An interview with Frances Wilson AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist by author and poet Leslie Tate.

Leslie: Why do you call yourself ‘The Cross-Eyed Pianist’?

Frances: I wanted a catchy title for my blog and this seemed a good one, since I am actually cross-eyed – and I play the piano.

Leslie: Can you tell the story of what drove you to return to the piano after an absence of 20 years? What were the difficulties? How did you manage the ups and downs of achieving advanced certification in your late 40s?

Francis: A few years before my son was born, my mother bought me a digital piano and suggested I start playing again. I tinkered with it, playing some of the music I’d played in my late teens before I left home to go to university, but then my son was born and for some years my time was taken up with him. When he went to school full-time, I began to play more seriously and found it a wonderful escape from being a mum at home, and it gave me some much-needed “me time”. Around the same time, I started going to concerts again and I realised how much I had missed music and especially the piano. So then I began to really throw myself into rediscovering the piano and improving both my technique and artistry. In a way, it wasn’t that difficult because a lot of the music I was playing had been well learnt previously and it was gratifying to find how much of it was still “in the fingers” even after such a long absence. 

In 2006, I started teaching privately at home, mostly children from my son’s primary school, and my private practice quickly grew into a popular studio of more than 25 students. At this point, my husband bought me an acoustic piano which made a big difference to my playing and the kind of advanced repertoire I could tackle. Then, in 2008, I started taking piano lessons myself again, with a master teacher who was professor of piano at one of London’s leading conservatories. My main motivation for this was a personal one, to enable me to develop and extend my pianistic abilities and to gain some experience in performance – something I hadn’t done since I was at school. After 6 months of fairly intensive work to bring my technique up to scratch, my teacher suggested I work towards a diploma. I was 43 at the time and this felt like a massive, positive endorsement of my abilities from a teacher/mentor whom I really respected. That I then went on to achieve a distinction in this and a higher diploma (also with Distinction) in 2013 was a huge personal achievement and gave me the impetus to continue playing and improving. 

In order to manage my teaching work and my family, I was very strict about my practicing when preparing for the diplomas, creating a daily routine and setting myself regular goals. This was interspersed with lessons and practice performances. I also attended masterclasses and courses with other leading pianist-teachers and took some mentoring from a concert pianist. In addition, I did a lot of research on the psychology of performance and observed professional musicians in concerts to gain insights into the practice of performance. In effect, I taught myself to be a performer.

Read the entire interview here

Frances Wilson (photo by James Eppy)

One Sunday afternoon I was idly leafing through a copy of Vanity Fair, which I found lying around at the country home of my parents-in-law. On the back page was a revealing interview with A Famous Person, based on the Proust Questionnaire, a set of questions which the French author Marcel Proust answered at different times in his life. Later that day, I thought this might make an interesting addition to my blog – a weekly interview where each respondent answers the same questions. And thus, in April 2012 the Meet the Artist interview series was born.

At this time, I’d been writing this blog for nearly two years. Originally intended as a place where I could record my thoughts about returning to the piano after an absence of some 20-odd years, it had quickly become a kind of online classical music ‘magazine’ with varied content: concert reviews interspersed with articles on piano technique, teaching, and repertoire, and more esoteric ‘think pieces’ on music. More importantly, it now had the beginnings of an established, regular readership, albeit still quite small (today it enjoys c30,000 visitors per month). A series of interviews with musicians seemed a good addition. Classical musicians have an aura of mystique (usually created by audiences and others, rather than the musicians themselves) and there is, I find, a great curiosity about what classical musicians do; not just the exigencies of life on the concert platform – the visible, public aspect of the profession – but, in effect, ‘what musicians do all day’. The Meet the Artist interviews offer a snapshot of other facets of the profession, giving readers a chance to get “beyond the notes”, as it were, and in doing so reveal some fascinating insights.

