Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
Well, it’s a funny story! My mother loves telling this one. I was very young, about 3 or 4, watching my mom demonstrate on a dinosaur keyboard with light-up keys. She had trouble following the lights, and somehow or another, I ended up taking my turn. It took a few tries to follow along, but I finally did it!
Pursuing music was not my choice. I was about 6 years old when my grandmother made the choice that I should be a concert pianist. No strides (other than a few piano recitals commissioned by her) were taken to really get me nurtured, it seemed that I had to do things on my own to get anywhere. My time came when I could get away from the church where I honestly felt shackled, and study the works of Rachmaninov and Chopin.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
My grandmother, full stop! My mother being the other. I was exposed to Andre Watts, a biracial pianist, who – under his mother’s guidance – would go on to get the exposure and experience he needed to become the great pianist that he is. Unfortunately for me, being from Detroit with very little resources became a great challenge. This caused my mother to move me around a bit so that I could get closer to better arts programs, and then I met a teacher who would take me under her wing. Her name is Heather Wickman, a chamber and baroque flautist. Because of her, I learned about sight-reading, chamber music, musical analysis, perfect pitch, and so much more. I played in ensembles, got a scholarship to a performance arts camp, places in larger music programs, and finally could turn my talent into something useful.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Making my own way, most definitely! I’ve never had a lot of backing, but I’m at a point where it’s all or nothing, even if I have nothing to begin with.
I’ve paid such a heavy price of carrying a gift that I couldn’t do anything with, as it turns out; I’m a product of my environment. It’s unfortunate result of resentment and everyone around me having this need to compete which led to me being exploited a lot in my childhood. I had my mother and grandmother who tried to nurture and protect my gift as best they could, considering the circumstances. So now, I must continue my life of trial-and-error until something sticks.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
To date, I have a single “Female Animal” that I arranged for jazz combo that I’m very happy to have finally recorded. It is available on BandCamp.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
None of them. I enjoy certain works like Liszt’s Deux Legendes, and Skrjabin’s Mazurka No. 6, Op. 3 (I made a jazz arrangement to that piece as well, but it’s unfinished) but I don’t feel like I play them as well as I should. Sure, I can play them straight through, but I’m always dissatisfied.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
It depends on the show (or theme) and the venue that I’m performing in. It would be preposterous to perform a heavy-handed piece in a salon, so I go for delicate pieces (Nocturnes, ideally). Usually, I structure my programs by key and in a certain order. Sometimes, it’s a prelude-single work-sonata-nocturne kind of structure. Other times, I use a masterwork (such as the aforementioned “Deux Legendes”), an interim piece (perhaps an Etude), then a strong sonata to finish (my favourite would be Rachmaninov’s 2nd piano sonata)
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
For now, I don’t. I haven’t done a lot of performances lately but I hope that will change soon!
Who are your favourite musicians?
I am team Nina Simone all the way! I also enjoy the works of Hazel Scott, Liberace, Yuna, Mina, Eartha Kitt, Marcos Valle, and of course, Alicia Keys.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I gave a recital in High School, which featured a dramatic light show, as part of a mandatory project that would determine my passing into Year 12. My classmates, who were a part of the audience, knew nothing of Classical music, or that I could even play the piano. But for them to see me playing Beethoven’s Tempest sonata under a solo spotlight, then to be completely washed in hard reds and blues as the piece progresses definitely brought the audience to loud gasps and applause.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Follow me here, my definition of success would be making it to a spot in your career where you are completely comfortable. I know it’s an odd answer, but let me explain. My ideal comes from a place where what you do (performing) doesn’t require mental preparation (ugh, another concert! I guess I’ll start packing.) or a stiff drink to calm your nerves, because you know the public is here to see you and both you and the audience know that the performance will be worth the attendance. There’s comfort on my end, and for the audience, knowing that they’re getting the most from their ticket purchase.
What’s also success to me, is when my face or my name garners interest, and when it’s over, people are pleased to have come to see me. I don’t have to be famous per se, but I’d like to know that I can make a living from my music and if I ever felt like putting on a show at random, I’d like to know that people will have no reservations on buying tickets and showing up to the event. I feel that financial comfort is the better option, as well as the physical.
Think of Yuja Wang or Valentina Lisitsa, (two other musicians I admire) they’re confident and always ready before and during a show. Their names, stage presence and skills on the piano speaks for them. All they need to do is show up and play.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I feel that you must learn everything you can! It’s never too late. If you’re in school, drink in everything the institution has to offer; talk to your teachers/professors, stay after school, wander the practise rooms and listen to everyone as they practise – picking up cues and how they hand a wrong note or difficult passage – you can even participate in recitals or music programs to keep things fresh and varietal so you’re not in a rut. Sometimes isolation is necessary, but also take the time to rest and relax or socialize.
Always eat, you need the nourishment. If you’re of drinking legal age, pour a glass of your favourite alcoholic beverage and sip while you practise (Brown liquors are best; they really help with concentration on difficult portions…because you’ll be relaxed enough to not get frustrated and overwhelmed, you’ll find yourself reviewing the section slowly and confidently) but if you don’t partake, you’ll benefit by drinking herbal or green tea with blueberries (they’re good for memory)
Then when you go back to practise; practise by the stanza or one-page-at-a-time (backwards), take frequent breaks, practise note-by-note at a slow pace! In the morning, listen to your repertoire while your mind is refreshed and malleable, it all comes together.
Also, don’t be afraid of failure or giving a bad show, you’re not going to be on-the-mark every time. We all go through it, rather anyone wants to admit it. I certainly have performances that I’ve given that were outright terrible! But that experience will matter in the long run, please understand this. And remember: you can do it! You are talented, you are worthy, and you are going to do great.
Louis Vaspar performs piano music by Chopin and Liszt (including the Deux Legendes) at the 1901 Arts Club, London SE1 on Monday 12 February.