Archives for June 2009

Serious Limericks

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Ian McMillan Ian McMillan | 10:38 UK time, Tuesday, 30 June 2009


I'm a morning person, springing out of bed at the crack of dawn with a song in my heart and a poem on my lips, which is a good thing because tomorrow, as part of the BBC's Poetry Season, I'll be making my second appearance on Breakfast with Sara Mohr-Pietsch, following our triumph at the start of the poetry season when we got listeners to text and email lines to build a poem across the three hours of Breakfast; hundreds of people responded, in response to my opening line 'I pull the curtains wide and feel the morning on my face' and the resulting poem was, in the words of Robert McCrum in the Observer, 'not half bad'.

Tomorrow I reckon the challenge will be slightly harder, but I know that listeners will respond to it. During my first appearance on Breakfast, I mentioned in passing my fascination with the idea of the Serious Limerick, or Saderick; I'm interested in the idea of how you can write a limerick about a subject that has more depth than the antics of a young man from Leeds. It's a question of form over content: the form of the limerick makes you laugh, but if the subject was, say, the First World War, it would bring you up short and creative things would happen in your brain.

Listeners can send in complete serious limericks in advance of the programme, some of which I'll read out, but on the day I'll be giving a first line for people to respond to. It feels like a great addition to the BBC's Poetry Season, making poetry an interactive form, a form that belongs to everyone.

And if you want to hear the latest edition of Poetry Lab on The Verb, about describing objects with Paul Farley, the show is still available.

I'll see you on Wednesday morning. Remember: serious limericks!

Ian McMillan is a poet and presenter of Radio 3's The Verb.

Exclusive online content for Opera on 3

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Roland Taylor Roland Taylor | 15:28 UK time, Friday, 26 June 2009

roh1.jpg This Saturday, from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Donald Macleod introduces a performance of Wagner's Lohengrin, starring South African tenor Johan Botha, with soprano Edith Haller as Elsa. If you can't listen live on Saturday evening you can catch up via the Radio 3 website for the following seven days. 


It's been very exciting to have the opportunity to offer these operas on-demand. We've also been very keen to add extra content to the productions. The Opera on 3 team and interactive team have created a rich offering to support each broadcast.

Each of the eight operas, aside from being available in their entirety, online for seven days, are accompanied by rich supporting material on our website.

For example, this Saturday's opera, Wagner's Lohengrin, also offers up the following content for you to explore long after broadcast.

Donald Macleod and John Deathridge in conversation about Wagner 

Donald Macleod talks to Petra Lang

Sean Raffery in conversation with Semyon Bychkov and Johan Botha

You can also view photographs from the production and read a full synopsis of the production on the episode page. 

This rich offering has been available for each of the productions. To hear exclusive interviews with international stars, read the plots and see photographs of the productions, choose from any from the season.

As ever, I'm very interested to hear your thoughts on this content. 

Best wishes

Roland Taylor, Interactive Editor BBC Radio 3

The Fairy Queen

Roger Wright Roger Wright | 15:22 UK time, Monday, 22 June 2009

picture_promo_purcell.jpgI have just had the pleasure of attending the new production of Purcell's The Fairy Queen at Glyndebourne.

It was a huge undertaking for the company, not least because there is no real performing tradition for staging the piece.

The text is an adaptation of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream but the incidental music is often performed without the text. At Glyndebourne we are given the text, the music and wonderful choreography in the masques.

Judging by the response so far - "Imaginations run riot in a glorious musical romp" (The Times) and "Purcell's dream scales breathtakingly erotic heights" (The Guardian) - it promises to be a huge critical success. It was certainly a huge hit with the audience over the weekend.

Jonathan Kent's inventive production and William Christie's authoritative musical direction combine to provide a thrilling evening. There was elegant and touching solo singing featuring (among others) Lucy Crowe, Carolyn Sampson, Andrew Foster-Williams and Ed Lyon and fine orchestral playing by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

This new production will come to the Proms on July 21st and, as ever, it is a real challenge for my Proms colleagues and for the Glyndebourne team to semi-stage the piece - in effect to reduce the stage production - within the space limitations of the Royal Albert Hall and with the time restrictions on rehearsal in the hall.