The willingness and openness with which people respond is refreshing, often unexpected, and largely free of ego. In addition, the interviewees give advice and inspiration for those considering a career in music, and attempt to define “success” in a profession where one’s ability to communicate with and move an audience is placed considerably higher than monetary returns.

Tamara Stefanovich

I never sought out the “big name” international performers like Angela Hewitt, Ivo Pogorelich, Tamara Stefanovich or Marc-André Hamelin (or indeed prog rock legend Rick Wakeman!), but as the series grew in reputation, so I found these people were happy to be interviewed, either directly (usually by email, occasionally in person) or via their publicists and agents. The series has become not only a valuable compendium of surprising, insightful, honest, humorous and inspiring thoughts from a wide range of artists, but also a platform for young and lesser-known artists in particular to gain exposure in an industry which is highly competitive. Others use the series as a means to promote upcoming concerts, recordings or other events, while also leaving an enduring contribution to audience’s and others’ understanding of how the music industry “works” and what makes musicians tick. It has received praise from the likes of pianists Stephen Hough and Peter Donohoe, both of whom are featured in the series.

James MacMillan, composer & conductor

From strictly classical artists such as harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani or composer and conductor James MacMillan, two of the earliest interviewees, the series has broadened in its scope over the years and now includes musicians from the world of crossover classical music, folk and jazz. Yet regardless of genre, what these interviews often reveal is how one’s chosen instrument and its literature exert a strong attraction, seducing would-be professionals from a young age and continuing to bewitch and delight, frustrate and excite.

To date, the series features over 1600 interviews from some of our greatest living musicians to young artists poised on the cusp of a professional career. Every single interview has value, and I am immensely grateful to the many musicians who have freely offered their insights, reflections and advice in their interviews.

To all of you who have taken part in the Meet the Artist series to date, THANK YOU.

Frances Wilson, The Cross-Eyed Pianist, April 2022


The Meet the Artist series is ongoing – if you would like to take part, please click here for more information

Looking forward, not back…..

2022 is a rather significant year for this site as it marks the 10th birthday of the Meet the Artist interview series. Originally inspired by the Proust Questionnaire in Vanity Fair magazine, Meet the Artist has grown from interviews with musician friends and colleagues to a highly respected and very popular “compendium of surprising, insightful and inspiring thoughts from a wide range of artists”, including pianists Angela Hewitt, Stephen Hough, Ivo Pogorelich, Benjamin Grosvenor and Alice Sara Ott, harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, composers Nitin Sawhney, John Rutter, Cheryl Frances Hoad and Jennifer Higdon, singers Roderick Williams and Jennifer Johnston, and many more, both established, internationally-renowned musicians and composers as well as young and emerging artists. Prog rock legend Rick Wakeman even makes an appearance!

I have been astonished by the popularity of the series (so much so that in 2017, it relocated from this site it to its own dedicated website) and am grateful to everyone who has taken part. The interviews are remarkably insightful, offering advice to aspiring musicians and giving audiences and others a unique glimpse “beyond the notes”, as it were, into the working and creative life of musicians and composers.

People ask me how I find the motivation and inspiration to continue writing this blog, and it’s true that it takes up a lot of time and effort (for which I receive no payment beyond the occasional donation). As my interest in the piano waned this year, due to the soul-sapping, dis-motivating effect of the lockdown, I did wonder whether there was any point in continuing to write this blog, but it seems I can always find music- or piano-related things to write about. Articles by others, conversations with musicians friends and colleagues, online exchanges, and my listening habits all feed the creative muse, and so while the muse demands nourishment, and I remain interested in writing, this site will continue. I am also very appreciative of the community which has built up around this site, and which has, in some instances, led me to forge significant connections and friendships in real life.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who reads, comments upon, shares and contributes to this site.

Warm wishes for the festive season and the new year.

Frances Wilson, The Cross-Eyed Pianist


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A big thank you to every one who reads, comments upon and contributes to this site (which celebrated its 10th birthday in July).

