Conservatoire Life

Keyboard Forum – Week 1 Summary

Last week I received an email from the head of keyboard studies, Simon Phillippo, about a new weekly programme with an hour long discussion group called the ‘keyboard forum’ that he has devised for us throughout May. My friends and I highly anticipated the first email on Monday and when it arrived we were not disappointed. Each week will include: a piano recital, masterclass, artist of the week, a repertoire binge, an article or chapter of a book to read and finally the Keyboard Forum where various topics relating to piano will be discussed on Microsoft Teams.

So, what did this week include?

  • A recital given by Marc-André Hamelin
  • Two masterclasses on Debussy by Richard Goode
  • Artist of the week: Maria João Pires
  • Repertoire binge: Bartók piano concertos
  • An article on Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata
  • Keyboard Forum: Knowing Music

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed dipping into bits of the programme this week, especially having an excuse to listen to more piano music! However, I want to specifically focus on the Keyboard Forum aspect of the programme this week. Our given topic, ‘what does it mean to know music?‘ created a great discussion from first year undergraduate through to second year postgraduate piano students.

We started the forum with a lovely story from Simon, who told us about one of his very first conducting lessons. We covered a range of topics, which was to be expected, so I’ve summarised them below:

Knowledge of music is a spectrum

We discussed what it really means to have knowledge of music. Which includes intellectual and analytical knowledge, general awareness and superficial knowledge.

It was noted that it is possible to play a piece without having much detailed knowledge, this would include sight-reading or when learning and playing through a new piece. More detailed knowledge would include harmonic analysis, understanding of structure, fully responding to dynamic and articulation markings, following performance directions, etc. We also came to the conclusion that amateur listeners would have more of a general awareness of music. For example, when listening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony an amateur listener would be able to recognise the symphony from it’s themes, but wouldn’t be able to describe the symphony in musical terms.


Does memorising music mean we fully know everything there is to know about a piece we’re playing?

One of my friends described how she can memorise easily, but doesn’t feel like she really knows the music until she’s been playing and performing it from memory for a few months. This brought up the question, is it possible to memorise without fully analysing the score? Well in some ways yes, because if you play something enough times your fingers will remember where to play each note. But memorisation is much more than that, and is made up of different types of memory: visual memory, aural/auditory memory, kinaesthetic memory (muscle memory) and intellectual memory.

Personally, I find memorisation to be a laborious task. However, I tend to develop my interpretation and knowledge of a piece as a result of the way I memorise. It’s kind of like puzzle pieces that I’m putting together in my head!

I was delighted to hear Clara Schumann’s name mentioned when we were discussing memorisation as she really pioneered memorisation to become a tradition amongst pianists. Which then raised another question, does that mean that memorisation is the epitome of musical knowledge? In my opinion, I don’t think that it is, and unless you dedicate all of your practice time to memorising music, you won’t have enough time to work on other aspects of musicianship.


This became the main topic of conversation in the forum this week. We discovered that there are two types of opinion when it comes to recordings: either you believe that recordings help to shape and influence your own interpretation and understanding of the music, or you feel that recordings can cloud your ability to create a true authentic interpretation.

One interesting point Simon made was that he can very clearly tell when a musician hasn’t listened to a recording of a piece they’re performing. This could be a result of traditional performance practices that have been developed over time that the audience expect to hear. If the performer hasn’t listened to recordings then these performance practices may not be considered. However, a similar thing could happen if a performer only listens to one recording.

We also discussed how picking recordings to listen to is similar to picking editions to play from. One pianist in the forum brought up a very interesting point: performances can be a pianist’s way of re-writing a piece through themselves.

Composer, performer and audience

The relationship between composer performer and the audience has changed drastically since the 19th Century. This could be largely to do with the development of recording quality and also the audience having easier access to scores and research. We also know that composers assume that the performer has a certain amount of understanding of their musical language before seeing the score.

Jazz vs Classical

Lastly we spoke about the difference between knowledge in jazz and classical genres. Jazz musicians transcribe recordings of great artists note by note, whereas in classical music if we were to copy a recording exactly it could be considered as a form of plagiarism for copying an interpretation.

We also discussed the difference between the level of detail required in a jazz performance versus a classical one. As a generalisation, jazz performance tends to be freer with focus on harmony, structure and form. Whereas classical performance tends to be more rigid in terms of performance direction and attention to detail of the score.

To end my summary of this week’s Keyboard Forum, I will leave you with the same question Simon left us: What is the minimum amount of knowledge we need to be respected, cultured musicians and then what do we do with that knowledge?

Keep making music and stay safe,

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