The annual visit of Glyndebourne to the Proms is always one of the highlights of the season and this year promises to be no exception. You can of course catch it, like all the Proms, live on Radio 3. A real celebration of the extraordinary music of Purcell and a magnificent chance to hear it in its full context.


Looking with our ears...

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Abigail Appleton Abigail Appleton | 04:30 UK time, Saturday, 20 June 2009

b00l9r89_314_176.jpgWhether it's filming concerts for the Radio 3 website, as Graeme Kay described in his post,  live video streaming from studios or the offer of other images, the visualisation of radio is now being trialed in many different ways.  It's early days for many of these experiments, and there's much to be learnt about the ways in which they may be used and valued by listeners, but radio and visual culture have long been surprising comfortable bedfellows. 

This week I've been listening to some programmes that  highlight for me the way radio can illuminate the visual world in an extraordinary way.  If you're remotely interested in sculpture and aren't already following Antony Gormley's series in The Essay -  please - stop reading the blog - go now and catch them while you can.  Each night he's been talking about a seminal work.   Monday it was Rock Drill by Jacob Epstein, in Gormley's view, the most radical sculptor working at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.  The talk is full of detailed insight into the ambiguity of the work and admiration for the ambition of Epstein's engagement with history at a time of transition.   Gormley's tone is reflective but the essay is full of passion and incredulity at the general lack of recognition of Epstein's radicalism.   Alongside Epstein, Gormley argues, Duchamp is an 'effete intellectual dilettante' (will someone stand up for Duchamp?)  Thursday night,  he turned to the German artist Joseph Beuys and an installation called Plight.   An artist himself, Gormley is intensely sensitive to the physicality of the pieces he's describing, the way the formless texture of the felt that lines the walls and makes the installation so silent, is in itself disturbing.  As I listen I find myself becoming more aware of my own body and the space I'm sitting in,  stooping in imagination to get into the second room of the installation.  

The quiet spaces of Beuys's Plight and Gormley's own reflections are a long way from Sunday's Drama on 3,  Darger and the Detective.  This new play by Mike Walker is inspired by the life and work of the reclusive self-taught artist Henry Darger.  He worked as a hospital porter coming home at night to create a disturbing fantasy world  'The Realms of the Unreal' which was unknown until his death in Chicago in 1973.  Drawing on some of Darger's own words and images Mike Walker's vivid dramatisation takes us into this strange inner life of innocence and atrocity.   It doesn't analyse the artist or his art but it does helps us feel I think something of the intensity of his unique vision. 

After listening to the Essays and to Darger and The Detective, I searched for the artists' images online (there's one of Darger's paintings on the Radio 3 website).   I wonder how different the experience would have been if I'd looked up the images beforehand or during the programmes instead of afterwards.   In the future I imagine many of us will listen for much of the time on devices with screens which might show us pictures as we listen.  I can think of many occasions when I'd value that but I'm sure we'll sometimes want to look just with our ears first.

Filming of Radio 3 Haydn Concert

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Graeme Kay Graeme Kay | 06:53 UK time, Thursday, 18 June 2009

'Visualisation' isn't the most attractive word in the dictionary but it's the best shorthand we've come up with to describe the experiments in filming concerts for the web which we've carried out in recent years.

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Visual radio' is another strange concept which is much discussed in media circles. Our favourite saying is that 'Radio beats TV because the pictures are better...' Well, I wouldn't want to dilute the idea that the listener's imagination can in any way be improved upon, but visual radio - and its offshoot, 'visualisation' - are all part of the drawing together the main 'broadcast' platforms: TV and computers.

Over the past couple of years, we've been testing ourselves, with the expert guidance and assistance of our colleagues in Classical Music Television, in what we can deliver to Radio 3 listeners, through the website, in the way of an enhanced concert experience for those who aren't present in the venue, or who would like to listen again. The BBC iPlayer is a hugely popular medium for this, and the technology which drives it can also be used to deliver pictures - hence the development of visualisations such as the recent Midsummer Night's Dream production from the Middle Temple which you can still see on the website and the concert of choral and orchestral music by Haydn, with the BBC Philharmonic

The key to visualisation is to develop a cost-effective recording system which delivers a quality video experience commensurate with the lower bandwith of the online video offering. To all intents and purposes it's a full-function outside broadcast recording, but on a vastly reduced scale. As the director of the Haydn concert, let me describe what's involved.

