Piano, or music in general, is first and foremost a communication medium and meditative tool for me. It helps me to express and gather my own thoughts and emotions. It’s an empathic conductor.
In 2010 you became the first ever dual recipient of the Sterndale Bennett Prize and the Scholarship since its inception 140 years ago. The same year, you received the Managing Director’s Award in the Jaques Samuel Intercollegiate Piano Competition.
Can you tell us more about these and what they meant to you?
Competitions do not always make much sense. They are very subjective, and one could argue they hardly are a valid measure of true musicianship. But it does feel good to be acknowledged, be it by peers, masters or members of the audience. And they are, in the end, one of the most effective stepping stones for young artists to get a wider recognition and real performing experience.
The first time I participated in the Jaques Samuel Competition in 2009 was a complete disaster. I was such a nervous wreck that my fingers were out of control, and I skipped the entire middle section of Schumann’s “In Der Nacht”! So, coming out of it with an award in 2010 was a confirmation that perseverance is essential, and that hard work eventually pays off.
The Sterndale Bennett Prize and Scholarship were extremely rewarding successes for me. Competitions aren’t always as gratifying and feel impersonal, as we approach them from the perspective of a contestant and do not give much thought about their meaning and history. But in the case of this scholarship, which is associated with a musical lineage and an educational institution, you realise that you are entrusted with their legacy and that an honorific token has been bestowed upon you with the prize.
Of course, all these events and prizes also stand as great means to encourage young artists to take risks, and to reward them, both spiritually, and, let’s not forget it, financially. Countless people and organisations contribute to these events and make them happen, and we should be thankful for their dedication to the arts.
That being said, there’s much to be said about the way we try to promote young artists and put them on a path to success. Competitions are too often a negative and repressive experience, and many of us feel that we should rethink how we want to help upcoming musicians to develop and strive. Competition and creativity, in a field that is rather subjective, are orthogonal.
Who has influenced you as a pianist the most? (could be a teacher, friend, another pianist or family member)
Countless people have left me with something to think about and contributed to making me the performer / person I am today.
If I had to single out a few of them, I think my biggest influences are my former teachers, John Perry and Margaret Hair. However, it would be incredibly selfish of me to not mention all the other people who helped shape and refine my musical style, and supported me throughout the years. So I’d like to address my warmest thanks – in no particular order – to Elizabeth Powell, Ian Fountain, and Marian Rybicki.
But it’s not only about people I have been in direct contact with: listening to great artists motivates and inspires me. I’m also a sucker for Jazz Standards. There’s something magical, comforting, and bittersweet about it, that it somehow manages to dramatically turn my mood around.
Earliest memory involving piano playing?
I can’t exactly pinpoint the first time I ever played piano or the turnaround moment that got me into music or performing. However, one of my earliest memories as a child practicing piano was this one time during a lesson, when my piano teacher got upset that I couldn’t follow a rhythm. She made me cry and told me that if I couldn’t do this, I might as well just stop playing right now.
I guess it’s another sign that perseverance and effort matter.
Proudest career moment / to date?
Life as an aspiring musician is riddled with disappointing roadblocks, but thankfully there are some uplifting moments.
My participation in the Animato concert series in February 2012 was one of them. It was founded by Mr Patrick Amat and is directed by Mr Marian Rybicki, who is my professor at the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris, which lends the prestigious Salle Cortot for the occasion. The last concert I did prior to Animato was about 10 years ago, and I had forgotten how much I enjoy performing in public. Ever since, the only occasions I had were competitions or school concerts, and it was refreshing and reassuring to be in front of a real audience again.
I think that I can be thankful for having been riding an upward curve since 2010, after a few rather bumpy times. I received the 2010 Sterndale Bennett Prize and Scholarship, and graduated in 2011 from the Royal Academy of Music with my Bachelor’s degree. And it might not seem like much and appear to be a normal or necessary milestone in someone’s life, but I took a long and winding road to get there. Finally, 2012 has been a good year for me overall, as I also reached the finals of 2 international competitions, in Mayenne and Rhodes.
I hope and work for other memorable moments ahead.
In your opinion, what are the most important qualities in a great pianist? Any tips to young people who want to become concert pianists?
For me, having sensitivity, passion, and sincerity are some of the most important qualities I look for in a musician. I prefer to be moved, rather than to be wowed. I look up to musicians who are able to transport you through various feelings and places; able to paint pictures, and communicate human joys and sufferings. Technique certainly helps in order to communicate, but it just is the legwork of musicianship. Bare technique without soul isn’t art. Musicianship and showmanship are different qualities, and I put a stronger emphasis on the former.
I don’t know if I am in the best position to give advice to other young aspiring concert pianists, but I’d say this: do not get discouraged by the constant feeling of rejection and competitive bickering inherent to our field. Be open to the criticism of your peers and elders, but first and foremost embrace who you want to be as a musician.
The biggest challenge you have overcome (in piano playing)?
Every time I go on stage! Irrational insecurities trigger in me an enormous stage fright, to the point that I always end up pleading with people around me to quit at the last minute. Although performing is very fulfilling and rewarding, it is also an emotionally and physically draining experience each time. I get paralysed by fear of failure and disappointment.
What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I am busy channelling my new found love for my newly born daughter and her older brother. They drive my everyday life and are the catalyst for a new album, which is still in early stages and will hopefully be out by the end of 2012.