John Bingham remembered
By David Brain
Who was the pianist?
Standing in my kitchen in Manchester one afternoon I heard someone taking enormous risks in a performance of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto, yet in spite of the monstrousness of this rendition the poetry in this often misunderstood score stood fully revealed. I’d joined the broadcast during that insane first movement cadenza, swallowing up fully half the movement’s playing time, and sat and listened to the very end. Who was the pianist? What had really impressed me was the cavernous fortissimi - the absolutely solid wall of volume without any suggestion of brittleness or harshness about it - yet overwhelming in its impact, like a series of detonations cutting effortlessly through angry Prokofievian tutti. Finally, the end came and the announcer gave out the name John Bingham.
With a little research I discovered that this man taught at Trinity College in London so, from the same kitchen in Manchester on another afternoon, with uncharacteristic audacity, I phoned the College and asked to speak to him. There was a considerable delay whilst they tried to find him but eventually a low-pitched, almost bored sounding voice answered me. I explained hurriedly that I had heard his Prokofiev, was terribly impressed, wished to be part of the magic, would love to be taught, etc etc...
To my surprise, this man appeared to be pleased I had dragged him out of a lesson to tell him all this, and suggested I go through the College’s entrance protocol and he would see what he could do for me. After becoming a student of John Bingham, it quickly became clear to me that I should have to reject all my previously held notions about piano technique. He had been a pupil of the famous Russian pedagogue Heinrich Neuhaus, who had taught Gilels and Richter, and had been introduced to a markedly different postural approach to piano playing, particularly in the area of dropped arm weight and the increased involvement with the keys initiated by a lowering of the wrist. These more elastic principles he attempted to convey to me.
For the first time in my musical life - at the age of 24 - someone had managed to show me that successful piano playing was no mere magician's trick, or even the exclusive property to be enjoyed by super-talents without the need for specific training, but could be enjoyed by anyone musical, flexible and industrious enough to implement just a few postural adjustments and have the faith that results would eventually put in an appearance.
My first important interview with Mr Bingham took place in one of the many rooms in the annex building of Trinity College on Thayer St.; a busy thoroughfare connecting Wigmore St with Marylebone Road. I suppose it must have been September 1986, in a room crowded with current and prospective students. John had assembled everyone into Room 6, a room I came to know very well, with its generous first floor view of the metropolis through wide, purpose-installed sound-proofed windows, the GPO tower clearly visible at the end of New Cavendish St. There were two concert Steinways side by side, a mirror, a table, a couple of chairs and a palpable aura of latent industry.
The man himself, presiding over the nervous group, was of fairly average height and build with a close beard, thinnish, sandy coloured hair and a weary, melancholic expression in the eyes: not in any way beautiful to look at, yet possessed of a distinct presence which one noticed at once. The easy authority emanating from him was enhanced by a well-modulated bass to his voice, the words coming like rich plumbs along a sophisticated drawl. I sat some distance from the rest, merely observing. Then John announced he wished to hear the new students play something for the group. Immediately I was seized by a sick sense of panic, and this mental state has quite eclipsed any remaining memory I may have had over what was actually played.
Eventually time ran out and it was suddenly my turn. I had my excuse ready: I was out of sorts, sick, feverish, the muse would not favour me if I were to attempt anything so audacious as a performance… Having already been routinely humiliated by dozens of unsympathetic panelists as I had spent the last three years auditioning for a place at one of the select institutions of higher musical learning, I steeled myself for the cold blast of disapproval. Softening, John looked across at me.
“Yes,” he said in that vacant, disinterested manner of his I came to know so well, “You look very pale and tormented - just like Chopin”.
It surprised me greatly at the time that he should allow me to exempt myself in this way, but I came to learn that his impulse to get students to play in front of one another did not originate from the autocrat’s desire to engender gladiatorial competition, but rather to create an atmosphere of musical fraternity amongst his pupils, much in the way that Neuhaus had done during John’s own apprenticeship. Indeed, later on, John encouraged his students to just “wander in” during colleagues’ lessons if they happened to find themselves at a loose end and sit and contribute to the proceedings if they felt so inclined.
