Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?
My grandfather had an upright piano in the front room of his house in Ipswich. This room was kept for special occasions and Sundays. He liked to play Methodist hymns, excerpts from Haydn and Beethoven, and old music hall songs. I loved to sit next to him as he played, or rifle through the music in the piano stool, with its special antique smell and friable, crumbly pages.
There was lots of music at home when I was growing up: on the radio, LPs and from my father, who was a fine amateur clarinettist. When I was in bed, I used to hear him practising Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto to Music Minus One: for a while I believed he had a whole orchestra in the sitting room with him!
I think I was about 5 or 6 when I started piano lessons with Mrs Scott in Sutton Coldfield. My piano was an early 20th century Challen upright. It had lived in a conservatory for two years before it came to us and it needed quite a lot of restoration, but once overhauled it was a really nice instrument, of which I was very fond.
My parents were keen concert goers and my love of live music developed in childhood. We used to go to many concerts at Birmingham Old Town Hall where a young conductor with wild curly hair conducted the CBSO (this was Sir Simon Rattle). Once a year, as a treat, I would be taken to London on the coach to go to the Proms, and we also went to the opera and ballet regularly. I was lucky enough to see/hear some of the “greats”: Ashkenazy, Brendel, Lupu, du Pre, Barenboim, Lill.
Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?
My parents nurtured and encouraged a love of classical music. This was enhanced by my music teacher at secondary school and my then piano teacher Mrs Murdoch. Since I started my blog The Cross-Eyed Pianist in 2010, encounters with other pianists and musicians all feed into my musical life and inform my teaching and performing. My study with Penelope Roskell (since November 2008), and other master teachers and concert pianists, has had a huge impact on my confidence and skill as a pianist and knowledge and experience as a teacher
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Convincing people that piano teaching is not a “hobby job” but a professional role which I take very seriously.
Fitting in practising, teaching, writing and other musical activities with family life, and making sure everything, and everyone, gets the right amount of attention from me.
Which performances are you most proud of?
I played Messiaen’s Regard de la Vierge from the ‘Vingt Regards’ at an EPTA event hosted by Murray McLachlan at Steinway Hall in 2011 as part of the preparations for my ATCL recital diploma. It was the first time I had played a Steinway D piano and the first time I’d played the Messiaen in public. The feedback from Murray and the response from the audience was wonderful and an incredible boost to my diploma preparations and confidence.
I always enjoy playing for my local musical society at Teddington’s National Physical Laboratory. The audience is very engaged, supportive and warm. The Society has a very nice 1901 Steinway B.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
In my head I think I can play Debussy, but in reality, I find his piano music very difficult, with its many subtleties of shading, touch, pedal, and more. I’d like to think I have a particular affinity with the music of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, and Messiaen. In recent years, I have become more and more interested in contemporary piano music.
How do you make your repertoire choices?
I play whatever music interests me, and my tastes change constantly. At the moment I am working on a eclectic mix of John Cage, Beethoven, Liszt, Debussy, Messiaen, and Schubert. Mostly Schubert, it must be said, as I am working on the big A Major Sonata (D959).
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
I love performing Bach – his music can have a very steadying effect on the audience and is always a good concert opener. I also love playing Liszt.
Listening to at the moment – Scriabin Preludes, Morton Feldman, John Cage, late Schubert chamber music.
Who are your favourite musicians?
Richter, Gould, Tortelier, De Peyer, Perahia, Lupu, Pires, Hamelin, Anderszewski, Uchida, Alison Goldfrapp, Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell.
Most memorable concert experience?
It has to be Steven Osborne’s performance of the complete Vingt Regards of Olivier Messiaen at the Queen Elizabeth Hall earlier this year. Not only for the feat of stamina required to play the entire work without an interval, but the extreme concentration and intense focus which Osborne maintained throughout the performance. It was beautiful, moving, and incredibly profound.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Be true to your musical self and try not to be distracted or downhearted by what others in your profession are doing. Don’t endlessly compare yourself to your peers or to others in your profession. Navigate your own course and true to find your own musical identity and voice.
Live and love life fully: go to concerts, exhibitions, films, read, eat, socialise, enjoy. Everything feeds the artistic temperament!
What are you working on at the moment?
Schubert – Piano Sonata D959, Impromptu in A-flat D935/1, Beethoven Piano Sonata Op 26, Liszt Paysage (from Transcendental Etudes), various shorter works by a variety of composers including John Cage, Scriabin and Messiaen
How did the South London Concert Series come about?
In Spring 2013 my teaching colleague and friend Lorraine Liyanage and I took over running the London Piano Meetup Group, a “club” for pianists in and around London which is organised via the social media platform Meetup. After a few meetings where members performed and really seemed to relish the performing experience, it became apparent that amongst our membership we had some very fine players, and also people who were keen to perform in a more formal concert setting. Amateur pianists don’t always get many performance opportunities and we decided to change that. We also know some young professional musicians and we thought it would be interesting to combine pros and amateurs in a single concert. The format is simple: a guest performer (usually a professional or semi-professional young or emerging artist) plays for c35 minutes and 4 or 5 “supporting artists” (we prefer not to call them “amateurs”) play for around 6 minutes. Most of our concerts are held at the beautiful and intimate 1901 Arts Club near Waterloo station, though we also use LASSCo Brunswick House, a magnificent Georgian mansion near Vauxhall station which is home to an eclectic collection of antiques and salvaged curiosities. The concert usually lasts around an hour and then everyone gathers for drinks and socialising. This gives audience members the chance to meet the artists, and the atmosphere at these “after parties” is always very convivial and friendly. In a way, the series harks back to the ethos and atmosphere of the 19th-century cultural salon, where people gathered to enjoy music and socialise. The intimacy of the venue makes the musical experience much more accessible and immediate for the audience too.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Seated at my beloved 1913 Bechstein Model A grand piano!
What is your most treasured possession?
I’d like to say my piano, but that would upset my family! So, my family. And good health.
What is your present state of mind?
Frances Wilson performs at LASSCO Brunswick House on 22nd January 2015 as part of the South London Concert Series. The programme includes works by Debussy, Schubert and Messiaen, together with the world premiere of ‘Preludes for Piano’ by Matthew Sear, dedicated to Frances Wilson. Buy tickets
Frances Wilson is a London-based pianist, teacher, blogger and music and art reviewer. In recent years she has made a name for herself in the classical music community in the UK and beyond via her blog ‘The Cross-Eyed Pianist’, which features articles on classical music and pianism, concert reviews, guest articles and a popular weekly interview series ‘Meet the Artist’ in which musicians, composers and conductors discuss various aspects of their creative lives. Frances is also a regular contributor to Pianist magazine’s online content, and has written guest articles for a number of classical music and music education websites including Clavier Companion and SoundandMusic.org. A passionate advocate of amateur pianism, Frances is co-host, with Lorraine Liyanage, of the London Piano Meetup Group, which organises performance and social events for adult amateur pianists in and around London. She is Artistic Director of the South London Concert Series.
Frances holds Associate (2011) and Licentiate (2013) Diplomas in Piano Performance (both with Distinction) from Trinity College of Music, London, and for the past five years studied with Penelope Roskell, Professor of Piano & Piano Pedagogy at Trinity-Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance. She has also participated in masterclasses with Murray McLachlan, Carlo Grante and Norma Fisher, and taken private tuition with Alan Fraser, Graham Fitch and James Lisney.