Saturday, September 14, 2013

British pianist Peter Lawson talks about his life in music, about teaching and performing contemporary music

On August 27th 2013 I spoke to pianist Peter Lawson at his home near Manchester, UK. Born in Manchester, he studied piano there with Derrick Wyndham and Sulamita Aronovsky. Peter Lawson has appeared as soloist with most British orchestras, has recorded for radio and given recitals throughout the UK as well as in Holland, France, Belgium, Italy, Denmark, Luxembourg, Japan and Russia. With a repertoire extending from Baroque music to contemporary jazz, his commercial recordings reflect a special interest in 20th century music. Mr. Lawson plays with the Equivox Trio, Tango5 and with recorder player John Turner, with whom he has recorded much British music. A senior tutor of piano at Chetham’s School of Music, he also teaches piano and contemporary piano at the Royal Northern College of Music, both in Manchester.

PH: Peter, do you come from a musical family?

Peter Lawson: To the extent of enthusiastic amateurs, yes. My mother and father both played the piano. I would say that my father was a good amateur. He read music well and could play Rachmaninoff preludes…more than recognizably, I would say, but not to the highest level. He played popular classics, like Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata. My mother relied more on her ear, which was quite good. So, generally, it meant that there was music in the house when I was growing up. Some things stick in my mind, mostly from what my father played - Gershwin in particular.

PH: When did you start learning the piano?

PL: My father taught me a few things and I doodled at the piano on my own. But at the age of 7 or 8, I started lessons with one of the few local piano teachers. He was not the most brilliant teacher, in the sense that he was a bit of a piano-teaching factory, with lots of pupils – children and some adults – and he taught them to a very modest level. What I got from him was fairly basic. On the other hand, he did not seem to instill any awful habits and, when music became more serious for me, I felt I did not have to undo too many bad habits. I remained with that teacher until going to the conservatoire at age 17.

PH: Why had your parents not looked for a better teacher for you?

PL: Why I was not pushed by them into studying with a specialist teacher was because, as people with a typically sedate British middle class background, they probably were not inclined towards that sort of education. And, when I was around 14 or 15 – at the age young people start to think about what they might do when they leave school – I was always going to be a chemist. I did not study music at school. I took science for my A Level exams, but then, by the age of 16, I realized that to study chemistry at university you needed quite high-flying academic credentials. At the same time, my love for music and the piano had grown; so, suddenly, this so-called chemist became a potential pianist.

PH: So you went onto higher music studies.

PL: Yes. I went to the local conservatoire, which was then called The Royal Manchester College of Music. In those days, it was relatively easy to be accepted in Britain. I think the powers that be looked for signs of potential rather than actual attainment. (These days, students need a very high level of both.) This conservatoire was and still is a very good place to study. I worked on my first degree for four years. My teacher was Derrick Wyndham; he was very sober in his approach to teaching but he taught the craft of piano-playing and musical awareness to a very good degree. I think his philosophy was that if you had what it takes, you would find your own way forward. He left me to my own devices, which, possibly for me at the time, was not really the best.

PH: So you finished your first degree. What were your plans?

PL: I was 21 when I graduated. I was considering going into school music teaching, but then decided to continue on to post-graduate studies. I was assigned to work with a Russian teacher – Sulamita Aronovsky – who had just arrived in England. In fact, I became her first British student. It was suggested that she would be a good teacher for me, though I did not know of her at all. She turned out to be very good. Unlike Derrick Wyndham, she was a very pro-active person. She gave me a good shaking, saying I had the talent to go further and that I had more to give. So I started to work very hard and, with her encouragement, learned a lot of repertoire. It was then, when in my mid-20s, that I went in for some competitions – one in Geneva, the Busoni Competition in Italy and the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels. My teacher probably never thought I would win one, and I certainly could not imagine winning one; but it is not always the winning that is the important thing – it is the taking part, the effort and what it teaches you en route. I think the competition experience taught me a lot. Coincidentally, when I went to Brussels at age 25, I certainly did not win that tremendously demanding competition, but I did meet my wife there, proposed to her after three days and she accepted!

PH: When did you start performing?

