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Wednesday 30 June 2021

An Interview with Steven Osborne


An interview with pianist Steven Osborne 

by Pavlina (S6) 

Steven Osborne OBE studied with Richard Beauchamp at St. Mary’s Music School before going on to the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. With a list of accolades to his name, in 2022 he was awarded an OBE for his services to music. Steven generously agreed to be interviewed by S6 pupil and first study pianist, Pavlina, and this is an edited transcript of their conversation.

So my first question would be, what do some of some pieces of music that you connect most to or pieces that you find yourself in?

The first piece I really connected to was Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. I was quite young. I just listened to the record over and over again, the first movement especially. It's still for me just about the happiest piece of music that there is. I don't know why but something about that really stayed with me.

Beyond that, there's lots and lots. At the moment, certainly Beethoven's last piano sonata, it has an incredible etherealness in the last movement. At the moment, if I had to pick one piece of piano music to play for the rest of my life, it would probably be that one. As the years go on, that one piece changes.

I'm wondering if you take inspiration from other forms of art like painting or anything else rather than just music?

Actually, very little. I'm basically rather incurious about those things. The work that I do in music feels very dense - it's very intellectual, it's very emotional, it's very physical, obviously, getting to grips with the physicality of playing and after all that work, I don't want to exercise my brain too much, so I tend to do things that are nice and easy, just like spending time with friends, watching shows on Netflix, going for walks, eating nice food. I very much admire people who have this ability to really take in lots of different art forms.

And do you listen to other performers, whether it be pianists or other musicians? Do you take inspiration from others or do you just kind of stay in your own bubble?

I don't listen to people playing the pieces I'm learning unless I'm really struggling with something, for instance if there's some bit I can't work out what to do with then I might listen to some other performances. When I was at college, I listened to lots of other pianists and other musicians and that was certainly useful getting a broader idea of style, but I find that now, I don't know… Certainly with music I'm playing it's a very easy for that to become interference. I'm very, very suggestible, so any good idea that someone else has I think, "Oh, that's a good idea," and it short circuits that process of finding what you want to say yourself. So I like to really do that work myself, and then if I'm struggling with something I listen to other people's ideas about it.

Who are some of your favourite pianists?

Oh, amazing question. Actually, the first ones I think are the jazz pianists, Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans. Jarrett in particular has got this unbelievable sound, this penetrating, singing sound. I wouldn't say that I love everything he does, but when it really works it's incredible.

Classically, Paul Lewis for Schubert and Brendel also with Schubert. When I was at college I really loved Clara Haskil and Dinu Lipatti. More recently, definitely Sokolov, he's just an absolute monster, it's unbelievable what he can do – also Volodos.

What about some of your favourite styles or periods of music or composers especially? I'm wondering about composers that are your favourite.

Well, certainly Beethoven. In terms of the kind of styles, that has changed over the years. When I was at college I did a lot of Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert. And then in my 20s I started doing more romantic repertoire, and that sort of stayed with me. I played a lot of 20th century pieces in my college years as well, then I started doing less of that. Over the years, I’ve played a whole load of Rachmaninoff and Ravel. Mozart I do very little now except for concertos and I haven't done any Bach for 20 years or something.

It’s hard to say why. Just that one changes as one gets older, and you're attracted to different things. One of the great things about playing the piano is the repertoire is so enormous. It gives you every possibility to express what it is you want to express and all the different corners of the repertoire. So now it's still Rachmaninoff, still Beethoven, still Ravel. Those are maybe the three that I feel closest to I think.

My favourite composers are probably Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev. What are some of your favourite pieces by Rachmaninoff or Prokofiev?

 "With Rachmaninoff, there's a kind of extreme of emotion, a feeling that he gives that is so unguarded, that is so passionate and so melancholy sometimes."

Prokofiev, I was just playing the last few Prokofiev sonatas - six, seven, and eight, and that felt like an amazing, monumental thing to conquer. There is an incredible variety of character. I like music with extremes. That might be the reason I like Beethoven, there are such extremes in Beethoven, and with Prokofiev, the extremes of songwriting are so enormous. With Rachmaninoff, there's a kind of extreme of emotion, a feeling that he gives that is so unguarded, that is so passionate and so melancholy sometimes.

