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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A student’s memories: Patricia Carroll (1932 – 2017)

Last Friday I attended the funeral (probably the most beautiful and moving I have ever witnessed) of one of my piano professors, and I felt compelled to write this short, personal reflection.

Teachers have a huge impact on our lives, particularly when we worked with them as youngsters; they influence everything from repertoire choices and technical development to performance practice and concert wear.

Patricia Carroll (1932 – 2017), pictured above, was a British concert pianist and, for over thirty years, a professor at the Royal College of Music in London. Patricia studied at the RCM with Arthur Alexander, winning the Chappell Gold Medal, after which she won a French government scholarship to study with Marguerite Long in Paris. Later, in Vienna, she attended the class of renowned teacher Friedrich Gulda, where her fellow students included Alfred Brendel and a young Martha Argerich (she often recounted wonderful recollections and witty anecdotes from these classes).

Patricia enjoyed a distinguished performing career encompassing recitals at the Wigmore Hall, Mozart Saal in Vienna, many BBC radio and television broadcasts, and countless concerto performances including appearances with the London Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as many around the world. She performed on three occasions at the BBC proms, opening one season with Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 16 in 1962. Later in her career, Patricia was especially interested in Victorian piano music and presented an ongoing series on BBC Radio 3 (and the World Service).

I first met Patricia on a cold, wet March morning. As a 15-year-old school girl, I nervously walked in to Room 70 (sadly, all room numbers have now changed at the RCM) to audition for a place at the Royal College of Music Junior Department. She was one of three on the audition panel, and as I sat down at the impossibly large Steinway, she enquired, in a commanding, rather foreboding voice, what I would be playing. I don’t remember a note of my performance (although I do remember my programme: Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 10 No. 1 in C minor (first movement), Chopin’s Waltz in A flat major Op. 69 No. 1 and Etude in C minor Op. 10 No. 12 (Revolutionary)), but I recall a tall, slim lady in a formal suit, with her hair tightly wrapped in a bun, bounding towards the piano afterwards, presenting me with some sight-reading; “Hmm, you’re not so good at that”, she laughed, “but your playing is pretty sound”.

And that was it. I was enrolled as a junior exhibitioner, and the following September, commenced my studies. Saturdays became my favourite day of the week and I spent several years working with Patricia, both at the Junior and Senior RCM. She had a strong, ebullient personality, which was full of wit, endless energy and infectious enthusiasm. Her stature and commanding voice could be intimidating, but as the years flew by, Patricia became a friend and an ardent supporter of all my professional endeavours, for which I will always be eternally grateful.

As a teacher, Patricia was a stickler for accuracy and above all, control. She could analyse a score from many different perspectives (and on various levels), continually finding different ways of working. We spent innumerable lessons dissecting pieces, and the more complex and Contemporary they were, the better. To this end, I studied a broad selection of lesser known works (alongside the classics) by such Twentieth (and Twenty-first) Century composers as  Stravinsky, Bartók, Shostakovich, Nielsen, Poulenc, Hindemith, Parry, Britten, Ireland, Rawsthorne, Bliss, Finnissy, Knussen, Berio, Schnittke, and Shchedrin, to name a few. Her love of Victorian music (especially by female composers) led to some interesting discoveries for me too.

On preparing works for competitions and performances (of which I took part in many at the RCM), Patricia would insist on several ‘run-throughs’; regular ‘performance practice’ classes were implemented every week for her students. On a Monday afternoon, we would run along to Room 70, clutching our latest piece (and woe betide if it wasn’t memorized). She was a firm believer in secure memorization, and there would be regular tests, just to ensure you really ‘knew’ your piece inside out; it’s attention to this important detail which enabled me to confidently perform complicated Contemporary pieces without the score.

When performances became serious affairs (i.e. end of year exams (or ‘gradings’ as they were known), final recitals, or external concerts), I was invited to her home in Wimbledon on a Sunday afternoon, where I would play my programme for her friends, family (including her Viennese husband, Hansi, and sometimes her children; Helena, Paul and Joanna) and a few students. Such concerts were followed by a sumptuous afternoon tea, with a finale of rich Sachertorte (a Carroll specialty), washed down with Earl Grey Tea, and, for those who stayed on into the evening, a glass or two of fine Chablis and smoked salmon canapés. Repeated concert and performance opportunities instigated a certain assurance or confidence, and it’s this element which I feel is one of the most useful tools I learned whilst at the RCM.

A less than ideal performance would be met with a stern look, quick grimace and something along the lines of “well, you’ll be better prepared next time” or “a bit nervous today, but at least you got to the end!”, whereas after a successful performance, one could witness Patricia literally dancing about in the green room, and on a couple of occasions, I actually received a box of Viennese chocolates – so I knew I must have made a reasonable attempt. I found her sharp honesty refreshing and necessary, and it’s something I undertake with my own students.

Concerto ‘trials’ (they were just that – auditions to perform with college orchestras) and competitions were omnipresent fixtures every term. We would select our works, learning them quickly, deciding which movements and then which ‘sections’ we would play (although for competitions, generally the whole piece was performed). Patricia and I would rattle through my elected pieces; she would sit at the second piano, enthusiastically playing the orchestral part; on one occasion (a competition in the Recital Hall) whilst playing Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 Sz.119, we both had the flu and all three movements of this glorious piece were accompanied by coughing, sneezing, wheezing and unfortunate facial expressions, all of which the adjudicator was so kind not to mention at her adjudication!

Patricia was very keen on teaching her students to be good teachers, and to this end she introduced Art of Teaching classes at the  RCM. This may seem rather perfunctory and commonplace now, but during the 1980s and 1990s it was a fairly new concept. Undergraduates in their first and second year, preparing for the internal DipRCM teaching diploma, spent two terms at her weekly lessons, which sometimes lasted a good few hours. She methodically embraced every possible teaching dilemma, providing copious accompanying notes (which I still have today).

Sight-reading was another essential accomplishment; she was adamant about its importance, and as a junior I would spend significant amounts of time every day reading through repertoire (particularly Baroque works) with the aim of improving this skill.

Patricia moved into the realm of ‘legend’ at the RCM when she introduced her  now famous sight-reading classes. Groups of pianists would descend on one of the larger teaching rooms, where two or three (and sometimes four) pianos resided. Overtures, symphonies and various other orchestral works, all arranged for  several keyboards, and usually for eight (or more) hands appeared, and we would march through these pieces albeit at a fairly steady tempo. Patricia would conduct each masterpiece; any hesitation or error was rather frowned upon, therefore focus and concentration became a necessity. Such was the huge sound emanating from these classes, that many a ‘passer by’ would peer into the glass windows (resplendent on each door in the main building) to see what on earth was going on.

After I left college, Patricia still supported my career, coming to concerts and book launches (and even my fortieth birthday party) whenever she could, and we would meet every year in our favourite little café situated on the Old Brompton Road (London). I last saw her in 2016, when I gave her a couple of books containing my compositions; she looked at them with her usual zeal and  delight, saying she would try the pieces with some of her six grandchildren who, of course, took piano lessons with her.

Patricia was a fervent supporter of women’s rights, and was one of the first female pianists to play a concerto at the Royal Festival Hall (in London). Consequently, she was extremely encouraging to her female students particularly, often helping them find work and musical opportunities (I became her deputy or assistant at the Royal College of Music Junior Department whilst I was still a student).

