“I just love losing myself in those chords and those incredible sound worlds” – at the piano with Alistair McGowan

Ahead of the opening of his inaugural Ludlow Piano Festival, comedian, impressionist, actor and pianist Alistair McGowan shares his thoughts on what drew him to the piano, the pleasures and challenges of practising, the inspiration of other pianists, and how the piano has enriched his life…..

What are you first memories of the piano?

My mother was always playing the piano when I was young. She was the accompanist at the Evesham Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society and was always practising the score for their latest Rodgers and Hammerstein or Gilbert and Sullivan. She also played a few classical pieces which I would often ask her to play to get me to sleep. 

My older sister, Kay, learnt to Grade Eight. She didn’t touch the piano after her final exam. She is making noises about playing again and I really hope she does go back to it. She was very good!

Did you have piano lessons as a child?

I did two years and passed two grades but stopped when I was 9. I regretted it for the rest of my life and finally took up the piano again for a couple of years in my 30s until my TV show, ‘The Big Impression ’ got in the way. 

Clearing out my mother’s things after her death, I came upon my breakdowns of my Grade exams hoping there would be mention of ‘shows great promise’ but sadly they just talked of a lack of rhythm and expression!

I have really thrown myself at it again since 2016. I first conceived and performed a show about Erik Satie, then from 2018, toured with ‘The Piano Show’ (15 short pieces interspersed with stand-up routines and impressions) and released two CDs, the first of which through Sony Classical somehow briefly, in 2017, got to the top of the classical chart!

And now, I’ve put together the inaugural Ludlow Piano Festival. I’m not sure which has been the hardest but all have been incredibly rewarding !

What kind of repertoire do you enjoy playing, and listening to? 

I’ve always been drawn to Satie and Debussy; I keep finding new Debussy pieces I want to play. I just love losing myself in those chords and those incredible sound worlds he creates. I do like a good tune as well though! I am constantly writing down the names of pieces I hear on Radio 3 – Poulenc, Hahn, Scott, Bowen, Rachmaninov. And I adore John Field’s Nocturnes. 

Alistair McGowan

How do you make the time to practise? 

At first, it was a struggle fitting things in around other work. But I watch less television in general with no regret and play less sport too. Partly because my body doesn’t let me now!

Do you enjoy practising? 

I have to force myself to do scales and arpeggios and Hanon exercises but otherwise, yes. I had some very good advice from fellow comic, Rainer Hersch, who suggested putting a watch by the piano and making sure that every fifteen minutes you change what you’re practising. I try to do that. 

But, generally, I get so lost in hearing a piece come together that it’s never a chore. 

There are masterclasses at the Ludlow Piano Festival with leading pianist-teachers. Have you participated in any masterclasses or piano courses yourself? 

I have attended weekend courses with Paul Roberts in Sussex. And I went on his week-long piano course in France and then attended four courses in subsequent years with James Lisney and latterly Charles Owen at the delightful La Balie (in south-west France, now, sadly, no longer happening). I’ve also recently done week in West Cork with James at a new venue, Castle Townshend

As well as learning from such inspirational players and teachers, it’s great to meet other amateur pianists who share your passion. 

What have you gained/learnt from this experience?

I do feel I’ve enriched my life and my soul. And I have been a little surprised by how much I have enjoyed regularly turning my back on the modern world.

As an adult amateur pianist, what are the special challenges of preparing for a performance? 

Not letting the occasion distract you from listening to the sound you are making with every note. I have moments of being very focused but often hear myself or my late mother saying ‘What on earth do you think you’re doing?’. If you can keep that voice out of your head, you will generally be fine!

Also, if you breathe and practise breathing it practise, it helps. As does a touch of lavender under the nose. 

Most importantly, if you think of wanting your audience to hear the piece of music you’re playing and not to hear how well you play it, it takes your ‘self’ out of the equation and some how makes things less nerve-wracking. 

How did you prepare the pieces featured on your recordings? 

I worked very hard, bringing each of them to the boil in turn with my mentor Anthony Hewitt practically conducting me. I also went to listen to a good few pianists in concert and learnt a lot from hearing James Lisney, Lucy Parham, Viv McLean and, of course, Anthony. 

Recording yourself to see what you’re getting wrong – and what you’re getting right – is also a great help these days. 

And how did you find the experience of recording the music?

It was like a lesson, an exam, a recital and the greatest pleasure all at the same time – immensely draining and yet utterly thrilling to hear the music I had learnt and loved coming out of the best pianos in the world!

It was also terrifying knowing that this was the one chance to get each piece recorded. I read a wonderful book called ‘Piano Notes’ by Charles Rosen which has a very helpful chapter on the challenge of recording and refers especially to the need to not worry about mistakes. They can be covered. My teacher/mentor, Anthony Hewitt, was wonderfully helpful (and still conducting!) at the recordings. My producer, Chris Hazel, was unbelievably supportive, helpful and strict!

I had to pinch myself after each recording. I couldn’t believe what I was being allowed to do.

What advice would you give to other adults who are considering taking up the piano or resuming piano lessons? 

I think learning how to learn is as important as learning how to play; it’s important to get the most from your playing time. Setting goals is also important. Perhaps organise small recitals at home, before friends, in order to give yourself a deadline.

If you could play one piece, what would it be? 

Ah! That changes all the time. I have an eye on Debussy’s ‘Ballade Esclave’ – but think that’s still a few years away!

What are you looking forward to at the Ludlow Piano Festival?

This is like a five-day ‘Desert Island Discs’ for me: my favourite music played by my favourite musicians! I can’t believe they’ve all said, ‘Yes!’All the pianists performing at the Festival have inspired or taught me during my own piano journey over the last 8 years. This is a wonderful way to thank them and to share their brilliance with everyone in Ludlow. I hope that as well as piano enthusiasts, the concerts will appeal to people who have never heard (let alone seen) piano music and who will be as inspired by these pianists and the music that they play (as I have been) to go to this beautiful instrument and to make music on it themselves.

Ludlow Piano Festival runs from 24th to 28th May. Info / Tickets


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