24 Mar 2017

The calming power of “terrible jokes” and practising often


SSO Young Ambassador Chiara Torresan gets some advice for young performers from pianist Simon Tedeschi.

Recently I interviewed the talented pianist Simon Tedeschi after his performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s 'Symphony for the Common Man' concert.

Talking with Simon was a wonderful opportunity to learn about his experience as a professional musician - the ups, downs and perks of the job – as well as a chance to gain some advice for young performers.

Chiara: Performance anxiety is a common thing for musicians, how do you prepare/calm yourself on the day of a performance?

Simon: To an extent, I’ve struggled with it my whole life, and over the course of 25 years it’s gotten mildly better, although I still have dark thoughts on stage too. I’ve long accepted it as part of the process of opening up, of showing my vulnerability through the medium of the music that can lead to the most honest and gripping performances. The only thing I can counter the butterflies with is very stringent preparation (slow practise!), physical exercise (like running) and working with someone I get on with very well (like Benjamin Northey, conductor of this evening and Roger Benedict on viola, who is one of my good friends). Usually before performing, I just like to be by myself because I just really retreat into myself and I just feel I need to be near a piano. Ben Northey can attest to the fact that right before I walked on stage, I told him a terrible joke – it seemed to make everything easier.

Chiara: When choosing repertoire for a performance, how do you pick which pieces? Do you play your favourites or what the orchestra suggests?

Simon: I was raised with the idea of saying “yes” first and thinking later, so almost always if a repertoire suggestion is made to me, I will take it – as pianists we are so lucky that the repertoire is so endless and nourishing, it could take us ten lifetimes to play one tenth of it.

In this case, the SSO asked me to play the Rach 4 and I'd never played it before. The first time I heard it, it was like watching a Stanley Kubrick movie – full of spectral images and challenging effects that I needed to process. But I love that feeling, of having something big, mighty to work into my body and mind – the longer the better. Physically, having small hands for a pianist, it also forces me to be ingenious – Rachmaninoff could stretch 14 notes and I can get nine on a good day. In other cases, usually recitals, I’ll choose my own program and invariably these days I’ll only choose music I truly love, that I find transcendent. For example, next year I want to tour the Schubert G major “Fantasy” Sonata, which I think is one of the most exquisite pieces of music ever written: one that will force me to abandon ego and question time itself, as only the very greatest composers can coax us to do!

Chiara: People say when learning a new piece, you should listen to several different performers and find your own interpretation. How do you find your interpretation?

Simon: It's not a black and white thing for me. I generally start with listening to nobody. I heard somewhere that Sigmund Freud said, “don’t read anything”. In this case, I didn’t know the work at all and was curious to know not only what others had done with it but about the different versions. Many eminent pianists I respect preferred the first version of the concerto – a decision that I firmly disagreed with from the get go. For me, Rachmaninoff’s latest version was more coherent, more culturally responsive, more foretelling about what was to come musically for the rest of the century. So, for this version, I had a choice of Valentina Lisitsa, John Lill, Mikhail Pletnev and Vladimir Ashkenazy. Ashkenazy, who is former Principal Conductor of the SSO and signed the piano I played tonight with a sharpie, produced a recording that was the best for me. I took quite a lot from that, as it had the most poetry and sense of line. Rachmaninoff is so often played as an audience pleaser with a great deal of bombast, but I like to think of this concerto as being different – as if Rachmaninoff was writing this one for himself. It’s the introvert in him, the visionary.

Chiara: What was your first inspiration to learn piano as a child? Did you come from a musical background/family?

Simon: My grandfather on my mother’s side was supposedly a very good clarinettist, but he had to give it all up as he was a Holocaust survivor and after being liberated from the camps, he had to start over to make money for his family. Speaking no English, he had to do HSC and then TAFE and then become an accountant. My mother was a fairly good pianist and she actually did one of her exams while pregnant with me, so I guess I had always grown up with music. As such there were no professional musicians in my family; my dad’s a lawyer, my mum’s a doctor, so I am the first professional musician in my family.

Chiara: What is the most difficult thing about being a musician?

Simon: The constant dedication, practice and the sacrifices you have to make. Holidays are hard because I always need to practice. As a kid I couldn’t go on holidays with my family unless we brought a keyboard so I could practice. It’s a very solitary profession; it’s hard to maintain friendships as I’m travelling a lot and I’m on my own all the time. I’m intensely lucky that I have an amazing partner who is the greatest gift in my life, above everything.

With piano, you don’t see improvement on a day-to-day basis; incremental improvement is a very slow process. In a way, it’s a labour of love; no one goes in to it for money. There are many challenges, the amount of repertoire that we have at our disposal is so enormous, such that the sense of artistic responsibility we have as artists in a today's world is extremely onerous.

Chiara: Do you have any advice for young, aspiring performers?

Simon: The first teacher is incredibly important and has to have that middle ground between being very didactic and quite tough but also kind and compassionate to vagaries of the student, because every student is different.

I tend not to follow dogmas as much; some people play with flat fingers, some with curved, some hunch over and some are as straight as a board. They’re all correct, because not everybody operates the same way, and we haven’t even begun to fully understand neural pathways, especially in musicians. This is why I am so sparing in giving advice on how to play to youngsters, because I feel an enormous sense of responsibility. I think the ultimate goal of a teacher or mentor is to dispense advice with love – I believe it was Claudio Arrau who imparted that bit of wisdom.

Just learn as much repertoire as you can, I think it was conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim who said about Beethoven’s “Waldstein” sonata, “it’s not going to get any better by not playing it”, and I think that’s great, people should play the great works, and play them for years and years. I’m only really just getting started and learning how to play now!

Chiara Torresan is a 17-year-old violinist and part of the SSO’s Young Ambassador program.

Learn more about Chiara and our other Young Ambassadors in this video.

Image: Tim Walsh