One final thought: a teacher might well be defined by their student successes, but it’s their sheer dedication which proves most vital. Effective teachers frequently go way beyond their call of duty (that of providing mere lessons); they seek to afford moral support, whether at a performance (or before and after), thorough (sometimes round the clock!) advice, constant and careful guidance, as well as a critical ear. Thankfully, I was fortunate to have found one such effective teacher in Patricia. She left the RCM in 1999, returning occasionally to adjudicate competitions and end of year exams. Her spirit will live on through her students and all those who were lucky enough to come into contact with her during her long and successful career.

Patricia’s obituary in the Daily Telegraph

Royal College of Music


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.


 

A Year At A British Music Conservatoire by Lewis Kesterton

Music conservatoires. Opinions are rife as to whether they are an ideal way to study music; some find them inspiring, others wish they had studied elsewhere. My own experience at the Royal College of Music was amazing and a really steep learning curve; it was a privilege to study at such a great institution. I will forever be grateful for the day I walked in to the audition at the junior department as a 15-year-old school girl, with short hair, sensible shoes and no clue about the journey on which I was embarking.

My experience now seems a distant memory, so I thought it might be helpful and interesting for those inquisitive of conservatoire study, if a current piano student wrote about their musical journey thus far.

Lewis Kesterton (pictured below) is a second year student at the Birmingham Conservatoire on the B Mus course studying with Professors Mark Bebbington and Katharine Lam. In the following article (in italics) he sums up his music first year spent at music college.


13055936_994341543935957_3362955391831653267_oChallenging. Rewarding. Inspiring. These are just three of the many words I could use to describe my first year at Birmingham Conservatoire. It’s quite hard to believe that I’ve already been here for over a year; it’s been a whirlwind of a time! I’ve been through the mill both pianistically and personally, but I’ve come out the other side ten times the musician I was before, and I’m so excited to now be continuing on my journey. Throughout the course of the year I’ve met so many amazing musicians who have become friends for life, observed masterclasses and concerts from world class performers, and been pushed far beyond what I thought I could achieve. All in all, I am certain that I made the right decision in coming to music college, and I would really encourage anyone who has a real love, talent and passion for music to do the same.

My year began in the same way as for thousands of other students across the country. Moving to a new city was always going to be a challenge, however familiar I may have been with it beforehand. Birmingham is often looked down upon as a city, the Conservatoire included, which is something I feel really needs to change. Having now spent a year living in the heart of the city, my eyes have been opened to how cultured, diverse, and developing Birmingham really is, which is why more than 6,000 people left London for England’s second city last year. Living away from home was something that I had always been very keen on doing, and I’m so very glad that I did! It was far from the most glamorous living conditions I could have wished for, but I would encourage anyone to do it if they have the opportunity, as it gave me a whole new level of independence, and bridged the gap between home living and self-sufficient living (which is where I am now) perfectly. Aside from that, living in such close proximity to other musicians from the Conservatoire helped me to build friendships that will last a lifetime, both personally and professionally.

Studying at a conservatoire is, without a shadow of doubt, an all-encompassing experience. Along the way I’ve been thrown into situations that I hadn’t exactly envisaged. Of course, the endless opportunities to try out new repertoire in performance classes, observe masterclasses, receive world class one-to-one tuition and the plethora of academic activities set conservatoire education apart from that of a normal music degree. However, one of the things I’ve really loved about my time at Birmingham so far is that you’re often pushed well out of your comfort zone. World music classes have been a fine example of this! Never during the open days where I toured music colleges in awe of their facilities and course offering, did I imagine that a year later I would find myself standing in a circle, hopelessly trying to play samba music on a drum. Nor did I imagine that I would end up sitting cross-legged (which I actually find surprisingly comfortable) on the floor attempting to play gamelan instruments. No, these haven’t exactly been the most exciting of my achievements in the past year, but they have helped to open my mind to the vast array of possibilities that music has to offer. Always expect the unexpected.

Having friends who study at different music colleges around the country has given me a valuable insight into how courses differ between institutions. Overall, I have found that Birmingham offers one of the most varied out there. A typical week in my first year included a variety of activities outside of my first study area, which have opened my eyes to the different possibilities music can offer. I’m not going to lie; Mondays were a slog! Early mornings began with ‘Performance Traditions’. This was interesting in itself, as the module split the year-group in half,  swapping activities halfway through the year. I began with world music, which I mentioned previously, and after Christmas changed to lectures, teaching us about different aspects of performance and how they have changed over time. Following this, my late morning and early afternoon would be spent practising, or at least hunting for a room on one day everyone needed them! At 2.30pm, everyone would venture to the Birmingham Midland Institute for a History lecture, with the evening culminating in a Chorus rehearsal until 6pm. Tuesday’s schedule was far less intense. I would begin practising in the early morning, usually arriving in college for 8am. Later, I would return to halls to catch up on academic work, and continue practise in the evenings. Wednesday began with a history workshop, consolidating Monday’s lecture, followed by performance class, and accompaniment class in the evening. Thursday was another heavy practise day, with the whole morning being free. The afternoon was largely taken up with a 3 hour masterclass, a highlight of the week! Friday was another more academic day: harmony and aural classes in the morning, followed by Alexander technique sessions. Despite the often-hectic schedule, I usually averaged between 3 and 5 hours of practice per day last year, plus frequent chamber music and vocal accompaniment rehearsals. One of the things I was a little disappointed about when I came to Birmingham was the number of hours allocated to first study piano lessons. Having 30 hours a year, split 50/50 between my two teachers, worked out at roughly one per week. However, I feel that the variety of activities on offer at Birmingham make it reflective of the life of a modern musician, something I think is very important.

The time at which I joined Birmingham has really made for a unique experience. There’s been so much excitement this year following the appointment of Julian Lloyd Webber as Principal, the Conservatoire gaining its first Royal patron, and seeing the new building develop. That being said, this year hasn’t come without disruption. Our home effectively becoming a building site has made my studies here very interesting. Wading through thick crowds of photographers, journalists and enthusiasts in the first stages of the demolition of the old library, and trying to block out the noise of builders prising the metal frame of our concert hall apart during practise sessions hasn’t exactly made life easy. Despite the continuing disturbance though, these things have all contributed to making my time here special, and if nothing else, memorable! I am so excited to be moving to our new state of the art home next year, but I also feel honoured to have seen the Conservatoire’s history, and be a part of its transition.

Of course, as a pianist, the chance to listen to others perform and work with some of the world’s finest pedagogues has been truly inspiring. Over the course of the year, I’ve had the chance to observe masterclasses lead by the likes of Peter Donohoe, Pascal Nemirovski, and Hamish Milne, just to name a few. Much of what I have heard is far beyond my own current capabilities, but I cannot begin to explain how much I am still able to take from the classes. It amazes me to see what a difference sometimes the simplest of techniques and gestures can make to someone’s playing, and often these are relatable to my own repertoire. What I really find inspiring about the masterclasses here though, is the ability of these world-famous performers to draw out the very best in the students here. So no, our facilities here may not currently be the most impressive, but the incredible music making that goes on inside definitely is.

