In Conversation: Hoang Pham

In Conversation: Hoang Pham

On creating a freelance career as a concert pianist and keeping sane between performances.

Hoang Pham
Melbourne, Australia

In Conversation: Hoang Pham

On creating a freelance career as a concert pianist and keeping sane between performances.

For the Melbourne Warehouse Music Festival, you'll be performing a program of Beethoven and Chopin - two of the great piano composers. Can you tell me about your relationship with the pair: how you discovered their music and what keeps you going back?

I absolutely adore the piano music of Beethoven and Chopin. With the former, I also enjoy much of his chamber music and the symphonic works. I say "much of" because it's ok to admit that one has not gotten around to everything! It takes time and fortunately during my days at college, I was able to study and experience many of the symphonies, string quartets and performed a decent segment of Beethoven's chamber music involving piano. But I think I can speak for many pianists in saying that my love for Beethoven derived at first from learning a dozen of the sonatas and performing them throughout my life. As for Chopin, his output for piano far outweighed his output in most other genres. It is impossible to develop a love of piano playing without a long-term relationship with the music of Chopin.

Getting back to Beethoven, what really attracts me to his music is the scope of his expression and compositional methods. Much of this is exemplified in the span of the 32 sonatas but specifically, the two quite revolutionary works that I'm performing at this festival (the "Pathetique" and "Moonlight"), both of these sonatas have individual qualities that are particularly special. I think I really enjoy Beethoven and Chopin because I can trace their influences back to earlier composers - there is a special lineage in the way their works develop a style that is unique to both of them but also, extremely traditional. Another composer that comes to mind is Stravinsky in this regard.

In the Pathetique Sonata, Beethoven writes a first movement that bursts the seams of classical structure, more for its dynamic piano writing and dramatic introduction than its actual structural departures. This is what I love about Beethoven. In the second movement, he looks forward to Schubert in a simple "song without words" moment. In the famous Moonlight Sonata, the impressionistic first movement textures (with a bit of a nod to Bach's Prelude in C Major in its rippling figures) both looks back to the great German masters but looks forward to Chopin and Liszt in its pianistic gestures. It is this mingling of past, present and future that I enjoy most about Beethoven - he is intellectual but extremely wild and emotional. The same things can be said about Chopin's music and in the fabulous Fantaisie-Impromptu, the wonderful coda makes it a masterpiece! Tradition and a high degree of craft fused with an unstoppable inner emotional pulse - these are the things that keep me going back to Beethoven and Chopin!

I have read that your first experiences of the piano came from your father - a pianist himself - teaching you works by Beethoven and Chopin at an electric piano. How has the music you played and listened to as a child influenced the way you work and perform today? 

My father always had a big library of classical CDs and I was constantly adding to this. I remember going to shops to buy sheet music and recordings with my father frequently. These were important years of curiosity and I now encourage all my students to have this experience. In terms of listening influences, these were contained more during my time studying in the US where I heard many great performances (including lots of piano recitals) at Carnegie Hall. I was inspired by those who had the courage to work hard and to speak their heart and soul on stage. It seems obvious but the special preparation, devotion and time required to achieve this is something I value very much these days. Of course, my teachers played a big role and for this, Rita Reichman was my greatest early influence. She was like a mother figure to me and instilled in me a sense of love for music and also the profession. I'm my own musician these days but I owe a lot of my inner core, commitment and grit to her encouragement and nurturing qualities as a teacher. Another major influence was Marc Silverman, my teacher at Manhattan School of Music. From Marc, I learned the craft of playing the piano to an exceptionally high level. Marc understood piano playing to the smallest detail and I knew that the path to a greater artistic expression was the mastering of craft.

Following study at the Australian National Academy of Music, you completed a Bachelor Degree and Master of Music Degree at the prestigious Manhattan School of Music. What was the experience of studying abroad like? Would you recommend the experience to other young artists? 

