Ruth Nye in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

The twenty-fourth interview in my Classical Conversations Series features Australian pianist and esteemed teacher, Ruth Nye. I caught up with Ruth a few weeks ago and we chatted at Jaques Samuel Pianos in London.

Ruth was invited to study in New York with Claudio Arrau after the Maestro heard her perform in Melbourne, Australia.  A close personal and musical relationship developed which included accompanying him on countless tours around the world and lasted until his death some 30 years later.

After her work with Arrau in the United States she made London her home and a full international performing career followed which included six Queen Elizabeth Hall, and five Wigmore Hall performances.

Ruth has taught at the Yehudi Menuhin School for over twelve years and is also a member of the Keyboard Faculty at the Royal College of Music.  She is in demand to conduct masterclasses in countries around the world and frequently adjudicates on international competition panels.

In recent years her pupils have received The Chappell Medal at both the Royal Academy of Music (where Ruth was formerly on staff) and the Royal College of Music, won the concerto competition multiple times at the Royal College of Music, won places in the Junior Tchaikovsky Competition, Japan and the Bechstein competition, Berlin, won a solo Wigmore Hall recital (2005) and places in the keyboard finals of the BBC Young Musician of the Year (2005).

Here’s the transcript for those who prefer to read interviews:

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Australian concert pianist and  esteemed teacher, Ruth Nye has performed extensively.  Her students have won both national and international competitions.  And, she studied with Maestro Claudio Arrau with whom she became a close personal friend.  So, I’m really excited that she’s joining me here today at Jack Samuel Pianos in London for a Classical Conversation. Welcome.

RUTH NYE:  Thank you very much. 

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Lovely to be here chatting to you.

RUTH NYE:   Thank you Melanie.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  I am going to start by asking you what about your musical education?  How old are you when you started?  What was the catalyst?  Did you come from a musical family?

RUTH NYE:   Well, I started to play when I was five.  Basically, I suppose because I had an older brother who’s… who was already playing the piano and like all little sisters you know, you want to do what your older brother is doing so, so my father said ‘I think we ought to get her taught properly instead letting her fiddle about by herself’.  And my father was probably the big driving influence and he drove with a pretty strong hand  in a sweet glove in a way.  But he came from what you call one of those intensively amateur musical families.  Music was a great thing in the whole family’s life, you know, that the…  he played the violin, he sang, he and his sister won a lot of Eisteddfods and things like this, singing and as amateurs you know, extraordinary, and  he also conducted but wasn’t… wasn’t brought up theoretically well, he just had music in his veins somehow and I think when he realized he had a couple of children that were really…

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   were talented.

RUTH NYE  …talented, he was delighted.


RUTH NYE:   And so, he kept…keep…  kept this pressure.  We had to do our practice there was no slipping out of it! But I probably got away with a lot more than my brother did.  I remember for some time I’d be up to read a book while practising  my scales.  You know, the book up on the–

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  I’ve heard that before actually. People just playing their scales whilst reading!

RUTH NYE:   Don’t tell the students.


RUTH NYE: But I’d been certain place in the book that I didn’t want to let it down and as long the piano was going I thought I was safe!… Anyway, but it was… it was a very good background to have come from and it started with a wonderful….  this was in Brisbane, Australia which is not a very big city.  It was the capital… it’s the capital of Queensland.  It didn’t have a conservatoire but we did have this wonderful teacher.  I mean, she was meticulous, not… with some sense of humour, but she was determined that she would teach us as well as she could and she not only taught us to play…. she did teach us all the theoretical background.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Which is so important.

RUTH NYE:   So important.  It’s no point to learn… if say to the students, well go back to the F minor modulation and they look at you, what? You have to know these things obviously otherwise it’s like a ship that’s completely got no rudder. So, she was… she was great and my brother and I were brought up to play a lot of duets, lot of two piano music and she did it all and we won a lot of compositions of course but…  and then that went…went on for quite a while until my father was advised…  I think my brother would have been probably 15, 16, that he should be sent to Melbourne , where there was a very strong musical conservatory and a whole ethic was right there and a wonderful teacher as well called Lyndsay Biggins. And then we didn’t play or work together-


RUTH NYE:   –until… until when we were both in our 30’s when we actually did perform the Mozart Two Piano Concerto. After it was over, my brother Ronald said to me, ‘you know, the first performance of that was given by Wolfgang and Nannerl and I wonder how many other brothers and sisters have played it’.


