Bradley Burgess, pianist
Bradley Burgess, pianist

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?

I grew up listening to my sister practicing the piano, so the initial impetus to start lessons came from her; I was fascinated with the instrument and the sounds it made. I remember ‘helping her practice’ by playing certain of the notes for her. In particular I remember the final bass note of the first movement of Debussy’s ‘Children’s Corner’ – I would stand by the side of the keyboard and wait until she got to the end when it was time to play the bottom C. In hindsight I must have been quite a nuisance! It was only half-way through high school that I decided to aim for a professional career in music. While the piano was always my greatest passion, I did toy with the idea of being a film composer at one point. I think this was mainly thanks to John Williams.

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing/composing?

To date the biggest influences on my playing have been without doubt my two main teachers: Nina Svetlanova and Graham Fitch. I couldn’t even begin to say how much I have learned from them both.

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

Staying motivated when things aren’t going well. When you’re young it’s difficult to not get despondent after failure – a bad performance or defeat in a competition. But it’s important to turn these occasions into learning experiences. You only learn that with age though.

Which performances are you most proud of? 

I would have to say my Masters graduation recital this past May. I programmed the Beethoven ‘Pastoral’ Sonata Op. 28, a selection from the Schumann Fantasiestücke Op. 12 and the Liszt Sonata. It was my first performance of the Liszt Sonata – quite daunting! It went well though.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

I enjoy playing in both larger and smaller spaces. I have many happy – and not so happy! – memories of playing at the Baxter Concert Hall in my home city of Cape Town. Every performing space is unique, so I try to make the most of wherever I am.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

To perform: Liszt Sonata, Funérailles, Beethoven Sonatas (especially the ‘Waldstein’), Mozart Concerto K466, Shostakovich E minor Trio

To listen: Wagner’s ‘Ring’, Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy & Fifth Symphony (a good performance of this is better than almost anything), Brahms Concerti, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the ‘Goldberg’ Variations, there is so much…

Who are your favourite musicians?

I generally listen to, and try and learn from, musicians from the early/mid-twentieth century, most notably Rachmaninov, Rubinstein, Arrau, Richter, Gilels, Sofronitsky, Heifetz & Oistrakh. They all had such wonderful tones – it’s almost unbelievable. That said, there are definitely some modern-day musicians who I admire too, such as Marc-André Hamelin, Boris Berezovsky, Grigory Sokolov, András Schiff, Stephen Kovacevich & Cecilia Bartoli. There are some ‘non-classical’ artists that I also respect immensely, like Oscar Peterson and Keith Jarrett.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There are several that come to mind. I saw the Leipzig Gewandhaus in an all-Beethoven programme conducted by Chailly. They did the Beethoven Seventh Symphony and Louis Lortie was the soloist in the Fifth Concerto. Both orchestra and soloist had to give an encore! There was also an all-Shostakovich concert given by the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra in the Shostakovich centenary year. I can’t remember who the conductor was – I know he was visiting from Russia – but they did an earth-shattering performance of the Seventh Symphony. Last year was also my first live Wagner experience – Die Walküre at the Met – and I think that will stick with me too.

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

I still see myself as an aspiring musician! But if I were to go back in time ten years and give myself advice, it would be the following: Establish a good work ethic. Develop good practice habits (practice the left hand alone always!). Learn to manage your time wisely. Don’t ever be afraid to be yourself – a first-rate you is always better than a second-rate someone else. Be proactive – don’t expect opportunities to fall into your lap (but be grateful if/when they do). Take chances. Develop your interests – don’t just lock yourself up in a practice room all day. After all, how can you have anything to say if you don’t actually live a little? Above all, make every note count and don’t take it for granted.

What are you working on at the moment?

Beethoven – Sonatas Opp. 28, 53 & 90 (I plan to do the whole cycle of thirty-two one day – and I really mean one day! – so I’m always working on at least one)

Alkan – several pieces including the Sonata ‘Les Quatres Ages’ Op. 33 (this is a long-term project)

Chopin – Polonaise Op. 53 (something I’ve loved since childhood and am finally learning)

Liszt – Sonata in b minor (I’ve given several performances to date, but this is a life-long endeavor – especially those octaves at the beginning)

Balakirev – Islamey (this is also a long-term project and something I will be blogging about, so be sure to check out my blog)

What do you enjoy doing most?

To be honest, I love practicing. I love taking a work apart, analyzing it, understanding the nuts and bolts. Many people hate practicing even though they enjoy being on stage, but I love the process. Learning to enjoy the journey is key to being successful I think. Music aside, I love cooking (have a look at my blog, fermatas & frittatas), watching a good movie and spending time with my wife, Jo-Mari.

