Hamish Milne: reflective memories

The relationship between piano teacher and piano student can last a lifetime. When the teacher passes, inevitably, the student takes stock and reflects.

Concert pianist and pedagogue Hamish Milne was a highly respected, much-loved piano professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he taught for over forty years. He died earlier this year, and, in this article, pianist and pedagogue James Kirby, who studied with Hamish at the RAM, reflects on his legacy, both as a performer and as a teacher.

Hamish Milne (1939 – 2020)

It was October 1984 and I had just begun my studies at the Royal Academy of Music with Hamish Milne. I was feeling pretty nervous and just about to walk on stage and play Bartok’s Improvisations Op 20 in my first Academy lunchtime concert. I felt a bony finger on my shoulder. “I’m expecting great things of you today” Hamish said, with barely a smile. I can remember nothing else about that concert.

Tuesdays at 2pm in Room 208 became the highlight of my week for the next three years. Understanding the often crazy lives of professional musicians as I do now, I find it quite extraordinary that Hamish was always there, week in, week out, always calm and patient, and managed, apparently effortlessly, to combine a considerable teaching workload at the RAM with a very busy and distinguished performing and recording career. I can barely remember him cancelling a lesson during that time. Many years later, with a gentle sigh he muttered to me, “I’ve done Mondays and Tuesdays for the last forty years”.

Hamish was utterly inspiring, without doubt my greatest musical influence. I remember so many occasions playing something for him, trying to do my very best. After I had finished, I would turn to him and there would be a silence that went on for slightly too long. Then he would dispatch one pearl of wisdom after another. All these ideas would utterly elevate a performance, making it wiser, deeper and often easier, many of the ideas so natural and seemingly obvious I felt slightly foolish that I hadn’t thought of them myself.

In classical works he was absolutely fastidious with detail. In Haydn’s E flat Sonata Hob 49, he was so fussy about the perfect evenness of the alberti bass, showing me the counterpoint, the harmony and its consequences, and opening  up imaginative new vistas to me taking in Haydn’s personality, his humour and inventiveness. He helped me make the slow movement into a profound and dramatic operatic aria, and we found a way to capture the po-faced simplicity of the Finale, whilst maintaining a twinkle in the eye. In Beethoven’s “Les Adieux” Sonata Op 81a, (which he admitted was his “emergency Beethoven Sonata” if he was asked to give a concert at short notice), he gave me fantastic practical advice on the notorious tricky bits. I once asked him why he recommended a particular fingering, and he shrugged and said “it’s better”. Not only did he encourage me to think of an orchestra when I played, but he showed me how to suggest horns, pizzicato double basses (‘NOT pizzicato cellos!” he would say). “Think of a small orchestra playing loudly” was another wonderful piece of advice which I still use frequently today. As a student I was a little daunted by late Beethoven but he gently guided me through Op 110, making it seem the most natural thing in the world. “You see, it’s not that difficult, is it?” he said, with a gentle smile.

Somewhat startlingly, out of the blue, one day he said “I need you to be more human…you must play some Schumann”. Studying Carnaval Op 9 was one of the great highlights of my time with him. My heart always leaps when I come to teach it now, and I am thrilled to pass on to my students some of the many ideas that Hamish shared with me. He was horrified that I had not heard Rachmaninoff’s celebrated recording and the following week he brought a cassette (yes, a cassette) to my lesson. He was always so generous in lending material to his students, most weeks he would rummage in his battered briefcase and produce some treasure or other from his considerable musical archive.

His generosity extended to many other ways too. He gave me lessons at his home, refused a fee, cooked me meals, and I dread to think of how many drinks he bought me at the RAM bar. Typical Hamish, after he was made an Honorary Professor at the RAM, he took about twenty of his students for dinner afterwards and insisted on paying the bill.

One of his favourite pianists was Annie Fischer and I can understand why. Her playing always went absolutely to the heart of the matter but was delivered in a completely unshowy way. He told me that he had always wanted to meet her, and on one occasion he found himself in a restaurant with a group of people, including her. She sat and smoked for the entire evening, apparently not saying a single word, and Hamish could not bring himself to, either.

Hamish adored Russian music and culture. He pointed me towards the great Russian pianists, and composers. Although he was one of the leading Medtner specialists he was extraordinarily diffident about it and I actually had to ask him if I could learn some. I remember the excitement of learning Medtner’s cadenza to Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto Op 58, which I performed at the RAM. “Don’t think anybody noticed”, he said with a grin. Scriabin’s etudes Op 42 was another exciting journey for us, his imagination vivid and inspiring, one or two of his utterings remaining unprintable.

There were some interesting “unenthusiasms” as well. French music seemed to be a particularly puzzling gap in his interest – I played Messiaen to him and received virtually no response at all.

I had always been interested in studying in Russia and it is typical of Hamish’s thoughtfulness that he dragged me to Tatiana Nikolaeva’s debut recital in London, where she played the Shostakovitch Preludes and Fugues Op 87 (dedicated to her). We went backstage to meet her and it’s thanks to this connection and some help from the British Council that I was able to study with her in Moscow the following year. Thanks to another personal friendship, Hamish also enabled me to study with the extraordinary Georgian pianist Eliso Virsaladze.

Hamish and James in Russia.

In 1990 I took part in the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and amazingly, Hamish made the effort to come out to Moscow. After I was free from the shackles of the competition we did some serious sightseeing around Moscow and the environs. Hamish seemed very happy and at home in Russia and he particularly loved going into the Russian countryside. One sunny day we went with some Diplomat friends from the British Embassy to Rostov the Great. We were sitting in a field having a picnic and Hamish, paper cup of lukewarm Soviet champagne in hand stared into the grass and said “This is one of the most perfect days of my life”.

When I came back to the UK, I still played to Hamish occasionally, but I think he realised that it was time to gently dispatch me, and I remember going to the RAM to play through Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto Op 18 with him. It was a new piece for me and I knew that it really wasn’t ready yet. He played the orchestral part marvellously and I could hear horns, violas and timpani coming out of the second piano. At the end he just pointed to one place in the music and said “More left hand here. Lets’ go and have a drink”.

Hamish pictured in Russia in 1990.

One of my regrets is not hearing Hamish on the stage more often. He hardly ever spoke about his concerts and gaining information out of him was like scraping a limpet off a rock. However he did invite me to page turn for him on many occasions for concerts and recordings. I remember arriving at the Conway Hall to turn for the Milne-Parikian-Fleming Trio and hardly being able to see or breathe back stage because of all the cigarette smoke. Amongst other things they played Shostakovitch’s Second Piano Trio Op 67. “Didn’t know it was so hard at the end” he muttered to me under his breath, still on stage.

Just a year or so before he became unwell I was lucky enough to attend a wonderful recital he gave at the Chopin Society in Westminster Cathedral. He was in his late seventies by then, and his playing was as fantastic as ever. I remember him launching into the Bach/Rachmaninoff Prelude from the E major Partita as an encore, and afterwards, at the pub, he mumbled to us “never performed it before!”.

James Kirby


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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