Frances Wilson is a pianist, piano teacher, writer, concert reviewer and blogger on classical music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. She holds Licentiate and Associate diplomas in performance (both with distinction) and currently studies with acclaimed teacher, pianist and writer Graham Fitch.
Here she shares her piano story…
Music in the family
My paternal grandfather played the piano, mostly Methodist hymns and his favourite bits of Bach, Haydn and Beethoven (his favourite).
I suppose I was always aware of it and recall sitting next to him when he played when I was very small. It was an Edwardian upright in the front room (kept for Sundays and special occasions) and the piano stool was full of interesting song sheets and hymnals, friable and speckled with age, with that special antique smell, like the musty reminiscence of an old church …
My younger uncle also played the piano, passably well, my eldest uncle was a fine amateur violinist, and my father played the clarinet. There was often music in my grandparents’ house, live and on the wireless and ‘gramophone’.
I don’t recall actually asking if I could learn the piano; rather, my parents acquired an old Challen upright for me when I was about 5.
It had lived in a greenhouse for 2 years and needed a lot of restoration. It was overhauled, refelted, and given lots of TLC, and was gradually brought up to something close to concert pitch by the piano tuner to become a much-loved and regularly-played instrument which saw me through all my grade exams.
Encouragement and Concerts …
All through my childhood, my parents encouraged my interest in music.
There was a lot of music at home – on the radio and LPs – and my parents regularly took me to concerts, often featuring the piano. From a young age, I learnt about the etiquette of the concert hall – sitting quietly during the performance, not yawning or fidgeting (as my mother used to say “if you yawn the musicians may see you and think you are bored!”).
As a consequence, I heard the big warhorses of the piano repertoire performed by many of the “great” pianists of what is now an earlier age, though many are still alive – Alfred Brendel, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Daniel Barenboim, Radu Lupu, Murray Perahia and John Lill, amongst others.
I loved the music and the whole experience of the concert – the venue, the plush seats, the hushed reverential atmosphere and the special clothes the performers wore.
In my teens, I dreamt of being a concert pianist. Perhaps it had something to do with being an only child, but I was fascinated by the “loneliness” of the concert pianist and the special relationship of the solo pianist with the music and the audience.
I threw myself into music-making activities at secondary school, singing in the school choir, playing in a recorder group, learning the harpsichord so I could play continuo with a Baroque ensemble and taking up the clarinet in order to play in the senior orchestra.
Followed by Discouragement …
But as a pianist, I always felt rather sidelined at a school which was very keen on “team participation”, and I was rarely encouraged to perform either as a soloist or in a chamber group.
I wanted to go to music college rather than university, but my music teacher at school told me I wasn’t “good enough” to even bother to audition for conservatoire.
That comment really stung – and still does – but fortunately I made other plans and studied Anglo-Saxon and Medieval English at university, which at the time was interesting if rather esoteric, and helped me hone my writing skills.
There I stopped playing the piano and almost as soon as I graduated I stepped into the world of books, working for a number of specialist art and academic publishers and booksellers.
The Return to Piano
I didn’t return to the piano again until I was in my late 30s. My mother bought me a reasonably good digital piano, and while this wasn’t “the real thing”, it was better than nothing, and I began to enjoy rediscovering the music I had played in my teens – Bach’s Preludes and Fugues, some of Beethoven’s Sonatas, Schubert’s Impromptus and Debussy’s Préludes.
It was gratifying to find that much of this music was still “in the fingers”, though the fingers weren’t always that biddable due to lack of practise!
Around the same time, I started going to concerts again regularly (having a small child and the exigencies of baby-sitting had made this rather difficult) and London’s Wigmore Hall became – and remains – my favourite venue for piano and chamber music.
Soon after, I started teaching, an experience I found both rewarding and a huge slog in the early years.
To help me better understand the psychology of being taught, and to improve my own playing, I started having piano lessons again. After a break of some 25 years, the experience was both thrilling and inspiring and also rather terrifying initially…
That “you’re not good enough” comment from my music teacher at school continued to rankle, and I felt at a disadvantage to musical friends who had been through conservatoire, so I decided to try for a performance diploma, which I took when I was 45.
Passing with Distinction spurred me on to the Licentiate Diploma (which I took and passed with distinction in 2013 when I was 46). That second diploma success gave me the validation, as a musician, I had craved for so long and made me feel like a “real” pianist at last.
Finding my Identity and Place
During this time, I knew very few musicians and pianists: being a pianist can be lonely (although I like the solitude) and I missed the opportunity to discuss music and piano playing with others.
This was one of the motivations for establishing my blog, The Cross-Eyed Pianist, which initially began as a kind of practice diary, a place where I could write about the music I was working on and hearing in concert, but has since grown to become one the UK’s pre-eminent blogs on classical music and pianism, and has put me in touch with many wonderful musicians and music professionals, amateur pianists and music lovers, some of whom have become personal friends and supporters.
I am also fascinated by the pianist’s relationship with the instrument and its literature, and the psychology of practising and performing, ideas which I regularly explore in articles for my blog.
Returning to the piano in my late 30s, the completion of two performance diplomas in my late 40s, and the establishment of my blog has given me the freedom and confidence to fully indulge my passion for the piano and its literature.
Had I gone to music college and had to make a career from music as a young woman, I may have lost that spark, that passion for music. I’ve met a number of professional musicians who have expressed resentment at the heavy demands of their career, which can rob them of their love of the piano and its literature.
I adore the piano, the physical instrument, its sound and its repertoire, with a passion which borders on an obsession: in fact, I am not sure what I would do without it now. My writing and my teaching allows me to share my passion with others, and to forge fruitful and inspiring connections with like-minded people.
It took a long time for me to find the place where I was truly happy and contented: my 20s were a time of working in London, buying my first flat, getting married, while my 30s were dominated by motherhood (which can rob one of an individual identity, something I felt very strongly and at times deeply resented).
But by the time I reached my 40s and had re-ignited my love of the piano, I knew I had finally found my niche, my identity and the place where I always wanted to be.