RUTH NYE:   combinations of brothers and sisters.


RUTH NYE:   But we didn’t research it I’m afraid so we don’t know.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   So, you didn’t know?

RUTH NYE:  So, we were… we were very fortunate.  And fortunate in many ways in Australia too because it’s… we got a lot of, lot of opportunities to perform.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes. I can imagine.

RUTH NYE:   Whereas, here, it’s a much bigger population, much more drive in the arts than when we were children and Australia’s …  much stronger now of course.


RUTH NYE:   But we did because we were good we got a lot of opportunities which you can’t…I will say to the youngsters nowadays, you know, you can’t just sort of say, I’ll buy that when you’re twenty.  If you had that…  If you had this experience behind you, it’s like, you’re putting something in a safe deposit in a bank and it’s all experience that you cannot buy later on.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   So, do you feel competitions are very important?  That was one of my questions.  Do you think they can … Can they establish a career, even today because we have so many of them, don’t we?

RUTH NYE:   We do.  We’re swamped.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   I don’t know… I read there was 350 last year and that’s professional ones you know.  I mean, does … does it mean anything at all?

RUTH NYE:   I’m… I’m not… I don’t keep up with them.  From that point of view, I’m not a good teacher.  I’m not one of those teachers saying, ‘this is coming up, you must go for it’.  They come to me and say, can I do this?   Occasionally, I will say I think you should do it.  I think when we were young; it was… it was a much more gentle atmosphere.  It wasn’t so cut-throat.  I know that when people, perhaps particularly parents, saw our names on the list they say ‘oh God’, because we would usually win but… but it wasn’t… it wasn’t anything that was… you… you felt that you will be belittling somebody that didn’t win.  It is much quieter, calmer, I think. Even the big competitions in Australia were…were gentler somehow I felt.  But, I think, throughout, a lot about the whole work because it would have been a handful of really, really big—like the Geneva one…..


RUTH NYE:   — ones you know, the sort of thing but well, after the war, Second World War, I think and then they sprang up like mushrooms, didn’t they?  I call them a mixed blessing.  I think… I think to get the experience of doing them is good for the students as long as they don’t fall down when they get knocked out in the first round.


RUTH NYE:   You get the philosophy that if you’re knocked out, you’re knocked out. You get on with it. The danger of them… I think there are many dangers.  One is that the youngsters carry the same repertoire for too long because they feel they’ve got a good competition repertoire and they’d go from one to the other playing same thing, so mostly they ask for much the same things, works to play, repertoire.


RUTH NYE:   So, that’s… that’s one danger.  So, they are not pushing their horizons with their own repertoire enough, nearly enough.  And the other danger is of course, that if they do win, sometimes they’re not equipped to carry off the prize which is a lot of playing.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   A lot of concerts, different repertoire.

RUTH NYE:   Different repertoire.  And they’ll be asked to play a concerto, that they have to learn, in four months time somewhere and of course, even as they say yes, but big concertos need more than four months to gel.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes. That’s right.

RUTH NYE:   To mature inside you, which has to work. So, they’re dangers but if… but if… I mean, they are with us.  We can’t ignore them.


RUTH NYE:  So, we… we have to… we have to take the good side and I hope that we can… gentle, as they take about horses! So the student is not to get upset if they’re knocked out.

 MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yeah.  That’s true.

RUTH NYE:  And they often make great friendships because they all meet each other…..

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes, they must know each other very well…..

RUTH NYE:   Yes. They do. Yeah.  Seriously, I… I… I am quite ambivalent about them.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Which teachers do you think were most influential in your life, especially when you were young?

 RUTH NYE: Well, I… I only had three teachers in my life.  I mean, one can learn from going to to a performance of somebody’s and then think wow. And I know that John Lill said that the greatest teacher he ever had was Arrau even though he never had a lesson from him in his life. He was a great devotee of Arrau but he would go to all his concerts.


