Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
It was at school that my love for the piano blossomed because I heard it every single day in the school assembly. Also, by chance my teacher in infant school happened to have a piano in her classroom, so the tinkling sound of it just occupied me and I loved to explore it and make sounds.
I had formal training as a Junior at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff with my teacher, who I still have, Alison Bowring, who took me back to the technical basics and posture, while also understanding what repertoire would suit me. Alison has been a major influence on my career so far from many difference perspectives.
I also did courses with an organisation called Musicians in Focus, a team who focused on visual impairment, which helped to develop me as a musician.
My greatest influences are listening to opera singers so the idea of singing with the piano is always reinforced. Another influence was being a participant on the North London Piano school every summer. The guest teachers really helped me understand about tone production through physical touch. I had never really experienced that sort of connection before, so that memory will stay with me forever. It made me not only improve as a pianist but gave me ways to connect through performance. Pianistically, I love the physical interaction between keyboard and the body becoming one – it’s an amazing experience.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, an autism condition, which affects social and communication skills, so I have support assistance to help build my independence and confidence. I actually find my personal organisation to be more challenging than practising at the piano. I can feel anxious when plans change at the last minute, for example, when a train or flight that I am booked on is cancelled. Being totally blind also affects me when I have to travel for performances, as there is no time to become familiar with new locations and therefore I normally require assistance. Being a member of organisations like the Paraorchestra and RNS Moves, an inclusive ensemble based in Gateshead however, helps me to integrate and develop networks and connections with other disabled and non-disabled musicians.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
Performing the Beethoven Choral Fantasia with the Royal Welsh College Chamber Orchestra and Chorus:
My final year recital for my Bachelor degree was very atmospheric and some people I knew from school also attended.
Performing at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in 2019 was thrilling as I was in an open and resonant space, so I had to adjust myself to both the instrument and the acoustic.
Performing the Scriabin concerto in East Dulwich with Michael Cobb conducting the Lambeth Symphony Orchestra. Unfortunately, I am only able to share the encore, an improvisation on some themes suggested by members of the audience.
Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?
I have a soft spot for Beethoven’s music because both my grandmothers have developed deafness through ageing, especially my grandmother from Northern Ireland on my father’s side. The amazing thing about Beethoven’s music is that it always feels and sounds fresh, however many times you play the same pieces, especially when playing on different instruments and acoustics.
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
I love browsing the internet about background of the pieces and always love looking at history and why repertoire was written for specific instruments of the time, especially when dealing with Baroque or Classical period music. Also, I have a grand piano at home that has a distinctive tone colour, which helps me to transfer intimacy across to my public performances. I find that exercise keeps me moving and agile, while breathing exercises or stretches help me to relax before I go on stage.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
For a recital programme, my teacher and I like to plan the pieces in advance that will complement each other. We always talk about the relationship between each piece regarding tempo and tonality, as well as realistic timelines for learning.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I particularly enjoy St. Martin-in-the-Fields as a venue because the acoustics are unlike any other, and it allows the pianist to draw into themselves so the audience can experience the incredible sound. It’s different to a drier acoustic when it sounds like you’re on the same level with the audience when you can hear every nuance. A cathedral is a celestial atmosphere to perform in, feeling like an out of world experience.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?
I like the idea of pre-performance commentary by the artist involved to help make Classical music more accessible and interesting for younger generations. I also like the idea of museum tours (such as Victoria and Albert Museum in London) to explore the instruments for which music was originally written. This provides essential background as audiences are used to modern instruments as the norm.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Performing in Japan as one of 90 international artists in the True Colours Festival 2022, organised by the Nippon Foundation and live-streamed around the world. The atmosphere was just incredible and I loved having my hair and makeup done for me so I could just sit back and relax. Also, I had never changed into other outfits between musical items, or played with a headset in a live performance. I loved the variety on offer and working with a range of other musicians.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Music is not about competition or who can play the best, it is about connecting and sharing with the audience and developing relationships as they can be vital for the future. Have the right support like a teacher who can understand the way you work, encourage and develop your musical journey.
What advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?
Embrace every corner or avenue of your instrument from physicality/technique to exploring different music styles, so it becomes a part of you. For example, I love playing Jazz which I believe is interconnected with the classical composers that came before. Patience is always a virtue especially in practicing when you don’t get things right the first time. Keep positive and make the most of every opportunity.
On Saturday 27 May, Rachel Starritt gives a concert by candlelight at the inaugural Ludlow Piano Festival, created by impressionist, comedian and actor Alistair McGowan. Rachel will perform new works by three young composers, written especially for herm, as well as her own improvisations. Info/tickets: https://ludlowpianofestival.com/
Blind from birth, Rachel was born in Bridgend, South Wales in 1994. She has received formal training on the piano since 2006 with Alison Bowring and studied at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD) where she recently achieved a distinction in piano performance as a postgraduate student (MMus).
Rachel completed a six month Erasmus placement at the Conservatori Liceu in Barcelona under the tutelage of pianist Alba Ventura.
As a student at RWCMD, Rachel has enjoyed masterclasses with the Labèque Sisters, Stephen Osborne, Peter Jablonski, Angela Hewitt and Valentina Lisitsa. Additionally, she received guidance at the annual NLPS summer course at the Purcell school with renowned professors Dr Michael Schreider (Guildhall), Irina Osipova (Moscow), Irina Berkovich (Israel) and William Fong (RAM).
Rachel’s piano improvisation skills complement her love of jazz and she currently leads a jazz trio ‘The Rachel Starritt Trio’, which appeared at the Brecon Jazz Festival in 2020 and 2021. At Chetham’s Piano Summer School she studied with Nikki Iles and Douglas Finch and has also received lessons with the renowned Welsh pianist and composer Huw Warren.
Image credit Daishiro Futakami