And I'm allergic to music which is nice. It's got to have a really, really strong flavour to it. And even Ravel, some of Ravel's music might seem relatively pretty, but underneath there's always a strong feeling somehow just hiding in it.

What do you listen to for your own pleasure, apart from classical music? I can imagine jazz probably.

Certainly jazz. Actually, I listen to very little classical and very, very little classical piano music. If I'm listening to classical it would be more likely something like Sibelius symphonies or listening to some new music that I've not heard before, but more likely orchestral. As I said with jazz, certainly Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Miles Davis. I've got a very soft spot for Joni Mitchell's stuff from the '70s. Hejira. It’s an amazing album and she just has the most incredible voice. And the lyrics are so creative, for me, she's got everything. So her, Bob Dylan... So again, that period of time.

Now I can move on towards performance. But how do you choose your repertoire?

"you have to be playing music that you feel passionate about, because it's impossible to fake that engagement with music."

That's actually quite simple. It's just instinct - it's the next thing I want to play, because I learned fairly early on that if you do things that feel like a good idea but you're not passionate about, it always ends up being disappointing. So I think it's quite difficult. There's a difficult balance when you're starting out and you're trying to make a name for yourself in some way. There can be various things that might be suggested to you, off you go in this direction, let's say there's a gap in the market here, or this composer suits your nationality, or things that people think are going to look good on paper.

And it's not that that stuff is insignificant, but the basic thing it seems to me is that you have to be playing music that you feel passionate about, because it's impossible to fake that engagement with music. It's very interesting as a subject; why is it music communicates? But audiences can immediately feel the difference between a performer that's engaged with the music and a performer that isn't. They may or may not even be able to rationalize what's going on. But you can tell.

Do you think that sometimes, if there's a piece that you love, that you're not quite ready emotionally for it, even though you're very drawn to it?

That's a really good question. I'm not sure how to answer that. I can only talk from my own experience. Let's say we play Beethoven's sonatas. When I was at college I did Opus 109, Opus 110 and somehow I just wasn't quite drawn to Opus 111, although I love the piece. And then suddenly, maybe five years ago, it just suddenly came to me, "I have to do this piece." And similarly with Opus 106, I had this same kind of feeling that I was ready ... Not even that I was ready, just that I wanted to do it.

So I've just always trusted that sense of, "This is something I need to do." I don't know, it’s so interesting what goes on underneath the surface. You can try and think all you want about what seems to make sense, but somehow our bodies know in a way that we won't. It's such an underlying thing.

So to go back to your question, I guess the first thing I would think about is how much of an inner need is there. Take those two sonatas that I learned, 109, 110, when I was at college. If I played them now I would say much more with them than I did back then, but at the time I wanted to do them, and that was fine. And in 20 years, if I keep playing them I'll have something else to say, and I might look back and think, "Oh, yeah, I really missed all these things in the piece." And that's fine too.

I wonder how much time on average does it take you to master the material for a concert?

"All through my career I've constantly been learning music"

It's a long while. I don't learn quickly, - particularly Rachmaninoff. I've been learning stuff for a CD, and I'm just working on the first sonata, and I'm almost finished with it, but that has been six months work. All through my career I've constantly been learning music, I've almost never taken any time off. Once I took a year off learning repertoire, that was the only break I gave myself, and I'm starting to think maybe it's enough, maybe I can slow down a little bit, especially with Rachmaninoff, which is so mentally taxing. I'm actually learning some early Debussy music at the moment, and it's unbelievable to have so few notes to learn. It's such an incredible relief.

Do you have any tips on how to learn, especially Rachmaninoff, because there are just so many notes. How do you go about doing it?

Basically lots of slow practice. The basic thing is just being aware of how it feels. Does it feel nice? That's the question always at the back of my mind, because when you start to play something faster than you can, your body tenses up, your hands tense up, your arms, and your body postures starts going. So that's the thing that guides me. If I can't stop being tense at a certain speed, then I go slower, and if I'm still tense, I go slower again. And so when I start practising a piece it's glacially slow.

Being a musician there a lot of comparisons made – everyone compares themselves to other people who seem to have done bigger and better things such as the Tchaikovsky Competition, how have you dealt with comparison that's healthy,versus something that might become a bit toxic?

"I think the fundamental thing is everyone has something to say, and it may not be that everyone has something to say in music, but everyone has something to say."

