Vanessa Latarche in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

My Classical Conversations Series is celebrating its first birthday today. I started this series with Ukrainian concert pianist Valentina Lisitsa, whom I met in Cardiff on a very cold and wet day, before she performed Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto for Radio 3’s Children in Need concert; you can enjoy our interview here. My twenty-fifth interview features British concert pianist, Head of Keyboard and Professor of International Keyboard Studies at the Royal College of Music, Vanessa Latarche.

After studying at the Royal College of Music and completing her training in the USA and Paris, Vanessa was awarded many scholarships and prizes from international competitions. She has performed as a soloist with international orchestras and those in the UK including   the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC Concert Orchestra, BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra, Bournemouth Sinfonietta, working with many leading conductors.

Vanessa’s recital work has taken her to Europe, USA and to the Far East, as well as many festivals within the UK, including Cheltenham, Harrogate and Huddersfield. Her interest in Bach led to a performance of the complete 48 Preludes and Fugues at the Lichfield International Festival in 1992, the performances being given over four consecutive evenings.

She has broadcast for over 30 years for BBC Radio 3 and has also broadcast extensively on the BBC World Service and BBC Radio 4. She has been a juror for international competitions in Serbia, Italy,  New Zealand, and Hong Kong and has adjudicated the national keyboard final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year, which was broadcast on BBC television. In 2007 she was an advisor to the BBC TV programme “Classical Star”.

Since September 2005 she has been Head of Keyboard at the Royal College of Music having been previously a professor of piano at the Royal Academy of Music for fourteen years where she was made an Honorary Associate in 1997.

Vanessa frequently travels to give masterclasses, not only in UK conservatoires and specialist music schools, but also to such institutions as Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts, Tokyo College of Music, Beijing Central Conservatory, and Seoul National University. She is also a frequent visitor to Lang Lang’s music school, Lang Lang Music World, in Shenzhen, China where she has recently been appointed as a Vice- Chairman.

With many international piano competition prize-winners amongst her students, Vanessa was nominated for the FRCM, Fellowship of the Royal College of Music, for outstanding services to music which was conferred on her by HRH Prince of Wales in May 2010. In September 2011, Vanessa was appointed to the role of Personal Chair at the RCM, which has given her the title of Professor of International Keyboard Studies.

Here’s the transcript, for those who prefer reading interviews:

Melanie: “British concert pianist and professor of piano, Vanessa Latarche, has performed extensively. She’s in demand as an examiner and adjudicator worldwide, and she’s head of keyboard and chair of professional keyboard studies here at the Royal College of Music in London.  And I’m delighted that she is joining me today for one of my Classical Conversations. Welcome!”

Vanessa: “Thank you, Melanie.”

Melanie: “Lovely to be chatting here with you today.”

Vanessa: “And you, too! Great.”

Melanie: “I’m going to start by asking you all about your musical education: how old were you when you started, what was the catalyst, whether you come from a musical family.”

Vanessa: “Right. Well, my mother, actually, is a piano teacher. And, in fact, she used to teach at the Junior Royal College of Music here years and years ago. But, as a child I suppose, I started at the age of nine, which is quite late.”

Melanie: “It is, yes.”

Vanessa: “You know, especially these days, when people tend to start much, much younger. But, before that, I was very interested in ballet. Still am actually, love ballet. And, as a teenager, went through, but realized very young that, actually, I wasn’t going to be able to be a ballerina. I was too big for that.”

Vanessa: “So, it’s one of my passions, but anyway there we are. I love music, of course, all the music and choreography and everything that went with it. My grandfather was – my mother’s father – was a piano- I suppose what you would call him these days- a piano technician. Although, in those days, they used to balk at any idea of that name. And so, he was a piano maker, worked for Bösendorfer’s actually, Monington and Weston’s the British  piano makers, though sadly no longer with us. And, he had this wonderful piano at home, because of my mother. He would encourage me to play and, even though I was dancing, my real passion was the piano. I would see it there and kept on trying to play by ear, and he would teach me things by ear and by rote. So, eventually, he and my mother decided that that was it. You know, get piano lessons. Get them sorted and, in those days, I picked up, I think, quite quickly. I think one of my biggest claims to fame in my life is that I managed to get through Mini Steps Book 1 in a week. Anybody who knows me will know that that is a hilarious story from my first teachers. Big claim to fame.”

