At the piano with Phyllis Sellick, by Clara Rodriguez

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. Over to Clara…


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!

Phyllis and co

Amanda Hurton, Phyllis Sellick, Marta Encinas, Clara Rodriguez, Eva Alexander

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.

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Cyril and Phyllis on the steps of the Albert Memorial. Kensington Gardens

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”.

 

When Phyllis learnt to drive ambulances, she recalled many amazing stories of her life during The Blitz. When Cyril and her had to go to Broadcasting House to play W A Mozart’s D major Sonata, live,  they had to run through the streets of London under “a good deal of shrapnel” to take the tube, where people were getting ready to sleep on the platforms – all to play the Mozart divinely!

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.

Phyllis Sellick, Cyril Smith and Brahms

Cyril, Brahms and Phyllis

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!”

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Graham, Phyllis, Cyril and Claire

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.

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Queen Elizabeth being presented a bouquet by Phyllis at the Royal Festival Hall. 1952

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.


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

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Clara Rodriguez in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

The twenty second interview in my Classical Conversations Series features Venezuelan pianist Clara Rodriguez and I was delighted to chat to her earlier in the week at Steinway Hall in London.

Clara is one of the most distinguished of the present generation of international artists and has often been described as an Ambassador of her homeland music. Her programmes have consistently contrasted traditional classical music with the output of South American composers.

Since coming to London at the age of 16, to study at the Royal College of Music with Phyllis Sellick, she has performed extensively as a soloist at Southbank Centre, Wigmore Hall, Barbican Centre, St John’s Smith Square and Saint Martin-In-The-Fields as well as touring in Europe, India, Egypt, North Africa and South America.

She has commissioned and premièred many works including Federico Ruiz’s Second Piano Concerto which she recorded with the Orquesta Municipal de Caracas. Clara Rodriguez founded and directed the San Martin Music Festival of Caracas from 1993 to 1997.

She has recorded and produced CDs of works by Frédéric Chopin, Moisés Moleiro, Federico Ruiz, Teresa Carreño, and Ernesto Lecuona. Her latest productions are Venezuela for the Nimbus label and El Cuarteto y Clara Rodriguez en vivo– Caracas. They are consistently played on BBC Radio 3 and networks worldwide.

Clara Rodriguez teaches the piano at the Junior Department of the Royal College of Music.

Clara in action……


And for those who prefer to read interviews, the transcript……….

Venezuelan concert pianist Clara Rodriguez plays solo and chamber concerts all around the world. She’s renowned for her interpretations of South American music and she’s professor of piano at Royal College of Music, Junior Department here in London. So, I’m delighted to welcome her today for classical conversation here at Steinway Hall. Welcome!

Clara:   Thank you, Melanie. It’s lovely to see you again.

Melanie:  It’s lovely to be talking to you.

Clara:  And yes! I still remember playing for your book launch.

Melanie:  Yes my book launch, it was wonderful wasn’t it? It was such fun.

Clara:   It was just very nice.

Melanie:   I want to start by asking, what about your musical education? What age were you when you started? And what was the catalyst? And whether you come from musical family?

Clara:  Right. My father was a writer but my mother had learnt music when she was young. And she kept in touch with her piano teacher who was a very well-known composer from Venezuela, Moisés Moleiro.

Melanie:  Okay.

Clara:   Right here who I played the Joropo a few times.

Melanie:   Yes. Yes.

Clara:   And she introduced me to music and took me to music school because in Venezuela you go into your normal day school and afternoon you go to music school or to different activities. So, yeah, music was around but there aren’t any musicians in my family. So I really loved music school, the atmosphere was great. Being in touch with fantastic musicians and really really, you know, friendly people. It was great. So, I think that’s, you know, what drew me to music.

Melanie:  So, which teachers then do you think were most crucially in your performance as a pianist?

Clara:   Well, from the beginning I had Guiomar Narvaez, a Venezuelan concert pianist. She studied in Venezuela and also in Vienna. And she was very strict didn’t give me, you know, too many compliments or something like that. You get used to that sort of thing with … you know, never needed that, actually. It was actually embarrassing if someone said that something was good. So, that was very good and in terms of music conservatories in Venezuela, you follow a programme. A little bit late the Associated Board exams, yeah, except that they are more academic, in a way. You have to present a number of Czerny studies a year or Hanon’s studies a year.

Melanie:  That’s interesting.

Clara:   Bach inventions or, you know, 2 parts, 3 parts inventions that no one’s seems to play anymore, you know, and so on and so forth, you know, English Suites, French Suites, Preludes and Fugues So, that’s the basic….

Melanie:  That was my next question, how did you develop your technique but you obviously played a lot of Czerny’s and Hanon’s?

