I started improvising and playing by ear on the piano from a very young age. When I was only 7, I could play complex music by ear, including some works of Chopin. I was not a confident child, being very shy and suffering from a stammer, so music and performing on the piano were a wonderful outlet. My first teacher, Ella Pounder, understood this and nurtured my talents with great care. However, sadly at the age of 9, I changed teacher and was taught using rigid, highly pressurised approach that was potentially destructive to my natural abilities: focusing so much on examinations and competitions, working on scales and technical exercises, learning pieces very slowly, hands separately, with the metronome on, using set fingering and a muscular technique all felt completely unnatural to me. But I continued to play in my own way whilst pretending to comply. I felt like a fraud but managed to succeed in examinations – I passed grade 8 with distinction when I was 11 – and to win lots of prizes in junior competitions. At 14, I decided I could pretend no longer so changed teacher. I then studied with Denis Matthews, who was perfect for me. During my 4 years with Prof. Matthews, I performed many challenging works in public concerts – such as Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit at the Kings Hall in Newcastle, Frank’s Variations Symphoniques at Lyons Hall in York and Moszkowski’s suite in G minor for 2 violins and piano with Sarah and Margaret Herring at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. But I never felt under pressure under such infectious and enthusiastic guidance
At 18, I went to the Royal Northern College of music to study piano with Ryszart Bakst. I entered some international competitions and did well but struggled with the stress that goes with competing and I felt that the way I was being made to play in order to succeed in the competitive arena was at odds with my natural musical sensibilities. So at 19, I decided to stop taking part in competitions. I gave numerous public concerts at the RNCM during my four years there, performing many big works: Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto in G minor, Janacek’s Capriccio for left hand and wind ensemble, Stravinsky’s Concerto for piano and wind orchestra and many more. I won the Elizabeth Hannah Lees Scholarship, the Frederick Dawson Piano Prize and graduated with first class honours.
After graduating, I was rather exhausted. I felt that classical piano world was at variance with my artistic and musical ideals. So I took a break from the music business, to return 12 months later, playing and also singing with some new directions in mind. I’d studied singing at the RNCM with Vera Cross and my light bari-tenor voice transferred well to other vocal styles, particularly smooth jazz. I played and sang jazz standards in hotels and restaurants and also took to writing and recording jazzy RnB songs in studios whilst learning music production. I narrowly avoided a recording and publishing deal… I feared commercial interest in my work as I sensed that the pressure would be more than I could handle and that it might also push me into dishonest musical realms.
I also began playing classical piano again but with a very different attitude. I would talk to the audience between pieces about my relationship with the music and play in my own natural, unmannered yet rather forthright and passionate way. I appeared up and down the UK and occasionally in Europe, playing innovative but accessible programmes, including some of my own compositions and improvisations.
I also began teaching piano and accompanying and coaching singers and instrumentalists. Initially I taught piano in the traditional way with a few adaptations but I always felt hypocritical making my pupils work in a way that was alient to me, knowing that my own fluent musicianship was built on very different skills. I found it frustrating that although my students could play scales and pieces proficiently after many hours of rehearsing them, they could not play by ear, improvise, sight-read properly (hear a score internally when they see it for the first time) and they found learning new music slow and laborious. I longed to find a way to empower my students by teaching them the kind of fluent musical skills which I possessed and which made music so much easier for me.
I stopped performing and teaching piano and singing for 6 years during which time I worked as an A level composition and music technology teacher at Aquinas 6th Form College in Stockport, Manchester. Studying for my PGCE, I focused on musical fluency and literacy as my specialised area of study, and found that there was little research being done on this subject at that time. In contrast, fluency and literacy in language had an enormous amount of available research to use. This made me feel even more determined to address the under-represented field of musical fluency and teach people to handle the “language of music” fluently.
I then moved to London where I began teaching fluent musicianship on the piano. I crystalised my approach into a unique and powerful model of how music works on the keys and decided to spread my ideas more widely by creating a website devoted to sharing this radical and effective teaching approach – musicallyfluent.com.
After experiencing some vocal problems, I drew on my experience of accompanying and coaching singers and of having worked closely with many wonderful singing teachers whilst I also did further research into vocal teachnique with the aim of developing a model of vocal training designed to generate not only a natural and healthy technique but also fluent vocal musicianship. I now teach this radical model of singing musicianship to students and will be launching the website vocallyfluent.com soon.
I have also returned to performing classical piano and this continues to develop and innovate. I now use advanced technology in the form of Pianoteq which gives me a large suite of different pianos to perform on – current, historical and futuristic. I improvise a great deal in my live shows and recordings. I continue to gain devoted followers and am very happy with my small-scale, fringe success. I think my musical values are very different from those of the modern entertainment industry in general and the classical music industry in particular although I recognise that these are changing times! I love to make music which is accessible, emotionally connected, which offers solace or even healing and believe that the hype required to market myself as a contender for the spotlight of major success could well compromise my essence as a artist. Nevertheless, I am working to spread my music in my own way…
As an artist, I span a moderately wide range of style and so find it helpful to share my music in four distinct projects:
Inside the Keys – is a classical piano project featuring improvisation and classical repertoire using cutting edge technology. I have released three albums, Inside Stories – a set of spontaneous improvisations, an album of Mozart piano music, and an album of piano music by Liszt and Ravel. All available on iTunes!
Not Parallel – is a new age jazz project using piano, keyboards and vocals.
Sounds Better – is a project of meditative, post-minimal piano improvisation, designed to evoke solace, catharsis and well-being.
SoulMatrix – is a more nostalgic soul-jazz project with smooth jazzy harmonies, soulful vocals and sometimes funky rhythms.
As a compulsive improviser, it is natural for me also to compose music. Recently, I have begun to share my eclectic mix of work – ranging quite widley in terms of genre, mood and instrumentation. A few years ago, a high-end music library asked to use some of my piano recordings and subsequently also published some of my orchestral and electronica pieces: this encouraged me to start putting together my own commercial music library website – jigsawmusic.com – which is gradually taking shape and is beginning to be picked up by film and TV producers.
It will be clear from my story that I have an uneasy relationship with the pressures of career ambition and self-promotion – something I share with many people. The empty posturing and ego that we see so often in the world of stars and celebrities fills me with horror. My dislike of competitive attitudes and hollow status-seeking has meant that I have needed to develop ways of working as a musician – and now as a teacher – based on truly solid foundations, reliable, undeniable skills and authentic artistic values. So I rely on a clear model of how music actually works on the piano and in the voice. With clear conscious awareness of this model, I have found a very dependable, pure kind of confidence that makes me surprisingly effective and independent as a communicator without having to project a big show of self-belief through bravado. I value mastery far more than the vagaries of success. This solidly disciplined yet light and playful approach that I use and teach can be applied across disciplines outside music. So it is a natural extension that I occasionally also coach people in general performance and presentation skills and have given several workshops to help people find and use their inner sense of rhythm and released voice with power and confidence.
My aim is to work tirelessly towards being a consummate musician and deeply enquiring teacher: I see music not as a vehicle for self-aggrandisement but as a empowering, even essential force for good in human society.