Melanie: “So, which teachers then do you think were fundamental in your development as a pianist?”

Vanessa: “Well, I always think that the first teacher is probably the most important in development. How you set – Everything’s set up for you pianistically, and the most inspirational and formidable lady that I learned with Eileen Rowe in Ealing.  She teaches you – She taught you about sound and how to develop good sound quality. She was an amazing woman and a spinster and a big lady, but she really would work on sound as at the heart of what you did. And I suppose that to me was one of the most important aspects – still is to me – in my own teaching. And I still reflect on how she teaches these days. So, that was for a while. Then, I had a few lessons for a couple of years with Christopher Elton, and I came to the Royal College, and I studied with Kendall Taylor, who’s very interesting man to learn with. Beethoven specialist, of course. And then, when I left the college, I went to Alexander Kelly, who, I think, was one of the most inspirational teachers and somebody who could just bring you out of you.”

Melanie: “That’s interesting. Yeah, a lovely man.”

Vanessa: “Wonderful person and, it was just who I needed at that time. I think if you find the right teacher at the right time – that’s probably one of the crucial elements about finding the right teacher. It’s not necessarily the right teacher for you for your life, but it’s the right time of your life.”

Melanie: “Yes. So, how did you develop your technique?”

Vanessa: “Oh, difficult question. Well, I wasn’t brought up on sort of Hanon.”

Vanessa: “It wasn’t one of those things that I was drilled in. In fact, I suppose if anything, from the early days, always encouraged to play pieces rather than studies and to develop your technique around – you know, find the technique to fit the piece, as it were.”

Melanie: “Right.”

Vanessa: “But, later on, realized when you become serious in the teenage – teen years, that you actually have start learning and start doing some proper technical work I suppose. But technique, I suppose, can really encompass a lot things. And, it doesn´t necessarily mean playing fast does it? It’s how you do something. How you articulate. How you express, actually.”

Melanie: “So, you did a lot of competitions I think, when you were younger?”

Vanessa: “Yes.”

Melanie: “Do you think they were important? And, crucially, can they still establish a concert pianist today? Or do you think we’ve moved on from that? Are they still important?”

Vanessa: “That’s, I suppose, a loaded question.”

Melanie: “It is rather yes. Sorry.”

Vanessa: “No, it’s fine!”

Vanessa: “No! No! No! We often talk about it here at the college, and I’m very interested in the competition circuit. When I was in my teens, I used to do. As a kid, I used to do a lot of piano festivals. That was a thing. I loved doing it. It was an opportunity to perform, something that you could learn your repertoire for. It was a carrot at the end of everything.  You think ‘oh good’ I could play it in the festival. A very, very good performance experience. I still believe in the festival movement very strongly.  As regards International competitions, then, of course, I did quite a lot of those. With a mixed kind of response and that’s where I learned that, you know, there are many, many opinions on piano playing and what’s good and what isn’t. And it was a bit of a shock to me in the beginning, I think. But then, it was a very steep learning curve. And then, I appreciated that. Actually you know – You have to – There’s a sort of competition animal out there. And you get – You develop your ability to learn fast, to retain a lot of repertoire in your head, your memory. Some people tend to hike the same competition repertoire around all the competitions, and you know jury members often – I sit on juries myself now – you often hear some people play some pieces for years and years and years, and they don’t change very much. They just kind of suitable for a competition. So, it’s really interesting. I do think the value of competitions is important. I do think in a young professional pianist´s life, the piano in competition has its place. I think it’s very important to try them. Not everybody will be successful, and often the most individual people are not successful. Yeah, but often they are, you know. And sometimes, they go into a competition for the very first time and come out with the big first prize, and that, someone like Perahia for instance, and that does indeed, in those days particularly, launch their careers. It still does, to some extent, if there’s a very very special personality behind the player.”