Some further thoughts on this strange year and how music and musicians have coped on my sister site ArtMuseLondon

Most read post of 2020:

On Being A Pianist

Most visited page of 2020:

Courses for Pianists

Most popular guest post of 2020:

“He was not like other men” – Chopin as seen by his contemporaries (by Walter Witt)

Most read post on repertoire

Liszt’s Sonetto del Petrarca 104

Most read post on piano technique

Mysteries of the sustain pedal

Best wishes for 2021.

Frances

The Cross-Eyed Pianist

Guest post by Sylvia Segal

Sylvia is a music-lover and The Cross-Eyed Pianist’s most longstanding reader


Dear Fran,

Your blog’s 10th anniversary reminded me that I’ve been meaning to send you a musical message. Lockdown has meant a lot more listening time which, though solitary, has been a great pleasure.

As you know, I have a tendency to have mini love affairs with selected composers, meaning that temporarily I listen to little else. You’ll remember my ‘Chopin period,’ I’m sure. Before that there was Ravel. And Mendelssohn’s chamber music. Bach puts in an appearance regularly, as does Haydn, who always lifts my spirits. And so on.

Anyway, lately it’s been all about Schubert’s piano sonatas for me. Not necessarily the final three, but early and middle ones. Years ago, I bought a 7-CD set of them, played by Ingrid Haebler. The earliest sonata on there is no. 3, and already he’s modulating in a way that reminds me of a tightrope walker without a safety net! It makes me smile to hear him tie himself up in knots, only to untie them a moment later, as if by magic.

Beethoven famously remarked that the piano “couldn’t sing,” but I think Schubert put paid to that idea. (And Mendelssohn.) If you’re able, listen to the slow movement of Schubert’s sonata in B major (D.575). It’s a song. It IS a song. A beautiful, sad one.

On the subject of whether the piano sings or not, I have never forgotten the study day that Robert Levin presented at the British Museum about the evolution of the piano. Focusing on the period that is his forte (sorry, pun), late 18th/early 19th century, he made the very interesting point that composers like Mozart and Haydn didn’t expect the piano to sing, they wanted it to SPEAK, in the manner of well-argued discourse or civilised conversation.

I was reminded of this in Paris in February, where I picked up a free copy of the New York Times in our hotel, and read an article about John Eliot Gardiner entitled “Treating Beethoven as a Revolutionary.” It was about rehearsing Beethoven’s symphonies with his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in connection with Beethoven 250 (I expect those performances didn’t happen, sadly), and he said something that really struck me:

Another thing I think is important [as well as the clarity and exhilaration you can achieve with original instruments] is to encourage the players to “speak” their lines, so that each phrase emerges as a kind of sentence made up of words that they articulate with consonants as well as vowels. Beethoven, it seems to me, is asking for declaimed narration. He conceives of his symphonies as developing and dramatic narratives, and that, in turn, demands an acutely conscious declamatory approach from the players.”

So interesting! I do often think of music as a language, and individual composers’ styles as their ‘handwriting.’ This wordless language has its own structure, vocabulary, grammar—none more so than the music composed around the time of the Enlightenment. Mozart and Haydn spoke it fluently and effortlessly, and we as listeners need to be familiar with the rules of the language before we can experience the thrill that comes when we hear them broken.

Beethoven and Schubert – both voracious readers – inherited this formal language. But I think they became less and less interested in the discourse/conversation aspect, focusing rather more on what Gardiner calls “dramatic narratives.”

Lockdown has afforded me time to think more about the music I’m listening to, which is one of the many good things that have come out of it. A good friend and I keep marvelling at how unconstrained we’ve felt (I know, a contradiction!), and how the extra time we’ve had has not been a burden. Rather, it’s been a gift.

I’ll leave you on that happy note.