Clara:  And Bach…..the Mozart sonatas, of course. You know, all the classical sonatas, you’re … maybe might not playing at a very very high standard, I don’t know, but I cannot remember now. But you certainly have to learn the whole sonata, not just one movement. And you have to about 3 sonatas a year, plus Impressionists works, Contemporary, and Venezuelan and Modern American music. In July, the teacher is to give me this list of works you have to do because at least one concerto, you know, César Franck Variations. So …

Melanie:  Quite a lot to get through … ?

Clara:    Yeah. You have to get through a lot of music …

Melanie:   Yes.

Clara:  And 3 exams per year.

Melanie:   Then you came over to studying here in UK.

Clara:      Yes! It was fantastic. There was an invitation to audition for new … I’m sure remember them, the two directors of college at that time …

Melanie:   Yes?

Clara:    Michael Gough Matthews and Barbara Wassard went over to Venezuela and well, I took part in these auditions. You had to play some pieces, Scales, Sight-reading, Aural, you know, harmony and all that and we were given a scholarship to come to Royal College. That was really very very nice.

Melanie:   Yes and you studied with Phyllis Sellick?

Clara:    Exactly! So, Barbara Wassard when she heard me and Michael Gold Matthews thought, “Oh, she’s a good one for Phyllis Sellick.” And I’m so grateful to them for having thought of that.

Melanie:   Yes. I can imagine.

Clara:   So, then a few months later, I was in London and it was fantastic, beautiful experience and then I was really made welcome in this country. There was a lot of warmth …

Melanie:  That’s good.

Clara:  from the people I meet here. And I was really when looked after … but, you know, perfectly. So, that’s why I’m still here.

Melanie:   Yes, of course. Did you take part in a lot of competitions as a young pianist? And, more crucially, do you still feel that very important for young pianist today? It’s quite a debate now I think, whether if it’s a good way of establishing yourself?

Clara:    I’m afraid I didn’t take part in too many competitions. It wasn’t in my culture, or ego, or, you know, for me, I just … the most important was to be able to play a piece of music really well. So, if it took me a long time it didn’t matter. So, I wasn’t in that frame of mind but, you know, I know people whose careers just took off from winning major competitions. I don’t think I was made for that, you know. I wish I had been. So, I admire it a lot, people that knew what they wanted and went for that. Nowadays, I can see young people very ambitious, young people, excellent talents and a brighter way of getting somewhere, I suppose, I don’t know, if it still works like that.

Melanie:  I think for some people probably.

Clara:    Right.

Melanie:    I think the argument is that there’s so many competitions these days it’s hard to know which are.

Clara:   Of course.

Melanie:    I suppose which will be the most helpful I guess.

Clara:   I know and opportunities are very few. So, the most important thing for me, and that’s the programme. And the most important thing is personality, musical personality. Someone has the technique but also has inherent … who knows what to say, what to, you know, what to do. I think the worst thing and something I don’t like is ego, you know, ego going through … when the ego is more important than the music, that doesn’t work for me. I don’t know if people, the public and the general public realizes that. Probably they do. It’s difficult, but if you are an artist, you look for depth and you want to approach music through history, in a way, and because what we do is very much related to history and we’re lucky to have so much to go back to and …

Melanie:  Yes.

Clara:   so many recordings to listen to old recordings. And also there’s a freedom of repertoire now that is fantastic because I organized a festival in Caracas in August this year. And I invited a few brilliant pianists and many of them played pieces that I had never heard before. Many composed some pieces and they’re very good pieces. So, for me, that’s really amazing and important and we will, you know, pick-up the attention of the public.

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

Clara:   Well, I love I would say, all composers.

Melanie:   But you made special study of South American music.

Clara:    Yes.

Melanie:    You’re renowned for that. That’s partly your heritage, but what really attracts you to that style? It’s quite different I think from the mainstream.

Clara:     Yes. True. A few things to pushed me towards that style, as I said, when I was young I couldn’t stand that music. I didn’t like the music folk music of any kind. I didn’t like salsa, I don’t, you know, I just got the giggles when I heard something I didn’t like, but … because I was very much into Bach, Debussy, Mozart, Beethoven. Those were, and Schubert, those were my … that was my life, you know, and …

Melanie:   So what changed then?

Clara:    … everything outside that …  Then, actually when I started thinking I’d like to make a recording, the record company at that time sort of said to me “Look, you should record these pieces we’ve heard you do, Venezuelan pieces.” And that’s what I did. That’s why I recorded Moisés Moleiro who was my Mum’s piano teacher.

Melanie:  That’s interesting, yes.

Clara:    And that was my first CD and I loved doing that. Also, even though classical musicians tend to enjoy very much playing their Venezuelan music, folk music. And you hear the most fantastic versions of folk music or songs played by classically-trained people. I mean, a few examples like, you know, the leader of the Paris orchestra right now, is a Venezuelan violinist, Alexis Cardenas. And he plays Venezuelan music beautifully, popular Venezuelan music …

Melanie:   Okay.