Melanie: “Yes.”

Vanessa: “But, there are many competition winners, and of course, you’re only as good as until the next competition. And then, somebody else comes around and wins it. But, it still helps to launch solo careers, but you need much more versatility, as I’m sure many people tell you that, and you know anyway”

Melanie: “Yes. Which composers do you love to play?”

Vanessa: “Well, I’ve always been in love with Rachmaninoff and Russian and romantic repertoire. All the Rs. But, I suppose nowadays my slant has gone more to Bach and Baroque music, and I’ve just always been excited by Fugues.”

Melanie: “I remember that.”

Vanessa: Do you?”

Melanie: “Yes, yes you often played him – the Bach Preludes and Fugues”

Vanessa: “Yes, it’s not. It’s just something- how funny that you should remember that, must be something strange in my brain! ”

Melanie: Definitely, because I remember you playing on Radio 3, they are not easy to remember.”

Vanessa: “I make no, no apologies for playing with music these days.”

Melanie: “Yes.”

Vanessa: “Yeah, it’s not a problem as long as you play it well, that’s what matters.” But, I’m actually fascinated by the textures and complexities and the way that they develop. It’s not a form, it’s a device, and how they build. So yes.”

Melanie: “Yes, do you have a particular practice regime?”

Vanessa: “What a good question! I used to have, when I didn’t have this job. Now, with this job, which is full on”

Melanie: “Yes.”

Vanessa: “I practice as and when I can. If  I’ve got something really important coming up, I try and practice very early in the morning. At least I have a couple of hours of me time and space in my head. Because balancing a lot of things, as I do, is important to be true to yourself. So, the beginning of the day has always been a good time for me. So, early in the morning, before I come into the college. Oh, sometimes when I come in and put the blinds down and say, “Go away for a bit, I’m doing my stuff.” That’s it. And then, occasionally late at night as well. It’s very – It is difficult, and I’ve always always start with scales, if I did nothing else – I start with scales – I know I said I didn’t have any sort of technical training, but I always do about 20 minutes worth of scales. It keeps you keep a little bit more lithe”

Melanie: “Well, you’re head of keyboard here at the Royal College. What is it that you love about teaching, because you’ve taught for many, many years?”

Vanessa: “Yes, I have – I gave you some lessons”

Melanie: “You did indeed, a long time ago! We won’t talk about that! It’s too long ago!”

Vanessa: “Well, it’s always been a passion, as well as playing the piano. It’s always been very important to me, to nurture someone else as well as bring them, you know, along. And, I suppose, what I love about it – I love the communication. I love seeing somebody develop. I particularly – I’m very interested in teaching all people of all levels, but, you know, it’s at the college now there are some very special talents, and it’s just amazing to see them fly.”

Melanie: ‘You’re also Vice-Chairman of Lang Lang’s new music school in China. That’s fantastic, many congratulations!”

Vanessa: “Thanks.”

Melanie: “And you have worked a lot in the Far East. What are the differences in the approach to music between the Far East and here in the West?”

Vanessa: “Well, it’s – first of all, it’s a real privilege to be vice-chairman of his school because it’s in Shenzhen. It’s a piano school basically, and as you can imagine, the facilities are marvelous, and the students are great, and it’s only been going for two years. They’re really developing and working well. And my role there is an advisory role, I suppose to some extent. I go and give classes and train the teachers and help them develop. The work ethic in China and the far East in general – but particularly in China – is extraordinary. The students will practice for hours, even from little, little tots. So, I see a big development in them very early. They go forward very fast. Technically, they move forward fast. What they need help with and advice is in the big cultural divide. And I’m not saying that we know everything. We don’t. But, we can learn a lot from them, because they have this tremendous skill and also a real facility for playing the piano. There’s something about the work that they do that gives them a tremendous amount of polish and sparkle and brilliance.”

