demographic of the audience at the Victoria Concert Hall that evening. The concert was well-attended, with about three quarters of the hall filled, most of them were of the older folk. It is of no surprise that many Singaporean music learners of my generation would not have heard of Lim Jing Jing, given that according to her biography, she had a prominent performing career in the 80s and 90s and is now an associate professor of the piano faculty at the China Conservatory of Music, dedicating her life to educating the next generation of musicians in China.

That evening, people in Singapore could once again be treated to solo and duo performances from the veteran pianists, thanks to organisers Appassionata Limited. Lim Jing Jing started off with the fifth French Suite in G major by J.S. Bach, followed by Piano Sonatas No. 12 in A-flat major and No. 13 in E-flat major by Beethoven. Lim had a nervous start to the Bach, but gradually warmed up with each movement. The Beethoven sonatas were the highlight of her solo performance, as she played with varied changes in character, warm tones when needed, and fiery passion in the more exciting and technically challenging passages. Overall, her performance was executed with an unwavering concentration.

The second half of the concert had Pan Chun joining Lim with music arranged for two pianos, namely the Schubert Fantasy in F minor arranged by Harold Bauer, followed by Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn Op. 56b. The beauty of duo piano repertoire is the witnessing of communication and coordination among the first and second pianos- the intertwining of voices and the building of harmonies. It was wonderful to be able to hear just that at that concert. Things started off sorrowfully in the Schubert and ended exuberantly with the strong, thick chords and intertwining scales in the Brahms. I had the opportunity to be a page-turner for Lim Jing Jing for the duo performances. Although I took up the offer not knowing what to expect, it turned out to be a great learning opportunity for me. Furthermore, Lim was a really kind-hearted and easygoing person, and it was an honour to be able to work with her albeit a short period of time. It was not a pity missing the second half as an audience at all.

Overall, the concert was a success, with both Lim and Pan receiving a loud applause from the audience and cheers at the end. The concert ended with an encore performance by the duo, which was a piece cheekily titled “Cai Diao” (“Guess the Tune”), with the music originally from a Yunnan folk song by renowned Chinese composer Wang Jianzhong.

It was indeed a rare opportunity to listen to veteran musicians return to their home country to perform. As the classical music scene in Singapore grows and develops with more young musicians entering the industry, let us not forget the veterans who have worked hard to allow classical music to continue to flourish today. More young musicians need to know veteran names such as Lim Jing Jing and Pan Chun. There is so much more that we can continue to learn from them.