Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?
My recorder teacher and my godfather were jointly the ones who nudged me towards getting my first piano lesson at the age of seven. None of my family play and I wasn’t brought up listening to a great deal of Classical music, but as soon as I started lessons, I took to it like a duck to water and digested every new thing I learnt with a great enthusiasm. Surprisingly, for once, my habit of impetuously discarding the latest hobby in exchange for a new one didn’t happen; something was a little different about playing the piano, and it stuck with me and I with it. I still can’t quite put my finger on what it is I love so much about playing. Maybe it is the very essence of intangibility itself; the idea of crafting something so magical and beautiful for an instant, passing moment. Who knows? But it captivated me then and still does now, and that’s why I have chosen to pursue music as a career.
Who or what are the most important influences on your playing?
My teachers, for me, have always been the most wonderful influence on my playing, not because they have dictated what I do – what does anyone actually learn from that, after all? – but because I have been lucky enough to have grown up and continued to study with teachers who have encouraged me to question everything I do and to do it my own way. I think finding your own path of understanding with music is essential because, at the end of the day, it’s an art form and art is a very personal thing.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Starting to make the leap from amateur to professional has definitely been a difficult one – playing for family and friends and people in the local area who support you is one thing; playing for a new and unfamiliar audience in a venue you’ve never been in, and knowing your reputation is at stake, is entirely another. As with any transition, it requires gently testing the water at times, and at others just jumping on in and not fearing the consequences. I seem to have struck the balance fairly successfully so far, but it is most definitely a tricky one to strike!
What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an ensemble?
Ensemble playing is (mostly) a wonderful experience for me because as pianists, we spend far too much time cooped up on our own, and getting to explore music with other people is a refreshing change! A spectrum of different but equally valid viewpoints to consider is exciting beyond measure, but of course, with conflicting viewpoints comes scope for disagreement and if you’re not working with open-minded individuals, deciding anything new can be like banging your head against a brick wall. I seem to generally have been lucky on this front so far, but I do have one or two unsatisfying experiences of working with less flexible musicians. It seems to me that the vital thing is to have the same vision of where the music is heading and what it’s about. If you can connect with others musically and conceptually in the macro sense, the little details fall into place pretty much seamlessly.
Do you have a favourite concert venue?
I absolutely delight in going to watch concerts at the Royal Festival Hall; it is quite simply my favourite venue in the whole of London. I particularly enjoy sitting in the choir seats when an orchestra is playing because you can feel the buzz of the excitement from being in such close proximity to the performers and see every nuance on the conductor’s face. To play in the Royal Festival Hall would be an absolute dream-come-true, and is something I aspire one day to do.
Who are your favourite musicians?
I have to say I think Marin Alsop is an incredible musician. I went to see her for the first time last year conducting Liszt 1 and Liszt 2 with Stephen Hough and was so bowled over I bought a ticket for her next concert two days later! She’s incredibly animated and passionate about what she does, and I find that inspiring. I also adore Murray Perahia’s recordings of Mozart – he just captures the cheeky yet graceful nature touch that Mozart playing requires sublimely and his recordings are always an absolute joy to listen to.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
It’d probably have to be the Medway Young Musicians Awards Finals 2006, the first year I got into the finals, which take place in The Brook Theatre in Chatham. It’s not exactly a large venue, but monumental to a fourteen-year-old who used to practise on a Clavinova in her dining room, and stepping onto a real stage with a real spotlight and performing live to an audience was absolutely captivating. The playing itself didn’t go so well from what I remember – I played Joplin’s ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ and made a bit of a mess of it due to being wracked with nerves – but the experience itself was addictive beyond measure and that’s probably the first time I was truly awakened to how thrilling a performance experience can be.
What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?
My favourite music to play has probably got to be Mozart or Purcell, Mozart for its deceptive simplicity (such detail and intricacy hidden within such seemingly uncomplicated music!) and Purcell for the tortuously beautiful harmonies. To listen to, I’m currently obsessed with Tchaikovsky’s later symphonies (the first three are indeed delicious, but 4, 5 and 6 absolutely blow my mind) and I also love Louise Farrenc – I think she’s sorely underrated as a composer, and it’s a shame more of her works aren’t played and recorded.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students?
I think the concept that music is an art and not just a skill and, as a result, is something that you mature into; the process simply cannot be rushed or artificially induced. By all means, practise hard, listen, play, perform, read as much as you can, broaden your mind in every possible direction, but don’t expect to magically blossom into a fully-formed artist overnight. Allow yourself time to grow and while challenging yourself at every turn, don’t have completely unrealistic expectations you’ll fall short of and grow bitter about. I myself am only a young pianist, and I know that with time to grow and mature, I’ll have a deeper insight into what I’m doing and a broader base of knowledge and experience to draw from when approaching new music, but that’s something I accept and feel strongly is an important part of the process. If there was a magical ‘cure-all’ solution to all our technical and musical problems, the beauty in the process of feeling your way into music would be completely meaningless. We have to take it for what it is and, though it can be frustrating at times, it’s ultimately more rewarding for it.
What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment, I’m tackling the Strauss Cello Sonata, among other things, with my duo partner cellist Daniel Edwards. We’ve just aired the programme for the first time, and have concerts coming up in Birmingham and London over the coming fortnight. I’m also starting a new programme for a recital at the Maritime Museum, inspired by the current Ansel Adams exhibition: the programme will be officially announced shortly, but it’s going to be an interesting mix of miniatures including some rarely played pieces by MacDowell.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Tricky one. Not sure I know how to answer that! I would like to think I’d be a better musician and have a better sense of self. But as to where that will take me? On to bigger and better things is the most specific answer I can give. I don’t like the idea of being too single-minded about the future; I’d far rather make sure I’m prepared as I can be and just see where it all takes me and what exciting directions I end up going in.
What is your most treasured possession?
My piano, of course, though primarily for sentimental reasons. It was given to me by a gentleman whose wife sadly passed away, and he let me have it on a long-term loan since he personally had no use for it. A few months later, after I had sent him a few update letters and CDs to show my gratitude and so that he could see how I was getting on, he sent me a letter and told me wanted to give me the piano as a gift as he wished it to go to a young musician who would use it regularly and treat it well. I’ve simply never been so touched and surprised, and the gesture was made even more wonderful by the fact that the letter arrived about two days before my birthday – a coincidence, but a fantastic one. We still keep in touch with each other, and if you’re reading this, Michael, thank you very much, I am forever indebted to you!
What do you enjoy doing most?
I assume you mean aside from music? Learning, in whatever shape or form that comes. When I’m not devouring music, I love devouring books. I also love talking (anyone who has ever met me face to face will tell you that, I’m sure!), giving speeches to audiences is something that lights my candle – I’m most definitely a performer at heart! Writing is also a passion of mine. I used to write a lot of poetry, but sadly don’t find the time so much nowadays. But obviously I still get to exercise my pen a lot, what with reviewing for Bachtrack and writing for various other websites and blogs.
Madelaine’s full biography, and details of forthcoming concerts and her writing can be found at