Melanie: “Yes.”

Vanessa: “What we can give is poetry, inspiration, culture, and background. So, I suppose, it’s very interesting when you see students that come to the college from different backgrounds. And they might come from a background where they have been maybe drilled, you know?”

Melanie: “Yes.”

Vanessa: “And not have quite so much exposure to art and culture. And then you have – you might have people from Europe – I don’t know – from America maybe even, that have had a lot of exposure to art and culture, but maybe not the – and this is big generalization, so you know, don’t quote me on this, or anyone. They may not have the same kind of discipline or have the same regimen, as it were. And – same as eastern European- you know, they have both kind of this tremendous determination and drive and technical foundation with also a huge foundation of culture. So, you know, when you get a combination of everything, then that’s when you get the real stars.”

Melanie: “What are you looking for when a young student comes to audition here?”

Vanessa: “Potential. Now, how do you judge that? Really hard. Thought about that long and hard for many, many years, and it’s something that, you know -You still sit at an audition, and you still think, “Goodness me! How far are they going to go?” But, you get a nose for it Melanie.”

Melanie. “Over the years?”

Vanessa: “Yeah, you do, and you get sort of a feeling for a personality. If there’s a person inside there, this personality within in them that you could really unlock, and you think, “Yes, this person has a bit – has something about them. They might have entrepreneurial skills or they might have something that’s just a little different. And, of course, we’re looking for a basic level of great foundation as well. Too often you get people who are unaware of the standards now, and in an international institution such as this. When I was a student here – which was a long time ago, probably also when you were a student here as well.”

Melanie: “Absolutely, it’s quite a different standard I think.”

Vanessa: “Yeah, well, I didn’t think it was a different standard. I think it’s more a different make-up of the student body. So, there are different elements to it. When I was here studying, there were basically English people studying with occasional overseas students.”

Melanie: “When I was here, it was about 50%, 50 to 60 %.”

Vanessa: “Right. Oh, okay. That’s interesting. So, it’s developed further than that now.”

Melanie: “OK”

Vanessa: “In my faculty, we’ve got 160 students. Very big – very, very big faculty and I think, probably- I can’t remember how many there are – but probably about 75 are from overseas. That means outside of the EU, and then there – We are a lot from the EU as well: France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Greece. So, it’s very interesting, the mix of students. So, although it might not seem as if we’re supporting our own as much, they’re in a different field. They are having to compete internationally at audition. Perhaps when I was here, they were certainly not having to. That’s the difference.”

Melanie: “Which venues have you loved playing in?’

Vanessa: “I love the Wigmore Hall, always come back to the Wigmore Hall. It is just so wonderful. The sound is wonderful. The feeling of intimacy, but it’s big. It’s the classic shoebox shape. It’s a wonderful, wonderful hall.”

Melanie: “What exciting plans have you got for the future?”

Vanessa: “Gosh! For the future? Well, I suppose to continue to develop myself in terms of my repertoire, because you’re always learning. To continue learning from my students, which I do learn – I hope – as much from them as they learn from me. I hope so. I like to think I do, because there’s never ever the same person that walks through the door. It’s always a different issue with a student, always problems – sometimes in terms of talent – so you have to handle it. It’s very, very interesting. To develop a little bit more with my work with Lang Lang’s school, and try to incorporate them here with bringing them here, and have them come play for us actually, and to keep that liason and collaboration going.”

Melanie: “What does playing the piano mean to you?”

Vanessa: “I used to say that I was married to piano, and I suppose now I would say it’s my life blood. It’s what makes me tick. Music, not necessarily the piano. And I don’t know – If that was taken away from me, I don’t know what I’d do.”

Melanie: “Thank you so much for joining me today.”

Vanessa: “Pleasure, thank you.”


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.


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