RUTH NYE: So, that is possible you know, you do learn from performances. But, I was lucky that I didn’t… I didn’t have that sort of wandering search for a good teacher.  They almost arrived in my lap.


RUTH NYE:  So, from… from Edna Hosking in Brisbane to Lindsay Biggins in Melbourne, who was I would say very different.  Lindsay had a huge personality and was really wonderful at getting you prepared for performances.  He had this innate sense that he mustn’t allow any tension… bad tension to spring in, but of course we need some tension, you won’t play a note if you don’t have some tension.  You got to know how to get rid of it.  So, that was good.  So, nothing ever grew up, grew into us that had to be knocked out, but he… he had a flair.  He was talented, no doubt about it.  He was great.  And then from then, to be offered from Arrau, to go out to study with him in the US.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  It’s fantastic.

RUTH NYE:  And that was… that was not a… How should I put it?  Not a sort of volcanic change but it was… it was such a widening of my whole piano experience.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  It must have been…  that was my next question, it must have had a huge impact on your… on your playing.

RUTH NYE:   Yes.  Yes.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  And your career.

RUTH NYE:   Yes. Yes, it did. He did say to me when I first played to him… I was about twenty.  He said, who taught… who taught you  to play like that?  I said,  like what?  What do you mean?  You know, everything is organic.  And so, I was really… I was quite natural.  So, and of course he was delighted with that.  So, it was… It was great.  Because he was unique, you know.  He was sent by the Chilean Government, the family was sent from…  he was the age of five or six, six, it would have been, I think.  He was playing concerts at five and… And the Chilean Government didn’t know what to do with him… they have this young genius on their hands.  So, they… they paid for the whole family to go to Germany and that was the best scholarship they could offer him and fortunately in time, when he was about nine, he found the teacher called Martin Krause. Who was one of Liszt’s late students, and so this wonderful hereditary line we have is great. Goes from, through to Liszt, through to Czerny and through to Beethoven.


RUTH NYE:  It’s wonderful. We pride ourselves on it but we’re just lucky.  But… So, Krauss was a father figure to Arrau.  His father died when Arrau was two years old.  But he… he was pretty tough to, you know, I think Arrau… they… they rented a house in the same street that Krause lived with his daughter.  And Jenny Krause was a piano teacher too, and Arrau used to leave his house and go stay for the whole day while Krause was at the Stern Conservatoire teaching, he would practice there.  And he would come home in the evening and work there, practising. It was really, really tough but… and he realized that Arrau played  in… but he that said Arrau played like Liszt played. He said everything was natural at the keyboard.  It was nothing that was restricted.  The sound was fantastic.  So, he left that alone but… but he certainly did insist that all the technical work was done absolutely a hundred and ten percent.  So, I think he just realized that this boy knew it all. Now when Krause died, when Arrau was sixteen, which is a horrible time because he just almost got out of short pants into long pants, after being that child prodigy, then suddenly he having  to be that ‘ultra’ performer and so it was devastating.  He…. he died because of that awful flu epidemic that came after the First World War . And he… He was invited by so many people to go and study with ‘this one, that one and he said I don’t know where he got the strength because he was always quite a shy person, but he got the strength to say to all these people, no.  No.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Especially at such a young age.

RUTH NYE: Yes. And so then, he was by himself and he then thought ‘why is this sound I make different from a lot of pianists’ and so our good fortune is that he set mirrors up all around (a bit like in here) he… he just watched what he did.


RUTH NYE:  — with everything and so he was able to pass it on, because if he hadn’t done that, he wouldn’t have known what he did… so he wouldn’t have known how to teach it.


RUTH NYE: So, that was from my point of view a wonderful thing, that was a pretty devastating couple of years for him. But his repertoire was unbelievable.  I mean, he … he performed the whole Bach works, and I know you have met Angela Hewitt….


RUTH NYE:  And she is wonderful.


RUTH NYE:  I’m sure she has performed most if not all of Bach. And… But he did a whole cycle of all Bach works in Berlin and… and he…he you know, he’s done so many of these, played all the Mozart sonatas, he just…   he did all these chunks of huge repertoire,  in his early years and it’s a… as an experience, I feel very privileged to be able to pass on to others.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yes.  I can imagine. What are your special memories of him?  Do you have any?