PL: Like most musicians, you are given performance opportunities as a student, even as a young student, and you get the experience, possibly without the pay. I think it’s a gradual process as a musician. As a post-graduate student, I started getting a few more opportunities to perform outside of the college from people I had met and through my own efforts. My performing has never progressed to the point where I could make a living from playing but I would not want to make a living from performance anyway.

PH: When we chatted earlier, you mentioned having played the double bass.

PL: That is a short, simple story. When I was a student, you were required to study another one or two instruments in parallel to give you a more balanced education, to encourage students to take blinkers off and experience other forms of music-making. (In Britain, that has since changed. Students learn one instrument). Not having played another instrument, I had to choose an instrument which I felt I could learn with some facility and also enjoy playing. Getting to a modest level on the double bass is probably easier than on some other instruments. And because I love jazz, it was an instrument that straddled the divide between classical music and jazz. I played the double bass for a few years, did not touch it after that and eventually sold it. The instrument never really figured largely in my professional life.

PH: Would you like to talk about your current performing career.

PL: I do relatively few recitals a year. Because I have broad musical interests, I have never been drawn to only playing one kind of music or music in one sort of format. I like doing all sorts of things. Consequently, my playing experience has covered quite a wide range of things: I have done my fair share of solo recitals, concertos, commercial recordings fir EMI and Virgin, recordings for BBC radio, I have played in dance bands, on cruise ships, in folk bands, have done some accompanying and also audition accompanying.

PH: What about chamber music?

PL: Funnily enough, not much. I have not done regular playing with a chamber music group…the odd chamber concert here and there. It is not top of my priorities. My daughter Annabelle, however, is a pianist living in London. She has a piano trio – the Lawson Piano Trio which is hugely successful.

PH: You play a lot of contemporary music and have many thoughts on performing it. How did that start?

PL: A good question. I seem to remember, as a child, that a couple of family members gave me some sheet music of popular music of the time…it was fashionable pop music of the 1960s. I sat down to play it and enjoyed it. I have a pretty good ear and can work with those sorts of scores and make something of them. So my interest in popular music began when I was a teenager. It’s a commercial form of music-making and a fairly small step into looking at jazz and more improvised music. Since my teen years, I have always played modern music and, in fact, my very first piano teacher suggested I should play a little sonatina by a Scottish composer called Kenneth Leighton for one of my exams. I was not familiar with the composer but remember playing the piece and being very excited about it. In fact, I have since played more music by him. I think my love of contemporary classical music stems from that. I have always been curious to look for new things. As a student I would go into a library to look for works I didn’t know, take them home and sight-read them. If I found them too difficult, I would take them back and exchange them for something else. This made me a good sight-reader and it kindled a kind of curiosity within me. I feel very strongly about passing that curiosity on to my students. Ultimately, it is curiosity that will lead them on; the notion of exploring and not being afraid to try new things is very important for any musician. If you develop an interest in contemporary music from a young age, that will stay with you. It is like trying all the different kinds of food offering today from all over the world; musical repertoire should not remain a restricted diet. Musicians tend to be a very conservative bunch.

PH: Are you an improviser?

PL: Yes, but would not improvise on stage! I enjoy it and it rubs off on some kinds of music I play. It probably also rubs off on classical pieces I perform because of the play of rhythms – the heightened sense of rhythm that jazz brings to your music-making. I would like to feel that improvising is a benefit to whatever one is playing.

PH: Do you compose or arrange music?

PL: No.

PH: Would you like to talk about audiences, audience reactions and your communication with the listeners?

PL: It is hard to make pronouncements about audiences if you don’t spend three or four days a week giving concerts. I don’t feel I am the person to compare British, French and American audiences. I have met courtesy at the very least but usually enthusiasm from audiences. I suppose a lot of the most rewarding concerts I have done have been with more specialist repertoire. Because I play a lot of contemporary music, and have received some very good reviews for it, I am often asked to play specific repertoire. If that is the case, it might be that the audience listening is a particular segment of the general concert-going audience, shall we say, and you would expect them to react more favorably. I do quite like to talk to my listeners and enjoy that in a smaller setting; those more intimate events are almost an open invitation for people to tap you on the shoulder and communicate. I like that! The notion of playing on a high stage, where your audience is ten feet below you, stretching one hundred yards into the distance – that divide between stage/performer and audience – is what I really don’t like. My ideal is to play almost on the flat and have people seated close to me.

