A pi­anist’s par­adise

Oliver Condy brushes up his key­board skills on a week­end course at an idyl­lic coun­try house

BBC Music Magazine - - Contents - For in­for­ma­tion about forth­com­ing adult pi­ano cour­ses, visit finch­cocks.com

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

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