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Esther Knight - Piano

Interview

1. You are currently studying an MMus in piano accompaniment at the Royal Academy of Music under the tutelage of Malcolm Martineau and James Baillieu. How is this progressing?

My studies are going extremely well, the environment at the Academy is so inspiring and supportive, it’s a brilliant place to meet other musicians to work with, expand my repertoire and experience, and learn from many amazing professional musicians. My teachers Malcolm Martineau and James Baillieu are both world class accompanists, and it is amazing to learn with them. With Malcolm I have worked on a lot of standard song repertoire, especially Schubert’s Winterreise. It is so inspiring to learn from someone with such a vast amount of performance experience and insight into song interpretation. With James I have worked a lot on my sound and technique as well as interpretation; I now feel that I have the technique to be able to produce the sound I want, and I am expanding my sound palette along with my repertoire, as different styles and nationalities of music require different touches. I also have also had many opportunities to accompany vocal classes and learn from voice teachers; recently I have been playing for a French song class with Nicole Tibbels and playing in Lieder coaching with Richard Stoakes.

2. Is your family musical?

My mum is an amature singer, she loves music but never got the chance to learn an instrument when she was younger. My dad is tone deaf, so it’s quite amazing I turned out to be a musician I suppose! My parents are both very supportive of my decision to make music my profession.

My husband, Thomas Knight, is also a professional pianist, he’s specialising in early 20th Century piano solo repertoire, and is an incredible improviser, so we are taking different routes even though we play the same instrument. We talk about music a lot, and he even gives me impromptu piano lessons every now and again, and if I’m in the right mood, there’s actually a huge amount I can learn from him.

3. You are the winner of the Major Van Someren-Godfrey Accompanist’s Prize for English Song 2018. What piece did you play on the occasion and how were your feelings at the time?

I performed with 3 different singers for the English Song Prize, of which, I think the highlights were performing Frank Bridge’s ‘Love went a-riding’ with soprano Louisa Stirland, and performing Vaughn Williams’ ‘Watermill’ and the first 3 ‘songs of travel’ with Guy Withers (tenor), in fact, Guy won the vocal prize in the same competition! Guy and I have been working together since our first day at Academy, we are currently giving performances of Schubert’s Winterreise, and we will working on the entire ‘songs of travel’ cycle soon.

I find it helps psychologically in competitions to not expect to win, yet to prepare and perform as if I could win, and I was genuinely extremely surprised and of course very pleased when I found out I’d actually won.

4. You are starting a piano trio, and are working with violinist Simon Purdy on the Brahms sonatas. Can you tell us more of these upcoming projects?

The piano trio, which is with violinist Richard Montgomery and cellist Joseph Keenan, is quite a long-term project as we’re working on the Rachmaninoff trio Elegiaque which is a massive piece. I’m determined to make it happen as I love the piece and I’ve wanted to be in a piano trio for a long time.

I have played the Brahms G major violin sonata for a while, and recently I played it with Simon Purdy, and we got on so well musically that we’re going to learn the other two Brahms violin sonatas over the next year or two.

5. You previously studied piano at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland with Isobel Anderson and Graeme McNaught, graduating in 2015. How do you recall these times and these masters?

The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland has a very supportive and friendly piano department, it was a great place to nurture my playing at undergraduate.

Graeme McNaught is a very inspiring and creative performer, and I feel I would learn more from him if I went back to him now, as I only had lessons with him in the first couple of years of my undergraduate and I had to work on some more basic pianism skills and chopin etudes to start with. He did encourage me to find some individuality and think about interpretation and musical character for myself.

I took lessons with Isobel Anderson from my second year onwards, and I feel that my playing is inspired a lot by her. Isobel is an Alexander Technique teacher as well as a piano teacher, so I have become increasingly aware of how I am using my body, which is an exceptionally important part of piano playing. Isobel also really helped my find what I wanted to say in every piece I played, and my way of thinking about music and the way I teach is also very inspired by Isobel’s teaching.

6. You are also a Ballet Pianist and have performed in various Ballet shows in Glasgow. Does this fusion of 2 arts require a special dedication and is there a story behind how you were for the first time?

I have been working as a pianist for ballet classes since 2014. The first time I played for a ballet class I didn’t have a clue what was going on, but the ballet teacher I worked for, Clare Simpson, was very helpful and kind and led me in gently. I started off with reading set music, and gradually learned what sort of music was required for each exercise and learned to improvise for ballet, and I now work for Chelsea Ballet Schools in London and am confident in improvising. The ballet shows I did in Glasgow were very exciting, as I got to play some great music, live for the show, and be involved in choosing the music to fit the story of the ballet. One of the stories was the little mermaid, which we set entirely to piano music by Chopin; the scene of the sailors getting shipwrecked was set to the Chopin ‘Ocean’ etude- Op.25 no.12, it was very dramatic!

7. What are your fondest musical memories, privately or performing?

I have so many fond musical memories, it’s difficult to select only a few!

One of the most special musical experiences I’ve ever had is performing some songs written by my friend Donal McHugh, settings of poems I wrote based on a trip round the Scottish Islands. I performed them with soprano Lauren McQuistin in my final exam of my undergraduate degree, and the combination of memory of the places in Scotland they’re based on and the musical depiction of them was very special.

Performing some Grieg songs on Grieg’s piano at his house in Bergen in 2015 was an amazing experience, I aspire to perform in the concert hall in his garden one day- the most beautiful concert hall in the world in my opinion.

I used to be a serious flute player, until I decided to focus on piano at the age of 18. I have some very fond memories of playing the flute, a particularly special one was playing 1st flute in Holst’s Planets with Young Sinfonia in a tour of Sweden and the north of England. Although the decision to focus on piano has worked out well, I do miss playing the flute, I sometimes go back to it, but I’m not as good as I used to be.

8. How often do your practice?

I practice every week day and a bit at weekends too. On a weekday I usually do about 2-4 hours practice on my own and about 2-4 hours rehearsing with others, sometimes more depending on how busy I am and what I’m working on.

9. You are a teacher to over 20 students. Do you see teaching as a two-way street, where you also benefit and even learn aspects of music that you can then weave into your own performances?

I did a lot of teaching when I lived in Glasgow for a couple of years after my undergraduate degree, now I’m studying in London I just have a few students. Teaching is indeed a two-way street, I find teaching often reminds me how to practice creatively, as I make-up exciting exercises for my students, and then I invent a more advanced version for myself to do. Most of my students at the moment are young beginners, so the performance side of things isn’t so relevant, but the lessons of being alert and efficient with practice, and principles like good posture, are relevant throughout all abilities.

10. Who would your dream accompanist be, from the present or past?

Malcolm Martineau. I love the energy which he takes to the stage - the way he dives straight into the performance with so much charisma, focus and intention. I also admire the way he guides the performance while still allowing the singer to take charge, and his balance of sound with the soloist is always extremely well judged. Not to mention the fact he’s recorded just about every song in the repertoire.

11. What advice would you give to young musicians at the start of their journey?

Practice efficiently. Everything your teacher says has to be practiced in to make it happen. Be creative in your practice, always use your brain, and experiment. Be aware of your entire body in relation to your instrument- it’s not just your fingers that produce the sound; good posture and being ‘centered’ is very important.

Be yourself, but also give new things a go. Work hard for everything but also go out of your comfort zone occasionally

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submission November 2018