My guest writer today is Venezuelan pianist and teacher Clara Rodriguez. Clara came to the UK as a young student on a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music in London. At the RCM, she studied with eminent professor Phyllis Sellick, who had a profound influence on her development as a pianist and musician. In this post, Clara charts her pianistic journey, and, at the end of the article, you can watch an interview I recorded with Clara a few years ago.
In Caracas, when I was 16 years of age, together with my mother, we saw a newspaper advert for a competition that would take place a week later. The prize was a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music in London. With my teacher’s support I entered it and went along to the Escuela de Música Superior José Angle Lamas, the oldest of all the music conservatories of Venezuela with a long tradition of producing wonderful composers.
The then directors of the Senior and Junior Departments of The Royal College of Music had been flown in specially to judge the competition. I remember playing J.S Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A minor from Book 2 of the 48 Preludes and Fugues, Chopin’s Etude Op. 10 No 1 and Reflets dans l’eau by Debussy. After some theory and aural exams, it was decided that six scholarships would be given to junior musicians: two pianists, one guitarist, one violinist, one recorder and one horn player. This must have been in May, and by the 12th of September we were landing at Heathrow!
I was told on arrival, that Barbara Boissard and Michael Gough Matthews had thought that I should study under Phyllis Sellick, and on the same evening I would be able to see her on TV as she was judging the final of the Leeds Piano Competition.
Phyllis Sellick was stunning! Everybody seemed to know her, even people I talked to in the streets, asking for directions as I got lost a few times in South Kensington-Knightsbridge-High St. Kensington! In a way, to me this was not surprising as I thought: “It’s normal, I am in Europe, here everything has to do with classical music, and the piano” I remember people telling me that she was very good for Mozart and that her husband (Cyril Smith) had been a well-known pianist too, but that she was the most musical of the two. (Sorry Cyril!)
From the very first moment I met her at the RCM, I bathed in a warmth and kindness that never changed in the 28 years I knew her. The first thing that amazed me was her hands, which were so soft, padded, very wide and with a wonderfully lifted little finger knuckle. The perfect hand for the piano.
She patiently, with great care, love, tact and a wonderful insight guided me and taught me the Art of playing the piano. I still go by her teachings, every day! I also do my best to pass on all that knowledge to my pupils. I remember trying to tell myself: “this is it! This will be my profession” as up to then I had thought I would finish my piano degree in Venezuela and I would also go to university to study sociology.
I used to call her Miss Sellick until she told me: “Phyllis, please!”, she used to call me “Little Clara”. Phyllis, would to say to me: “This is a world class conservatory, so you must play like a world class pianist” She would also talk about being a “professional pianist” an important concept that Cyril Smith and herself had with great determination fulfilled during their time.
During the first term with her, one day she asked me “How long do you practice a day?” to which I must have answered trying to be impressive “two hours”, she said “you must do five” so, with a clock in front of me I started doing this, of course! I used to have weekly lessons with her on Wednesdays and Junior Department lessons on Saturdays.
Very early on she entered me for a concerto competition where I played W A Mozart’s Piano Concerto KV 595, and before that took place, she kindly organized a concert at her beautiful house in Fife Road, East Sheen, where I met many of my piano classmates hailing from all over the world: Marta from Peru, Eva from Germany, Kim from New Zealand, Noriko from Japan, David from the USA, Karen and James from the UK. Norberto and Héctor, from Argentina, would kindly accompany me on the orchestral reductions and they would come to the teaching room at the end of my lessons to translate to Spanish any important message Phyllis wanted to make sure I understood as my English was non-existent.
Then I made many more friends who also studied with her; Andrew, the Cann sisters, Geofrey, Ann, Liz, Amanda, Adrian, Dominic, Ian…it is impossible to mention them all right now!
She had both a practical and a methodical way of living life and being in a “bubble” of love for music; she once told me that she only needed “piano music and coffee to live.”
Once, Phyllis’ car was stolen and her greatest chagrin was that the thief had taken away the whole collection of “Edition Musica Budapest” of the Scarlatti Sonatas with it.
She was such a kind teacher, always thinking of how she could help her students solve problems. She would give me a phone call when I least expected it, to tell me something about a particular bar that I should play “pp” or how I should join a yoga class to help relax my shoulders.
One day she arranged for five pupils to come to rmy lesson to sing Bach Fugue in C sharp minor from Book 1 (of the 48 Preludes and Fugues) so I could conduct them and listen to all the voices. That was an exhilarating experience!
