INTERVIEW WITH MARTIN PRENDERGAST
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My dad was a jazz pianist and a jazz organist in the 1960s, which was fantastic, you know, so much fun. I had a record of jazz nursery rhymes. I’ve always had a piano in my life, always played.
When I was 16 the local music centre had a harpsichord that no one played so I took it home in the holidays. Other kids were outside playing football and sniffing glue and I’m trying to play the Preludes and Fugues, or trying to, at least. I did the grades but I stopped playing, really, and having lessons when I was 17.
When I was 27, I decided I needed another creative outlet. I found a teacher, from a list in Brixton Library. I was attracted to Elizabeth Werry because she also taught harpsichord; she had been a Baroque specialist. We did lots of Bach. She was brilliant and she got me up to Grade 8 with distinc- tion when I was 29. It’s not an easy thing to do, and I was so pleased.
When you’re a grown-up and you take piano lessons you’re so committed to it in a way that you’re not when you’re a child. It’s your money, and you’re paying for the lessons. It’s a totally different experience, even though, for most of the time, I was playing on a crappy electric keyboard on a wobbly stand on headphones. Actually, when you’re trying to get back up to Grade 8 standard it doesn’t really matter.
Next I decided to go for the performing diploma and it was really hard.
Elizabeth persuaded me to focus on my repertoire and she made me play a bit more in public, like little soirees; I got a massive kick out of the big concerts.
I practise before I go to work. The alarm goes off at 5.30, and I try to play from 6.30 to 9.30, because I start at ten. At weekends I practise about three or four hours a day. I try never to play scales or exercises on the piano, because of the neighbours, so I do my exercises on the Clavinova.
I get several things out of playing the piano. I think you become better at listening to music through playing it, you know, and it feels fantastic. I think it expresses aspects of being alive that are very difficult to articulate. Listening to music, making music, definitely enhances life.
On the other hand, it’s very challenging. On paper, playing the piano is a nightmare. It’s expensive, you can never do it, it eats time, it gobbles time, the better you get, the worse you realise you are, it’s a curse. Why does anybody do it?
If you haven’t played for a few days it’s like keeping fit. If you go to the gym three or four times a week, then you go for a week without going . . . it’s a similar sort of thing, but for your brain.
I had a slight epiphany moment when I was playing in recital. I’d focused on, absolutely rooted mentally on the quality of the sound, so I forgot that there was an audience. It was amazingly liberating, because I wasn’t fretting about playing the wrong note; I was just listening to the music. I think you have to go through trying and trying and trying and not doing it well, to realise what playing the piano properly is like later in life.