Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
We had a piano in the house and I just loved playing around on it when I was very young. After having piano lessons for a while, I eventually auditioned for the Purcell school – it was an intense environment and socially tough, but this turned out to be a positive thing and motivated me to practise like crazy. I really made my mind up then that I was going to be a pianist although I didn’t have a clue how, I just knew I had to be good and work hard for it. At the time I wasn’t aware how much more than practise and would be involved in being a pianist!
Later, when I went to the Royal Academy of Music, it felt hugely liberating – I began to explore more as a musician and individual. If I hadn’t attended the Academy, I’m not sure I’d have had the confidence to pursue music professionally. I almost couldn’t go, but was fortunate enough at the last moment to receive some inheritance money just as I had turned down my place and that meant I could attend after all. It was definitely the right choice. Joanna MacGregor was my teacher there, who I really looked up to, she was immensely encouraging and challenged me in many ways which I needed.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
The big romantic repertoire really inspired me. Learning these works with Yonty Solomon and Douglas Finch at Trinity was wonderful: they were great teachers and didn’t hold me back in tackling the mammoth works I was drawn to – which were probably years beyond me. For my final recital I played Beethoven Op.111!
As well as musical influences, everyday life and occurrences influence me. What I bring to the stage is not only my performance and understanding of the music, but my personality, experience and perceptions. The work I do is affected by everything I encounter and perceive. So I go to lots of concerts and meet lots of different people, and generally feel open to new possibilities. I read (and try to practise) a lot about spirituality, religion, philosophy which helps give me perspective and a sense of purpose. I also read about music, musicians, and enjoy hearing podcasts on science and stories about entrepreneurs – I recommend ‘Shoe Dog’ by Nike Founder Phil Knight for anyone with a long term goal, and ‘The Alchemist’ by Paulo Coelho – I often listen to Jeremy Irons reading that before bed… so soothing!
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
At times everything seems a challenge! The music, understanding the composer and getting to a point where we both click, then conveying this to the audience. Being seemingly undervalued is a challenge. Getting up early to practise, balance commitments and keep learning is a challenge. Yet, even in the most difficult moments I know they’re helping me to grow.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
I recorded ‘Pinks and Blues’ three years ago – it’s a mix of jazz and blues influenced music and new commissions. It feels very far from where I am now in terms of repertoire and my playing has also developed a lot since then. But I can look back and think – actually that was really good and creatively put together. You can pour everything into a recording – yes it’s a good goal but it’s not an end goal.
I also video recorded the entire Debussy Etudes this year which went out on Classic FM each week celebrating his 100 year centenary. I was proud of that achievement as they’re really tough works which stretched me, but already my playing of them has changed. I’m now working and preparing for new recording projects, perhaps I’ll re record the Etudes in the future but I am letting that settle and moving forward right now. Nothing’s ever a finished product and that’s why I see the changing recording industry as a positive.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
I like to tackle as much repertoire as possible and I’m not quite ready to be too specialist. However I tend to go through phases where I focus on a composer or collection of works in depth. I used to play lots of difficult contemporary music, now I’m currently working on more romantic music – including the complete Rachmaninov Études-Tableaux. I’ve hardly played any of his music before so it’s a fresh slate of discovery.
I was also fortunate to study a lot of 20th Century French music with Bernard Flavigny – who was taught by Alfred Cortot and Walter Gieseking so that was an incredible opportunity to understand on a deeper level that whole school of playing.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I’m fortunate that repertoire decisions are generally down to me. I like to keep it varied and tackle complete sets of composers’ works. I love programming and dreaming up fantasy festivals. I think one of my strengths is making historical, contextual or surprising connections which ultimately enhances the audience’s experience.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
When I was younger I did a tour with the EUYO and we performed in some incredible halls. I’d love to return to some of those as a soloist. There was a stuuning place in Graffeneg – an angular outdoor concert space next to a castle. I’d like to play there again and also the Palau de Musica in Barcelona – the interior is stunning and made to feel like you are outside in fantastical gardens. I would also love to perform at the International Piano Series on the Southbank one day.
Who are your favourite musicians?
Pianists – Radu Lupu, Mitsuko Uchida, Teresa Carreno, Alfred Cortot, Yuja Wang…amongst others…all for different reasons.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I loved playing the Shostakovich piano concerto last year at the Oval Space – it was a youthful orchestra, audience and venue – an amazing atmosphere. I also did a lying down concert in a gorgeous Chapel in the KCL Strand Campus last year, that was a really special vibe and I felt really at one with the audience and beautifully affected by their energy. I loved that experience so much and the way it attracted a whole new younger audience and how they were positively present. It was so good, I am now launching a series of lying down concerts called Lie down + Listen. Who knows this could be the future for classical music…
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
The feeling I get when performing and working at the piano surpasses anything else for me – it’s when I feel connected, fulfilled and enlightened – if I can have that feeling and the audience can feel it too on a regular basis, I would feel very successful. Success would also be continuing to be passionate about music, learning and developing on a daily basis.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
From what I have learnt so far;
N.B this is as much a reminder for me as it is for anyone but I have found the following good…
- Try new things.
- Develop a connection to yourself and something higher – a spiritual connection – whatever that means to you.
- Don’t allow yourself to feel inferior or superior to anyone – the music industry and others will try to impress a sense of hierarchy on you – but in essence we’re all equal.
- Don’t listen to ‘how things are done’… I believe being your unique self is an important contribution to progress, do things you are passionate about even if it doesn’t agree with those around you.
- Go to lots of concerts or events and meet new people without any specific motive. It’s the best way to make genuine connections and meet potential collaborators.
- Constantly expand repertoire.
- Stay connected with friends/ family/ support network.
- Have fun! And make it a priority. Truly, the best opportunities and connections have come to me when I’m busy having fun.
- Love what you are playing / creating.
- Get up early – practise as soon as you can after this – it’s the best time!
What is your present state of mind?
Happy, excited, optimistic and a little tired!
Lie down + Listen is a unique lying down concert experience with meditation and gentle yoga/lying down postures pre concert. Music by Arvo Part, Peteris Vasks, Claude Debussy, Meredith Monk and others performed by Christina McMaster on piano and the Carice Singers conducted by George Parris. 21st September, St John the Divine near Oval Station, London.