Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?
My grandfather had an upright piano in the front room of his house in Ipswich. This room was kept for special occasions and Sundays. He liked to play Methodist hymns, excerpts from Haydn and Beethoven, and old music hall songs. I loved to sit next to him as he played, or rifle through the music in the piano stool, with its special antique smell and friable, crumbly pages.
There was lots of music at home when I was growing up: on the radio, LPs and from my father, who was a fine amateur clarinettist. When I was in bed, I used to hear him practising Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto to Music Minus One: for a while I believed he had a whole orchestra in the sitting room with him!
I think I was about 5 or 6 when I started piano lessons with Mrs Scott in Sutton Coldfield. My piano was an early 20th century Challen upright. It had lived in a conservatory for two years before it came to us and it needed quite a lot of restoration, but once overhauled it was a really nice instrument, of which I was very fond.
My parents were keen concert goers and my love of live music developed in childhood. We used to go to many concerts at Birmingham Old Town Hall where a young conductor with wild curly hair conducted the CBSO (this was Sir Simon Rattle). Once a year, as a treat, I would be taken to London on the coach to go to the Proms, and we also went to the opera and ballet regularly. I was lucky enough to see/hear some of the “greats”: Ashkenazy, Brendel, Lupu, du Pre, Barenboim, Lill.
Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?
My parents nurtured and encouraged a love of classical music. This was enhanced by my music teacher at secondary school and my then piano teacher Mrs Murdoch. Since I started blogging, encounters with other pianists and musicians all feed into my musical life and inform my teaching and performing. My study with Penelope Roskell (since November 2008) has had a huge impact on my confidence and skill as a pianist, and knowledge as a teacher
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Convincing people that piano teaching is not “doing my hobby” but a professional job which I take very seriously.
Fitting in practising, teaching and writing with family life, and making sure everything, and everyone, gets the right amount of attention from me.
Which performances are you most proud of?
I played Messiaen’s Regard de la Vierge from the ‘Vingt Regards’ at an EPTA event hosted by Murray McLachlan at Steinway Hall in 2011 as part of the preparations for my ATCL recital diploma. It was the first time I had played a Steinway D piano and the first time I’d played the Messiaen in public. The feedback from Murray and the response from the audience was wonderful and an incredible boost to my diploma preparations and confidence.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
In my head I think I can play Debussy, but in reality, I find his piano music very difficult, with its many subtleties of shading, touch, pedal, and more. I’d like to think I have a particular affinity with the music of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, and Messiaen. In fact, I don’t know!
How do you make your repertoire choices?
I play whatever music interests me, and my tastes change constantly. At the moment I am working on a eclectic mix of John Cage, Bach, Beethoven, Liszt, Mozart, Elgar, Debussy, Messiaen, Copland, and Sibelius (a recent discovery), while also trying to keep pieces by Takemitsu and Rachmaninov going from my LTCL programme ready for a concert next year.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
I love performing Bach – his music can have a very steadying effect on the audience and is always a good concert opener. I also love playing Liszt.
Listening to at the moment – the piano sonatas of John White, Mozart late piano works, Schubert late piano works, Goldfrapp’s new album, Morton Feldman, John Cage, and Claude Challe.
Who are your favourite musicians?
Richter, Gould, Tortelier, De Peyer, Perahia, Pires, Hamelin, Anderszewski, Alison Goldfrapp, Kate Bush
Most memorable concert experience?
It has to be Steven Osborne’s performance of the complete Vingt Regards of Olivier Messiaen at the Queen Elizabeth Hall earlier this year. Not only for the feat of stamina required to play the entire work without an interval, but the extreme concentration and intense focus which Osborne maintained throughout the performance. It was beautiful, moving, and incredibly profound.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Be true to your musical self and try not to be distracted or downhearted by what others in your profession are doing.
Live and love life fully: go to concerts, exhibitions, films, read, eat, socialise, enjoy. Everything feeds the artistic temperament!
What are you working on at the moment?
Mozart – Fantasy in C minor K475, Beethoven – Sonata in A flat, Op 110, Britten – Night Piece (Notturno), Sibelius – Nocturne Op 24 No. 8, Messiaen – Le Merle Noir (from ‘Petites Esquisses d’oiseaux’)
I am also trying to knock my first novel into shape for publication in 2014 to coincide with the centenary of the start of the First World War. It will be published initially in installments on a new blog.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Seated at my beloved 1913 Bechstein Model A grand piano!
What is your most treasured possession?
I’d like to say my piano, but that would upset my family! So, my family. And good health.
What is your present state of mind?
Tired! I’ve been preparing for my own concert, plus getting ready to launch the South London Concert Series with my friend and colleague Lorraine Liyanage on Friday 29th November.
Frances Wilson is a pianist, piano teacher, writer and blogger on music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. She runs a popular and heavily over-subscribed piano teaching practice from her home in south-west London.
A keen concert-goer, she writes reviews for international concert and opera listings site Bachtrack.com, as well as for her blog, and writes art reviews for Bachtrack’s sister site, One Stop Arts. She writes a regular column for ‘Pianist’ Magazine’s e-newsletter, and contributes to other classical music websites.
Recent initiatives include co-hosting (with Lorraine Liyanage) the London Piano Meetup Group, and the South London Concert Series, an innovative new concert concept which gives amateur musicians the opportunity to perform in the same formal concert setting as professional artists.
Frances Wilson’s reviews
Interview date: 23 November 2013