‘Play something else’
Eventually, the time came for my first official lesson with Mr Bingham. As far back as my earliest days at the Birmingham School of Music, it had been a source of some distress to me that the world had no particular shortage of persons only too willing to spring up at the slightest provocation to show what they could do at the keyboard. It was also puzzling that those who indulged in this sort of self-promotion tended to be those who also had least to say in poetical terms.
My reluctance in this matter had never met with much approval or understanding so, it was much to my surprise when, far from showing irritation or impatience, Mr Bingham was quite content to chat about peripheral issues during my first lesson with him, the two expectant Steinways remaining stubbornly silent in front of us for the better part of an hour. Sensitivity in this area was something he understood only too well and as the months passed I realised that he too was possessed of a similar artistic reticence, and this in spite of those sporadic, yet enduringly brilliant flights of fancy of his - the tell tale sign of an extravagantly individual personality.
By the second lesson I realised the silence had to be broken. I had been preparing the Debussy Etudes pour les Arpèges Composes for weeks on end in order to steel myself for the interview, and my heart raced as I picked my way carefully through the Impressionistic filigree. At the end John said: "Fine" and then, to my dismay: "Now play me something else".
"Something else?" I asked, taken aback.
"Yes, something you haven't prepared."
I could see he was determined to have his way so, flicking through the flustered leaves of my memory, I decided on Chopin's F Major Étude from Opus 10. The opening trill, a component of my technique which had always been very strong, even before John, was immaculate; but thereafter my performance of the piece, although admirably up to tempo, was sketchy to say the least. After I had raced through the coda and dispatched the final F major7 arpeggio with a flurry of wrong notes, I turned to John and said: "I am sorry about that."
There was a brief pause and then he said: "Yes. You can get around the piano."
I came to realise this expression with him meant he saw the possibility of working with a student whose potential was strong enough to be worth the effort.
Madness in the method
In the next few weeks my work with Mr Bingham started in earnest as he restricted my pianistic activities to the meticulous study of two works only: Chopin's C major Etude, Op.10, no.1 and the A minor Etude, Op.10, no2. John believed that Chopin's Douze Etudes, Op.10 contained the key to the development of a truly comprehensive, musicianly pianism and, indeed, during the period I worked with him, he recorded them himself with their companion set, Op.25, for Meridian.
I cannot remember my first attempt in playing Op.10, no.1 in front of him. The piece is notorious - left hand, strong, simple octaves whilst the right traverses large areas of the keyboard in sweeping arpeggi over the tenth, sometimes the perfect eleventh. I shall never forget the first time he sat down to demonstrate how this piece may be played with the requisite bravura and accuracy.
Rather than being merely seated at the piano, John appeared to be occupying every possibility of the keyboard at once. The impression of complete ownership of the instrument was something that struck me every time he sat down to play. I can recall with cinematic clarity the way John opened Op.10, no.1; the slightly slumped, yet alert posture, the complete absence of any extraneous movement in his arms and torso and that characteristic protrusion of his lower lip - the only visible manifestation of the enormous concentration that went into his art. Yet, by far the most startling condition of his playing was the impossibly low attitude of the wrist as his right hand dispatched Chopin's glittering arpeggi. It was this and the peculiar contracting and flexing motion of the hand as fingers 1 and 5 met in a perfect legato that insinuated itself upon my excited imagination in the image of a crab - a fleshy crab, scuttling sideways at high speed across the keyboard in a motion that seemed to bear no relation to the actual notes heard. Startled by the demonstration I blurted out: "But you can't play it like that!"
Without the slightest reduction in velocity or accuracy, John looked up at me.
"Why?" he asked.