Before I came to Birmingham, I’d only ever had one other piano teacher, so to be commencing my studies here with two new teachers, Mark Bebbington and Katharine Lam, was really quite daunting, even though I’d started having lessons with them a few months before. From the outset, I knew that the style of teaching I would receive here would be very different from that I was used to, though of course, as I stated in my first post, I will be forever grateful for my first piano teacher, and how she inspired me to become the musician I am today. I’m so glad, and indeed lucky, to have found two teachers who cater for my needs so well. Having been late in deciding that music college was the best path for me to take, my technique was quite behind where I would have liked it to have been when I arrived. However, both of my teachers have focused on different aspects of technique with me, and even though I have a very long way to go before being anywhere near happy with it, I am now in an abundantly better place than I was this time last year. For anyone who might be apprehensive about one to one lessons at a music college, make no mistake, if you make the most of them, they are incredible. Every week I leave the room amazed at the way in which my teachers are able to guide me through my repertoire. I often think of my lessons as if they’re a visit to the doctors’ surgery. I go in with my pieces carrying a vast array of symptoms, and in need of some direction, and then leave with a prescribed set of instructions and ideas that, as long as I stick to a regular dosage of practise, will lead my playing to a new level.

I could go on writing for hours about my endless challenges and fantastic experiences I’ve had here in my first year at Birmingham. Believe me, I really could! From my first experiences of chamber music to singing in a radio 3 broadcast of Verdi’s monumental Requiem, I really have done it all! However, all you need to know, aside from what I’ve already told you, is that if you have a real love for music, whether you aspire to be a performer, teacher, music therapist or indeed anything else in the music industry, then music college is the perfect place for you to be. Yes, it’s very intense, and you will be faced with situations that will really push you as a person and a musician, but the time you’ll spend there are sure to be some of the best years of your life.

Read Lewis Kesterton’s blog here.


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.


 

Master classes at the Royal College of Music with Sir Andras Schiff

rcmI recently posted a master class with celebrated pianist, Sir András Schiff, and judging by the stats (or number of views) on this blog that day, I think many enjoyed it! You can watch this master class here.

Sir András Schiff visited the Royal College of Music in London (pictured above) last month for a series of master classes which will no doubt be of interest to many readers. These classes were filmed on April 10th 2016 and feature several students, including Young Musician of the Year 2014 winner, Martin James Bartlett. I interviewed Martin shortly after his win and you can watch the interview here.

Public classes such as these provide fascinating insight and can be extremely helpful for those studying either the same or similar repertoire. Haydn, Schubert and Schumann are the selected composers. Enjoy!



Image link


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.


 

The Piano at the BBC Proms 2015

The BBC Promenade concerts are upon us once more. This Spectacular Summer festival is celebrating its 120th anniversary, and it’s enjoyed by music lovers around the world. I’ve written about this inspiring concert series here on my blog for the past few years, and each year the variety, diversity and selection of music, concerts and artists expands significantly. Many question the idea of presenting anything other than Classical music, but by developing, changing and introducing many different genres, the BBC has simply made this impressive festival a much more attractive proposition for those who would probably not attend this type of event.

The Proms commence on Friday 17th July 2015 and showcase eight weeks of concerts, talks, workshops, family events and more, ending with the famous Last Night of the Proms at London’s Royal Albert Hall. The majority of the events are held at the Royal Albert Hall, but Cadogan Hall and the Royal College of Music also play host too, as well as The Proms in the Park performances which are held around the country. With over 75 concerts, plus many lectures and other events, the selection on offer is amazing; jazz, pop, rock, rap, swing, musical theatre, cabaret, words and music, film music, educational music, family concerts, and of course, classical (and a few I’ve probably missed!) features this year, and all are broadcast on BBC Radio 3. The list of artists is, as one would expect, world-class, but young performers have also been given an opportunity to shine as well.

With so many appealing programmes to choose from, selecting can be tricky! So here is my brief survey of concerts featuring the piano as soloist.

The Proms kicks off with a performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor K.466 played by German pianist Lars Vogt (Prom 1). Mozart’s late concertos are a feature this year, and this piece is sandwiched between works by Nielsen and Sibelius (both celebrating their 150th birthday years), and Walton and Carpenter.

Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes will enjoy a three concert residency (Prom 9, 10 and 12), playing all five Beethoven Piano Concertos with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, with whom he has worked with over the past four years. The performance of all five Prokofiev Piano Concertos (Prom 14) in one night has to be a highlight. Played by three towering pianists, Daniil Trifonov, Sergei Babayan, and Alexei Volodin, who will appear with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Valery Gergiev.

French sisters, Katia and Marielle Labèque, return to the Proms for a performance of Mozart’s dramatic Concerto in E flat major for Two Pianos K 365 (Prom 18), continuing the Mozart theme. Prom 22 features another late Mozart concerto, No. 26 in D major K 537 ‘Coronation’ played by Italian pianist Francesco Piemontesi and the Aurora Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas Collon. Prom 29 is a Ravel dominated programme including the composer’s beautiful Piano Concerto in G major, played by French Pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, conducted by Nicholas Collon and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra.

BBC Young Musician 2914, Martin James Bartlett, returns to the Proms performing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Eric Whitacre (Prom 32), and Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin joins the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by François-Xavier Roth, for a performance of Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. (Prom 36). Scottish pianist, Steven Osborne is soloist at Prom 38, in Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony which will no doubt be captivating.

Argentinian pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim joins Guy Braunstein (violin), and Kian Soltani (cello), for an account of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto in C major accompanied by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (Prom 44). More Mozart in Prom 45; Piano Concerto No. 22 in E flat major K. 482, played by celebrated Russian pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Charles Dutoit.

The late concerts (which start at 10.15pm) look interesting and are the perfect way to extend your evening; Hungarian pianist András Schiff’s account of J S Bach’s towering Goldberg Variations is not one to miss (Prom 50).

American pianist Jeremy Denk will play a recital at Cadogan Hall as part of the Chamber Music Series, and he will also play Henry Cowell’s Piano Concerto in Prom 60 with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. Denk’s solo programme includes Sonatas by Bartók, Scriabin and Beethoven (Proms Chamber Music 6). Pianist David Fray (Prom 53) continues Mozart’s late piano concertos with a performance of Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor K 491 (conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen with the Philharmonia Orchestra).

Prom 61 showcases Chinese virtuoso Yuja Wang, who plays  Bartok’s formidable Second Piano Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas.

Russian pianist Igor Levit will play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 in B flat major K. 595 with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Peter Oundjian (Prom 63), and Prom 66 sees the return of Japanese pianist Mitsuko Uchida who will play Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski.

Prom 76 (the last night), features British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor who will play Shostakovich’s sparkling Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Marin Alsop.

The performances I’m looking forward to are Prom 57; Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires is soloist in Mozart’s exquisite Piano Concerto in A major K. 488, with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by Bernard Haitink. And Prom 70, which is a Russian feast; Rachmaninov’s ever popular Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op.18 will be played by Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky with the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra conducted Yuri Temirkanov.

Quite a selection, as I’m sure you’ll agree, and I’ve not really mentioned the many chamber music concerts.  If some events are already sold out (and many are), you can listen on Radio 3, or become a ‘Prommer’ and queue for promenade tickets (a bargain at £5!). See you there!

Find out more here: www.bbc.co.uk/proms

Watch the official Proms launch film here.


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.


Nicholas McCarthy in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

My Classical Conversations Series continues today and features British left-handed concert pianist Nicholas McCarthy, who is my thirty-seventh guest. He met with me earlier this month at Steinway Hall in London.

Nicholas was born in 1989 without his right hand and only began to play the piano at the late age of 14 after seeing a friend play Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata.

Studying at the prestigious Royal College of Music in London, his graduation in July 2012 made history and drew press headlines world-wide, being the only left-hand alone pianist to graduate from the Royal College of Music in its 130 year history.