An emerging artist from South Africa, pianist Bradley Burgess has shown himself to be a versatile and accomplished musician. Recent awards have included the Pick ‘n Pay/Fine Music Radio Music Awards and a generous overseas bursary from the National Arts Council of South Africa and Oppenheimer Memorial Trust. His solo and chamber engagements have seen him playing in the states of New York, New Jersey, Idaho & Utah in the US, as well as the UK, Finland and in several major venues in his home country of South Africa. Bradley received his Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Cape Town cum laude and recently completed a Master of Music at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City. He is currently the Director of Music & Organist at St. Mark’s Church in Islip, NY, and is on the piano faculties of the Music Academy of Long Island and the Brooklyn Musical Arts Center. Bradley’s main interests are in music of the late-eighteenth and nineteenth century, especially Beethoven, Liszt and Alkan, and when he’s not at the keyboard you can often find him in the kitchen. You can read more about this at his blog, ‘fermatas & frittatas’ at

What is your first memory of the piano?

My bare feet cooling on the cold pedals of the piano during the hot summer. Another is playing the piano and singing to my grandfather and grandmother on a Sunday afternoon.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

Teaching has always come naturally to me. I found that when I am passionate about something I can explain it comfortably. So when I started teaching during my undergraduate studies I realised that I enjoyed teaching and learned a lot about my own playing at the same time.

I suppose I also subconsciously took in a lot about teaching techniques from the way my teacher taught me when I was growing up.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

Johan Cromhout was my teacher for ten years when I grew up in South Africa. He has taken me from learning to properly read music (I started by playing by ear) up to performing and being able to comfortably discuss my programme in the viva voce of my DipABRSM. He always managed to find a balance between allowing my spontaneity to flourish whilst shaping my progress in the right direction. We listened to a lot of music as well. A part of my two-hour lessons in later years included a cup of tea and listening to CDs.

Martin Katz was my teacher during my study at the University of Michigan. He is a fascinating teacher and the way he can put every scenario in context of today is inspiring and admirable. Charles Owen taught me about focus and economical use of technique to acquire a better result.

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

The teachers I studied with influenced me greatly as I mentioned above. I am also very much influenced by Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) where (said in an immensely simplistic way) the imagination is used to build an awareness of what one wants to achieve and then following that path your imagination has set out already. I am not giving it its best explanation, but it is fascinating to learn how we can open up various avenues for ourselves by imagining it all in as much detail as possible first. I try to introduce visual art and literature in my teaching as well. It just helps to get students thinking a bit differently about all those black dots.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

I was teaching a very talented 6 year old. He had been taking lessons for a year and I introduced B major to him. He experimented a bit and worked out C major and D major on his own. I shall never forget the excitement and marvel that he was filled with. He realised that he can create things on this white and black maze. This reminded me of the importance of not only to always try and convey this to my students, but also to remind myself of this lesson.

It has been said many times before, but it is also very true for myself: I constantly learn from my students.

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

I enjoy working with adults because they often have their own ideas from the beginning and then open themselves up to more ideas. Challenges can be that old habits die hard and as teacher one has to find an individual barometer for each student to keep the balance between encouragement, alteration and guidance. Where children often take things at face value, adult students often ask more questions, challenging the teacher. I like that – it makes both of us think!

What do you expect from your students?

A motto I try to instill in my students is to have dedication and discipline in accordance to one’s goals. Some adults I work with want to play for relaxation and do not have careers as a musician in mind. For me it is important that they still have certain expectations of themselves and live up to them. For my students studying music degrees I expect them to aspire to the same motto. They are often in a place in their careers where they are trying to find where they fit in in the musical world and so it is important to keep one’s head. I think this motto can help them to be inspired, but also impresses upon them the responsibility associated with their work. The children I teach (often second study pianists) often have this motto naturally build in, but I think it is the result of the fact that they have learnt the lesson by learning one instrument already.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

Any experience of performance is important and influences the development of anybody learning a musical instrument. Each of the above brings up its own challenges as a performer, but I think students are not often enough reminded of how different these experiences can be. Competing against oneself in an exam vis à vis competing against others in competitions and some festivals often make performers react when in the heat of it all. Performing in a concert is also different. Some people prosper better in some scenarios than others. I think it is important as a teacher to find which of these different performance setups work best for each student and then encourage them accordingly.

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

For beginners I think the most important lesson is to be disciplined and meticulous – count, check rhythm, play correct notes and learn sensible fingering as (hopefully) set out by the teacher.

For advanced students I would actually say the same and on top of it to read as much and as widely as possible, trying to put the works they play in social and historical context.

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

Both performance and teaching is a way of communication, similar to two dialects of the same language. Some are well-versed in both dialects, others are fluent in one and proficient in another. It is the individual’s responsibility to find his or her feet in either or both dialects.

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

Argerich for fire, Barenboim for colour, Schiff for philosophy and Perahia for surprise.

South African-born pianist Nico de Villiers is an accompanist, teacher and coach, based in London. He holds degrees from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, the University of Michigan and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Read Nico’s full biography here