RUTH NYE: Special memories and lessons, let’s do the serious side first.  I remember the first, the very first lesson in New York, when I was doing the Appassionata and when I played it, he was just sitting over there upright. He never used another piano when he taught and I’d go along with this because you don’t want them to copy you.


RUTH NYE:  You have to put it into words so that they can  translate it and then do it, whereas, so many people play it and the students get an idea but they don’t find it for themselves, you’re not really teaching them anything.  You’re teaching them to be monkeys – to copy.


RUTH NYE: Anyway when I turned round  and saw him  the… and he started to speak in a gentle, quiet voice and not because I was unhappy but I was so overwhelmed that my eyes were filled with tears and they just rolled down my face for probably the whole lesson and  he said, ‘oh dear, don’t.  Have I distressed you?’  I said, ‘no, I’m happy’. So, anyway, I had a few tissues so it was alright. But… but his teaching was… always with words, he had a wonderful gift of, because at one stage he was fluent in five languages.  I think couple of them got a bit rusty as he got older, but he could speak, because of his life, that’s what he could do.  But he had this wonderful sense of being able put across with words what you then had to take in and make your own and bring out yourself.  He never… He never said like this and played it, and that was… that was a rare, rare thing.  It’s so… so often you see a teacher just… just play, you know.



MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yes. Just sit and the piano.  Just mimicking.

RUTH NYE: Yeah.  Yeah.  I remember one person when I had this wonderful birthday, concert given to me at the Menuhin school last December and a musical friend came up after this, cause a lot of my students came back and played , and the whole concert was made up, and the Director of Music organized all.  It was all a secret from me.  I didn’t know what’s on the programme until I got there.


RUTH NYE:   But somebody came after the concert, amazing things are all different and I took that as a great compliment.


RUTH NYE:   I really did.  They had all the same, what I call, philosophy of the way  to play the piano.  But you have to let the person run themselves musically and not just stamp your image. They’ve got to find their own way.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Sure.  Sure. You’re… you’re a very celebrated teacher now, you teach at the Yehudi Menuhin School and the Royal College of Music.

RUTH NYE:   Yeah.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   What is it that you love about teaching so much? Because you’ve devoted a lot of your time to it.

RUTH NYE:  Yes, I have over the last twenty years, really.  Because I contracted Dupuytren’s contracture in my finger in the early 90’s.  And, that really started to put the end to my playing. I’ve got arthritis but anyway, apart from I’ve been lucky enough to find fulfillment–


RUTH NYE:  — in teaching.  Fortunately, with a lot of…with an awful lot of talented people.  So, I say to the… to my students when they start to teach, I say look at … when a little youngster coming to you, has to have one of two qualities,  they have to be musical or they to be enchanting that you can’t resist them, you know.   But… But that is true, you know.  But, what I love about it is you get somebody who has musical gift there and has talent and that… that varies you know, you can find somebody who works at the piano and has no problems at all. You find someone who’s hand is perhaps not quite the right thing for the piano and you got to make it right. But what I love about it as much I think, most… two things that I do,  I’m able to do, is to see a human being develop as a person because we’re developing the talent inside them. And if that talent wasn’t developed, I don’t say they would be a lesser person but they’ll be a different person and to see this growing so wonderfully with confidence and they’re prepared to express themselves that is… that is wonderful.  And then of course the… from ability to do it. You have to teach them that as well.  So, it’s very fulfilling.  It’s… It’s… It’s wonderful when they find things for themselves to you know, say well, someone was playing and I said ‘ why… why did you want to do that accelerando there?  It’s not marked.’ ‘well I just thought it would be, you know’, I just said…It’s not convincing.  Play it again and convince me.  If you convince me, you can do it.  But play it again, and convince me.  Nine times out of ten Melanie, they’ll play it again and then turn round to me and say, ‘ no, it didn’t work to… didn’t work.’  And that’s the best way because they find it out themselves.


RUTH NYE:   Whereas, if you just come and say, ‘don’t do it’.  And  they… Hmm… Hmmm..say ‘I want to do it’.