"Well," I tried to explain, "it just looks . . wrong somehow."
Then suddenly the vertiginous arpeggi had stopped and John was walking over to his chair towards that abandoned plastic cup of machine coffee that never left his side. His gait always reminded me of some divine primate, arms held slightly forward in an attitude of supreme flexibility - "la souplese avant tout", as Chopin would say.
"Do you know a better way?" came his drawl.
It was now my turn to occupy the vacant stool and demonstrate a feasible alternative; an invitation I declined.
In the weeks that followed I became acquainted with the madness of Mr Bingham's method. Up the keyboard in four arpeggi over the tenth under one impulse with a wrist so low my palm sidled against the woodwork, and then a complete elevation of the arm into the air at the apex of the phrase with an astonishing karate chop of the fifth finger down into the first of four separately articulated arpeggi on the descent - and all this at a tempo so incredibly slow (semiquaver=c.40) that the piece had long since lost all musical meaning. And this for weeks at a stretch - it nearly drove me mad.
The structure of sound
No less notorious, of course, is Chopin's Op.10, no.2; a fleet Study in chromatic degrees with a difference. Again, the left hand is simple enough, playing a straightforward, four-square crotchet rhythm, but the right is presented with rapid chromatic degrees executed by fingers 3, 4 and 5 alone, whilst 1 and 2 are given harmonic intervals in detached crotchets. There is much crossing of fingers over fingers to be done in this piece, all in a seamless legato. Again, Mr Bingham insisted on the same lunatic tempo for the study of this piece as he had for Op.10, no.1 and it is at this rate of progress that all the inconsistencies in evenness and legato may be observed. In fact, so intense was the legato, the previous note was not to be released until at least halfway through the new note's duration. It is also maddeningly easy to forget where one is in the music at this speed since muscular memory depends on a certain fluency of pace to operate correctly.
John was terribly keen to impart information concerning what he called the structure of sound, insisted on so tirelessly by Neuhaus in Moscow. To this end he asked me to study Rachmaninoff's Preludes in F sharp minor and C minor from Op.23. The former presents, at the outset, a right hand single line melody above a quiet, but fairly dense chromatic accompaniment. Since the treble strings are weak, it is important that the active semiquavers in the mid range of the piano intrude as little as possible on the long, decaying melody notes. John demonstrated that with increased arm weight on each individual key it was possible to increase the attack necessary for each note without resorting to harshness in the touch. Indeed, his physical demonstration here contributed marvellously to the piece's dignity and melancholy, almost as if the slow right hand melody were being played by some cor anglais.
In the C minor Prelude, John was no less revelatory, indicating the structure of sound to be such that the frantic sixteen semiquavers per bar, executed by both left and right hand, must be kept intensely quiet, whilst the long treble notes were to receive full weight in order to be heard through the texture. Between these two dynamic extremes came the low bass octaves so that one was left with the ideal ratio: treble - forte; bass - mezzo forte; middle - pianissimo. The word John was fond of using in connection with this kind of tonal layout was "transcendental". "It should be more transcendental" he sometimes said to me when I was executing a piece with insufficient care for the dynamic spectrum. Naturally, it should be understood that when he made such a comment, he was never alluding to a condition of mere virtuosity: for him, brilliance without tonal organisation was tantamount to no brilliance at all.
The only other work John specifically asked me to study was the the B minor Intermezzo which opens Brahms' last opus for the piano: the Four Pieces Op.119. This slow, almost suicidally sad work, foreshadowing so much from the succeeding century in its startling harmonic use of compound thirds was an ideal vehicle for the Bingham method. The problem, of course, is that as the harmony spreads downwards through the lower registers, the single high melody note at the beginning of the phrase must survive until the end of the bar, otherwise, due to the extreme Adagio conditions, the inner parts will eclipse everything else and the piece will be rendered unintelligible to the listener. How many times did the master make me go through the first two bars only until I had finally achieved something resembling poetry! And on how many occasions, since my time with John, have I heard subsequent performances of this resigned little work which have, indeed, been unintelligible?
