Meet the Artist – Christine Croshaw, pianist

Who or what inspired you to take up your chosen instrument, and pursue a career in music?

I remember being fascinated by the piano in my grandmother’s house, and this led to my mother teaching me to read music at the age of three. I do not remember, as a child, hearing much music, none of my friends played an instrument, but I remember my grandmother played by ear, and sang music-hall songs to me, which I loved. They must have embedded themselves deep in my memory, as I still remember many of these, including all the words!

One strange memory stands out. My mother, before her marriage, had worked in the office of a local chemist, a Mr. Lester, of whom she spoke occasionally, with the greatest respect and admiration. I had never met this gentleman before, but on one memorable occasion I was taken, by my mother, to visit him at his home. He possessed a fine gramophone, and played me some of his precious 78rpm records. I was about 6 years old at the time. Two recordings stand out in my memory. One was the Grieg piano concerto, which I was hearing for the first time. It made a tremendous impression on me, and I determined that I would one day perform it,(which I did.) The second recording was an odd choice to play to a child, but I was overwhelmed. It was Kirsten Flagstad singing Sibelius songs, and it was one of the most powerful musical experiences of my life. I had never heard anything like it, the powerful intensity of this magnificent voice, and the vivid colours of this unfamiliar music made a huge impression on me. I never saw Mr. Lester again, but he brought magic into my life.

And when I gave my first public performance, at the age of seven, the feeling of engaging with an audience, and sharing this magical world of music was so exhilarating, that I knew, without a doubt, that I wanted to be a pianist.

Further motivation and inspiration came from my repeated reading of ‘Prelude’,a book based on the early life of Eileen Joyce, who was arguably the most famous concert pianist at that time in Britain. I was captivated by this highly romanticised account of a child from a very ordinary background being swept into the extraordinary and exciting world of music. I devoured the stories of her inspiring lessons with eminent European teachers, and the manic regimes of practising, which all culminated in a dazzling career. It was heady stuff, and I became even more determined to enter this fascinating world myself one day.

I was taken to hear Eileen Joyce play on one  occasion by a family friend, who took me backstage afterwards to meet this glamorous superstar of the classical music world. I remember her gorgeous frocks, and, in marked contrast, her workmanlike hands. As she shook my hand, I remember being struck by their immense power.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

The first time I heard a great pianist in recital was in my early teens, when I I attended a Sunday afternoon concert given by Artur Rubinstein at the Royal Festival Hall. I was mesmerised by the sheer joy and freedom of his playing. This represented the ideal of piano playing that I would, from then on, aspire to.

At the age of seventeen I began my studies at the Royal Academy of Music, where my teacher was Vivian Langrish, who had been a student of Tobias Mattay, alongside Myra Hess. He taught me the importance of sound quality and variety of colour, and greatly expanded my tonal range. Also, while a student, I played for many singers, and was hugely influenced by the great singing teacher, Flora Nielsen, who first revealed the wonders of French song to me, opening the door to the exquisite music of Debussy and Faure in particular.

But I think the greatest inspiration and influence on my playing came from two violinists, the remarkable Hungarian violin professor, Bela Katona, and the legendary violinist Nathan Milstein.

Bela had the most extraordinary ability to reveal the inner life and structure of the music, while at the same time demanding a meticulous attention to detail.

One of the greatest experiences of my life was playing with Nathan Milstein. Every rehearsal was a lesson with a great master. He would demonstrate on the violin what he wanted me to do on the piano. I learnt so much just trying to develop my touch to match his attack on the string, and the freedom of his bow arm to make the gestures of the music. It was awe-inspiring. And throughout, there was always his insistence on the vital importance of the bass line. I learned to focus my attention on a fully independent and fully present and vital bass line, which underpins everything.

Finally, I must acknowledge the influence of jazz, in particular, great jazz pianists, most notably Oscar Peterson Bill Evans and Erroll Garner. From first hearing jazz in my early teens, I knew that I wanted to play classical music with the freedom, spontaneity and immediacy of these artists. This is still my ideal.

What have been the greatest challenges of your life so far?

One’s life as a musician is a continuous, never-ending series of challenges, and it is in meeting these challenges that one develops. But two huge personal challenges stand out for me.

The first was a very serious illness at the age of 28, when , quite suddenly, all my joints, right down to fingers and toes, seized up, and I became completely immobilised. I spent some weeks in hospital, where the doctors were completely baffled, and considered that I would never walk again, and certainly never play the piano. Eventually, however, slowly and painfully, movement returned, curiously, one joint at a time. The fingers were the last to return, taking several months. I gradually eased back into playing again, finding my way back gently into professional work by doing a little accompanying, and then duo playing and chamber music, as my strength returned. I did not return to solo playing in public, as, due to my illness, I had developed severe anxiety about performing from memory. I was now teaching at the Royal Academy of Music, and was also invited to teach at Trinity College, and to establish an ensemble class there. Thus I found myself enjoying a thriving and fulfilling career, performing and teaching, which continued over the following three decades.

