Home | Musicians' Health | Anatomy/Biomechanics | Piano Teaching | Richard Beauchamp

From a New Zealand Sheep Farm

to a Specialist Music School — continued

I set foot on the SS Australis on new year’s eve, 1972 and arrived in Southhampton in February, 1973. My accommodation in London was at the Victoria League for Commonwealth Friendship Students’ Hostel at 55 Leinster Square — just across Hyde Park from the Royal College — and my room cost me £9.00 per week. The students were mostly South Africans or Australians. A few were music students, but most were on business courses. There were two pianos at the Hostel. One was an upright and the other a grand which had about half of its strings missing. These pianos were much in demand, so I had to find alternative places to practice and eventually organised a circuit of a church in Earl’s Court, an old lady’s house, the two half hours I was entitled to book at the Royal College and the basement of the Royal College of Organists (that pink and white building beside the Albert Hall, that looks like a wedding cake). The Royal College of Organists basement was a good place. Two of the pianos had been set up with pedal boards for the organists to practise on, but nobody seemed to like using them because the organ benches you had to sit on were so hard. I soon had two large calluses on my rear and named one of them “Maria.”

I was reunited with my ballet dancer soon after my arrival in London. Her dance company was very forward looking, not to say avant-garde and incorporated live contemporary music, acting and film projections. She did dangerous things such as dancing on stilts and really regarded life as a performance art. Evel Knievel was her hero and her ambition was to die spectacularly by jumping in flames off London Bridge. Unsurprisingly, she found me boring after a while and went off to America. I walked the streets for many nights in a fruitless effort to forget her. She had, among many other things, introduced me to the modern art scene in London, which has remained an important influence on me. I got through a large quantity of my savings very quickly but eventually realised that I had to curtail my search for amnesia in the night life of London if I was to remain in Britain at all.

The Royal College was a strange place to a boy from a N.Z. sheep farm. I was doing what was described as a postgraduate course, which meant that I got one piano lesson a week, and that was that. There was no one to welcome new students or to tell me what was on offer. I didn’t realise at the time that a large proportion of College students know each other already before they arrive, having played together in the national and regional youth orchestras and attended the summer courses. However I soon had a small group of friends. A wild Australian pianist, an organist/pianist/musicologist from South Africa and a delightful Percy Grainger enthusiast who played the French horn and piano, both brilliantly, and was an avid fan of Marilyn Monroe, spending much of his spare time traveling to remote corners of London to see her films.

My piano teacher, Professor X, seemed very dry and formal in his manner and shook hands at the beginning and end of lessons. I don’t think he could quite work out what to do with me. My technique needed a lot of renovating and my arms and shoulders were stiff, but I suspect he didn’t know where to begin. Instead he made me regurgitate old repertoire endlessly. I would come to a lesson with a three movement Beethoven Sonata prepared, thinking it would keep me going for at least three weeks. (I have been surprised, since, to discover that many students expect to stay on a movement for a whole term!) I would play through the first movement. Prof. X would say something like “Excuse me, but you have a slight inaccuracy in your left thumb in bar 55. Next movement, please.” When I had played the whole sonata in this manner, he would say “And what are you going to play at the next lesson?” I was now practising for seven hours a day to prepare for these lessons and was beginning to feel that my trip to Britain was being wasted. I had expected the odd profound insight and some help with my technique. I was grateful that I had remained a pupil of Ernest Empson until he gave up teaching at the age of 90, and not come to Britain any earlier. I respected Prof. X’s analytical powers and worked hard to please him, but I found I was becoming disillusioned and, partly influenced by my romantic trauma, considered giving up music. It was the young dancer herself who convinced me that I should never lose my music and that it would always be a central part of my life. Prof. X introduced me to his “short course on the Bach 48.” This meant two preludes and fugues a week — from memory — for several weeks, followed by the occasional comment about articulation at the lesson. X was like one of those museum or cathedral guides who have memorised a five minute speech on all the points of interest. If you look at their eyes you can tell that they are not really talking to you — in fact, hardly seeing you. It is as though they have turned on a tape recorder. He had a set piece on every department of piano playing, but it wouldn’t really have mattered if you went out of the room whilst he was talking — he probably wouldn’t have noticed. If I ventured a comment of my own, he would cut in, before I had finished the sentence, “Yes, and as I was saying — .” This was a great lesson to me as a teacher. You have to interact with the pupil, there must be give and take, you must be prepared to learn from them if they are to learn anything from you. You should respect each pupil for their unique qualities, which you have the opportunity to help to shape. They need to have confidence in their own instinct if they are to have anything of value to say in their music.

The worst thing was that people began to say they could tell who my teacher was by the way I played — and I didn’t like the way X’s pupils played. They tended to win all the competitions at College and they did it by being relentlessly accurate — every semiquaver was in place — having faultless articulation, using hardly any pedal, and chopping up the phrases by accenting the first beat of every bar. Frighteningly, I was starting to win competitions, too. I didn’t like my playing, but I felt it must have been me that was wrong. I was, after all only a boy from a sheep farm in a remote colony, and this, I had been led to believe, was the Mecca of music!

