Australian brings a fun history of women pianists to Edinburgh

Guest post by Emma Knights

Isn’t it time all those piano boys stopped getting it all their own way? (Not that we don’t love ‘em!) From Bach to Ben Folds, from Beethoven to Billy Joel and from Mozart to Minchin, the list of famous piano players throughout history is dominated by men. I’m premiering my new show “The Piano Women” at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to start redressing this imbalance… and have some piano fun as well.

I’m Emma Knights, from Adelaide, South Australia. At the keyboard since the age of four, I now work as a musician, pianist, producer, composer, creator and curator. The purpose of my lightning visit to the U.K. this time is to perform this new one-woman show, as well as bringing back “The Piano Men”, a show which I performed successfully at Edinburgh last year.

Both shows have been directed by Adrian Barnes. I’m on a mission to share the inspiring and entertaining stories of piano men and piano women across history. Researching and preparing these shows has taught me a lot about us pianists. Here’s a bit about my journey so far, and how these two shows came into existence.

My first piano hero was my dad. He was my piano teacher and he’s still the pianist I admire the most. As any pianist knows, achieving musical mastery as piano player is tough. Early on, I found that professional piano playing is a bit of a man’s world. I spent my early career in the background, very much the genteel piano girl. Those restaurant, cocktail bar and pub gigs – ‘Don’t play too loud, will you?” Then a guy with boogie woogie chops comes in, plays a few splashy numbers, and they fire me. What’s that all about? I can play boogie. Of course I can. Want to see my bunch of qualifications in classical and contemporary music at graduate level? But somehow all that sweaty, muscular jazz and rock wasn’t ladylike.

So I used to stay in the background… I was The Nice Accompanist Lady. I worked as a pit instrumental muso. Now don’t get me wrong; I have enjoyed every minute of professional piano playing, and I’m grateful for all opportunities that have come my way.

My creativity was being quietly stifled until a singer friend of mine asked me to accompany her original cabaret. As we rehearsed, she talked about

the opportunities I had provided her as a performer. She spoke about those internal struggles common to all artists: Will I get an audience? Am I ready to give an audience of my best? You know, those questions beautifully explored in the film “La La Land”. I started to think more about myself as a performer, not just a producer and promoter. I’m an artist too… and while I’d been busy enabling so many other artists to perform, I had allowed my little artistic spirit to fade a bit. So I started to take some baby steps.

I got a gig as accompanist for a two-woman comedy cabaret. Nothing new there. But their show was written so that the accompanist was one of the characters… and what a grumpy, unimpressed, purist musician I played! When the bell from a 1920’s gramophone fell onto my head during one performance, it was the comic hit of the night.

Next, a job as once-a-week rehearsal pianist for a 100-strong choir. On the day they put the choral arrangement for “Shake, rattle and roll” on the music stands, I thought… “If there’s ever going to be a safe space for me to bring my rock and roll licks, this is it!” The choir went off like a rocket, and this is still their favourite request whenever I am rostered on. I was starting to stick my quiet little piano-lady neck out.

Around this time, I watched Hannah Gadsby’s show “Nanette”, in which she memorably says “My story has value.” I realised that mine does, too, so I started writing “The Piano Men”, a one-woman show about my work as a female pianist. While delving into the history of a few other piano women, the show tells its story through the songs of my favourite piano men. I believe passionately in equality. Consequently, this show is all about where we can still improve the system (whatever that is!) for piano women without diminishing the works of the many piano men that have inspired us all.

I premiered that show in Edinburgh Fringe last year; it was still at an embryonic stage. Despite this, I received a 3-star review and excellent feedback. So I went back home to Oz and hired an award-winning director, Adrian Barnes, to help me bring the show to a whole new level. Next, I toured it to two states, and I’m extra-happy to be bringing this new, improved version of “The Piano Men” back to Edinburgh, where it all began.

An inevitable by-product of all the research I did for “The Piano Men” was a stack of fascinating information about some of history’s great female pianists. Discovering all those crazy coincidences, fun factoids and irresistibly silly stories meant that I simply had to create a partner show called… wait for it… “The Piano Women”. Both are stand-alone shows, but any piano nutter would want to see both.

Although “The Piano Women” has a little of my story within it, it’s mostly piano solos, songs and entertaining stories about women pianists throughout history, from the invention of the piano to today. Sadly, not all of them could be honoured in a one-hour show. (Watch for my podcast, coming soon!) I have had a truly mind-expanding time researching all these women who share with me an irrational passion for the piano. I was also surprised to find out how many of them there were. History has certainly not made much fuss about the world-wide Keyboard Sisterhood. I believe that “The Piano Women” carries messages of inspiration for any musician who sees it, as well as shining a light on the inner workings of the music industry over the last three centuries.

Pianodrome, Edinburgh

When I researched likely venues for the Edinburgh Fringe this year, I chose the beautiful Stockbridge Parish Church, complete with its grand piano. And my other venue was a no-brainer… the Pianodrome, a 100-seat amphitheatre constructed from over 50 discarded pianos. What wonderful upcycling! For my shows about pianos, I couldn’t imagine a more immersive setting anywhere in the world. Back home (Adelaide, South Australia) I devise and run immersive music-based events; to be able to do this with my shows in Edinburgh is amazing!

I hope you can get to see one of my shows in Edinburgh this year. If you do, stay back after and say “G’day!” to me. We pianists have to stick together.

The Piano Women

One World Premiere show only:

Thursday, 8th August, 2019 – at 5:00pm

Pianodrome at the Pitt, Pitt Street Market, Edinburgh

The Piano Men

Saturday, 10th August, 2019 – at 5:00pm

Pianodrome at the Pitt, Pitt Street Market, Edinburgh


Monday, 12th August, 2019 – at 12:30pm

Stockbridge Parish Church, 7b Saxe Coburg Street, Edinburgh

Click link to book for the Edinburgh Fringe shows

Read reviews of “The Piano Men” here:

me-laughingEmma Knights is a freelance musician, pianist, singer, producer, composer, creator and curator living in South Australia

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1 Comment

  1. Enjoyed reading about how you developed your shows. What great ideas! Piano Women is now on my list of things to see. See you there!

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