A Glimpse of Murray McLachlan as a Teacher
Post Date: 30/08/2012

Two recent essays have recently been released for publication offering a glimpse of Murray McLachlan as a teacher. Both refer to his contributions to 'Lot Music' the summer school which McLachlan was invited to for the first time in July 2003 and to which he will return next year:

Lot Music

A Lotite's view

Jenny Macmillan

A 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. Tutors next year will be John Barstow (provisional dates Monday 12 to 19 July) and Murray McLachlan (provisional dates Thursday 22 to 29 July). Further information may be obtained from Anne Brain on anne@pianolotmusic.com.

LOT 2003 Course 2

For the past six years in July some thing rather special has been happening at a villa near the small village of Prayssac in the South of France. Each summer Anne Brain, a surgeon from the North West of England, has devoted her summer holiday to running piano playing courses under the auspices of LOT MUSIC for which she opens her house to a small group of amateur pianists who are keen to receive a week of professional piano tuition of the highest calibre.

Each participant receives 2 hours of personal tuition studying pieces of their own choice and playing on a beautiful toned and regulated Yamaha grand piano. Lessons are given for four hours in the morning in the spacious and acoustically rewarding salon in front of other course members and any partners who wish to attend.

Additional quality pianos are hired to provide each participant with some two hours practice a day - the pianos and practice times being allocated among members on a rota basis. Practice is scheduled so the members have an opportunity to attend their colleagues lessons which thereby take on the form of a master class. By these means tutoring is effectively extended from 2 hours to some 20 hours during the week.

A key part of the courses are the two recitals given by the Master Tutor / Pianist to which members of the local community are invited. There is also the opportunity for two advanced course members to give a recital to a pre-published programme. On the last evening there is a final concert at which members can play the pieces they have been studying or an alternative.

This year for the first time two courses were run. The Master Tutor / Pianist for the first week was Bernard Roberts and Murray McLachlan for the second. For me it was a first time at LOT and I attended the second week.

Participants and their partners are housed in the villa or adjacent properties which are magically set in areas of vineyard with open views to the hills. Lunches are alfresco at the poolside and one is regaled by wonderful salad nicoise; fish; local pâté, cheese and variety of delicious fruits. In the evenings after drinks there is a recital following which members go out to selected restaurants to sample the renowned local cuisine - the highlight for me was wonderful roast duck.

Anne is a keen flautist and pianist who, ably assisted by Colin East , attends to all the course arrangements in a charming and most efficient way and when time permits joins the classes. I found travel to the area on the motorways and village roads pleasant and hassle free - the traffic being very light by British standards. Night skies are free from light pollution giving wonderful views of the heavens.

My impressions of this week are in many ways surreal. There was an excellent piano technician who arrived in a microlite aircraft to tune and voice the recital piano having first checked with Anne that the wind direction was suitable for his landing. We had exercises in playing C major scales legato using a single finger or thumb - no pedal! - and this was perfectly demonstrated by Murray at the start.

We also had a session on how gestures can enhance or detract from a performance and it became apparent that this was not just a question of the listener being effected by what he sees but of the performer drawing in and fixing an emotion conjured by the gesture into his sound image and performance. As an example of this we were requested to consider controlling our dynamics by varying the intensity of focus of our eyes!

Much attention was given to pedalling including the use of the third pedal and even of all three together. A demonstration was given of an innovative pedalling technique devised by Murray for obtaining an effective forte/piano for use in such works as the opening of Beethoven's Pathatique Sonata. Bare foot analysis was given to illustrate the correction of various pedalling problems and also as an aid to appreciating the sensitivity and skill necessary to develop a multilevel damper release technique.

In the baroque repertoire Murray invariably asked the player to say what instrumentation they had in mind for the various voices and then explained how the phrasing and articulation associated with these instruments could be applied to develop the performance.

In all the lessons Murray McLachlan was at pains to demonstrate how to practice and play in ways that prevent injury and how this actually was the road to producing a beautiful tone. Also that by these means the playing of even the most demanding works would be without pain or discomfort. Emphasis was given to playing from the key surface and avoiding all unnecessary tension at the wrist the arms and other joints in the chain of tone production.

The sound world of the composer of each piece studied was explained and detailed instruction given on how to perform it in the correct style. Each of the pupils received three lessons during the week and over the total 27 lessons given - Murray whilst dealing with the needs of individual players and pieces of music effectively layed out the key tenets of piano playing technique. Many of these had all ready been covered in his ongoing series of articles in the International Piano Journal and for members acquainted with the articles it was a invaluable opportunity to see theory put into practice.

One of the key benefits of attending this course was the informal exchange of ideas and experience that took place between each of the participants as well as with the tutor. Ideas were discussed in open minded manner and Murray, who is head of piano at Chetam's School of Music in Manchester, clearly appreciated the feed back from us "mature students" as a change from those of the up and coming young virtuosi he teaches at the school.

Murray, who is an inspired teacher and super concert pianist was totally unfazed in demonstrating how to play the wide ranging and demanding repertoire presented by the participants who were greatly appreciative of his dual gifts. The highlights of the course were Murray's recitals which included a wonderful. performance of the Tempest Sonata of Beethoven and a display of spell binding virtuosity in the Busoni Carman Fantasy.

Obviously my focus in writing these notes has been on the course I attended but from what I have learned from past participants I know that that each of these courses is a special and memorable event which develops ones playing and charges up ones musical and pianistic batteries for months to come.