In Conversation: Angela Hewitt

In Conversation: Angela Hewitt

On Bach, competitions and learning new works. 

Angela Hewitt
Ottawa, Canada

In Conversation: Angela Hewitt

On Bach, competitions and learning new works. 

I love what you’ve said about making the piano sing, because you loved to perform songs and dances as a kid! How do you incorporate that philosophy into your practice and performance? 

I’m usually singing for 6 hours a day. I never play a musical phrase without imagining it being sung, and I really believe that every music student should learn how to sing and dance, because that’s how all music began. There is absolutely no use playing any instrument like a machine, and it doesn’t matter if your voice is bad, so you have no reason not to sing! It helps you feel and respond to the places you should be breathing, just as dance helps you identify the strong and weak beats in a piece. Movement gives the rhythm some buoyancy which is completely fundamental to music. If you have those things you can perform: singing and dancing have become innate to me now - it’s just how I express music. When I play a Bach minuet I imagine the dance, which is very stately: the upper body is kept very still and your feet do all the movement work, then you can flirt with the eyes at your partner or audience. It's about poise: all those dances need a certain poise and elegance that can be incorporated into your performance. 

As a performer, how do you stay inspired and fresh in the practice room, particularly when you’re about to tour a program of works that you’ve played before? 

I never feel like any performance is routine, and like to change programs an awful lot. There are some musicians who have one recital program that they perform over and over again wherever they tour, but I’m not that way. I couldn't do it! It's important that I don’t give myself time to get tired of a program, and honestly, there's always something new you can find within a piece. Then when you're performing things are never routine - every piano is different, every hall is different and every audience is different. It's never routine. I never think "oh God not this again!". There are pieces I’ve played hundreds of times, and that in itself can be liberating. 

Why Bach? What can piano students learn from studying the works of Bach quite closely? 

Every pianist really must do Bach from the beginning, and I think it's fantastic to always have one in your repertoire at any given time. From Bach you learn discipline and good phrasing, articulation and coordination. You develop strength in each finger independently because you’re often playing multiple voices, which helps you learn counterpoint well, and this will help you with Brahms, Chopin, Mozart, etc. It'll help you with every composer! Bach is the best technical exercise, but it's also the best for developing musical intelligence. He didn’t tell you how to play his pieces: there is space for you to make decisions about dynamics and phrasing. People complain because there is not much there but there’s actually so much for you to do! My father was an organist who played all the great organ works, and my mother was a pianist so they encouraged me to always have some Bach on the go, and it became the formation of my technique. I’ve played every piece that he wrote for keyboard, and it’s nice to revisit them and see what new colours you bring 10, 15, 20 years on. You are changing along the way, so you bring more life or greater emotional depth to the pieces as time goes on. They are pieces that will always change as you change. The fact they don’t have markings can give you so much freedom.

You're doing a new piece in this tour - Beethoven's Sonata in F minor, op 2 no 1. How did you go about learning it? 

I started the Beethoven a month ago - it’s not the most difficult one! I have my approach pretty well developed now: once I have the piece memorised, I play it for friends at home, so when I get on stage, it's not the first time to have performed it. I study on airplanes and get it into my head as well. When you approach a new piece there are so many things to consider, but something I definitely don’t do is listen to lots of other people play the work I'm learning. It's much more beneficial for me to spend time deciding on fingerings and making decisions on my own about how I'm going to play it. It's also important to note that you should never leave memory to chance - spend time identifying where you could go wrong, and why that is. You have to learn consciously. 

What are your thoughts on competitions for young pianists? Do they still launch careers, and how do you deal with not placing, considering it’s more likely statistically that you won’t win? 

I think it’s important to do them, but only if you're going in with the right attitude. They're a really fantastic opportunity to learn repertoire that you perhaps wouldn’t play otherwise, and perform at an international level, which is a great thing when you’re young. They also give you the opportunity to see a new country and meet other pianists which is really special. But you have to just get up and try to play your best because it is honestly much harder to play well in a competition than a concert. If you have the nerve for it, do it, but you don't have to. And remember, it’s not the end of the world if you get kicked out in the first round! It strengthens your character, which is good! Juries can range from 3 to 12 people, which means you’re going to have lots of different tastes, and people won’t always vote for you, no matter how good you are, and you cannot control what is going to happen in a jury room. Then if you do win, that’s great, but it only gives you a certain amount. Not everything is going to be handed to you on a silver platter following a big win. I couldn’t just sit on my heels and wait for agents to do stuff - when I got my first concert at Wigmore Hall, I designed the flyers and did all those extra things myself. It took me 15 years to fill the hall! I got my first record contract myself too - it's not enough to just play the notes. Young pianists need to be entrepreneurial and get out and create opportunities for themselves. The world is different now and it’s easier to have visibility through social media and the internet, but you have to be creative. Don’t ever just sit there expecting.  

Building a portfolio is really important for creating a sustainable career for many young musicians now - what are your thoughts on becoming a concert pianist in today’s climate, and what other skills do young musicians really need to be working on expanding to have success on the concert circuit? 

You have to be good at everything! Young pianists need to be good at not only performing, though you do have to be extremely good at that. When you walk out on stage you have to grab the audiences attention - not extravagantly, but you have to know how to draw them in and make them want to listen. You also need to be able to stand being alone in a foreign city, do your taxes, deal with agents - it’s not all glamorous. I think you have to have great inner strength, because it’s really difficult. It’s not a normal life giving 100 concerts a year, so you have to be willing to give things up. There’s a million ways to make a living though, including chamber music and teaching, so one has to realise that while very few will make it as a touring virtuoso, music should and can always be a part of your life.

Angela Hewitt's Australian tour with Musica Viva kicks off in Sydney on the 8th May 2017. Find tickets in your city concert here