Nicholas has performed extensively throughout the UK in major venues including The Royal Albert Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, St Martin-in-the-Fields and the Wales Millennium Centre among others. Internationally Nicholas has performed at The Kennedy Centre in Washington D.C, The Capetown Convention Centre & The Linder Auditorium in South Africa, The Vilhena Palace and the Offices of the Prime Minister in Malta and the Abay Opera House Kazakhstan.

Nicholas is widely featured throughout national and international press and regularly gives live performances and interviews on television and radio including shows for BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio 4, BBC television Channel 4 and ITV. Nicholas has been the subject of both a BBC documentary and featured in one by Channel 4. Nicholas ‘s television appearances have been responsible for drawing a cross-section of new audiences to his imaginative recitals, many of whom had never been to a piano recital.

Nicholas’ specialist repertoire is rich and varied encompassing numerous great pieces for left hand alone including original exciting pieces by Scriabin, Liszt and Brahms with striking arrangements of Schubert and Bach (Wittgenstein’s arrangements) Gershwin and some Chopin/Godowsky studies amongst others including Nicholas’ own transcriptions for left hand of more familiar ‘well known’ two handed piano works such as Chopin’s G Minor Ballade and Roses of Picardy by Haydn Wood. Nicholas’s programming caters for a broad range of classical and mainstream tastes. Besides this solo repertoire Nicholas also has numerous concertos in his repertoire. Famed not only for his virtuosic displays at the piano but also for his sensitive and warm interpretations.

One of Nicholas’s proudest moments was performing with the British Paraorchestra at the Closing Ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic games where they played alongside Coldplay and gave a rendition of the Paralympic anthem in front of an audience of 86,000 people and half a billion worldwide viewers.

Nicholas recently performed at the International Cheltenham Festival and gave an extensive range of Schools workshops in conjunction with this. July/August will see Nicholas present two of the world-famous BBC Proms, to be televised on BBC4.

Nicholas is Patron of Carers Gloucestershire, The Towersey Foundation and has recently been appointed ambassador of The One Handed Musicians Trust (OHMI) and works alongside a number of other charities including The Tadworth Children’s Trust all of which are very close to Nicholas’s heart.

Speaking engagements have seen Nicholas speak across the country in a range of Schools and businesses including the annual ITV ‘Big Think’ Conference and most notably his TED Talk at The Royal Albert Hall.

And Nicholas in action…..

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

Melanie: British concert pianist, Nicholas McCarthy, made history when he was the first left-handed pianist ever to graduate from the Royal College of Music here in London. Born without his right arm, he has a very varied and unusual repertoire. So, I’m so pleased he’s joined me here today at Steinway Hall for a classical conversation. Welcome!

Nicholas: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Melanie: It’s lovely to get to chat to you finally.

Nicholas: I know. It’s been a couple of years since we’ve seen each other actually and a lot has happened.

Melanie: Absolutely. You’re doing so fantastically, but I’m going to start by taking you back and asking you how you began, because you started quite late. You were 14 or so?

Nicholas: 14, that’s right, and that’s quite late for someone who wants to carve a career in the classical industry.

Melanie: What was the catalyst then? What was behind it?

Nicholas: I actually wanted to be a chef. I had no interest in piano whatsoever.

Melanie: That’s quite a different career.

Nicholas: I quite liked classical music, but, you know, only things I’d heard my mum and dad play like Nigel Kennedy and things like that in the background. And at the age of 14 I saw a friend of mine playing Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata, which I adore. It’s one of my favourite, favourite pieces. And it was at that moment really for me that I kind of sat up and had one of those moments. I thought, “Oh my God, that’s amazing! That’s what I want to do.” Quite naïvely probably at 14, on the one hand it’s not obviously the first choice of career. And I do remember when I went home and told Mum and Dad, “Mum, Dad, I want to be a concert pianist!

And they go, “Really?”

Melanie: [Laughter] So, you must have got going quite quickly? Which teachers do you think were most influential for your development?

Nicholas: Well, I self-taught for the first couple of years.

Melanie: Oh, right!

Nicholas: Yea, and then my parents enlisted a local private teacher, because I think my mum and dad just thought it was going to be a bit of a fad, you know?

Melanie: [Laughter]

Nicholas: But they were encouraging as well. And I think for me probably the turning point was when I auditioned for the Junior Guildhall. That was when I used to play with my little arm, what I call affectionately my little arm, and my left hand. So, I actually auditioned with Mozart’s Fantasy in D minor and things like that, where I would play with little arm and my left hand. And I was accepted. The only condition were I was encouraged to specialize in left hand alone repertoire, which at the time actually I didn’t like. You know, I’d worked really hard, because I love Mozart. I love Beethoven. I’d worked really hard to get to this stage, and to be accepted into this music school.

But then all of a sudden it was like, “Great! But, you can’t play Mozart anymore. You can’t play Beethoven anymore. No Mendelssohn for you anymore.” You know, all of these composers which I’d grown to love for the past years when I’d got to that stage, I had to wave goodbye to, which was tricky. Being a quite headstrong teen, I was a bit, you know – I had Lucy Parham, who taught me at the Junior Guildhall. So, she had a bit of a difficult time with me I think. So, when I see her, I should probably apologize for that back then. It was just because I think that’s a difficult time as an artist anyway at that time, plus teenage years. But she was very, she learned to live with me as well, and I think she could understand the kind of artistic dilemma that I was probably in at that point.

Melanie: So, she was your first teacher? What other teachers did you have?

Nicholas: She was my first proper teacher if you like, where I really, really focused on the piano in a different way, because I had to. When you’re at any of these Junior colleges, like Junior Royal College or Junior Guildhall, you have to work really hard. So Lucy was probably my first proper teacher. I then went on and auditioned for the Royal College of Music and was offered a place there and I studied – I went through a lot of teachers actually at the Royal College, but to no fault of theirs or my own. I think with me and obviously left-hand repertoire, not everyone knows everything about it. So, it was quite nice for me to take a snapshot of everyone’s knowledge, if you like. So, I studied for a while with Andrew Ball, and then went on to Ian Jones, and then I studied with Nigel Clayton. Probably for me, Nigel Clayton was the one I felt most influenced by through my career. And even now I have his voice in my head telling me things like, “No!” and things like that. And I often see his markings. I think he got me completely. He understood everything about my playing.

The other side of my career. You see, with me, it’s not all about piano playing all the time. I’m not one of these people that do 90 recitals a year and things. I’ve got a lot of other media stuff that I do, and he really understood that. He knew the time restraints that I had to deal with and offered advice for those things. I think for me, at that time, it was so beneficial to be learning from him.

Melanie: So, how did you develop your technique? Because it’s quite a different type of development, I would imagine.

Nicholas: Yea. Again, when I first started with Lucy, she did a lot of groundwork with me, because I had a lot of holes in my technique at that time because I’d started at the age of 14. I hadn’t been doing Hanon and Czerny from the age of 3 or things like that. So, I really, really had to try and hone that technique as best as I can and to sew those holes together. I think a lot of that foundation work Lucy accomplished with me. And then obviously once I was at the Royal College and having to do technical exams and things like that, things come to take a turn.

And in that sense, in a technical sense, you really see your technique skyrocket. I think for me what really developed my technique was probably my second year. I saw a real rise in my second year of the Royal College, when I was learning the Chopin/Godowsky Studies, which were probably too difficult for me at the time. I mean, I’m playing them now, but at the time they were too tricky. But they really raised the bar in my technique. And it was almost when I then performed something which probably was then in my range, I found that it was much easier. I could do things and double thirds and things like that, weren’t as difficult as they were before. I really think they helped me a great deal, a great deal. And now, you know I perform them a lot. I perform them as encores sometimes. I don’t find them tricky like I used to. The writing of them is so masterful, but I think they’re actually very, very well suited for me in that sense.

