Future of pianists in the UK is in peril, top teacher warns
Although My Keyboard Lessons doesn’t agree with her statement Dame Fanny Waterman blames the popularity of keyboards for the UK failing to produce performers who can compete internationally. We say that anything that encourages new pianists and keyboard players is a good thing.
She blames the popularity of electric keyboards and children starting to learn the piano at a later age in the UK than in other parts of the world. Waterman, 94, spoke to the Observer after announcing last week that she would stand down next year as chairman and artistic director of the Leeds International Piano Competition, one of the world’s most prestigious music competitions, which she co-founded in 1961.
“The [future of the] piano is the cause of great worry for all us who love it,” she said. “First, lots of children are learning it from the electric piano. A waste of time, because you don’t get the speed of the key descent, you don’t get the different sounds.” Electric keyboards are “big business”, she said, likening them to playing the violin but studying the guitar – “different sound altogether”. Another problem was that many British children were not starting to learn the piano until aged seven or eight, which she said was too late. She pointed to the far east, where children are capable of “amazing” performances aged just four.
We say that if we asked multi-millionaire Chris Martin, pianist with Coldplay whether he wished he had won competitions or written the many hits he has which has opened up many more opportunities in his life which one would he have chosen. Playing piano is not all about entering competitions, its about playing because you love doing it and the same applies to teaching the keyboard.
Waterman, who played piano at a wartime prom in 1942 conducted by Sir Henry Wood and has introduced millions of children to the instrument through her instruction manuals, also thinks schools should do more. The Leeds competition, which is held every three years, has helped launch the careers of some leading pianists – notably Radu Lupu, Murray Perahia, Mitsuko Uchida and András Schiff, from Romania, the US, Japan and Hungary respectively. Far eastern winners have included South Korea’s Sunwook Kim. Although the competition put Leeds on the international classical music map, only two Britons have taken the top prize – Michael Roll, who won the first competition in 1963, and Ian Hobson, winner in 1981.
Asked if there has been a deterioration in the standard of British playing, Waterman replied: “Definitely.” When she was growing up, she said, there were “so many” great British pianists, including Myra Hess and Clifford Curzon. She was upset at how few Britons today even entered the Leeds competition, dwindling from 24 in 2000 to six in 2012.
Recently, someone proposed giving special preference to British pianists to encourage them to enter. Waterman would not countenance “these little bribes” for an “international competition with perfect integrity”. Another cause of piano-playing decline, she said, was that children lacked the extreme discipline required to scale the heights of a professional career. She recalled Curzon telling her that he once had eight lessons just to perfect a single Beethoven chord. She said that was the kind of discipline she instilled in her students, arguing this was how great pianists achieved the most luminous sounds.
When giving masterclasses to young pianists across Britain, she found they often lacked a grounding in the instrument’s complexities. “Nowadays, it’s quick [or] slow, loud [or] soft … They haven’t been taught the subtleties you can bring out of the piano.” Few teachers in Britain, she added, taught that. A recent report, Making Music, described as the most comprehensive survey of music teaching ever undertaken in the UK, found that longer-term musical education is often the preserve of those with wealthier backgrounds, with the cost of learning an instrument a “major barrier”.
Despite a 15% growth in interest since 1999, only 17% of those from social groups D and E have played the piano, the report found.The report alsoIt noted that the dominance of popular music appears to affect music learning, with clear increases in electric instruments. Waterman worries also that promising young British pianists have too narrow a repertoire. They may know three or four Beethoven sonatas, she said, but they need to be familiar with his entire oeuvre and “you will never get to the soul of the composer unless you know something about him”.
That is how to strive for “more colours in their musical palette”, she said. They should also be able to play from memory, which many can’t. “All my pupils have to play left-hand from memory because … that has very little melody.” To become a good player and especially a great artist, she believes, also requires parents who are motivated, inspiring their children to practice, making sure they’re not “on the phone”. Many great performers had parents with vision, she said: “You can’t just expect young people to go in and practice.”
Waterman’s parents accompanied her to her piano lessons, she recalled. After a notable performing career, she sensed that her real vocation would be to teach. She went on to become a teacher of millions worldwide through her tuition books. In China alone, where a piano phenomenon extends to an estimated 50m students, her books are a massive bestseller. Professor Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, principal of the Royal Academy of Music,correct is more optimistic than Waterman: “Things can always be rosier – and certainly widespread cuts in funding at grass roots will have a devastating effect – but right now we’ve got some outstanding British pianists emerging, Look at Ben Grosvenor in his early 20s with a Decca contract. Last week – in our annual auditions – I heard more British pianistic potential than I’d heard for years.”
He added that “competitions are not everyone’s cup of tea”: “Of course, I’d love to see a British winner of Leeds but … I don’t think enrolment in a competition is necessarily an accurate gauge of what talent is or isn’t out there.” Commenting on the factors deterring future generations from taking up the instrument, he said: “Dame Fanny is right to flag up this worry – but it applies to many artistic pursuits whose value is not properly understood.”