At breakfast one morning I found myself sitting across the table from a girl called R, who had just arrived from N.Z. on an Associated Board Scholarship to study cello at the Royal College. As we were the only New Zealanders at the hostel, we had a lot to talk about — and haven’t stopped since!

R soon had her own problems with teachers, but eventually ended up with a wonderful lady called Joan Dickson, who hailed from Edinburgh. Joan was a pioneer cello teacher and probably the greatest teacher of any instrument that I have ever met. She had a thorough understanding of the mechanics of playing and liked nothing better than helping someone to overcome a difficulty. She had a deep understanding of music, a profound respect for the composer’s wishes and she talked about everything from general principles which you could later apply for yourself. I would come out of a piano lesson and try to think what I had learned. Nothing general would spring to mind, only phrases like “left thumb, bar 55” which could hardly be described as worth traveling across the world for. But after Joan’s lessons, I would be bursting with enthusiasm to go and try her ideas out and to apply them in all sorts of ways.

How did I get to hear Joan’s lessons? Each pupil had two lessons per week. One was an individual lesson and the other was a class, where each pupil was given a lesson in front the rest of Joan’s pupils. At these sessions, Joan insisted on having a pianist because the whole of the music was important and it would be unthinkable to deal with only one line of music in a sonata for example. The pianist was emphatically not described as an ‘accompanist’ as the instruments accompanied each other. Both were important and the music was incomplete if either was missing. R needed a pianist and I was brought in. These sessions were like a shaft of light in a dark world. At last I was learning about music! Soon the other students asked me to play for them as well and I would often play for the whole class. Professor X was not so pleased. I should be spending more time on my concertos and not wasting time “accompanying” people.

I began to play for other teachers as well and became fascinated by the art of teaching. They were all so different. No one came near Joan in their ability, but they all had something good to offer. Most teachers, I came to realise, had one or two ‘things’ that they plugged at nearly every lesson. It might be fingering, it might be analysis, tone production, emotional content, phrasing, the long line, changes of colour etc. The best teachers had more ‘things,’ with of course, the ability to communicate — it was a simple as that! More rare was the teacher who truly respected the student’s individuality. I saw a lot of “Do it the way I do, because all others ways are wrong,“ and I realised that it was the easiest thing in the world to make someone appear stupid by insisting that they copy you (interpret that as you will!). Our ways of interpreting music are as different and unique as our finger prints. The teacher could not have faithfully imitated the student any more than the student could copy the finer nuances of the teacher’s playing. Another thing that worried me was the way some teachers treated points of interpretation as moral issues. There is surely space in the world for some one to play a piece in a way that seems wrong to you. Your way will seem equally wrong to them. The worst example was a violin teacher who thought so highly of his opinion that he wrote in red ink on the student’s score!

R and I were married on June 1st, 1974. The date was chosen because it was Marilyn Monroe’s birthday, and we had asked our friendly Grainger nut for advice. We rented accommodation in Clapham Junction for £11.00 per week and I took on as much piano teaching as I could manage to supplement our grants. I joined the ILEA teaching panel so that I could teach in schools as well as privately.

Joan invited us to go on string teaching courses run by ESTA (she seemed to have singled out R as a potential teacher — a great compliment from Joan) and on one occasion I was official pianist for the master classes. The most exciting courses were those featuring the work of Paul Rolland, a brilliant violin teacher of Hungarian extraction, who had led an 4-year project in Illinois to develop and test his method of teaching violin to unselected groups of school children. In other words they were not tested for either musical or co-ordination skills before the project started. Rolland sought the advice of physiologists, neurologists, kinesiologists, educationalists, physiologists, psychologists as well as specialists in biomechanics, ergonomics, Suzuki method and Alexander Technique. He studied the playing of the great violinists with the help of slowed down videos and analysed the results. In short he did all the things that Olympic trainers do today. They find it relatively easy to get funds for this work because international prestige is at stake. The progress of Rolland’s children over the 2 year testing period astonished teachers everywhere and the films he made are widely recognised as necessary study for any serious string teacher. He was a warm hearted and generous person with a genuine love of music and of teaching and I was privileged to meet him on several occasions.

I had been conscious for many years that piano teaching was still in a primitive state, with differing and often contradictory approaches handed on from teacher to pupil and rarely questioned. These approaches would suit some people and not others, some were mechanically and physiologically unsound, some worked in spite of what the teacher said because the pupil was physically gifted, and some worked because at some deep level the pupil sensed what the teacher meant, rather than what he or she actually said. The great French piano teacher, Raymond Thiberge, who died in 1968 commented on this when he said — and I quote from Harold Taylor’s book, “The Pianist’s Talent” — “Being deprived of sight, I had to place my hands on the arms of my mentors in order to comprehend the procedures of which they were giving examples. To my great astonishment, my hands revealed to me that their technical procedures were actually in disagreement with the principles which they professed.”