And then, shortly after my 60th birthday, came my second huge challenge, when I lost most of my sight, due to haemorages behind the retinas of both eyes. It was extraordinary timing, as, just four years earlier, I had begun training in NLP, ( Neuro-Linguistic-Programming), during which, using one of the very powerful processes we were being taught, I succeeded in eliminating my memory anxiety. I had been looking forward to performing solo again when this new catastrophe struck. Recitals had already been booked, and these, of course, now had to be postponed, while I adjusted to a new, and frightening reality, but I knew that, although I had to give up all ensemble playing due to my severely impaired sight, I would be able to perform solo, from memory. Now there were new challenges, but my desire to continue to play carried me through, and again, I rebuilt my strength and my career, with the support of my wonderful husband Ian, and an amazingly loyal and devoted group of ex-students, who had become wonderful friends over the years.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

My last CD , of solo piano music by Fauré, and the previously-released disc of music by Saint-Saens.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I think that is for others to express their opinions. During the past few years I have felt a particular affinity with the music of Chopin, Fauré, Debussy and Ravel.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I allow ideas, or the desire to play particular works, to come to me, and then I play around with them, experimenting, until they come together to form programmes. It’s a creative process.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

The Holywell Music Room, Oxford. It has special personal memories for me, and I love its intimacy and unique history.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Gyorgy Cziffra, Dinu Lipatti, Clara Haskil, Vladimir Horowitz, Claudio Arrau, Emil Gilels, Artur Rubinstein, Martha Argerich, Nathan Milstein, the Beaux Arts Trio.

Jazz pianists: Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

My most memorable concert experience was when I performed in the Memorial concert for John Bingham in 2005, at Blackheath Halls in London. John was a wonderful pianist and a very special colleague and friend. We had met at Harold Craxton’s studio when we were both 16 years old, and entered the Royal Academy of Music together the following year as scholarship students. We resumed our friendship later when we were both teaching at Trinity College of Music.

At the same time as John was suffering his final illness, leading to his tragic and untimely death, I also had been ill, and had lost most of my sight. Despite my extreme physical weakness at that time, I felt compelled to volunteer to play at John’s memorial concert, such was the bond between us. I knew exactly what I should play— the Fourth Ballade of Chopin, a work which had been special to both of us since our student days.

This would be a momentous experience for me for another reason. As I have related earlier, I had not performed solo in public since a previous illness three decades earlier had left me unable to perform from memory in public. I also described how I had cured this anxiety, and was able to resume performing solo again. This performance at John’ s concert was to be my first solo appearance for more than thirty years. As the date for the concert drew near,  I became apprehensive, thinking how crazy I had been to volunteer, when I knew that, not only would I be performing alongside some very eminent musicians, but that the hall would be packed with many distinguished pianists and other highly respected members of the music profession.

The little sight I had left was also highly distorted at that time, so, on the day, before the concert, I practised finding my way to the piano, which, fortunately, was at ground level, with no treacherous stairs to negotiate.

When the time came for my entrance, the doors opened, and then the most extraordinary thing happened. As I tentatively began to walk forward, I found myself following the figure of a woman, who I instinctively knew was another version of myself. She was taller than me, with hair much darker and longer than mine, but I had no doubts as to her identity. And I suddenly felt quite confident, knowing that she would lead me safely to the piano. As I sat down on the stool, I sensed her sitting down by my side, ( although there was no actual chair there.) I felt entirely at ease, and as I played the opening bars I felt her gradually drift away. I felt inspired, with a sense that all was well, and the music seemed to play itself. Afterwards I received a wonderful ovation from the audience, and I knew that this  was a turning point in my life. I have no explanation to offer, but assumed that my mysterious guide must have been a kind of doppelgänger.

As a musician, what is hour definition of success?

For me, success is when I experience the sense of being ‘in the flow’ in a performance, truly in the moment, being at one with myself, with the music and the audience, in a kind of ‘magic loop’. The music seems to play itself. One cannot make this happen. One can only prepare meticulously, and in a way which creates the greatest potential for this to happen. Then, miraculously, sometimes the gods will smile on us!

What do you consider the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Be curious, allow yourself to experiment.

Ask the question How?

Be kind to yourself.

Embrace uncertainty.

Do not strive for perfection, but follow your dreams, and move step by step towards your goals. Enjoy the journey. Remember that we ‘play’ a musical instrument!

What is your most treasured possession?

I have two. My beloved Steinway piano, and my beautiful Cornish Rex cat, Leo.

What is your present state of mind?

Curious.
Christine Croshaw’s recording of piano music by Gabriel Fauré is available now


Christine Croshaw has enjoyed a long and successful career as a solo pianist, accompanist and chamber music player.

Her concert engagements have taken her to most major venues around the U.K., including many appearances at the Wigmore Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room.

She has performed across the Continent in France, Germany, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Malta, Norway and Denmark, Finland, Poland and Switzerland, and also in North America. Festival appearances include Cheltenham, Lichfield, Kensington and Chelsea, Ludlow, Chichester, Lisbon, Bermuda and Taomina.

Read more

La and Leo – Christine’s Croshaw’s blog