Melanie: So, what are the challenges then of being a one-armed pianist do you think, what do you find?

Nicholas: I think the challenge is probably stamina, for one. And I think people often forget that you’ve got one hand trying to create that two-handed sound. You know, often if you were to count the notes, it’d probably be still as many notes sometimes as there would be in a two-handed piece. I think that’s difficult and obviously still being expected to deliver a 90-minute recital, the same as someone with two hands. So, you know, I think probably stamina is a tricky thing. Especially if I’ve got lots of concerts all at once or on a tour, rest periods are imperative.

Melanie: Absolutely [Laughter]

Nicholas: Of course. I think piano is quite an exhausting instrument for anybody. But I do think probably me, as a left hand pianist, I do probably feel it a bit more. After the concert it does feel like I’ve been to the gym for about four hours.

Melanie: [Laughter] How much of your repertoire is original and how much is arrangements? And how do you decide? In concerts, do you have a certain amount of arrangements, a certain amount of original? What would you say you do?

Nicholas: That’s quite an interesting question actually. I wouldn’t be able to probably give a percentage, because there’s so much repertoire for left hand. There really is. There’s so much. And a lot of the works that I play are original or have been transcribed by Paul Wittgenstein or another left-handed pianist of the day. So they are original in that sense of being written, you know, not in present day. But I think choosing programmes, I’ve always been very careful with. Again, left hand repertoire is quite esoteric, a lot of people don’t know about it. They’ve never heard of it, or they’ve heard of me and they haven’t really – They only know Ravel left-hand concerto or something. So, whenever I programme I always want to try and give as big a snapshot as I can of what’s available. So, I have those quite nice familiar pieces that people know and love, and even if you don’t like classical music you would recognize. As well as some complete unknown composers who probably only I’ve heard of in the world, because I’ve done research for this left-hand repertoire. So, I try to combine that as best I can.

Recently, I’ve started transcribing my own-

Melanie: I was about to say, “Do you do lots of the arrangements yourself?” It must be a tendency to want to re-write things yourself.

Nicholas: I’ve only just started doing it actually.

Melanie: Ahhh

Nicholas: And this is a question I used to get asked all the time. “Do you compose?” And I said, “I’m a really bad composer. I don’t compose.” But transcribing, obviously the work has been done for you, taking that and making it for left-handed, that’s something I really, really enjoy doing and especially for my upcoming tour in November. I’ve transcribed, I’ve taken a few of the famous wartime songs and Roses of Picardy and Novello’s Keep the Home Fires Burning and things like that, which people know and love. They actually work so well for left-handed. Sometimes when I finish I think, “Oh, that’s even as good as the original.” It’s really nice when that happens. Whereas, obviously sometimes with left-handed repertoire you do lose something. Whereas, other times you don’t. You kind of keep that sound. You keep that, and I think that just varies with each transcription.

Melanie: So, which composers do you love to play? Which would you say are your favorites?

Nicholas: That’s really difficult. I always play Scriabin’s Prelude and Nocturne. Probably everyone’s sick to death of me playing it. I mean, it’s a great piece and it was actually my first piece of left-hand repertoire. So, it’s very special to me. It was the first piece which made me sit up and think, “My God, I love this repertoire!” It was almost a catalyst for me to wave goodbye to my composers that I loved, as I said earlier, and say hello to my new repertoire. And I think that’s why it’s so special to me, and I think I have actually played it in every single performance that I’ve given.

Melanie: Oh, really?

Nicholas: Every single recital. I just love it. I love Liszt, but Liszt unfortunately only wrote one quite mediocre left-hand original arrangement. But there’s lots that Wittgenstein transcribed lots of pieces of Liszt and I play a lot and I like them. I always think if I had two hands, Liszt would be probably a composer which I’d be quite, have a good relationship with I should say. I really like the transcriptions of Liszt that I play. I play the Schubert The Earl King transcription for left hand of that and things like that. And the Wagner/Liszt Liebestod which Wittgenstein transcribed, I think those kind of pieces I have quite an affinity with.

Melanie: Is there a lot more left hand repertoire to learn or have you learned most of it, would you say?

Nicholas: I said in an interview about two weeks ago, I said that I estimate that I’ve covered about a third of the repertoire. And to think I’ve been working solidly since I was 17, I’m 25 now. So, I think that gives you a scope to what’s available. I mean, the amount of solo works, concertos – what is the number? I think there’s about 27 concertos for left-hand, which a lot of people don’t know. But the solo repertoire as well is just absolutely vast. And obviously then there’s the solo transcriptions so.

Melanie: Get practicing.

Nicholas: Yes, get practicing. There’s a lot of work, and you should see my piano at the moment. It’s just covered.

Melanie: Do you have a particular practice routine?

Nicholas: I’m really quite bad actually. I always have been and Lucy – If you spoke to Lucy or Nigel or Ian, they would always say. And I think again, I probably blame this a lot actually on the fact that I only started at 14. I think because I never had that idea of practice from a child. You know, if you started at 4, you have that notion of what is practice. But for me, I never had that. I was playing out with my friends and things like that. So at 14, to kind of get that discipline – It’s always been difficult for me and even now I have to force myself. It’s never a kind of routine. And also with the other things I do in life, I often aren’t by a piano. Also there’s the interview side of things that every pianist has to do. But then that’s time away from the piano. I’m probably not the best instructor in my practice and never have been, but I get it done. I get it done eventually.

Melanie: You’ve got a lot of exciting things coming up including a tour, Music in Remembrance. That’s quite soon, isn’t it? So, tell us a little bit about that.

Nicholas: That kicks off 7th of November in Liverpool and again that’s quite nice. I’ve never performed in Liverpool before. It’s a nice little exciting place to perform in. The Music in Remembrance tour came about because I was – funnily enough, I was doing a bit of research in my family tree. I got quite interested with my aunt and she had done a little bit. And I discovered that my great Nan, Annie Taylor – She just absolutely fascinated me, what she did in the war. Basically, she worked in a canteen and she kind of served the injured servicemen that came through. But what really fascinated me was I found a picture of her all dressed up, and it was on Armistice Day. It had the date on the back. And I just felt for her- It was just so interesting, her life. She then went on. She lost her son in the Blitz.

She was injured in the Blitz as well and things like that, and you just imagine- I didn’t imagine that I had a great Nan who did that. But in one of her diaries, she was talking about music that she loved, and she mentioned Ivor Novello, and she mentioned Roses of Picardy, and I’d literally just transcribed these two pieces anyway for when I was playing and the Cheltenham Festival. It all kind of married together, and I thought, “This would be great. This would be great to do in a tour.” And so, I spoke to my manager and it all kind of came together. I’m excited about it because, for people who come to my recitals, they know my playing. They know I always kind of give them a little surprised of a new piece of repertoire which they obviously wouldn’t have heard. But I think they’ll be particularly surprised by this one, because I’ve obviously got to Keep the home fires burning. I’ve even transcribed Elgar’s Nimrod and it’s almost even more poignant to a certain extent, because you’re transported back to the repertoire that I have, so much that has come from injured servicemen, Paul Wittgenstein etc..

All of these concert pianists who lost limbs in the First World War, and I think it makes people remember that. Remember that this music has often come from the atrocities that happen. I’m very excited about it.