I very much enjoyed my time studying abroad. I spent six years at Manhattan School of Music and enjoyed my lessons with Marc Silverman, with whom I learned an incredible amount. I also spent a year at the Royal College of Music with Dmitri Alexeev who was a very inspirational teacher at a time when I was already playing quite a lot of concerts, travelling all over the place. Dmitri understood my needs exceptionally well and always respected my musical ideas. In terms of the overall experience, I think it was a very good one. I got to experience a lot of wonderful concerts and my travels brought me to many different places within the US and in parts of Europe. When you're young, you should travel and see as much of the world as possible. I- can't quantify exactly what was "good" or "bad" but the total experience of studying overseas is an exceptionally good one. Even just living away from home, being independent; that is already one good thing!

When touring and travelling a lot, how do you look after yourself physically and mentally? Do you have ways of ensuring that you’re feeling performance-ready consistently?

I try to eat healthy these days and to ensure that I'm always feeling fit. I enjoy going for walks and thinking about the music I'm preparing. Fresh air and thinking is perhaps the greatest way to spend your downtime. There is no greater time for creativity than the moments when you are bored. Why not spend it walking around and enjoying the natural world! I tend to have a bit of a nap on days where I perform in the evening. I find that this provides me with a major energy boost. I don't know if others do it but I have spoken to many musicians and the ones who have heavy performing schedules tend to favour this method.

How do you find balance when busy between performances, rehearsals and learning new notes? What are your favourite ways to unwind? 

I unwind by not travelling. I know many others enjoy getting away but a holiday for me is a chance to stay still, get a bit bored and hence, start formulating ideas and being creative. I'm different in this sense but it's how I cope with the avalanche of work that is sure to come very soon after the break! I find beauty in things that have similar qualities to music and this is why I enjoy sports and I love anything to do with statistics. I present my own concerts and doing my own marketing and advertising, I find that a love of numbers is essential. I remember spending my free time as a child writing my own cricket/football scorecards. I found great beauty and mystery in being able to see how a game had unfolded, and imagining it in my mind, just by seeing a scorecard. This is very similar to how we imagine music from a score!

You’re no stranger to the competition circuit, having won several major prizes including the Young Performers Award in 2013. How has your competition experience influenced your career path? 

I think it has had some influence but it is not the be all and end all. Many of my colleagues have won the same amount of awards, if not more, and for some, so many more than I have ever contemplated. But while winning competitions can make a short-term difference, developing a career where you become independent and have your own audience is another. To have the latter, you have to show that you really love what you're doing and you need to sustain your work ethic for not just a short period of time, but for years and decades. A career, especially in our modern times, is not easy, especially at the beginning and you need grit and determination in order to simply survive and take the next steps. I don't know if there is any rulebook for doing it one way or the other, but it's more about self-discovery and finding out what you really want to do. Sounds a bit philosophical but it's true! When I turned 30, I suddenly woke up one morning and asked myself, "what am I doing? Do I want to play solo recitals? Do I love it enough to be bothered to practice hard and prepare myself for each concert? What sacrifices am I willing to make and how will I go about achieving the things I want to achieve?" The hard part is doing it and that's where grit and determination come into play!

Speaking of competitions, does your method of preparation differ when rehearsing for a competition compared to say, a solo recital that you’re presenting yourself? How do you get mentally fit for being in such a stressful environment?

Being able to cope with stress is a skill that is essential, I imagine, in many industries. And I guess music performance it is yet another industry where it is crucial to find a way of dealing with it! I personally don't prepare any differently for competitions vs non-competition performances; if I have an incentive to play my best, then I will play my best.

For our young readers hoping to create careers as freelance solo artists, what advice do you have for getting started in the industry? Is there anything you wish you’d known at the beginning? 

If I were to be really honest about something I'd do differently, the only thing I'd say to my younger self is to be more independent earlier. I would have presented my own concerts with more vehemency from a younger age. I would've quit university a few years earlier! I would've worked that second or third job in order to pay for the venue hire more efficiently and to invest in my own future the way I wanted to. It depends on what you want, really. Of course, my early success brought me professional management and I have certain luxuries that some others don't have. But the things I'm most proud of remain the things I did myself.

See Hoang perform as part of the Melbourne Warehouse Music Festival on November 4 at 12pm. Rehearsal readers can take $5 off by using the discount code 'piano' at the checkout! Tickets and more information here. Photo by Candela Photography.