Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?
It’s not a glamorous answer at all, I’m afraid. When I was about 5, I had this very basic toy glockenspiel that had different coloured keys. The toy came with a card which had different colours printed for different tunes. Together, these colours matched up with the coloured keys on the toy and you could play basic tunes; melodies such as ‘Ode to Joy’ and ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ etc. My parents could see how much I was enjoying it, and it was me who eventually said that I wanted to play the piano. I don’t come from a musical family at all, as such I don’t remember specifically watching or hearing somebody play the piano and wanting to emulate them. Who knows where I’d be if my parents hadn’t bought me that toy!
Who or what were the most important influences on your playing?
I think it would have to be a combination of my parents, as well as a legendary woman by the name of Penny Stirling. My parents both work full time and sacrificed an awful lot in order to provide my sister and I with what we needed. Whether it was taking me to evening concerts after they’d been working all day, taking a day off work to drive me to a music competition, or listening to me play a new piece in the living room of our house, they have been there every step of the way. Athletes and musicians have some integral things in common; one of the most important being totally supportive and dedicated parents. Penny Stirling is the founding manager of a government-funded scheme called Yorkshire Young Musicians. I started here at the age of 16, which saw me travel to Leeds every Sunday to receive advanced musical training, much like a junior conservatoire or specialist music school. Had I not studied at Yorkshire Young Musicians alongside my normal life as a comprehensive school/state school student, I very much doubt I ever would have gained a place at audition to study at the Royal Northern College of Music. Even now, at the beginning of my professional career in which I am quickly gaining some very prestigious opportunities and rapidly climbing up the ladder, I am still in contact with Penny for the odd bit of help, guidance and banter.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Getting over myself! I like to think that I work very hard and dedicate myself to improving my musical communication everyday. I absolutely love playing the piano, nothing compares to live performance and being on stage makes me feel the most alive. That said, from a young age I have “suffered” from sometimes crippling performance anxiety and an inability to replicate what I do so effortlessly in a practice room in front of an audience. Hours before a performance, I used to feel sick to the point of sometimes throwing up; I would shake, sweat, become tense and randomly develop a very runny nose. At the age of 23, I can now safely and proudly say I have managed to overcome these problems. I still feel the adrenaline rush, and I hope I always do. The big difference now is that I feel relaxed, poised, and in control. Physically I might sweat but it is no way near as debilitating as it once was. Being on stage is no longer an ordeal; it’s a great pleasure!
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
Difficult one, as I don’t wish to sound like I’m simply reeling off some of my best experiences. I am really proud of the recital I gave for Lord Levy and the Russian ambassador within his residency at Kensington Palace Gardens. It was such a beautiful environment, and I was so excited to be playing within Kensington Palace Gardens at the age of 19. Equally, I am still dead chuffed that I performed alongside The Manfreds, Blake and Lulu for the Prince and Princess of Monaco, and I got to meet them both after I performed. Who ever thought a Yorkshire lad from rural and quiet East Yorkshire would be performing in front of high European royalty! That concert gave me a tantalising taste of what might lie ahead for me, and really gave me a confidence boost straight out of graduating out of music college at 22. I always seem to remember the recitals I give for a reduced fee for charitable causes – I know artists are divided as to whether you should ever reduce your fee or “play for free”, but sometimes I think it’s important just to remember how lucky you are and help those who are in a less fortunate position.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
No, not really. Anywhere with a half-decent piano and people willing to listen and appreciate will do just fine thank you!
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
I adore performing anything by Bach. I think his music is so pure and expressive, and says so much in such a seemingly simple and elegant way. As a pianist, there are challenges with performing his music live, memory being one of them, but it is nevertheless very rewarding and fulfilling. Favourite pieces to listen to will take far too much time to detail. Let’s jut say during a long journey, I can get through everything and everybody starting from Monteverdi right through to the Spice Girls! (Am I allowed to openly admit that…?)
Who are your favourite musicians?
The majority of them are non-classical musicians, does that make me a bad person?! I really admire The Beatles and wish I could have been alive when they first exploded onto the scene during the 60s. A lot of people seem to forget that they were basically copying what a lot of African-American musicians were doing over in the States, but I still admire the way in which they brought it to a mass audience and developed their own unique sound. Listening to ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ from their album Revolver blows my mind pretty much every time I hear it. The same goes for David Bowie, T-Rex and Queen during the 70s; for me, everything they touched was pure gold. In terms of classical music, I am a massive fan of the British pianist Stephen Hough. I remember first listening to him play during one of the BBC Proms as a teenager. I just had no idea what had hit me, it was amazing! I also like how in interviews/writing, during masterclasses and even on Twitter, he comes across as a nice human being, as opposed to some sort of histrionic, pianistic machine that I have witnessed at times in other famous pianists.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
The first time I ever performed in public at the age of 7 at my village Methodist Church. I remember thinking, “Ey up, this is great!” I performed “Minuet in G major” by Bach from his Anna Magdelena notebook, “Walking in the air” from the Snowman, and “Yesterday” by The Beatles. Strangely enough, this mixture of playing different repertoire and styles has stayed with me right through to my career as a young adult, I never realised that until now. How strange!
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Work hard, always stay human and keep an open mind about your future. I think keeping an open mind about your future is the most important.
What do you enjoy doing most?
For me, my ideal day involves going for a long run in the morning, usually up and down some big inclines to really get the heart racing. I’d then do some piano practice after lunch, followed by cooking a roast dinner for my close friends in the early evening. It would most likely be rosemary roast lamb or lemon and garlic chicken with all the trimmings, followed by ice cream or vanilla cheesecake for dessert. Probably both to be honest. Oh, wine would obviously be compulsory.
Great to see Manny on your blog, Fran. Improbable though it seems, given I was living in Cambridge at the time, I was present at his AS-level recital in Pocklington in (I think) 2006. My girlfriend was the other music student in his class at school, and I was there to accompany her vocal recital. I remember him playing Prokofiev’s Suggestion Diabolique and the first movement of Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata. Very impressive even then. He put my puny playing in the shade. Delighted to see he’s doing so well!