Two weeks before the concert I began preparing a camera script for the five Haydn pieces in the programme, using scores identical to the ones prepared for the conductor, Gianandrea Noseda. A week later, I passed the marked-up scores to production assistant Anna, who added shot numbers and printed the cards which the camera operators use to line up their shots in sequence, with instructions on where to focus, and when to pan or zoom.

The day before the concert, I travelled to Manchester to attend the choir and orchestra rehearsals, which took place in the 1825 Greek-style church of St Philip, Salford. This was useful because it gave me an opportunity to rehearse the camera script (in web visualisations the director acts as vision mixer) and to check the orchestra layout: as the position of the vocal soloists on the platform had changed since I prepared the camera script, I had time to alter it and communicate the changes to Anna.

While I was at the church, the technical team (a manager and some of the staff who double up as camera operators: Chris, Gregory, Luke and Roberto) had arrived - some 30 boxes of technical equipment had been conveyed to Manchester by BBC van, or sourced locally. The following morning - concert day - the team was joined by the remaining camera operators (Di and Errol) and by Anna: the team spent the morning doing their own rigging at the venue, Bridgewater Hall, and testing the equipment. In this high-tech world, it's comforting to find that you still need some low-tech solutions to make things happen - to get cables from the technical booths at the back of the auditorium through to the stage they're pulled through big drain pipes using blue nylon ropes!

When you introduce cameras and yards of cabling into a concert hall, safety for staff and the public is paramount and a great deal of attention is paid both to preventing 'trip hazards' and also making sure the public's enjoyment of the event is not spoiled by the necessary intrusions of people and kit.

By now it's 1230 - everyone's arrived and over lunch I make further adjustments to the camera script with Anna. We go over to the hall and spend the hour before the final rehearsal at 230 testing the cameras, the vision mixer (it's no bigger than a briefcase), checking the camera angles, and going through the moves. At 2.30 conductor Gianandrea Noseda arrives on the platform and the final music rehearsal begins. Among the works being performed is Haydn's Symphony No.90; the formal structures of Haydn's music are full of repeats - these are known hazards for broadcasters because they're not prescriptive, ie conductors have latitude to include or exclude them. When the library prepares our working scores, they always copy the repeats in so that we never have to 'flip back' during the performance. Sometimes conductors change their minds about repeats between rehearsal and performance, so you always have to check and double-check: on concert day, conductors don't always rehearse every note of a score, so a nasty moment for us is avoided when Anna finds out from a viola player that Noseda isn't observing a big repeat at the end of one of the movements.

After the rehearsal, during which we discover that some shots don't work (it could be a microphone stand in the way, or insufficient time to reset cameras between cues) we call the operators together for a final briefing and amend their scripts. Then it's a break and the concert goes out live at 7 on Radio 3, with presenter Martin Handley on stage. During the show, I sit with Anna, who calls the shots via open talkback, priming the camera operators for their next cues; she follows the score with her finger, marking every beat: I call for adjustments as necessary and operate the vision mixer to provide all the cuts and cross-fades according to the precise musical cues in the score. In a nutshell, the vocabulary of a camera script for music is all about making sure, that the viewer is looking at who's playing or singing, in groups or individually, with cutaways to the conductor. In the case of Noseda, 'ConductorCam' is always a rewarding shot because his facial expressions are fascinating to watch and you see him from a much more interesting angle than just broad shoulders and flailing arms!      

After the concert, we de-rig, pack the 30 boxes of kit and head back to the hotel. But it's not over yet. When you're filming, even the most rigorously planned live event throws up the unexpected, like someone coming on to the platform from the 'wrong' side, or a simple scripting error, or a technical blip. We're committed to posting the concert videos on the website by 6pm on the day after the concert: so Gregory, who doubles as camera operator but whose day job is that of a senior interactive producer, stays up part of the night making the (fortunately) small number of edits, and continues editing on his laptop on the train back to London the following morning. Back at base, processing the files, building their host page and uploading them to the web takes the rest of the day.