It had been difficult to get books about piano technique in N.Z, but I did manage to get some — and to my delight they contained anatomical diagrams. My teachers strongly discouraged me from reading them, however, in case I got “the wrong idea.” So I was aware of this rather mysterious and mediaeval approach to piano playing from early on. Since meeting Rolland, anatomy has become an even more passionate interest with me, along with biomechanics and ergonomics. We still need a project such as Rolland’s before there can be any consensus about general principles in piano teaching, however, and I remain envious of the happy agreement that exists among string teachers as a result of his work.

While at College R and I formed a piano trio with a N.Z. violinist and we gave a number of concerts in and around London. Playing chamber music was a new and delightful experience for me and one that I have enjoyed ever since. (One of my jobs at St Mary’s is to co-ordinate the chamber music). We procured some official coaching at College from David Parkhouse, sadly now deceased, who was pianist for the Music Group of London. David was a remarkable musician who specialised in preparing works to a high standard quickly and taught us how to ask the right questions in the right order and not waste rehearsal time. He said that the reality of a professional musician’s life was that a parcel of music would arrive through the door with a note saying that the BBC wanted you to make a recording of the piece in two days. It would most likely be a contemporary work in a harmonic language you had to work out from scratch and in writing you couldn’t read. David was hot on tone colour. He worked at the different sonorities you could get by altering the balance between the instruments and within the parts on the piano. He also had what were to me quite revolutionary ideas about pedaling. Ideas which shocked me at first. He said that pedaling was like bowing — If you change the pedal you get a break in the phrase — and that clarity depended on balance and grading of tone even more than on changing the pedal. His own playing demonstrated these points perfectly. He was a master of tone control and a great inspiration to me. On one occasion we did the "Phantasie Trio" by John Ireland and took it to three different teachers. David told me to use long, long pedals — sometimes up to half a page. When I expressed surprise he said that his Trio had given the first broadcast of the piece and afterwards John Ireland had phoned him to say that it was just as he had imagined it. Professoe X told me to change the pedal every beat and in some places not to use it at all. He told us that he had given the first public performance of the trio and that afterwards John Ireland had told him that it was exactly the way he wanted it. We then played it to Hubert Dawkes who told us that he had known John Ireland quite well and that he had been quite a “messy” pianist who took as long as he needed to get his hands from A to B. Another great lesson!

I did more concerts with other students from College, and eventually took the bit between my teeth and made my Wigmore Hall début. I had won a piano competition in which part of the prize was having the services of a concert agent. The deal was that if the concert went well he would continue to act as my agent and send out publicity to his list of music clubs. The concert did go well and the first round of publicity was sent out. Two months later he called me to his office and told me there had been no bites, although that was quite usual at this stage and he would now need to send out further rounds of publicity which from now on would cost me £50.00 a time for postage. This seemed like a huge sum of money to me at the time — R and I were still paying £11.00 a week for our flat — So I said no. “Oh well,” said the producer, “It doesn’t affect me. Just another promising pianist down the drain.”

I was still with Professor X, and, although other aspects of my life were going better, I was not really enjoying my piano lessons. Just the chemistry of the two of us I suppose. I liked him as a person and admired his analytical mind, but I was losing confidence in my own ideas and was distressed by how square my playing was getting. An elderly friend, and fine pianist, was also worried about my playing and suggested that I should go to Peter Wallfisch who had recently joined the staff of the College. His approach was very different, and I started to enjoy my playing again. If I ventured a remark, instead of the “Yes, and as I was saying” that I had become used to, he really wanted to know what I thought, and I began to feel like a human being again instead of a set of fingers to be put in the right places and drilled like ten soldiers. Peter also made me more responsible for my own problems. When I complained about having stiff shoulders he would grasp them and say, “Richard, whose shoulders are these?” And I found that I could do something about loosening them up. I remember having difficulty with part of Brahms’ “Handel Variations.” He told me to play the left hand alone. It was a mess. “Are you proud of that?” he said. “No,” I said. “Neither would I be,” said Peter. “Go and do something about it.” And I saw that he was right. And I did. So often we expect others to solve our problems. I have been to many master classes and have observed that at least 90 per-cent of the time the great teacher is not expounding wonderful philosophical insights, but simply telling the students what is written in the score — which they could have read for themselves at considerably less expense! Somehow it seems easier to pay someone to tell us what we already know we should have done. Perhaps I am vindicating Prof. X after all.

Well, to cut a long story short, Joan Dickson, who was on the Board of Governors of St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh, told us that they needed a cello teacher and a piano teacher/ensemble player. We said yes please, and so began a very interesting 21 years, which began very near the start of the school’s role as the newest of the six Specialist Music Schools in Britain. R also became assistant to Joan at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and we were able to keep in touch with Joan and be inspired by her for many years.

— To be continued — perhaps! —

© Richard Beauchamp, May 1998

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