A Lotite’s View

By Jenny Macmillan

A Lotite's ViewA warm welcome, stunning surroundings, gorgeous weather, convivial company, delicious food and inspiring teaching all help to create a relaxed atmostphere for an incredible music course for adult pianists.

Lot Music takes place in the Lot Valley, a picturesque area of south-west France. For seven years, Anne Brain has organised these week-long summer courses. Normally there is one a year, but this year Lot Music expanded to two separate courses. Most guests stay in Anne’s spacious house, half-way up a hillside, with lovely views; while a few, who perhaps prefer occasionally to get away from the intense music-making, stay in a house nearby, or a local bed-and-breakfast. There are nine pianists on the course, but many also bring their partners to share in the holiday.

The course is in effect a house party. Breakfast is eaten al fresco on the terrace overlooking the swimming pool. Meanwhile others may be practising or taking an early morning dip. Sunshine, warmth, good food and the sound of music are everywhere.

Tuition is in the form of morning masterclasses. Each participant can expect a total of two hours of teaching divided into three sessions during the week. Previous tutors have included Bernard Roberts and Philip Fowke, and the tutor on our course was Murray McLachlan, Head of Keyboard at Chetham’s. His teaching was superb. Every lesson was different according to the personality of each participant, the music they chose to play, and the style and level of their performance. As a piano teacher myself, I was fascinated to learn from Murray’s teaching. He has a global, top-down approach which is very effective. For instance, one student played a Schubert sonata movement, extremely well and with excellent observation of the dynamics and other markings, but without the character coming through, and with slightly insecure timing. Murray never mentioned timing, and approached the character of the piece through gesture. The student responded admirably to the remarkable and entertaining masterclass on the use of gesture and by the end was giving a characterful interpretation of the Schubert with a firm grasp of tempo.

Wonderful salads for lunch were prepared in-house by Anne and any partners who had not spent the whole morning attending the masterclass, walking, cycling or sightseeing at local chateaux and vineyards. Afternoons were devoted to a siesta and a couple of hours practising on one of the six pianos. There are two pianos in the salon and a Clavinova for silent out-of-hours practice, and other pianos are hired for the course. Personally, I loved relaxing in the afternoon and hearing in the distance one Lotite practising the Goldberg Variations, another a Beethoven sonata, another Bartok’s Allegro Barbaro, while two more rehearsed the Schumann Piano Concerto in the salon. For those who would find this cacophany too much, accommodation outside the main house might be preferable!

Before attending the course, I wondered what I would do in the two or three hours of scheduled practice a day (never normally being able to fit in more than an hour even on a good day). But we were all buoyed up with enthusiasm by Murray’s wonderful teaching, and even on a day of playing in the masterclass and three hours of practising, my fingers were itching to be at the piano again later that evening.

Drinks on the terrace preceded an evening recital – two by Murray, and two by course participants. Murray’s first recital – Beethoven’s Appassionata and some Chopin – was outstanding. The sounds he drew from the piano were magic. By this time, my admiration and respect for Murray as a teacher and performer knew no bounds and (compounded by the holiday atmosphere and good food and wine) I had fallen madly in love with him! It was lovely also to hear recitals from other participants. Murray’s second recital, at the end of the week, started beautifully with Beethoven’s Tempest. However, I felt he was getting so relaxed later in the programme of Gershwin, Busoni and Schubert that he just let rip, and produced too big a sound for a domestic-sized room. He has a huge range of sound, but I would have liked to have heard more in the soft to medium range. He is like an overgrown boy in his enthusiasm for very fast and very loud music!

One evening, Murray conducted a masterclass for local children aged 12 to 15. Some good teaching points were made, and the children definitely played better at the end of their lessons, but there was a language problem which made communication difficult, despite a parent being available to translate.

All participants were invited to play at the final concert on the last evening of the course. It is significant that even those of us who normally feel we cannot perform and do not wish to perform, felt able to play, and we treated ourselves to a splendid concert at which it was evident that we pianists had learned a great deal from Murray’s teaching.

Dinner was taken at various tried-and-tested restaurants in the region. The menu at each had been carefully selected by Anne as being typical of the region and utterly delicious. Pate fois gras, scallops, quail, duck, local cheeses, all washed down with caraffes of the local Cahors red wine, were much appreciated by all. It was an incredible pleasure to sit down at a long table, 14 of us, with our recitalist amongst us, and chat about this and that and … music. Several Lotites were involved in the medical profession, there were a few engineers and university dons, and people with a wide variety of other careers and interests. We were a motley crew, really, but all drawn together by a genuine love of music.

And the day was not yet over. Fingers continued to itch and on several nights we had a jam session including duets, the Mozart Two Piano Sonata, excerpts of various piano concertos, some jazz, pieces for eight hands at two pianos, six hands at one piano, including Gautier Le Secret (doubled up – 12 hands at two pianos), even Chaminade eight hands at one piano – something of a squash for four adults. And Murray joined in with enthusiasm, although one evening we had to send him to bed at 12.30 am. He was falling asleep downstairs, having been up until 3.30 am the night before, practising with headphones on the Clavinova! As one Lotite remarked, if the course were to extend to a second week, morning masterclasses would not start until lunchtime. Already by the end of one week we were half an hour late starting the class, and did not finish for lunch until 2.00 pm!

What a life! What decadence! What a holiday! The only sadness was saying farewell to everyone and coming home – back to normality. I do not wish to wax too enthusiastic about this unique course, or there will be many disappointed pianists who fail to secure a place for themselves next year. If you love music, good company and good food, and would like to improve your piano playing in the most delightfully informal, relaxed atmosphere calmly created by Anne, then this is for you. Further information may be obtained from Anne Brain on info@pianolotmusic.com.

7 August 2003