The statistics suggest that concert visualisations are popular with web users and we aim to do more of them during the Proms, and in future with Radio 3's Discovering Music series, where there is great potential to archive the material as an educational resource. We are refining our skills all the time and using the technology creatively to push the boundaries of what we can offer licence-payers at minimum cost. We think visualisation - ugly word though it is - is good value-for-money!


  Graeme Kay is a Classical Music Producer for BBC Radio 3 Interactive              

Running with Michael Portillo

Abigail Appleton Abigail Appleton | 12:36 UK time, Friday, 12 June 2009


The other morning I went for a run with Michael Portillo. As I felt my heart rate climbing he remained relaxed and engaging on the range of his musical tastes from opera to chamber music. As I toiled up the hill he talked frankly about the ups and downs of his own career, one of that growing group of 'former future prime ministers', he said, reflecting on the way the very notoriety that followed his defeat '97  made him more interesting to the media and helped launch his current work in journalism and broadcasting. Michael Portillo was of course talking in the calm of Michael Berkeley's studio and I was alone with my mp3 player listening to a forthcoming edition of Radio 3's Private Passions. (Private Passions has, I think a particularly strong line-up at the moment.  The programme with Michael Portillo will be broadcast Sunday June 21st but there's a conversation with Penelope Wilton to come before then and at the end of the month writer Amit Chaudhuri).

Running for me is usually a solitary pleasure as is much of my radio listening. I started early, becoming addicted to the radio when I used to get home from school before my parents came back from work. Like many people I know I rarely sit and listen without having my hands (or feet) busy, whether that's with cooking, pounding pavements or taking notes (I wonder how you enjoy listening to Radio 3, alone or in company, busy or still?). One programme we do tend to listen to together in my house is Night Waves but the programme often stimulates so much conversation we end up talking over it and I have to catch up through listen again. It's therefore rather special to listen sitting quietly in a group as we do sometimes at one of our regular station meetings. Here people working across many different areas of our activity come together informally. Last meeting we listened as a group to the winner of The Verb's recent writing competition. The challenge was to write a story including the names of our four Composers Of The Year. The winning story was surreal and witty, imagining pieces of furniture named after composers,'... the Shostakovic and the Mahler with their loud colours, the Vivaldi (choice of four), and the Haydn which, as a sort of joke, is not a chair but a footstool. Surprisingly comfortable, the tag says.' Part of the pleasure of the meeting was not only the story itself but sharing each other's responses.

For me the chance to share in a different way is one of the great benefits of the website. It's one thing recommending a programme in conversation (don't get me wrong here, I'm all for verbal recommendations - please get out there and recommend Radio 3 however you like), but I also love being able to share an audio link, like those for the daily Poems for Today. It seems to bring together some of the pleasures of listening alone with those of listening in company, a way of making private passions more public.

Play along to Prom 45 at home, in the hall or online

Roland Taylor Roland Taylor | 13:34 UK time, Wednesday, 10 June 2009

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I've produced a few Proms in my time at the BBC but, for me, this year's line up is a bit different: Stan Tracey, the Michael Nyman Band and, because I begged to be allowed to produce it, Prom 45 with the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. I can't wait. When I was told I'd been given Prom 45 I smiled for about 2 days. Then, on the way home, it occurred to me that it might be a great opportunity, as Interactive Editor for the Proms, to get the audience involved. I emailed Ellara Wakely (Learning Manager, BBC Proms) and Roger Wright asking both if we could have a 'bring your ukulele to the Prom and play along' moment. They said yes. The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain said yes. My team said yes. I said yes!

On May 12th members of the Radio 3/Proms Interactive team turned up at the Warehouse studios to film half of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain giving an online masterclass. George, top ukulele man, helped us create a set of 4 short films for the web. So, the idea is that you can learn to play one of three parts so that you can play along with the Prom either online, on air or by bringing your ukulele to the Royal Albert Hall for Prom 45.

I'm getting together with Kathy Clugston (we met on Twitter), Jon Jacob (Proms fan extraordinaire), members of Radio 3, members of BBC's Future Media and Technology and members of the Proms team to rehearse our parts for the Prom. Should be quite a lot of fun.