As our aquaintance developed, Mr Bingham and I discovered many mutual sympathies. I was truly astonished to learn that one of his cherished works was the early and somewhat neglected Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra by Debussy. Apparently, he had toured with this work round Germany and announced, with regret, that the Germans didn't seem to appreciate the score at all; they didn't "get" Debussy was his conclusion. My own intimate connection with the work convinced me that ours was, indeed, an unusual meeting of musical sensibilities although, curiously, even though I remember John speaking with exceptional admiration for this composer, particularly the Etudes, I do not remember working on a single composition of the French master with him.
Another coincidence was when he confessed to loving the Fantasie and Davisbündlertänze above all other Schumann piano works, after I had brought him the latter, which remains my personal favourite to this day. John was marvellous with this work. I remember him telling me to imagine the second number, Innig, a soulful, regretful inspiration, as if it had words set over the melody notes. His comment that the opening number, Lebhaft, had ended with a yodel was equally evocative. I can never play that work without thinking of him.
In addition to the two exacting Etudes from those earliest lessons, we studied Chopin's F sharp minor Polonaise and the Fourth Scherzo. Sitting down to demonstrate the unsettling return of the Scherzo's main subject after the C sharp minor interlude, John beat out the angry, oscillating minor ninth in the bass, turned the whole while towards me, roaring out loud, his face a crimson mask of horror like something from The Exorcist. We also studied the B flat minor Sonata and his view of the development section of the first movement also alerted me to the fact that he considered Chopin to be the single most tortured of the great composers, the violence often bursting though the civilized beauty of his writing. In this same movement, John reminded me of the fact that such was Chopin's terror of the grave, he had left strict instructions that after his presumed death his body be cut open in order to ensure he would not be buried alive.
Yes, John was sensitive to the morbidity of this man in a way which few pianists are. For instance, what is one to make of the following comment?
"I was playing the B flat minor Sonata some years ago alone in Chopin's birthplace and when I got to this passage all the windows blew in and the doors flew open."
He thought for a moment, obviously reliving the scene and then shifted uneasily in his seat. Then he added: "There's a terrible power in this music."
John was a highly imaginative yet in no way fanciful man and it was sobering to hear him assert that he had all but summoned a spirit from the score of Chopin's B flat minor Sonata.
He would often suggest I listen to vintage recordings of established classics of the repertoire from men such as Hofmann, Cortot and Rachmaninoff. Repelled by the way Rachmaninoff in his recording of this Sonata had indulged in a cheap Bydło effect in the Funeral March by introducing the return of the main theme fortissimo, becoming gradually quieter until the very end, and considering Chopin's perfunctory marking of piano at this point wholly inadequate for the peculiar despair of this moment, I provided my own solution. Playing in Room 2 of the Annex on a good Steinway I imperceptibly blurred the low chordal progression with a quarter damper pedalling until the theme assumed its full rhetorical dignity. Turning to Kaouru, his former pupil, then partner and soon-to-be second wife, I heard him say, in a low voice: "Marvellous pedalling."
We saw eye to eye over Beethoven, too. I brought him the first of the Op.31 Sonatas in G major and his whimsical ideas over phrasing and the relationship between significant melody and supporting figuration in the ebullient and slightly garrulous finale were a joy to share. However, what I shall treasure above all else was what he told me after we'd worked on the C sharp minor Sonata, Op.27, no.2 - the overplayed "Moonlight" Sonata. After sitting through my performance of it he told me: "If anyone asks me now which is the greatest performance I've ever heard of the "Moonlight" Sonata I shall say - I have two: Wilhelm Kempff and David Brain."