Clara:      a little bit of jazz in it … The thing is that folk music from Venezuela is very difficult to play. You know all these off-the-beat.

Melanie:   I can imagine, yes.

Clara:  Rhythms and Hemiolas and so, and it’s very fast. It’s either very very fast or waltz style, but always very interesting and very rich and extremely happy. You will just feel great just by listening to Venezuelan music. So, you know, when I started approaching, getting close to that music through these ideas of making recordings. Because I think the English are very welcoming, very warm, as I’ve said, but also they are very good at making you understand something about your own country. You know, it’s not as probably in the States or something where everywhere has to become Americanized …

Melanie:   Okay.

Clara:    You know …

Melanie:   Yes.

Clara:   Here, it’s different. So, I think I was encouraged.

Melanie:   Because you established an ensemble too of playing Latin American music.

Clara:  Yes, that was a lot of fun.

Melanie:   So, what kind of repertoire and where do you play?

Clara:    Well, I’ve done that here in, you know, in the Purcell Room or Bolivar Hall,  different halls here and but even so, I’ve done quite a lot of concerts with different musicians especially with this ensemble called El Quartetto, and it’s four very well established classically-trained musicians of … you know, Choir conductor, Flutist, Double-Bass player, and Guitarist, and one of them actually, was one of the founders of Aircam in Paris, contemporary music.

Melanie:  Yes.

Clara:   So nothing to do with the Venezuelan music that we play together but it’s just that something that, they’re so fantastic, these guys. They’ve been playing together for over 30 years. So, it was great that they adopted me to play.

Melanie:  I see.

Clara:    It’s chamber music but Venezuelan music with the piano. And here, I’ve created, as you said, this ensemble with a flute player as well, who lives in Germany. It’s difficult to get them together because the Mandolin player lives in Paris, the Double-Bass player lives in Spain, and the Percussionist lives here, like me. So, we get together and we do more Latin-American music, I mean some Venezuelan music, but we have also included music from Haiti, Columbia, Cuba, Brazil, lots of Argentinean Tangos, and so it’s very very fulfilling and it’s fun.

Melanie:   Yes, I can imagine.

Clara:    And for me, I call it the syncopation school, they teach me to keep in rhythm, it’s a very good school and you never stop learning, you know, and you have to just try to keep going and keep up.

Melanie:  Do you have particular practice regime?

Clara:   At the moment, I would say it’s more like sleep routine, I haven’t done much recently but it depends on the work and unfortunately life takes you away from the piano quite a lot sometimes.

Melanie:   Right.

Clara:   When you have family and so on and …

Melanie:  And you’re busy teaching as well.

Clara:    Yes, I teach. I do some teaching, yes, but when I have concerts I just, you know, prepare hard for the concerts. I like to look at different repertoire all the time and people send me lots of compositions, new compositions. So, I look at them and if I’m hooked I play them and I like to play new things, you know, I don’t like to play all the same pieces. So, I take risks.

Melanie:      Important. Which venues have you love to play in? What are your favourites.

Clara:   Oh, God. Anything, anybody that has a lovely piano.

Melanie:    Okay.

Clara:      And a lovely audience, you know, is fine, it’s great.

Melanie:   So, what you were exciting on to the future or what have you got coming up?

Clara:       Well, I’ve got some concerts outside London coming up and actually I should be working on some recordings, new recordings. I’m playing at St. Martin-in-the-fields in January. I played there last year as well.

Melanie:             Is that Venezuelan Music or is that more mixed programme?

Clara:                     Mixed.

Melanie:             Mixed.

Clara:                     Appassionata, sonatas, Bach as well, I haven’t played Bach actually, for a long time in public, so I’m doing that.

Melanie:             That will be interesting.

Clara:                     Yes. Yeah, organizing some festivals and things, so …

Melanie:             What does playing the piano mean to you?

Clara:                     Yes. The piano is life. It’s funny because, you might see an object that is lifeless you know, but when you really think about it, you know the way it’s made, it’s very natural. It’s wooden.

Melanie:             Yes.

Clara:                     Wood, felt, you know, well, sometimes a little bit of ivory.

Melanie:             Yes, sometimes.

Clara:                     So, and metal. So it comes from the earth it’s earthy, and it’s … when you get the harmonics sounding its air, isn’t it?

Melanie:             Yes.

Clara:                     So, it’s life from that point of view, but from psychological point of view, the piano is a kind of tunnel you go in and you explore sentiments and feelings and experiences that only through the piano you can reach. So, it’s vital.

Melanie:             Thank you so much for joining me today, Clara.

Clara:                     Thank you.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.