Several people have asked me to complete the ‘Meet the Artist’ questionnaire myself – so here is my version!
Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?
I was a very young child when I started playing the piano (around 5 or 6). There was always music in my home as I was growing up: my father played the clarinet in an amateur orchestra and with various ensembles, and my parents regularly attended classical music concerts and operas (the Welsh National Opera had a residency in Birmingham in the 1970s when we lived there). My paternal grandfather had a wonderful Victorian piano (complete with candelabra) on which he played Methodist hymns and bits of Beethoven (whom he adored) and Haydn. The piano stool was full of songs from the 1930s and 1940s, all speckled with age with that special musty smell. I used to sit next to my grandfather as he played.
The piano, or rather piano teaching, has only been my career for just over 5 years. I worked for 10 years in specialist art bookselling and publishing before I had my son. And I didn’t play the piano for a long time after I left university. Coming back to the piano as an adult was hard, and when I started having lessons again in 2008, I realised how much I hadn’t been taught in my teens. I’ve crammed a great deal of study of technique into the last three years: as a result my playing has improved hugely.
Who or what are the most important influences on your playing?
My music teacher at school was enthusiastic and encouraging, and my friend Michael, owner of a magnificent Steinway Model B, has always supported my playing: he often leaves music on the rack of his piano for me to look at when I visit. Last time it was Schumann’s ‘Kriesleriana’. A few years ago, I would have looked at it and thought “there’s no way I’ll ever be able to play that!”. Now, when I pick up new music, I think “where shall I start?!”.
My current teacher is very supportive and encouraging, and has taught me confidence and self-belief. Through her courses, I have met other pianists and piano students who have helped to broaden my musical horizons.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Setting up my own piano teaching studio from scratch and learning “how to be a piano teacher”. I have no formal training as a teacher, but when I started teaching I knew how I didn’t want to do it! (remembering dull lessons as a child). Overcoming my lack of confidence about my own playing, trusting my musical instincts (I am horrendously self-critical), and learning how to become a performer have also been important, positive challenges.
Do you have a favourite concert venue?
The Wigmore Hall is my spiritual home, but I also like Cadogan Hall and the Queen Elizabeth Hall. St John’s Smith Square is a beautiful venue, but cold in the winter! Each has its own distinctive atmosphere.
Who are your favourite musicians?
I particularly admire musicians who are able to stand back from the music and allow it to speak, who do not place their personality/ego before the music, and who are able to get to the very heart of what the music is about. My pianistic heroes/heroines are Sviatoslav Richter, John Lill, Mitsuko Uchida (especially in Mozart and Schubert), Murray Perahia (Bach, Chopin and Brahms), Maria Joao Pires (Schubert), Claudio Arrau (Beethoven), Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Messiaen and Liszt). Surface artifice, “look at me” antics, and flashy piano pyrotechnics do not interest me.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
British pianist John Lill playing Chopin’s B-flat minor Sonata at the Southbank Centre in the early 1980s. Lill was in tears as he took his curtain calls, and members of the audience actually threw red roses onto the stage.
A concert of Baroque music in a tiny Byzantine church in Zadar, Croatia, c.1985.
As for my own performances (which are growing more frequent), my Diploma recital in December remains memorable: the setting (a lovely 18th-century room in Trinity College of Music), the pianos (both warm-up piano and concert instrument were fine Steinways), and the recital itself. I was surprised at the tricks one’s mind can play in such an intense and very concentrated situation like a performance: I had several “out of body” moments as I played, and at the end of the Schubert E-flat Impromptu, I recall thinking, “halfway through now – we can go to the pub soon!”. I enjoyed every minute of it, including the river bus trip to and from the college in Greenwich, but the actual performance was very special for me: it confirmed and endorsed all that I do at the piano, day in day out.
What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?