I wish I had studied more Bach with this sensitive tonesmith, but the little I did brought forth an observation from him which should be forged in precious metal and raised above the entrance to every music conservatoire in the land. After taking too many evident yet discreet liberties with the tempo of that magnificent Saraband which stands for the E flat minor Prelude in the first volume of the Well-tempered Clavier John stopped me and said:
"Express everything you can with tone first before interfering with the rhythm."
This man was certainly no adherent of the let's-just-pretend-we're-not-playing-this-on-a-piano species of clip-clop, subject thumping Bach playing so prevalent in modern times. To him, the separate voices of a Bach fugue were just that - voices.
Achieving a mellow tone
The whole concept of dropped arm weight was entirely new to me when I turned up at Trinity College of Music in the mid 1980s. None of my previous teachers had discussed the vital role of the upper arm in advanced piano playing and, in fact, one of my former teachers was positively injurious in her instruction regarding the postural alignment of both arm and wrist. This was at a time in my late teens when the foundation stones laid down in youth require their first layer of cement. Unfortunately, my stones were crooked so by the time I came to John they had to be cracked apart and relaid if I was to of any use to myself at all. I knew I had severe inconsistencies in my technique but it was still a perfect mystery to me why this was the case. John Bingham was the first musician of stature in my life to tell me I already had within me the requisite ability to become a finished pianist. In short, he gave me hope.
It is interesting that he never used the word "talent" - only "ability"; and this, for him, represented so much more than the facility to play merely with fluency and accuracy but the potential to hear colours and penetrate to the very essence of a musical phrase. One of the things he looked for in a student was receptivity to a certain aural phenomenon, the apparent irrationality of which he fully acknowledged. I remember his first explaining this point to me. He maintained that when a note is struck by the hand with the aid of a totally inert, self-supporting arm, with no interruptive tension between shoulder joint and finger tip, there is a kind of aspiration of air after the note has been struck, perceived as a kind of echo. With the sustaining pedal down, I could, indeed, hear this magical noise when he played a series of notes over to me. Then he admitted that all the piano technicians with whom he had ever broached the subject had insisted that, apart from playing with more or less force, for dynamic purposes, it didn't matter in the slightest how the note was played; rather like turning on a light switch.
However improbable this seemed to me at the time, the phenomenon clearly did exist, although I found to my frustration that I could not reproduce the same conditions on the same instrument in order to summon the mysterious charm of this sound, whilst under John's hands every note seemed to wear a halo. Today, I make full use of this artistic device but I regret to say, in this flat forearm-driven world of contemporary pianism, I virtually never hear this sound; and one should, of course, considering the ever more faithful representation of piano sonority in the recording studio.
Whilst still in Manchester I had come across a slim book of not even a hundred pages called "The Pianist's Talent", written by Harold Taylor and outlining the teaching principles of Raymond Thiberge. The postural conditions explained in the course of this volume much excited me at the time during those dark years of struggle, but although I sensed the revelation of those lines, actual attainment was still very far away. So it was with John I truly discovered that the chief way in which a mellow tone is to be achieved resides in the involvement of the upper arm, and ultimately its relationship to the fulcrum. So many times John observed that such and such a pianist had virtually no connection above the elbow, explaining at a stroke why I had often found the tone from recordings of certain pianists I had grown up with disappointingly impoverished or harsh. It soon occurred to me that the impulse of "forward and in", using simply the mass of the entire limb with gravity alone to produce tone was a principle altogether apart from the more commonly observed "straight down and back" movement of the forearm preferred by many pianists, and it took me a devil of a long time (quite literally - years) to master it, let alone implement it as a spontaneous reflex.