My studies with her were full of wonderful pianistic revelations, for instance, the idea that the piano is a percussion instrument and that we pianists, must make it “sing” as well as forming long musical lines, connecting every note so that there is coherence in the phrasing, is a challenge. I have to say that I had enjoyed excellent tuition in Venezuela from my first teacher Guiomar Narváez and masterclasses from Regina Smendzianka from Poland, plus my own interest in playing in a way that did not produce unwanted accents, but it was under Phyllis’ light that I went on developing this side of my playing.
Phyllis Sellick was born in Ilford, Essex, and started to play the piano by ear at the age of three. She had her first music lesson on her fifth birthday, and she would say that going up the escalator on the tube (the underground) was the best thing about going to the lessons, plus when the teacher played with her. Four years later she won the Daily Mirror‘s “Pip, Squeak and Wilfred” contest for young musicians and was awarded two years’ private tuition with Cuthbert Whitemore, subsequently winning an open scholarship to continue her studies with him at the Royal Academy of Music. Thanks to her mentors, she later studied with Isidor Philipp in Paris, a pupil of George Mathias, who in turn had studied with Frederic Chopin, a fact that always fascinated us, her pupils, who are fifth generation Chopin students!
During her stay in Paris, Phyllis played for Maurice Ravel and studied many of his works with him, making recordings of some of his pieces on 78 RPM. I am very proud to have studied with her some Ravel works including the Concerto in G which she came to hear when I performed it at St. John’s Smith Square.
For us, her students, it was so important that Phyllis and Cyril had enjoyed a formidably close friendship with Sergei Rachmaninoff. I think that Phyllis had a deep affinity with his music and its interpretation. She felt real musical passion and made me try to convey it in performances, all with a “steely” control! Very difficult to manage as sometimes the music moved me so much that I was not capable to produce any sounds from my hands! When I was about 7, I remember telling my mum how a piece from Ana Magdalena Bach’s book had made me cry. So, all these feelings had to be curbed in order to play the piano!
I now realize how hard it must have been for her that at the height of his solo concert career her husband lost the use of the left hand after having had two strokes. How much support she must have given him, so they could start a new career playing the four-hand repertoire with three hands. Arranging many pieces and having many works composed for them.
I immensely enjoyed listening to her stories about their efforts during the war such as their concert tours in Portugal and in India. How uncomfortable many situations were, from insects biting their hands during performances to seeing the most shocking social contrasts in those societies. She braved the air raids, playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major Op. 58 near where a bomb fell jerking the piano up and down, ending her story thus: “fortunately I was able to continue playing”.
On another occasion she had to go to sleep in the BBC to be woken up at 2.00 am to play the incredibly difficult Ravel Toccata for the World Service, “it felt like death” she said to me.
Another beautiful story featured one of their trips to Ireland; their son, who was accustomed to hearing: “this month we have not got enough money because concerts have been scarce”, was very distressed to see the Irish children wearing no shoes and with anger said: “their parents should play more concerts!”
Sir Henry Wood insisted that they should play together and they performed at The BBC Proms in 1941, making many international tours and recordings as a duo. Composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams (Introduction and Fugue ‘For Phyllis and Cyril’) and Lennox Berkeley wrote music specially for them. Malcolm Arnold also wrote for them (Concerto for Piano 3 Hands and Orchestra, Op. 104, sometimes known as Concerto for Phyllis and Cyril).
Phyllis and Cyril were awarded the OBE in 1971. Once, I wrote a card to her in which I said that she had the highest standards of piano playing that I have ever known and she replied that she would, “on sad days”, remember that thought.
I used to go to play for her until she was well into her eighties before my recitals or recordings. Her opinion was very significant for me. She went to all my major London concerts and would very sweetly give me a call the next day. Invariably, I would be thinking how many things should have been played better, but she would give me lots of encouragement and often said: “I am your number one fan” in which case I would say that we belonged to the mutual admiration society.
She broke first her thumb and then her wrist, and I remember seeing her trying to train her hand again by doing basic exercises and even playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor Op. 37 at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon successfully, but not many other concerts were possible, as her hand had been badly damaged unfortunately.
In 2002 she appeared on the BBC radio programme, Desert Island Discs. One of her choices was Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini to which she added “I would like Cyril to play it”. I remember the presenter asking her also, “How do you teach?” and she said: “I listen to the students and then tell them what I think” We both laughed when I pointed out how simple she made everything sound.
Phyllis Sellick died in Kingston in 2007.
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.
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