What motivates you to play Piano?
The reasons have changed over the years. When I was a teenager, my motivation was to be good enough to get into one of the London music colleges and of course, I had lots of time to practise. Before recording my new CD ‘A Country Suite’, I had to do a lot of practise because I hadn’t played professionally since 1991. Working in piano bars and hotels really ruined my enjoyment of playing and once I’d give up doing that kind of work, I hardly played the piano at all.
Did you enjoy your time at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama?
Yes, I did although it was very hard work and quite stressful at times. I believe they auditioned 500 people for the 40 places on our course so there was a lot of pressure. Luckily I was a good pianist, a reasonably good trumpet player, I sang well and my auditions went like a dream. Then the hard work started and I was totally immersed in music for the next three years. Sometimes, you go from being the best pianist at your school to being one of many good pianists at Music College and that’s a reality check in itself!
Did anyone create a special impression on you/why?
Harold Dexter was the Head of the Music Graduate course and I was lucky enough to be in his GM (General Musicianship) group. Two hours of composition, score reading, sight reading and sight singing every Wednesday morning. We had to get up really early to be at college by 9am, it was not my favourite morning of the week but he was a very interesting and clever man and he worked us hard. Some weeks, as well as practising our first study instrument (piano, in my case) and second study instrument (trumpet), we also had to compose several pieces of music, write pieces in the style of e.g. J.S. Bach, score a piece for orchestra and conduct the graduate orchestra or choir too. It was a fantastic course but it was hard work.
I have absorbed many styles over the years and these are a few of the most obvious influences. They are many and varied and they are all genuinely important influences in my song writing and compositional styles: Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Abba, Barry Manilow, Puccini, Rachmaninov and Schumann.
Earliest memory involving composing?
My dad knew I was a good pianist and when I was 15, he suggested I try my hand at song writing. I said ‘No, I couldn’t do that sort of thing’ but he persevered and when I was 16, I appeared on BBC Cymru (the Welsh language version of BBC Wales), performing a song I had written called ‘Ti a Mi’. This song has earned me more royalties than anything else I’ve ever written. It was a huge thrill to sing my own song, accompanying myself at the piano and performing with members of the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra.
Proudest career moment to date?
This is tough, there are several. One which sticks in my mind (although it does not involve my song writing or compositional skills) is singing in the choir at the Royal Albert Hall during the UK leg of the Barry Manilow world tour in 1982. He needed good singers to perform his song ‘One Voice’ and myself and my then boyfriend were offered the chance to sing. It was such an exciting week; we saw the show every night and sang onstage with Barry and his fantastic band at the end of the show. I’ve appeared on national TV a few times. ‘New Faces of ‘87’ and The Alan Titchmarsh Show (2010). I also had songs in the final of ‘Cân i Gymru’ (Song for Wales) in 1988 and 1998 which was a thrill.
Can you tell us more about ‘A Country Suite’, the inspiration behind it?
‘A Country Suite’ comprises six short pieces for piano, each a snapshot of country life in the late 19th century. The inspiration came from two things. The first is the drive which takes me to my son’s school each morning, through the lovely Berkshire countryside.
The changing of the seasons is something which fascinates and never ceases to amaze me. The way the countryside closes down in the winter time and comes back to life in the spring is nothing short of a miracle. Life was tough then, if you had a bad harvest, you couldn’t just pop out to the shops and buy provisions, you just had to make do with what you did have. The third movement ‘The Harvest’ is full of joy, it tells of a good harvest and you hear the church bells ringing out in celebration.
I am also a huge fan of costume drama e.g. Lark Rise to Candleford and Cranford and these television shows were also a part of the inspiration for ‘A Country Suite’.
Why write for piano?
The piano is ‘my’ instrument. I’ve played the piano since I was four years of age, it’s a natural extension of my body. It’s the most wonderful instrument , you can replace the orchestra with a piano for rehearsal purposes (opera and ballet)
and as my dad has always said “If you can play the piano, you’ll never starve”
Up until 1997, I had never had much responsibility. I hadn’t planned to have children, Dominic (who was born in 1998) was a honeymoon surprise baby and it was a huge shock to find out I was pregnant. It took me a while to get used to being a mother, having had so much freedom for over 35 years of my life. Dominic’s brother arrived in 2002 and in 2006, he was diagnosed with high functioning autism. It was a black day but I set out to find out as much as possible about autism and he’s now 10 years old and doing well in a mainstream school. There was a huge gap between the last piece I wrote in 1997 (the folk song ‘Tymhorau’ which is Track 9 on the ‘A Country Suite’ album) and ‘A Country Suite’ which I composed in 2011 because I just had to shelve the music in favour of supporting Zachary.
When you’re a full time mum to two boys, one of whom is on the autistic spectrum, it’s hardly surprising that the tunes don’t flow as well as they used to!
‘Music speaks to your soul’
Music is a language. It can speak to people. It’s a well known fact that music can reach children and adults in a way spoken language cannot. The benefits of music therapy have been proved time and time again and there are special courses to teach people how to use music to help others. I know the effect music has on me, the third act of the opera ‘La Boheme’ by Puccini never fails to reduce me to tears, not just because the story is so sad but because the music is so stunningly beautiful. There is one phrase where Mimi and Rodolfo are singing together and I don’t think I’ve ever been able to listen to it without crying. My son Zachary is brutally honest (as are most children on the autistic spectrum) and if he doesn’t like something, he will tell me very bluntly.
I knew ‘A Country Suite’ had something special about it when Zachary asked me to play it for him as he was falling asleep – instead of his Jessie J album! Now that is a real compliment! Music is magical, music speaks to your soul, it can tell a story and it is timeless and everlasting.
How competitive has your music experience been?
I don’t really think of music as being competitive although I have taken part in some competitions such as TV talent shows and musical festivals (Eisteddfodau) in Wales. I suppose I had to compete to get into the Guildhall and I must have been pretty good in those days (late 1970s/early 1980s) because the competition was stiff and I passed my audition and was offered a place (and a grant) based on my audition. They didn’t even ask me for A levels, they were happy with my O level grades and my audition. I am not a hugely competitive person although I can be quite determined if I believe strongly in something. I believe very strongly in the appeal of my new album ‘A Country Suite’ and the follow up suite ‘The New Lady Radnor Suite’ is also very melodic and accessible. It’s dedicated to my friend, the present Lady Radnor and the movements include ‘Melissa’s Theme’, ‘Longford Castle’ (the family home), ‘The Nursery’ (for her six children and all the children who have lived at Longford Castle over the centuries), ‘On The Banks Of The Avon’ (the castle is on the banks of the River Avon and this is a highly descriptive piece) and ‘The Radnor Rag’, a tribute to the great Scott Joplin.
Do you have any advice for other composers?
I think it’s the advice I would give myself which is, if you really believe your music is worthwhile and that people will want to hear it, keep knocking on doors until someone says ‘Come in, I like your music too’.
Aspirations for the future?
My main priority is my two sons, Dominic and Zachary. I am 50 years of age and they are still so young, just 14 and 10 years old respectively so it will be a while yet before they are able to look after themselves.
Musically, I would like recognition for being a composer of melodies which, once heard, stick in your mind. I love to hear my children humming a tune and realising it’s one of mine.
“I have listened to your CD and really enjoyed your music. It is simultaneously rooted in the past but evocative of the time in which we live. I wish you every success.” Patrick Hawes, composer