A pianist’s paradise
Oliver Condy brushes up his keyboard skills on a weekend course at an idyllic country house
Oliver Condy spends a weekend honing his keyboard skills in the idyllic surrounds of Finchcocks in Kent
It’s eight o’clock on a balmy Friday evening at Finchcocks, a beautiful Grade One-listed early-georgian pile deep in the Kent countryside. The pastel orange light of the setting sun floods across the lawn, over the threshold and into the oak-panelled hall before scattering on the open lid of a black Bösendorfer grand. The vast room is otherwise empty save for a sofa and a couple of armchairs, and is awash with a gorgeous summer haze. Sitting at the piano is jazz musician and tutor Mark Polishook.
The weekend’s jazz improvisation course doesn’t officially begin until tomorrow but Polishook is keen to take advantage of the light and give his class of just seven a few things to think about before the morning. He starts to play one or two notes over and over, encouraging us to place our heads inside the piano to experience the piano’s internal acoustic. Next, he suggests we walk gently around the room, hearing how it alters and modifies each solitary note. An exercise in listening. It’s very hypnotic, and I already feel thousands of miles from work and the drudgery of life. This weekend is going to be fascinating.
Finchcocks piano courses are the brainchild of hedge fund manager Neil Nichols who, together with his wife
Harriet, bought the house and its grounds for a reported £3m in 2016, principally as a family home. This isn’t Finchcocks’s first brush with music. In the 1960s, the Russian Legat Ballet set up a school here and, more significantly, until a few years ago it was the home of one of Britain’s most important historical keyboard collections, owned and curated by Richard and Katrina Burnett. The museum was famous for its 1792 John Avery chamber organ and early 19th-century pianos including three Erards, but in 2015 the Burnetts were keen to retire and decided to sell up.
None of this was lost on Nichols, an amateur pianist himself. ‘We were living in London at the time, looking for a piano teacher for our sons,’ he says. ‘I found one opposite us on our street but he was a little too adult-focused. So I just thought, well I’ll have lessons with him. After a year or so I saw a brochure on the lid of his piano, which was the Finchcocks auction brochure, with details of the 115 instruments for sale that week. I recognised the place because I’d been here on a school trip when I was 12 and had had a go on the harpsichords, clavichords and spinets.’
The family had no plans to move out of London, but nevertheless went on a factfinding mission to Kent. The sight of the crumbling mansion and a glimpse of its contents were too much of a temptation to ignore. ‘Viewed as a whole,’ continues Neil, ‘Finchcocks was an incredibly romantic proposition – the idea of coming down and restoring a building, turning it back into a family home. And then the big plan was to try to keep the music going. Not emulate what had been done before, not recreate the piano museum, but to keep the piano theme going in a way that was true to the
recent history of the building and our own personal interest. That, for me, was piano tuition for adults.’
An hour later we stop for food in the coach house, a once crumbling outbuilding that Nichols had restored in just three months to accommodate course attendees in splendid comfort and to provide a nerve centre for the weekend’s downtimes. In reality, that simply means meals and sleeping – there’s a lot to cram into two days. Friday-night dinner (all meals are cooked by a catering company and are terrific) gives everyone a chance to chat about their musical goals and aspirations, but also to shed those pre-course nerves and wallow in the prospect of talking nonstop music with like minds.
The structure of each course balances group sessions up in the hall with private practice on the house’s nine grand pianos in the vaulted brick cellar. Some of these instruments were acquired from the Burnett collection, including a mellow 1893 Broadwood short grand (currently on loan from Broadwood), a sprightly seven- foot Grotrian-steinweg from the 1990s and a bold, bright, youthful Yamaha C3. You can even venture over to the house before breakfast – an ideal time for some uninterrupted playing and a guarantee you’ll get some time on all of the pianos.
I already feel thousands of miles from work and the drudgery of life
And by getting up early, you’ll be able to fit in a stroll around the grounds.
Because class sizes are so small, everyone receives a good amount of oneto-one attention, but most of the time is spent in each other’s company, tutors demonstrating (and performing concerts), offering advice and encouragement and giving students a chance to share problems and successes with colleagues. It takes a little time to break down barriers, but by the end of day one, we’re all relaxed enough to lay bare our shortcomings
– or even show off a little… On our jazz course, group lessons take the form of experimenting with chords and studying famous improvisations, but whatever the style of music, Finchcocks is a place that allows the headspace for uninterrupted study, if only for two days. ‘Everyone who comes here loves the piano,’ says Polishook. ‘I get the sense that if most of them could give up their jobs and play music all day, they would. There’s this magical hyperenthusiasm. Being a tutor here is like having a class of just the very best students: the ones who really want to learn.’
Sunday afternoon, of course, comes way too soon, but we all feel we have a clear idea of what to do on Monday morning – the most important follow-up to any short course. Aside from booking another weekend at this little slice of musical paradise, that is…
Time alone: a Yamaha in the refurbished cellar
Musical drive:Finchcocks’s façade; (top left) musical director David Hall takes a class; (left) a place to relax in the coach house