With love and warmest congratulations on The Cross-Eyed Pianist’s tenth birthday,

Sylvia


A note from The Cross-Eyed Pianist:

Sylvia is a good friend of mine and, when she lived in London, a very keen concert-goer, especially at the Wigmore Hall. It was Sylvia who encouraged me to start going to classical concerts again, when my son was at an age when he could be left more happily with a babysitter, and we have enjoyed many memorable concerts together. Sylvia was this blog’s first reader and remains a loyal supporter (and eagle-eyed proof-reader!).

 


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I really didn’t expect to be writing this post…

When I started this blog in the summer of 2010, I did so without any expectation that it would be anything other than a place where I could write about the music I was listening to on CD and in concerts, the piano music I was learning and my experiences as a piano teacher. I certainly didn’t expect anyone to read my musical ramblings! But read they did, and some readers left comments and so conversations and a sense of community developed across the internet.

Ten years ago, blogging was still a relatively new form of writing/journalism; today it is almost de rigueur to have a blog, and some have become very well known, often independent voices which provide a refreshing, sometimes non-mainstream, perspective. For many of us who blog, it is simply a way of sharing a passion – whether it is music, food, cycling or knitting – and a means to connect with other likeminded people.

My passion is classical music, and particularly the piano – the instrument, its literature and the exigencies of being perhaps the most solitary of musicians, a pianist. When I first started writing this blog, I had been playing the piano seriously for about four years, having returned to the instrument after an absence of some 20 years. Part of the motivation behind the blog was to share my experiences as an “adult returner”, the pleasures and frustrations, what it felt like to take lessons again as an adult, performing (in both exam and public settings), connecting with other pianists, attending piano courses, and more. Often after a piano lesson, I would rush home to write down what had happened, giving me an important opportunity to revisit the nuts and bolts of the lesson, and distill and share the knowledge with others. I also charted my progress through three performance diplomas via this site, an action which a concert pianist friend of mine described as “very brave”, whereas I just saw it as a way of sharing my learning outcomes in the hope that others might find my experiences helpful, and maybe even inspiring.

As the blog has evolved – and I have always felt that a blog needs to offer plenty of variety and regularly updated content – I have found myself drawn further into the world of British classical music (again, a place I never expected to be!), and in the last five years in particular, with my reputation more established, I realised that this was where I’d always wanted to be. I feel comfortable in the presence of other musicians, whether professional, student or amateur, music professionals, and fellow bloggers, reviewers and journalists in a way I never felt in my previous career, and I welcome and appreciate the opportunities the blog has given me to attend concerts, CD launches, music courses and many other events.

Launching the Meet the Artist interview series in 2012 has given an extraordinary insight into the creative lives of musicians and composers, offering a glimpse beyond the concert platform and the notes on the score into the day-to-day lives of these remarkable people, and debunking some of the traditional preconceptions surrounding classical music and musicians. The interviews are fascinating, honest (sometimes painfully so), entertaining and inspiring.

But for me the most gratifying aspect of blogging is the connections I have made and the wonderful interactions and conversations that regularly take place via this site and also on social media (where I probably spend far too much time!). I’ve made friends through this blog, in both the virtual and real worlds, and I really value these connections which have seemed even more significant during these long months of lockdown.

Just as a concert is not a concert without an audience, this blog would be nothing without its readers, of whom there are now some 25,000 per month (a figure which continually amazes me). So I must first thank everyone who reads, shares and comments on the articles contained here.

A huge debt of gratitude must also go to musicians and composers, not only those who have taken part in the Meet the Artist series, but also those whose music I have heard in concert and on disc, who engage in this remarkable activity in a profession which is tough, competitive and precarious (and never more so than now).

I would also like to thank all those people who contribute guest articles to the site. Your contributions keep the site fresh and give readers an opportunity to hear different voices and opinions.

Whether I will still be writing this blog in another 10 years’, or even 5 years’ time, remains to be seen, but while it continues to interest me to do so, and while there is the inspiration and motivation, I will keep writing.

 

Frances Wilson, The Cross-Eyed Pianist