In spite of my struggle to implement as much of John's method as possible, my playing remained disappointingly inconsistent during the two years under his guidance. This is hardly surprising since I was in the process of replacing one set of, in some cases, very old responses with another more comprehensive set. Indeed, the wonderful thing about John's approach was that it was universal: it could be applied to all technical situations. No longer was it necessary to receive "tips" on this or that passage since these postural conditions met every need and eventuality. I was convinced that if one were to watch John at work at the piano with the sound switched off it would have been extremely difficult to deduce whether he was playing pianissimo or fortissimo, such was the integration of the various muscle groups within his mechanism. I remember one such occasion when we were discussing some tonal issue. John approached the piano stool. He had an odd way of doing this: if you were seated at the instrument yourself and he wished to demonstrate something he would gently nudge you out of the way without a word, in spite of the fact that there was a perfectly good second Steinway which he had to pass to get to you. The first time he ever did this, I thought he was actually trying to sit on me! About to demonstrate some tonal principle, his arms drifted up to the keyboard and before I knew what was happening, a deafening sound had filled the room. I was standing right over the instrument when John played a single full, low chord of such overwhelming volume I'm sure I felt my skull rattling. In fact, it was not so much a chord as an experience of the purest vibration in air - one's whole frame thrilled at the sound; a sound so shocking in its intensity one felt like running from the room. Perhaps what disturbed me most was the complete absence of any kind of visible warning. I had been watching John most intently as he sat down at the keyboard, yet there was nothing whatever in his movements to herald the event. After observing the entire instrument quake gently under the impact, I asked:
"Won't that damage the instrument?"
His reply was highly characteristic:
"You'll never hurt the piano if you're relaxed."
However, there were subtleties within this super fortissimo category. There was, indeed, the rarely indulged in atom splitting detonations I had heard during that radio broadcast of Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto, and the more poetic, but hardly less terrifying, sonority reserved for moments such as the four final chords of Chopin's F minor Ballade. In this work especially so, since these last chords were preceded by one of John's most inspired strokes of drama. Every pianist, without exception, executes that last desperate cross-beat unison descent to the bottom register in a solid, pretty much implacable fortissimo until the frantic notes are rattling indistinctly in the depths of the instrument. Not so, John Bingham. With electrifying inspiration I observed him on one occasion introduce an unexpected diminuendo, reducing this horrific cascade to a breathless whisper, thus throwing the final devastating chords into blood-steeped relief.
It was only the condition of utter relaxation in John's frame which made it possible for him to explore these crushing nuances, and this same condition he attempted to convey to me. I felt, at the time, I would never master these techniques but, nonetheless, was surprised and encouraged by certain predictions, the nature of which I didn't see how it was possible for him to make. As well as describing my lyrical playing as "love sick" on one occasion I remember, he also assured me that once the apparatus was working efficiently, my heroic sound would be enormous. He was right.
John had the highest reputation as a teacher. Students, not even enrolled at the College, used to come from all over the world to play to him. Yet in spite of the regard in which he was held, I always suspected that the actual mechanics of teaching did not interest him greatly. He possessed all the vital information any young, developing pianist could possibly need but it would be untruthful to claim that he expended the same energy with every pupil as he did with me, for instance. One not only had to work out how to extract this knowledge but also be able to empathize with him. I once watched him leave the room with a perfectly insubstantial excuse when one particular student started crying for no apparent reason during her woeful rendition of Chopin's G minor Ballade. Not knowing whether to go or stay, I followed him to the coffee machine in the foyer. I could tell he was annoyed. Presently, he turned to me and said:
"I haven't got time for this sort of thing." He came a few steps nearer to me and added: "Look - if anyone else asks to study with me just say I'm a bad teacher. Yes?!" Then, with the merest suspicion of humour - "I'm a bad teacher."
Before he was offered the prestigious position of Head of Keyboard at the end of my time with him, John would frequently find himself at loggerheads with establishment policy. One such episode he shared with me. It is difficult to think of any creative member of staff less prepared for institutionalized thinking. Apparently, he'd attended a committee meeting and been rebuked for being too thorough in his instruction. He related these words to me:
"Look John, we don't want to turn every student who comes into the place into a concert pianist, we just want to teach students to play a Chopin Nocturne well."