You can learn one of the following: The tune; chords advanced; chords simple. There is also an introduction to the ukulele.

So, if you fancy playing along, feel free - online, live on-air or in the Royal Albert Hall or online afterwards at the Proms website forever!

And if you're a player or if you're coming to Prom 45, let us know in a comment. Likewise, link to your Uke photos or audio if they're online.

Roland Taylor is Interactive Editor of the BBC Proms and Radio 3

BBC Cardiff Singer of the World

Roger Wright Roger Wright | 15:37 UK time, Monday, 8 June 2009

Our coverage of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World is about to start.

It was exciting to be reminded of former winners on Radio 3 Breakfast this morning.

The website with the up-to-date information is

Do please visit the site and enter the debate about this year's competition and competitions in general.

Will you be following the competition? How should we best reflect such competitions on air?

Jazz Programming

Roger Wright Roger Wright | 10:56 UK time, Monday, 8 June 2009

jazz.jpgIt is good to read the thread about jazz programming begun by 'kleines c' on the messageboard.

I don't know what it says on Wikipedia, but there is certainly no uncertainty at Radio 3 about the future of jazz programming on the station! Our service licence states our ongoing commitment to include it as part of our overall programming and there is no desire to change that.

Of course for those who love jazz and want more there will never be enough. For those, on the other hand, who regret that the Third Programme ever started to include jazz in its programmes in the early sixties, five minutes a week may seem too much. We have loyal listeners to our jazz output and the combination of our jazz programmes and those on Radio 2 creates a distinctive contribution to the jazz scene in the UK.

Western classical music remains the main focus of Radio 3 as more than 90% of our music output.

It has been a concern recently to a number of listeners that our popular Saturday jazz zone has had to move around to accommodate our opera schedule. I can sympathise with them but with our commitment to broadcasting the Metropolitan Opera there is not much we can do, not least when Wagner's lengthy Ring cycle is on offer! It is a difficulty which is posed by our unique commitment to live performance. So thanks to our jazz listeners for their patience. Luckily now with listen-again our listeners need never miss their best loved programmes.

The essence of public service broadcasting is to take audiences further and I know that some of our jazz audiences carry on to listen to Opera on 3. I remember with great pleasure the letter from a listener explaining that he had come to Radio 3 for our world music output and now finds himself a regular Composer of the Week listener.

So the joy of discovery is a key part of our station strategy and the range of our music and speech output is one means of delivering it.

The Breakfast poem continues to grow...

Roland Taylor Roland Taylor | 10:18 UK time, Saturday, 6 June 2009

Thanks to 'kleines c' the poem now has another line!  I like it! 

kleines c's line:        Where were you last night! You stood me up all right!

If you fancy contributing you can. Read the poem and then create the next line. 
Copy the entire poem, cut and paste it into your comment and add your line.

See the comments and add your line. You'll need to sign in or create an account. 

Have fun!

Poetry on the hoof

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Roland Taylor Roland Taylor | 21:29 UK time, Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Thumbnail image for ianm.jpg

You may have noticed that there's a lot of poetic activity across the BBC at the moment and Radio 3 is no exception.

On the 21st of May the poet Ian McMillan joined Sara Mohr-Pietsch to encourage listeners to build a poem throughout the course of the programme. The fun started around 7 am when Ian put forward the first line for our 'Breakfast' poem. He also took an opportunity to create a new form: The Pietsch, the rhyming structure being ABABCC.

Well, once the challenge was thrown out there was little delay before the suggestions came flooding in via email, text-message and on Twitter.

Over the course of the morning we received over 600 suggestions for the poem.

Listen to the poem:

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Here's the poem as it evolved with the names of the creators next to the lines.

The Listeners' Poem Complete:

Ian's first line:
'I pull the curtains wide and feel the morning on my face'
Second line from Stuart Handysides:
'then stumble down the stairs to make the tea'
Third line from Barbara Rusbridge:
'the gush, the steam, the click, the clink, the ritual gathers pace'
Fourth line from Wendy Davies
'the phone rings and it's you it's you, I hear you telling me'
Fifth line from Jude:
'you are outside, but I am not washed or dressed'
Sixth line from ANON
'I pressed the buzzer, shut my eyes and you can guess the rest...