Melanie: So, you’ve got – Is it 4 concerts or is it more?

Nicholas: It’s 4 concerts, yes, quite a small tour. I start off in Liverpool on the 7th. I’m then at the Royal Albert Hall in Elgar Room on Remembrance Sunday, which I’m thrilled about. It’s going to be a nice poignant date to do the concert on. I’m then in Cheltenham on Armistice Day, so, another poignant date, November 11th. And then I’m at my hometown Colchester to play there at the end of November. So, it’ll be nice. It’ll be nice to be able to intertwine this new repertoire, which obviously it’s not classical repertoire but it’s got a classical twist to it, but to intertwine that with my old classical repertoire. So, I’ll also be playing the Wittgenstein arrangement of Bach/Gounod’s Ave Maria and the Scriabin Nocturne will be in there. You know, pieces which people are familiar with me playing, but as well as this new repertoire.

Melanie: So, what does playing the piano mean to you?

Nicholas: What does playing the piano mean to me? That’s a really difficult question. Has everyone you’ve interviewed always said it’s a difficult question?

Melanie: They do. They do say it’s a difficult question, but it’s interesting.

Nicholas: I think for me, I’ve always been drawn to it since that time I saw my friend performing the Beethoven sonata. For me, it kind of gives me that comfort. Even when I see it in my house, I see it here, sat next to a piano, it’s a comfort feeling for me. So that’s why when I go on stage, I don’t get nervous. Because for me, walking on stage toward a piano, it’s like going to a comfort blanket when you’re a kid or something like that. So, I think for me, it’s certainly and obviously an integral part of my life, but it’s always a comforting part of my life as well. It’s always there, you know, even if I’m not practicing like I should. It’s always there. And yeah, that’s what I’d probably say, for me.

Melanie: Thanks so much for joining me today.

Nicholas: Thank you. 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.


Martin James Bartlett in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

The thirty fourth interview guest in my Classical Conversations Series is BBC Young Musician 2014, Martin James Bartlett. Martin is a student at the Royal College of Music Junior Department and is about to start an undergraduate degree at the RCM Senior Department in September, where he will study with Professor Vanessa Latarche. We met up for a chat at Jaques Samuel Pianos earlier this month, where he talked about his life and career.

Martin James Bartlett began learning the piano at the age of 6. From the age of 8, Martin has been studying at the Royal College of Music Junior Department with Emily Jeffrey, with whom he has been learning at the Purcell School since becoming a student there in 2010. Martin has also been studying the recorder and the bassoon and, indeed, by the time Martin was 12, he had achieved Grade 8 Distinction on all three instruments.

Martin has performed in many competitions and festivals, where he has enjoyed considerable success. For several years running he has been a prize-winner in the Jaques Samuel Intercollegiate Piano Competition, which has resulted in a series of Wigmore Hall solo performances. At the age of thirteen, Martin won the Purcell School’s Middle School Concerto Competition, performing Mozart’s D Minor Concerto K.466 with the Purcell Sinfonia. More recently he has performed Mozart’s C minor Piano Concerto K.491 with the Vanbrugh Ensemble.

At the Royal College of Music Junior Department, he has won The Teresa Carreno Competition, The Gordon Turner Competition and the Peter Morrison Concerto Competition. He has also won the Freddy Morgan Competition and the Wigmore Hall Competition at the Purcell School. From his success in these competitions he has performed solo recitals in The Purcell Room, Wigmore Hall, Royal Albert Hall (Elgar Room), Steinway Hall, Bolivar Hall,  John’s Smith Square, The Beaumaris Festival, Moscow Multi-Media Arts Hall, Calbourne Isle of Wight, Novi Sad Town Hall and Fazioli Concert Hall in Italy.

Notably, in March 2012 Martin was one of only five pianists chosen nationally to perform in the Keyboard Final of BBC Young Musician of the Year 2012, which was held in the Dora Stoutker Hall in Cardiff, the live performance of which was broadcast on BBC4 in April 2012.

Martin has performed in fundraising and charity concerts raising over thirty thousand pounds. He has received master classes from Lang Lang, Stephen Kovacevich, Kathryn Stott, Mikhail Petukhov and Alberto Portugheis.

His great love and involvement with chamber music playing extended with the forming of a duo partnership with the BBC Young Musician of the Year 2012 winner, ‘cellist Laura van der Heijden.  Having returned from an International Chamber Music Course in Montepulciano, Italy, in 2012, they have since given numerous recitals together at such venues as the Elgar Room, The Britten Theatre [Royal College of Music], and a Live Broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s “In Tune”.

Future engagements in 2014 include performances of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on the Theme of Paginini with the RCM Symphony Orchestra and Windsor and Maidenhead and Symphony Orchestra, Mozart’s C minor Piano Concerto K491 with The Watford Symphony Orchestra, and Beethoven’s 2nd Piano Concerto with The Welsh Chamber Orchestra.

He is again one of five pianists to reach the Keyboard Finals of BBC Young Musician of the Year 2014. In March 2014 he performed in the Dora Stoutker Hall, in Cardiff. The live performance was broadcast on BBC 4.

Since 2012, Martin has been awarded a Tsukanov Scholarship, which supports all his studies at The Royal College of Music. More recently Martin has been awarded three full scholarships to study at three London Conservatoires.

Martin in action…….


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

Melanie Spanswick: Young British concert pianist, Martin James Bartlett, has just been crowned BBC Young Musician 2014. He’s currently a student at the Royal College of Music Junior Department and the Purcell School and so, I’m so pleased he’s joining me today here at Jacques Samuel Pianos in London for a Classical Conversation. Welcome.

Martin James Bartlett: Thank you very much.

MS: I want to start by congratulating you. It’s fantastic that you’ve won the Young Musician.

MJB: Thank you so much.

MS: Brilliant, and I want to start by asking you all about your musical education, how old you are when you started, why you started, whether you’ve come from a musical family.

MJB: Well, my mum taught me first and I started at the age of six, and then at the age of eight, she decided that I should go somewhere else to carry on my studies. So, I went to the Royal College and I’ve been there for the last ten years now, and I suppose I started the piano because my mum was always teaching people in the house and we always had the radio on and CDs all the time and I just grew so accustomed to hearing it, that I really kind of wanted to follow in what she was doing and everything I could hear.

MS: And so, what teachers then do you think were crucial in your development. I think I know the answer to this.

MJB: No, definitely my mum first started me off really well and then when I went to Emily Jeffrey, she really just, I’ve been with her for the last ten years and she just, was just such an inspiration to come to, and she has so much patience with me and even sometimes I didn’t use to practice that I kind of wasn’t feeling it so much as other times I used to come in and she just used to, you know, carry on going, come back next week and we just have such a great relationship. It’s amazing.

MS: We should talk a little bit about Emily because she’s quite phenomenal, she’s not only had yourself, but she’s also had Lara Melda as Young Musician of the Year as well. So, she’s a phenomenal teacher.

MJB: Yes, she is fantastic and I think one of the reasons we set her apart from other teachers is because she doesn’t play so regularly to me and she just tries to describe how I should feel some of it with different adjectives and things. It makes me find my own sound and my own way of playing, so I don’t copy the way she plays. I have my own kind of voice when I’m playing.

MS: So, how did you develop your technique? I’m always asking this question. It’s fascinating how people start when you play, studies, scales, whether you learn the difficulties within a piece.

MJB: I suppose when I was younger, I used to occasionally do some Czerny Etudes, things like these, but I never really concentrated on a technique because it was always something that we thought, you know, the more we push ourselves with different repertoire it will come anyway.