John searched my face for the smallest reaction to the absurd paradox of this remark. Of course, the obvious defect in this attitude was in the failure not to insist on absolutely top grade instruction in order to develop the unknown potential each student possessed, whatever his talent stockholdings; but the more subtle point, easily missed by functional bureaucracy but never by artists of the calibre of John Bingham, was that the requisite technical control and tonal command necessary for even the most limpid of Chopin's Nocturnes - let alone what one needs for Op.42, no.1- is essentially no different from that required by the professional pianist for things of far greater scale and ambition. What irritated John so much was the dim-witted insinuation that this rarefied corner of the repertoire should be so casually consigned to that voluminous, ever-expanding grey mass of teaching material with which every fledgling pianist is already painfully familiar.
In many ways, John was too cosmopolitan in both outlook and temperament for the position he held at Trinity and he was always trying to reproduce that peculiar scholarly ambience he'd experienced in Moscow. For instance, he once told me the following anecdote.
When he was a young student there at the Conservatory, it was habitual for him to be woken up by the sounds of intensive practising through the walls. Realising that he didn't surface until much later in the morning, his comrades ungraciously reported him to the governors. Following this report, they asked to see him. John expected some kind of reprimand or at least a warning. Their reaction, however, both surprised and delighted him.
"It's come to our attention that you don't surface until about midday. Would you like us to move you to a quieter wing so you can sleep? We realise everyone has a different routine for work."
"They understood these things," said John. "They always tried to assess the individual as well as the musician."
Late in the evening, when only the most conscientious students would remain practising in the building, I quite often found John in the Annex, preparing for some concert or other. One night, I was near Room 2, one of the first rooms one passed before the crazy maze - three stories high - of the Annex began. At once I was struck by the Bingham sound so I entered quietly. I found him practising the first movement of Mozart's D minor Piano Concerto, quite slowly, with a golden tone. At length, he stopped and looked across at me. He didn't mind in the least that I'd come to listen."I have to play this tomorrow," he said. It was either the Barbican, Festival Hall or Queen Elizabeth Hall; I can't remember which. I smiled and said:
"You don't need to practise this - you sound like an angel."
"Angels fall," he said.
We often walked down to Bond Street tube together and even got the same line, since I lived on Highbury Hill and he had a flat in Finsbury Park at the time. We were on the friendliest of terms but not what one could really call close. I remember one occasion when we caught the Piccadilly line together, we sat opposite four or five really rough looking lads in their early twenties. I had the familiar nervousness of someone who worries that some social situation is going to cause embarrassment in front of a truly venerated colleague but, thankfully, the group seemed preoccupied with its own knockabout banter. So it was with much trepidation that I watched John lean forward with the evident intention of addressing them.
"What was the score tonight?" he asked.
Brightening, one of the lads told him and there followed a brief, but good-natured, exchange of views on that evening's football match. I still don't know how he could have been so certain they would be able to answer his question. His whole manner was friendly and shy, yet self-possessed and fearless; a combination in his character which always impressed me. I myself would have had to have been bleeding to death before chancing a conversation with any one of them. It took me many years to appreciate the humility which came so naturally to Mr Bingham.
We met hardly at all outside the College environment but one such occasion was when John was playing the Schumann Piano Quintet at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with the Medici String Quartet, a group with whom he worked regularly. I was backstage in the artsits' waiting area before the concert because John had asked me to turn pages. It was only after my acquaintance with him had come to an end that I learnt the true impact his performance anxiety had on him. I suppose I should have realized at the time as he paced up and down the immaculate luxury of the waiting area, smoking fretfully, his whole demeanour in terrible contrast to the easy, almost glib disposition of the Quartet members, cradling their expensive instruments and chatting quietly amongst themselves. The impact of walking out for the first time into a wall of applause onto a dazzlingly lit South Bank concert platform has stayed with me. The Quartet shuffled into its posture of professional readiness, the musicians tuned with the piano, there was a horrible moment of hushed expectancy and then they began. The Quintet started magnificently and I was so relieved and delighted that John was playing so superbly it came as a shock when I looked down at his hands for the first time. They were shaking so badly I wondered that he could play anything at all; yet so much greater was my surprise when, later in the work, I observed him ghosting a left hand passage entirely with the odd note sounding here and there whilst still conveying the impression that all was, in fact, being played. After the concert I mentioned this to him.