PH: I am interested to hear about your teaching and the unique teaching environment in which you work.

PL: Well, it’s strange, in a way, compared to many people, because I have taught at one school nearly all my professional life. As a post-graduate, I got a couple of teaching jobs in good schools but teaching fairly average students. I was very happy with that, but, through a lucky break, I got the chance to fill in at Chetham’s School of Music for someone who could no longer teach and I have stayed there. That is a very particular school because it caters to students aged 7 or 8 up to 18. The sole proviso for them being students there is that they have great musical talent. There are no specific academic attainments they need in order to be accepted and, although it is a very expensive school, for British students the fees are subsidized by the government. So it is not a school you can turn up to with a lot of money in your wallet and buy yourself a place. To be there you have to be musically very talented. A small school, started some forty years ago, it has about 300 students, most of them in the older age group - 16 to 18. It is one of five specialist music schools in the UK and the standard of playing there is phenomenally high…breathtakingly high. I like it for two reasons: for its outstanding level of playing and for the fact that, although a small school, it still caters for a very wide range of academic needs. Although the majority of students do go on to study music either at university or conservatoire, a number of them, including some of the best players, go to study other subjects - medicine, law, mathematics, etc. What I like is the fact that students are aiming in different directions and are open to stimulus from a whole range of things. With a standard that is continuously rising, we also have students from Europe and the Far East. It is a wonderful place. I have a full-time job there and also teach another half day at the Royal Northern College of Music, where I take a contemporary piano class, partly to oil wheels for the transition from our school-aged students at Chetham’s to being conservatoire students. One other role I have at Chetham’s is doing some career advisory work that helps students progress from school to conservatoire.
PH: What are your thoughts on competitions?

PL: Well, I feel they are a fact of life. Everything we do is a sort-of competition. Certainly, students have to be able to cope with the competition idea. I have always tried to encourage my students – the excellent musicians, first and foremost – to demonstrate their good musicianship through the piano. That is my main aim and I have always felt that if students are taught to appreciate music in its broader sense and encouraged to apply your curiosity and initiative to what you are studying, they will give themselves the best chances of making a career. They, of course, also need a good sprinkling of luck. A competition might have its place, in short term, giving them a push up the ladder of success. I think that, without that combination of drive, initiative and curiosity, longer term, they will fall down the ladder again. Although I see competitions as one of those things that are a part of life, I don’t see them as important as some of my colleagues do and will not insist that my students do them; but if they want to want to, I am quite happy to go along with it.

PH: So what is your message to students going for a performing career in the years to come?

PL: I desire to encourage them to see new music as the only way to allow music to survive. Young musicians certainly need to feel they are part of a “new music creation business”. If we are just going to rely on Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt, however good they are, it will die.

PH: Do you work with amateurs?

PL: Not really. I don’t have any private students. I will occasionally give a one-off advice session to a pianist, but have no time for private work. However, at Chetham’s we do have a piano summer school for children and adults and I have contact with amateur pianists in that situation. I do enjoy teaching adult amateurs: they have a commitment, which not all young students do, clearly a desire to progress and, hopefully, the intelligence that can take on more adult concepts. The fact that they are playing music that is maybe not at the highest level does not really affect how you can pass on advice and how they can receive it. (It does happen occasionally that an adult amateur will come along and only want to hear praise. This is where it is very difficult to be honest and to give practical advice.)

PH: What interests you when it is not music?

PL: Photography and the countryside. We live on the edge of Derbyshire near a national park. It is very hilly and most beautiful; the countryside there is quite wild. I like hill-walking and the challenge of it. And, because I like photography, the two things go together quite well. I try to go walking once every week or ten days. In fact, I plan to go out tomorrow if the weather forecast is okay.

PH: Peter, many thanks for allowing us a glimpse into your musical world and for sharing so many interesting thoughts and ideas.

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