At the Piano With……Catherine Riley

Cathy 294-smallWhat is your first memory of the piano? 

When I was around 5 years old a piano appeared in our house. I can’t remember now how it came to be there – I think it may have been inherited from my grandmother. I can remember watching my father play the piano by ear. I would stand at one end of the piano, joining in playing notes too, fascinated by the effect. Not long after I began to make up little tunes of my own. The ability to play by ear and to improvise has stayed with me all my life.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching? 

My first introduction to teaching piano was teaching the two young children of some friends while I was studying piano at Auckland University in New Zealand. I was really quite novice at it then and can’t imagine how effective I was as a teacher. However later when I came to study and work in London it eventually became a necessity to earn part of my living as a piano teacher and gradually my ability to teach developed.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers? 

A number of teachers remain very special to me. My first significant teacher, Mary McClafferty, was a very fine musician, who took me through my advanced piano grades and diplomas whilst I was at school. She was so modest – she would have never told me at the time but in her obituary I read that the great Henry Wood invited her to play in the proms when she was young. I remember she always spoke very fast – perhaps trying to fit in as much as possible in the time allotted!

When I went to Auckland University to study music I had the unique experience of studying with two piano teachers simultaneously. This was only possible as one had been the pupil of the other. They worked in perfect tandem, covering a wide range of solo and chamber repertoire between them with each student. Janetta McStay (who sadly died just recently at the age of 95) was not only a great teacher but a really world class musician and performer. During the 1970’s I heard her play as an equal with many wonderful musicians during their visits to New Zealand and it was not surprising that the Borodin Quartet especially requested her to join them on a tour of Russia. I also studied with her former pupil, Bryan Sayer, also an excellent pianist and teacher, who had studied in Paris with Vlado Perlmuter. They have both remained lifelong friends and mentors.  In the five years I studied with them I learnt such an enormous amount from them: about technique, style, detail and precision, beauty of tone and phrasing. The list goes on…

Later in London I was privileged to study with the late Peter Wallfisch – a very special pianist and musician and so incredibly generous: he would think nothing of giving a three or four hour lesson, if he felt the music required it. He had such wonderful imagination and made you really think about interpretation in a very deep and creative way. In his teaching I felt there were connections back to great teaching pedagogues such as Artur Schnabel.

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching? 

All of those wonderful piano teachers have left their mark in different ways through their generosity, high professional standards and complete commitment to their art.

I am also influenced by the playing I do with other musicians as I am being constantly challenged to remain open to different ways of working, which keeps me fresh.

I find much can be learnt from observing master classes.  Andras Schiff, Richard Goode and Murray Perahia have all given me much to think about. I am also fascinated by less conventional approaches: Nelly Ben–Or is a pianist who offers a unique take on performance due to her training as an Alexander Technique Teacher. William Westney (American pedagogue and prize winning pianist, influenced by the teaching of Jacques Dalcroze) also offers a completely original and refreshing approach to practising and performing. I recommend reading his inspiring book The Perfect Wrong Note (published by Amadeus).

Lastly and certainly not least I am always learning from my students!

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?  

Whether modest or momentous I find there are regular moments of satisfaction and delight with teaching that are too numerous to recall. It is always a joy when a student experiences a break through, whatever level they are at.

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults?

I have a number of adult students these days and enjoy very much working with them. Sometimes it is necessary to make their aims more realistic – “Schumann’s Carnival is a great work but let’s start with exploring some of his shorter piano pieces first”! However, age needn’t be a barrier to progress and playing the piano is great exercise for the mind as well as for physical co-ordination. It is also self-sufficient and there really is a fantastic repertoire to choose from.

What do you expect from your students?

Enthusiasm, commitment and a willingness to try something new.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions? 

They have their place and can be an excellent goal for students and of course some students thrive on competitions although I believe they shouldn’t be the end all. All performance opportunities are important however– what is music if not communicated?

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students? 

The teaching of beginners can be much underestimated in importance. It really does require careful planning and patience to teach well at this level and deliver a sound and well balanced programme of musicianship and technique. Elements such as pulse, rhythm and pitch need to be broken down and taught in small achievable steps. Introducing the sound before the symbol is so important- too many tutor books immediately push notation first.

To make the journey towards artistry the advanced student needs to be encouraged to develop their interpretive ability as well as their technical proficiency. It’s about having something individual to say as a musician.

What are your thoughts on the link between performance and teaching? 

I believe one helps the other. How often when I teach I find I am telling myself what I also need to take on board in my own playing. Playing oneself gives one the ability to empathise with the student, to understand the process. I will regularly demonstrate in my teaching to make sure I have offered a clear aural model of the ideas I am suggesting.

Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why? 

There are too many pianists to name but I listen to them to be inspired. We are lucky to have a rich heritage of recorded performances of many great pianists of the past to draw on. There are still a lot of wonderful classical musicians out there playing live. I am also drawn to jazz – there is so much creativity happening in this field, which harkens back to the era of composer/ performers.

Catherine Riley graduated from the University of Auckland, New Zealand, with an M.Mus degree in Performance, with first class honours.  Following successes with the two major New Zealand concerto competitions, she recorded for Radio New Zealand and undertook several professional piano concerto engagements.   

A grant from the NZ Arts council enabled her to continue with post graduate studies at the Royal College of Music with Kendall Taylor and Peter Wallfisch.  Several awards led to concerts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Purcell Room and Fairfield Halls.  She has also given performances in the Barbican Centre as well as St. John’s, Smith Square and St. Martin-in-the-Fields.  

She has performed as both soloist and chamber musician and given numerous recitals and chamber music concerts in the UK and in Europe and has recorded the complete works for violin and piano by Grieg with American violinist, Christopher Collins Lee. In 2007 she formed the Johannes Piano Quartet with colleagues who are fellow tutors at the Centre for Young Musicians, in London. She has also recently formed a duo with the pianist Graham Fitch.  

Catherine is also very active in the field of music education and is Head of Piano at the Centre for Young Musicians as well as being a principal tutor for the EPTA Piano Teaching Course. 


26 May 2013 The Johannes Piano Quartet with guest Lynn Cook perform piano quintets by Brahms and Granados.

The Colour Theatre, Merton Abbey Mills, SW19 (

31 July 2013 Piano Duet recital by Graham Fitch and Cathy Riley

Markson Music and Wine Evening: St Mary Magdalene Church, NW1