Paul Lewis. Photo: Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (detail) View full image

Songs of Experience

As he reaches the half-century milestone, Paul Lewis explains the benefits of age in the lifelong process of learning music and looks back at some of his most important concert-going experiences

How do you feel your playing compares to when you were younger?

There are certain things that I can do that I maybe wasn’t able to do 20 years ago – getting the sense of the balance of a piece, seeing it as a whole. I’ve always tried to do that but to get it across in a performance takes years. I’m at a different point on that line than I was a couple of decades ago, but it’s still only a point on an ongoing line. Maybe when I’m 70, I’ll look back at when I was 50 and think, ‘I didn’t really know what I was doing!’

It’s difficult to describe how the experience you accumulate feeds into what you do, musically – it just does, somehow. Pieces that you’ve played for decades and come back to are like old friends. You accumulate more information and experience, which feeds into how you see them. When you come back to them you see something you didn’t see before. It’s important to acknowledge that this a process, and a never-ending one.

You can’t play these great works without experience. You might play the hell out of the Hammerklavier Sonata in your 20s, but it takes a long time to get to grips with its structure, the unity of it. There’s nothing that can replace time and experience. Maybe as you get older it starts to feel more difficult physically, but that sense of a struggle is important, too – it shouldn’t be easy.

How has the music world changed?

Social media has brought much more immediacy and image is more important than it was. People want to feel they have access to players, to know what they are up to. I’m not really that type. I live my life and I have my family life, and I don’t see the value of putting it on public display – it doesn’t tell anybody anything about what I do musically. You have to come to a concert for that. However, I recognise that one thing drives the other, to some extent, which has changed.

Having said that, it’s a good thing that musicians are not as remote as they were in the past. There is more of a feeling of seeing musicians as people, not just distant figures who turn up on stage and deliver something and then you never see them. That is a good thing. There’s more informality about the industry, including in the way we look on stage, and I’m all for that. I threw my tails out about 20 years ago. A concert is an occasion and you need to look smart but to wear antiquated outfits these days is a bit silly.

What would you change about the music world today?

I would have more music education in schools and encourage musicians to go into schools to do what they can. That’s the root of everything. At Midsummer Music, the festival I started with my wife Bjørg, we always give a schools concert, usually for primary school children. This year, it’s for GCSE age students who are studying music and I’m playing Beethoven’s ‘Pathétique’ Sonata, which is on the syllabus. They have had to study it in a superficially analytical way, so I want to give them a live experience and show them that it sounds different when there’s someone doing it in front of them. Getting the live experience to children as early as possible is important.

It is wonderful for audiences to be able to walk down the road for a musical experience and we should all be doing that. With our festival, we’ve tried to engage locally. There’s a small element of an international audience but it’s mainly local. Our mission is to bring musicians of the highest level to our community, and that’s what we’ve done. It’s wonderful when people appreciate that: you can see that they’re visibly moved when they come up to you afterwards. That’s why we do it – to give people a special experience without having to go to a major city or prestigious hall.

What were the most important concert-going experiences as a student that stayed with you?

When I was 14 and studying at Chetham’s, we came down to London to hear Michelangeli give a recital at the Barbican. My memory is of a remote figure with a kind of icy perfection. Years later, when I listened to a recording on YouTube, it seemed very human – there were even notes that went missing. I expected to hear perfection and that’s what I heard in 1987, but listening to the recording 30 years later, it wasn’t – it was wonderful, but it was human. The character of Michelangeli as the great, untouchable artist had influenced the way I was hearing the music. That doesn’t happen these days because if you see the person on stage as more human. That’s a positive way to listen – it’s more real. It’s good that we’ve largely got rid of the distance between musicians and audiences.

I heard Richter a few times – the first time in 1989 at the Festival Hall. He played the Schubert G major Sonata, which took about 70 minutes. The place was in darkness with a small light by the keyboard – just Richter, the great pianist, alone in the blackness. I used to learn the pieces I heard in concerts, so I learnt the Schubert – it was the first time I’d really heard it. Even though I play it very differently from him, there’s something about his performance that stayed with me, something almost nostalgic about remembering the way he did certain things.

I remember Alfred Brendel playing the last three Beethoven sonatas in 1995 at the Festival Hall, which was an overwhelming experience. I was older than I had been in the 80s when I went to hear Michelangeli and Richter, and was able to appreciate it from a different perspective, having played the pieces. Everything felt right and inspirational, and I couldn’t imagine hearing them any other way.

How do you listen to music?

When you listen to someone else playing something you’re working on, it’s inevitable that the way you listen is affected. That’s to your detriment, unfortunately, because you can’t possibly listen from an independent standpoint. You’re comparing a phrase to how you’ve been thinking of it and how you feel it fits into the context. Sometimes you hear something you like, but at other times, it’s just too coloured by your own experience. I long to be able to listen to music in an unaffected, independent way, like people who are not professional musicians. I envy that.

In my own concerts, with every phrase, I’m always comparing the sound I hear to what I was hearing in my head before I made the sound. I keep telling myself that the people listening don’t have that point of reference, that they don’t know what was in my head or what I was intending. That conversation is constant while I play and that’s probably the same for all performing musicians. You have to accept what comes out. When you’re on stage, you have to drop that perfectionism and save it for the practice room. I’m still learning to do that.

You’re always battling with your personality. It’s a constant challenge to keep thinking forwards and not backwards. Once you’ve made a sound, there’s nothing you can do. You have to relinquish responsibility for it and take responsibility for the next. I was worse at that 20 years ago, but it’s an ongoing process. I don’t have any magic formula to help – I wish I did.

What is your approach to teaching?

I ask questions. I try to get to the bottom of what a student is thinking and suggest things that make their ideas work better, but along the lines of their thoughts, rather than trying to impose something. I see masterclasses as an opportunity to open the door to independent critical thinking. I want to encourage that, rather than telling students what to do. I try to tap into the way they think and make it work better for them.

Sometimes students are puzzled by this approach and ask, ‘What do you want me to do? Do you want me to play like this or like that?’ I’m not there to tell them how to play. I’m trying to get them to be critical of their own ideas so they can make sense of them in a way that comes across to an audience in a performance situation. I’m not a teacher in an old-fashioned sense. It’s easy to tell someone how to play – it’s much harder to help them in a meaningful way, to tap into the way they think. It’s much easier to say, ‘No, do it like this.’ I had a few teachers like that, and it was good in that it led me to how I think now – that this isn’t the way to teach. The negativity of that experience had a positive effect in throwing me in the opposite direction.

What does 50 mean to you?

Reaching 50, I’m looking at the next 20 years in a way that I didn’t look at the next 20 years when I got to 30. From 50 to 70, I’m thinking there are big pieces that I want to play that I haven’t played and I should probably do them sooner rather than later – certain pieces by Schumann, for instance. I’ve played all the major works of Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart and Haydn, and I look forward to coming back to those to see how they change, but in terms of new repertoire, you begin to see the window of opportunity not being endless. We all take longer to learn things as we get older and I don’t want to be learning certain major works in my 60s. Reaching 50, I’m thinking far more seriously about what I really want to play before I get too old.

Paul Lewis celebrates his 50th birthday with a recital of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Sibelius in the Barbican Hall on 19 May.