MS: Right.

MJB: And I never wanted to become mechanical in any way, with the way I practiced, so when I did practice scales, which of course, I did when I was younger, we would, you know, we used to phrase them and do different dynamics and try to get as many kind of techniques in as possible.

MS: Yeah, that’s interesting. So, you know, you’ve won Young Musician. It’s gonna have a huge impact on your career, no doubt, but how do you feel about competitions, in general, because this isn’t the first time you’ve entered, you actually entered in 2012 and did very well as well.

MJB: I think competitions, I think you have to have the right attitude when you go in, and I think, you really can’t be going in to win. I think you’ve really got to go in just to develop yourself more as a pianist and musician, and I think they really push you, in terms of, there’s lots of pressure and you gotta learn new repertoire and of course, lots of international competitions have the set repertoire to go through, the Bach Preludes and Fugues in the first round and things like this, which I think is really good, ‘cause it kind of develops you more, as long as you go with the mindset of I’m just gonna go and give an amazing concert and not worry about the actual prizes or winning.

MS: So, do you feel that you might enter international competitions in the future or do you feel that the Young Musician is enough?

MJB: I suppose, I have no idea what I would do, you know, when it comes to things but I would love to because all those are my idols and things, you know, won the Chopin, and the Tchaikovsky and things. So, I would like to enter some in the future, yes.

MS: That’s a yes. I think it’s good experience isn’t it?

MJB: Yeah, exactly and you just, I mean, I’ve lost so many competitions and I really have, I think everybody loses lots and you just gotta, you carry on going and take it the right way.

MS: Which composers do you love to play?

MJB: I suppose, there are so many that I could mention but I think I quite have a special affinity with Bach. I love Bach but also Beethoven, I absolutely adore, and Schumann as well, but I also love Prokofiev and Romantic composers as well.

MS: And how many concertos do you have in your repertoire? How many do you play with orchestra involved?

MJB: I have around six or seven. When I was younger, I used to play quite a few Mozart concertos and a few Beethoven and also Rachmaninov as well. So, I play, I think, three or four with orchestra but I think concertos are so great because it’s all that chamber music aspect. You don’t really, with solo recitals it’s quite daunting, you know, it’s just you on you’re own, and the good thing about chamber music is if you’re with a fantastic orchestra, you just push each other further, you know, and you get even more out the music than many solo recitals you would do, I think.

MS: Do you have particular practice regime?

MJB: I suppose occasionally when it gets really tough, I have to write down what pieces and time and everything like that. Normally, warm up a bit but normally I warm up away from the piano, so I do a few stretches, run my hand under some warm water, just to loosen up my joints and everything, but then I think you can’t spend so much on technical studies because you’ve got so, there’s such a vast amount of repertoire to learn. You really have to just get stuck in and just go through as many pieces as you can.

MS: Do you ever practice away from the piano?

MJB: I do a lot of practice away from the piano in different ways, such as, you know, sometimes I’ll be looking at the score and listening through recordings or sometimes I just sit in bed after a hard day at work and I’m thinking, you know, now let’s get the score out and we can just look at all the markings and make sure I’m clear about what I’m doing.

MS: Yeah. So, what are your favourite pianists, or I should say who are your favourite pianists, Martin?

MJB: My favourite pianists, I love Horowitz. I love Martha Argerich for clarity and the sound as well. Claudio Arrau, has a sound like a bell like sound and really sings out. I also love Shura Cherkassky for these dazzlingly light runs, I mean, those transcriptions like Strauss, I mean there’s so many who I love.

MS: And Horowitz?

MJB: I think, the thing about Horowitz is that there are some moments, if you watch him play and there’s so many flaws in part and there’s, you know, it’s quite inaccurate and you think to yourself, “Oh, you know, is this really him playing?” And then, a moment later there’s a most incredible thing which is just not human and it’s that combination of kind of inconsistency that makes me love his playing so much.

MS: So, which works are you hoping to tackle in the future?

MJB: I’m really hoping in the near future, I’m hoping I’m gonna tackle Rachmaninov 2 and Tchaikovsky as well. Not so many people play Tchaikovsky anymore and I think it’s such a warhorse, it’s gotta be brought back in a way, but in the long term future, of course, I’d love to play Schumann concerto and Rach 3, but I’m kinda waiting for that ‘cause I don’t wanna, I wanna graduate the Rachmaninov concertos up until I hit Rach 3.

MS: When was the light bulb moment when you decided ‘I want to be a pianist?’

MJB: I suppose, it was when I was ten I think, because when I was seven I was not sure and I wanted to kinda…I had several job options…!

MJB: It was really when I was ten, exactly, I wanted to be a marine biologist at some point and a physicist and then when I got to ten, I think, I heard an amazing recording of Claudio Arrau doing Beethoven 4th and when I listened to that, I thought, “You know, this is what I’ve got to do because it just, that really inspired me a lot.

MS: What are your future plans, coming, upcoming concerts?

MJB: I have quite a few upcoming concerts. I have one next week in Wigmore Hall but at the moment I don’t have my diary because the Young Classical Artist Trust have my diary. (YCAT) Yeah, they’re helping me sort things out. I have a meeting with them tomorrow to sort out some things, but they kind of get all the work in and then we can discuss it and work out what works with dates and everything like that. So, I’m not really sure what I’m doing. I’m just gonna see them and they’re gonna tell me what I’m gonna do, so.

MS: What does playing the piano mean to you?

MJB: Playing the piano means so much to me, but I would say that it’s not playing the piano that means so much to me. It’s just music, in general, and I’ve always thought that there’s so much in music that I would really love to do and God forbid but if anything ever happened that I couldn’t play the piano like I would, I would just love to do some conducting and teaching, and there’s just so much that I’d love to do in the profession.

MS: Watch this space?

MJB: Well.

MS: Thank you so much for joining me today, Martin.

MJB: Thank you very much.

Melanie Spanswick: Young British concert pianist, Martin James Bartlett, has just been crowned BBC Young Musician 2014. He’s currently a student at the Royal College of Music Junior Department and the Purcell School and so, I’m so pleased he’s joining me today here at Jacques Samuel Pianos in London for a Classical Conversation. Welcome.

Martin James Bartlett: Thank you very much.

MS: I want to start by congratulating you. It’s fantastic that you’ve won the Young Musician.

MJB: Thank you so much.

MS: Brilliant, and I want to start by asking you all about your musical education, how old you are when you started, why you started, whether you’ve come from a musical family.

MJB: Well, my mum taught me first and I started at the age of six, and then at the age of eight, she decided that I should go somewhere else to carry on my studies. So, I went to the Royal College and I’ve been there for the last ten years now, and I suppose I started the piano because my mum was always teaching people in the house and we always had the radio on and CDs all the time and I just grew so accustomed to hearing it, that I really kind of wanted to follow in what she was doing and everything I could hear.

MS: And so, what teachers then do you think were crucial in your development. I think I know the answer to this.

MJB: No, definitely my mum first started me off really well and then when I went to Emily Jeffrey, she really just, I’ve been with her for the last ten years and she just, was just such an inspiration to come to, and she has so much patience with me and even sometimes I didn’t use to practice that I kind of wasn’t feeling it so much as other times I used to come in and she just used to, you know, carry on going, come back next week and we just have such a great relationship. It’s amazing.

MS: We should talk a little bit about Emily because she’s quite phenomenal, she’s not only had yourself, but she’s also had Lara Melda as Young Musician of the Year as well. So, she’s a phenomenal teacher.