RUTH NYE:  But when they find out themselves, it doesn’t work.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes.  What aspects of piano study are most important when you take a young… young pianist and you start training them? What do you think is the most important?

RUTH NYE:   I… I just got a new youngster…at the Menuhin School…a little boy and he’s incredibly musical.  He’s nine years old, I think. And what I found that his theoretical knowledge is very patchy, even for a nine year old, it’s patchy. So, I… I… I, he’s had two weeks of school with me but already I’m starting to… to build that foundation to make sure there is no holes anywhere.  There comes a time when he… you know, if he doesn’t know that F sharp  major has  6 sharps.


RUTH NYE:  He doesn’t know there the order of  sharps and flats.


RUTH NYE:  Which he didn’t.


RUTH NYE: It might sound trite but it’s important, you know.  And the…  all these foundations, these cornerstones, that we must make sure are in place and if you suddenly find there’s is a gap then you’ve got to fill it in, making it fun, making it an adventure. If it’s dry and boring, they get dry, they get bored.


RUTH NYE:  But if you make it an adventure and then they can  see it then and they apply it to what they’re doing.  What key are you playing in?  Why have you got a B natural there?  What’s happened?  And make them think.


RUTH NYE:   Make them use their brains.  So, that’s… that is very important.  The other thing is you’ll find a lot of this business.  And sometimes, it’s easy to break and other times it just takes a little time because it’s quite ingrained but just… you just gently keep pushing it down ‘cause that’s also puts awful  tension through the whole body. If you’ve got a restriction anywhere, I feel that you cannot get the sound out of the  instrument that you want, because you’re finally, no matter what you do, you finally just might get a pencil and go ‘bonk’.  You need… You need to know what you want to do with your body to get that particular sound, ‘cause we are playing… we are playing a machine really.


RUTH NYE:  We’re not in, we’ve got an E.  We’ve got all the mechanics that work inside but we can make that particular  note sound different.  One… One thing I find is that people only think of expression like, pianos and fortes or mezzo fortes, that sort of thing… and they think of them in decibels.  They don’t think what type of mezzo forte that I am wanting to produce?


RUTH NYE: And the range that is huge but… but how can we produce it?  That… That range when you’re touching something, work something  inside and I… it’s magic because if… if you have the image of sound in your head, and you just… use your body in the correct way, the sound will come through. If you don’t have the image, well then you’re lost. But you have got to have the image first and then it turn… it just… it happens and this is I think, was the… why Arrau said to himself, ‘why do I make a different sound?’  Not only a different sound, but a range of sound. Not in decibels but in that area of … of that one little string.  If you… If you think of the world, you get it like in painting.


RUTH NYE:  You’ve got a beautiful pink jacket on , well  there are a lots and lots and lots of sorts of different pinks jackets aren’t there? But it’s still a pink jacket?

MELANIE SPANSWICK: That’s very true.


MELANIE SPANSWICK:  So, what does playing the piano and teaching the piano mean to you?

RUTH NYE: I suppose it means a huge amount. I think I was very lucky when this thing happened to my finger that I was able to go into teaching.  I think if it had been taken away from me completely.  I think you’d be a different person.  I don’t say you’d be a worse person or a better person, I think you’d be a different person.  I don’t think you’d be the same person.  I think I’m lucky that the other side of my life is good.  I’m… I’m very lucky, I’ve got a wonderful family and so, it’s not that I would feel pushed out because I know I still have that behind me that’s solid… solid thing. And… But, I think if you take any artist or you take any art away from any person you… you must end up as a different person.


RUTH NYE:  And I’m sure I’m afraid although I love my garden, and I love my gardening, I’m afraid as every year I past the ground gets further  away all the time. So, in as much as I could have spent hours and hours in the garden, I can’t now.  So, I just have to enjoy… enjoy it a  little… little… a little and often but not a long time.  So, there are… I… I don’t think I’ve been miserable but I would be bereft.  Yeah.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Thank you so much for joining me today.

RUTH NYE:  It’s a pleasure.  Thank you, Melanie.


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Lisa Ann says:

    Really great interview!

    1. Thank you Lisa, really glad you enjoyed it 🙂

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