And without authors:

The Breakfast Poem

I pull the curtains wide and feel the morning on my face
Then stumble down the stairs to make the tea.
The gush, the steam, the click, the clink, the ritual gathers pace...
The phone rings, and it's you, it's you! I hear you telling me
You are outside, but I'm not washed or dressed.
I pressed the buzzer, shut my eyes and you can guess the rest...

We're hoping to repeat the experience very soon.

Listen to the daily poems commissioned by BBC Radio 3

Ian McMillan on why poems are perfect for chronicling big events.

Roland Taylor is Interactive Editor at Radio 3

The richness of radio drama.

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Abigail Appleton Abigail Appleton | 20:56 UK time, Wednesday, 3 June 2009

thewire.jpgOn Tuesday night I saw the National Theatre's terrific production of Wole Soyinka's Death and The King's Horseman. I left the theatre buzzing but on the way home I did my usual scan through the theatre programme for radio credits. Full marks to Claire Benedict - she was superb on stage AND in the programme, listing a number of radio drama productions in her profile. Not such a great score for Rufus Norris I'm afraid. His direction was exhilarating but what a disappointing profile in the programme! This records his triumphant production of Festen 'at the Almeida, in the West End and on Broadway', but makes no mention of his adaptation for Radio 3. OK - I won't hold a grudge - I don't think Rufus Norris or the cast will have actually written the programme notes themselves - space is limited and actors and directors have diverse CVs. But it's a symptom of the way radio drama, though appreciated by thousands of listeners, can have a surprisingly low profile in the wider cultural world.

Throughout the year we broadcast a mix of new writing, classic stage plays and adaptations. Add Radio 4 and it's a huge commitment to new interpretations of classic works and new writing, so sometimes frustrating that radio drama gets so little press attention. A striking new play at London's tiny Bush theatre will attract reviews across the national broadsheets. Vastly larger audiences will hear a new work on radio and yet it will often be overlooked save for the valiant efforts of radio critics.

The richness of radio drama is on my mind as I've spent much of this week talking to drama producers about their ideas for the 40-odd works we'll commission this year. The commissioning round has just opened and it's always a thrill to meet so many creative producers and writers. In a few weeks the boxes of scripts will arrive, daunting in their number, along with the proposals that exist only as a few paragraphs ready to grow to full length dramas once commissioned.

Perhaps we just need to shout about it more. Here goes, anyway. This Sunday on Radio 3 we've a brand new play from American playwright Richard Nelson, Hyde Park-on-Hudson. I've just listened to the brief introduction he's recorded. I'm ambivalent about lengthy introductions on radio but here I think it serves like a theatre programme to give a little context - but I'd love to know what you think. Then we've a new adaptation by Glyn Maxwell of Dostoevsky's The Gambler. It's got a glorious performance by Patricia Routledge as the wealthy Aunt refusing to die. Later in the month there's a chance to hear a radio adaptation of the Traverse theatre's production of Fall by Zinnie Harris. Though it was first staged at last year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe very few people around the UK will have had a chance to see it. It's just one example of the way radio drama can reach audiences other productions may never reach.

Abigail Appleton is Head of Speech Programmes and Presentation at BBC Radio 3

Four hands, one piano.

Roger Wright Roger Wright | 17:12 UK time, Monday, 1 June 2009

I have just returned to my desk having been filmed playing two of the four hands in the piano duet of the first movement of Faure's Dolly Suite. It is a project run by Jon Jacob which will eventually appear on the BBC Proms site.   rwandjj.jpg He is filming lots of my colleagues and I presume that he will make a montage of the performances.  I hope that the film is to promote our celebration of multiple pianos at this year's Proms, but I fear humiliation if only he cuts together the mistakes. Am I wrong to trust him?!

I try to play the piano every day. It is a humbling experience to be confronted by great music which you know you will never fully master, technically or musically.  It is a constant reminder of the Olympian feats which are achieved on a daily basis by performers - talent which it is all too easily taken for granted. Regularly confronting my own inadequacies as a performing musician is a great way to bring to mind just how special professional musicians really are.

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