MJB: Yes, she is fantastic and I think one of the reasons we set her apart from other teachers is because she doesn’t play so regularly to me and she just tries to describe how I should feel some of it with different adjectives and things. It makes me find my own sound and my own way of playing, so I don’t copy the way she plays. I have my own kind of voice when I’m playing.

MS: So, how did you develop your technique? I’m always asking this question. It’s fascinating how people start when you play, studies, scales, whether you learn the difficulties within a piece.

MJB: I suppose when I was younger, I used to occasionally do some Czerny Etudes, things like these, but I never really concentrated on a technique because it was always something that we thought, you know, the more we push ourselves with different repertoire it will come anyway.

MS: Right.

MJB: And I never wanted to become mechanical in any way, with the way I practiced, so when I did practice scales, which of course, I did when I was younger, we would, you know, we used to phrase them and do different dynamics and try to get as many kind of techniques in as possible.

MS: Yeah, that’s interesting. So, you know, you’ve won Young Musician. It’s gonna have a huge impact on your career, no doubt, but how do you feel about competitions, in general, because this isn’t the first time you’ve entered, you actually entered in 2012 and did very well as well.

MJB: I think competitions, I think you have to have the right attitude when you go in, and I think, you really can’t be going in to win. I think you’ve really got to go in just to develop yourself more as a pianist and musician, and I think they really push you, in terms of, there’s lots of pressure and you gotta learn new repertoire and of course, lots of international competitions have the set repertoire to go through, the Bach Preludes and Fugues in the first round and things like this, which I think is really good, ‘cause it kind of develops you more, as long as you go with the mindset of I’m just gonna go and give an amazing concert and not worry about the actual prizes or winning.

MS: So, do you feel that you might enter international competitions in the future or do you feel that the Young Musician is enough?

MJB: I suppose, I have no idea what I would do, you know, when it comes to things but I would love to because all those are my idols and things, you know, won the Chopin, and the Tchaikovsky and things. So, I would like to enter some in the future, yes.

MS: That’s a yes. I think it’s good experience isn’t it?

MJB: Yeah, exactly and you just, I mean, I’ve lost so many competitions and I really have, I think everybody loses lots and you just gotta, you carry on going and take it the right way.

MS: Which composers do you love to play?

MJB: I suppose, there are so many that I could mention but I think I quite have a special affinity with Bach. I love Bach but also Beethoven, I absolutely adore, and Schumann as well, but I also love Prokofiev and Romantic composers as well.

MS: And how many concertos do you have in your repertoire? How many do you play with orchestra involved?

MJB: I have around six or seven. When I was younger, I used to play quite a few Mozart concertos and a few Beethoven and also Rachmaninov as well. So, I play, I think, three or four with orchestra but I think concertos are so great because it’s all that chamber music aspect. You don’t really, with solo recitals it’s quite daunting, you know, it’s just you on you’re own, and the good thing about chamber music is if you’re with a fantastic orchestra, you just push each other further, you know, and you get even more out the music than many solo recitals you would do, I think.

MS: Do you have particular practice regime?

MJB: I suppose occasionally when it gets really tough, I have to write down what pieces and time and everything like that. Normally, warm up a bit but normally I warm up away from the piano, so I do a few stretches, run my hand under some warm water, just to loosen up my joints and everything, but then I think you can’t spend so much on technical studies because you’ve got so, there’s such a vast amount of repertoire to learn. You really have to just get stuck in and just go through as many pieces as you can.

MS: Do you ever practice away from the piano?

MJB: I do a lot of practice away from the piano in different ways, such as, you know, sometimes I’ll be looking at the score and listening through recordings or sometimes I just sit in bed after a hard day at work and I’m thinking, you know, now let’s get the score out and we can just look at all the markings and make sure I’m clear about what I’m doing.

MS: Yeah. So, what are your favourite pianists, or I should say who are your favourite pianists, Martin?

MJB: My favourite pianists, I love Horowitz. I love Martha Argerich for clarity and the sound as well. Claudio Arrau, has a sound like a bell like sound and really sings out. I also love Shura Cherkassky for these dazzlingly light runs, I mean, those transcriptions like Strauss, I mean there’s so many who I love.

MS: And Horowitz?

MJB: I think, the thing about Horowitz is that there are some moments, if you watch him play and there’s so many flaws in part and there’s, you know, it’s quite inaccurate and you think to yourself, “Oh, you know, is this really him playing?” And then, a moment later there’s a most incredible thing which is just not human and it’s that combination of kind of inconsistency that makes me love his playing so much.

MS: So, which works are you hoping to tackle in the future?

MJB: I’m really hoping in the near future, I’m hoping I’m gonna tackle Rachmaninov 2 and Tchaikovsky as well. Not so many people play Tchaikovsky anymore and I think it’s such a warhorse, it’s gotta be brought back in a way, but in the long term future, of course, I’d love to play Schumann concerto and Rach 3, but I’m kinda waiting for that ‘cause I don’t wanna, I wanna graduate the Rachmaninov concertos up until I hit Rach 3.

MS: When was the light bulb moment when you decided ‘I want to be a pianist?’

MJB: I suppose, it was when I was ten I think, because when I was seven I was not sure and I wanted to kinda…I had several job options…!

MJB: It was really when I was ten, exactly, I wanted to be a marine biologist at some point and a physicist and then when I got to ten, I think, I heard an amazing recording of Claudio Arrau doing Beethoven 4th and when I listened to that, I thought, “You know, this is what I’ve got to do because it just, that really inspired me a lot.

MS: What are your future plans, coming, upcoming concerts?

MJB: I have quite a few upcoming concerts. I have one next week in Wigmore Hall but at the moment I don’t have my diary because the Young Classical Artist Trust have my diary. (YCAT) Yeah, they’re helping me sort things out. I have a meeting with them tomorrow to sort out some things, but they kind of get all the work in and then we can discuss it and work out what works with dates and everything like that. So, I’m not really sure what I’m doing. I’m just gonna see them and they’re gonna tell me what I’m gonna do, so.

MS: What does playing the piano mean to you?

MJB: Playing the piano means so much to me, but I would say that it’s not playing the piano that means so much to me. It’s just music, in general, and I’ve always thought that there’s so much in music that I would really love to do and God forbid but if anything ever happened that I couldn’t play the piano like I would, I would just love to do some conducting and teaching, and there’s just so much that I’d love to do in the profession.

MS: Watch this space?

MJB: Well.

MS: Thank you so much for joining me today, Martin.

MJB: Thank you very much.


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.


 

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.

And 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.”


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.


 

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).

And 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.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yeah.

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.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Right. No!

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-

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Oh.

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’.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes.

RUTH NYE:   combinations of brothers and sisters.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes.

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.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes.

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…..

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes.

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.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes

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.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yes.  Yes.

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.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yes.

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.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yeah.

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.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yeah.

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.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes.

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.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Okay.

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.

 MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Gosh.

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….

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yes.

RUTH NYE:  And she is wonderful.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yeah.

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.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes.

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.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yeah.

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.

RUTH NYE: Yeah.

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.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   No.

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

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yes.

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–

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yes.

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.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes.

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

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes.

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.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Oh, yeah.

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

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yeah.

RUTH NYE:  Which he didn’t.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yeah.

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.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yeah, sure.

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.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes.

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.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yes.

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?

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  That’s true.

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.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yes.

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.

RUTH NYE:  Yes.

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.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yes.

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.


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.


 

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.