"Yes, I didn't have enough time to work that up, but if you know what to leave out the audience will never know anything's missing, whereas they'll hear a wrong note at once."
I learnt a valuable lesson that day: when circumstances have necessitated, I have made use, myself, of this kind of professional editing.
After two years of intensive instruction, in which I absorbed virtually everything he knew concerning the complex art of piano playing, it was eventually my time to leave Mr Bingham. We met a couple of times after my studies ended but these were not what I should like to call successful encounters. To this day, I regret that the personal warmth which had evidently flourished between us did not survive the academic environment and crystallise into a more permanent friendship in the time John had remaining; but it seems we both had difficult times ahead, and he'd already made it perfectly clear to me much earlier in our acquaintance that he did not like to hang on to pupils for too long. A source of nagging frustration for me is that, while I was with him, I could not implement these significant changes in my playing soon enough for them to be truly consistent, and for this reason, I fear I must have been a disappointment to him.
However, my pitiless determination was rewarded.
Most people experience a eureka moment at some time or another. Mine came in - I think it was - 1993, long after I had finished with John and well after I had moved to Redbridge. I remember I was working up Chopin's Twenty-four Preludes one afternoon in preparation for a recital and during the F sharp minor Prelude I suddenly had a unique sensation of floating arms and wrists. It was then, in those few unexpected moments, that the whole of what John had been showing me became perfectly clear in a revelation of the purest lucidity, almost as if the instrument were playing itself. Not only was everything suddenly ridiculously effortless, but I could change both the articulation and dynamic intensity of everything I was doing, all at Chopin's will o' the wisp tempo, from fortissimo to virtual inaudibility instantaneously. My playing was never the same again from that afternoon onward and it is no surprise to me that the phenomenon should have have made itself felt during one of those many Etude-like works of Chopin, so often prescribed by Mr Bingham, where the mechanism either excels or falls under the ceaseless repetition of the same technical figuration.
Moments such as these are as mysterious as they are unsolicited.
I do not see the poetical and physical principles of John Bingham with us today. I listen in vain for the magical felicities of his playing; the warm, sonorous, weighty fortissimi, the perfectly judged voice leading and chordal balancing, the chiming sonority of his treble. Instead we have a kind of abbreviated, gawky piano style where suppleness has been superseded by that peculiar energetic coarsening of the limbs, resulting in a regrettable situation where each pianist sounds indistinguishable from his/her neighbour as we get the same flat tonal picture over and again in performance: passages in excess of forte are dispatched as if the pianist had succumbed to a bout of sudden anger, whilst pianissimo in the upper register is attempted with so impoverished a tone the resultant thinness provides serious consequences for the overall tonal spectrum. I am more than ever sensible of the great privilege I had in studying with this gentle poet, having now realised that the principles which I considered merely unorthodox at the time were, in fact, exceptionally rare.
John changed my life forever and since mastering the piano had always been the single most urgent issue of my life, it may be fairly said that this man has been the most important personality in my acquaintance. I miss him - I loved both man and artist. Sometimes when I'm playing I look down and I see John's hands, so similar in size and shape to my own, and I feel the strong sense of artistic kinship which existed between us and an undeniable awareness that, somehow, I am sustaining his legacy; an ideal of absolute beauty with all the immaculate economy of a world class chess manoeuvre where, through the indivisible communion between human being and instrument, the piano finally casts off the utilitarianism of its monochrome delivery, unexpectedly expanding into a myriad possibilities for hitherto unimaginable tonal nuancing.