At the moment, I am working on music by Bach, Mozart, Liszt, Debussy, Rachmaninov and Messiaen. As a pianist, I feel it is essential to always have some Bach somewhere in one’s repertoire as his music offers so much: instructional and intellectual. Liszt is a fairly recent discovery for me: I’d avoided learning him for years, fearing it would be just too difficult (not true!). I’ve stayed clear of the more flashy, popular, virtuosic works, preferring to explore his more intimate, spiritual and intellectual music. Likewise, Messiaen is very spiritual and intellectual, and his music puts us in touch with concepts that are far bigger than us. He was also a synaesthete (as I am) which interests me.
My tastes change quite frequently, and I am often inspired to learn something after hearing it in concert or on the radio. I listen to a wide range of music, and my reviewing role for Bachtrack.com has enabled me to enjoy even more fine live music. I feel it’s important to keep one’s ears open to as many musical influences as possible.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students?
A love of the instrument and its repertoire; that one should strive for accuracy and musicality at all times; that music is for sharing.
How has blogging informed your teaching/playing?
I started this blog originally as a place where I could set down ideas and thoughts I had while at the piano, but it has gradually expanded into something more wide-ranging. I enjoy the exchange of ideas that comes when people leave comments, and the opportunity to share thoughts about music and teaching with other pianists and teachers around the world. The ‘Meet the Artist’ series is proving fascinating, with so many varied, and sometimes very honest, responses.
What are you working on at the moment?
Bach – Concerto in D minor after Marcello BWV 974
Mozart – Rondo in A minor, K511
Debussy – Images: ‘Hommage à Rameau’
Liszt – Sonetto 104 del Petrarca
Messiaen – Prelude No. 2
Rachmaninov – Etudes-Tableaux, Op 33, nos. 2 and 7 (sometimes listed as No. 4 – in E flat)
Read my reviews for Bachtrack.com here
The ‘Meet the Artist’ series continues on this blog: the next interviewee is pianist Leon McCawley.
Hello Fran. Very interesting, as usual! I am constantly amazed by your industry and ambition – your repertoire seems colossal. Very inspiring.
I have been wanting to reply to one of these posts for a couple of weeks now, but have been putting it off.
Acting on your previous advice I swallowed my fear, and have attempted to play a Chopin Etude. Unfortunately I haven’t been entirely successful – at least not yet! I chose etude op10 no12 , reasoning that it appears musically fairly transparent, and hoping that it would address my fear of fast music (silly, I know). We never really got on – I found him hard to practice, with an effort to reward ratio that was too steep to keep me interested at this stage in my development. NOTE: I am fully aware that I just personified an etude. Maybe I should see someone about that…
However – perhaps emboldened by this experience – when listening to one of my favourite Scriabin etudes the other day (Op 8 No 11) I suddenly felt the desire to learn it myself. The two weeks that I have been playing this piece have been very enjoyable. I have made real progress in this time, and can play through it – in a casual, imperfect sort of manner!
Do you have any advice/opinions on this etude, or the Revolutionary?
I would love to try another Chopin etude in the future, but I am unsure if I should be attempting to play to my strengths, or addressing my weaknesses with my choice of etude.
I love the blog. Keep up the good work!
Hi Zach – thanks for your kind comments, & for sharing your piano endeavours! I don’t know the Scriabin Étude but will look it up: good to hear you’re enjoying learning it.
Chopin’s Etudes are of course meant to test the pianist! I started with the Op25/7 (c# min) which is slow! Then the Op10/3 (hard because it’s so well known & has some dreadful 6ths in the middle!). My teacher has advised me to steer clear of any that have fast octaves or similar extensions because of tenosynovitis in my RH. I think the Revolutionary is do-able if you learn it slowly. I’ve been thinking about learning the op10/9 (f minor) but the speed bothers me! I need “two contrasting Etudes” from either opus for my diploma programme….
Please feel free to email me if you’d like to continue this conversation (my address is on the About page)
On yer Fran!
Enjoyed your blog, Robin. Good luck with your piano lessons! 🙂
Very interesting Fran – great blog post 🙂
Fascinating reading Fran! Great blog as ever!x
Thanks, Anne! 🙂