I think the fundamental thing is everyone has something to say, and it may not be that everyone has something to say in music, but everyone has something to say. And I think if one is going into music you have to trust that. Without loving music, you won't be able to express what you have to say in music. But if you do love music, then you need to trust that what you have to say is enough, because there's no other way. You can copy the best bits of the greatest musicians as you see it, and it just won't speak directly.

A few years ago I heard this conductor doing Brahms' Second Symphony, and it was very spacious and beautifully done, seemingly, but it left me totally cold. This guy was conducting as if he was in an empty room, it just didn't sound like it was really genuinely him. And so this temptation to think that you have to make music sound profound and sound great, I think is an absolute blind alley. It can only lead you somewhere in which the music doesn't speak. The music only speaks when you're genuinely engaged with it.

In a way, I think classical music has suffered a bit from this reverence that's attached to these composers, as if they are supermen in some way, or superwomen. And it somehow really kind of mixes everything up. These are humans who had this wonderful ability to put into music some deep life experience and we are human too, and our job is to respond to that life experience they had and make it our own. So I think it's much healthier just to see it as a meeting of equals almost.

The thing I find very interesting is, how, when you're performing, be in control and kind of also completely let go? .

It's quite honestly an enormous question. How do you get deeply into the music? To start with, I think you have to love the piece, to have that desire to play it. Without that starting point, it can be quite difficult to get underneath the surface, because maybe you just don't relate to what's in the piece. Certainly it's helpful to have a lot of experience of analysis, hopefully be schooled in analysis, and listening fairly widely, getting a sense for how the composer works and the kind of shapes that they tend to create, and recognizing what's particular to that piece. There's often things which are unusual which are clues to what the piece is really saying.

Take Beethoven's last sonata, it's only got two movements, and the two movements are very polarized. You’ve got this first movement which is so full of tension, and this second movement which is so unbelievably open, so that immediately poses this question of, why has he put these two things together? Beethoven was maybe the greatest master of this, of provocatively creating the shape of something, and doing things which seemed unusual but with a real point to it. So this approach is a mix of analysis and really feeling what the dramatic journey is through a piece.

But then there's just such a basic question of instinct, how one instinctively responds to a piece. And this is why it's pointless talking about the right way or the best way to do any piece of music because there are endless numbers of ways to do something. There's not endless possibility. That last movement of that Beethoven Opus 11 Sonata isn't going to go fast, there are certain limits within what the composer has written, but in terms of the precise feeling, everyone will have something different in their response. And so the point is just getting in touch with that instinctive response that you have. And how you do it, it's just an enormous question. You need some space, partly.

And to see what the music feels like inside you, there are certain ways that can help get you in touch with that. Imagine the music tells a story. You think, "If this is once upon a time, what would be happening in the beginning, and then how would it develop?" Or it can just be a question of, what does that bit feel like? What does the next bit feel like? How do they relate? So all of these things are just ways of trying to get at this instinctive response, because when an interpretation works well, it's never a question of working out the right way, because it's two-dimensional. I shouldn't be so dogmatic.

Sometimes a discussion we've had in some areas for performance classes is about when there's a performance and you see the performer just completely and utterly being at one with the music and enjoying it so much, but then at the same time they don't really give the joy to the audience. How do you find a balance between almost playing for yourself and feeling this so strongly internally, but also being able to translate it and speak to the audience?

If you didn't feel that engagement listening, how do you know they were at one with the music?

There's this sort of ... trend is not the right word. I like to think of it more of as a disease, where people sort of look to the sky when they're playing and all this stuff. If music makes you need to do that, that's fine, but it seems to me that often it's people trying to find a shortcut to making what they do look profound.

Let's say, for the sake of argument you're right, that they really felt really engaged with the music but couldn't communicate it, then it can be simply a question of scale. Let's say you're an actor, you're on a stage, and you talk with your normal speaking voice, people aren't going to hear you. So it could be simply something like that, this thing of learning how to exaggerate without feeling like you're exaggerating takes a bit of experience.

I wonder, should musicians value other musicians on the basis of whether they have won something ... Should musicians base their worth on their wins?

Well, sadly not, because competitions are such a lottery. I won a couple competitions, and I was voted out the first round of several more. You've got no control over it. You can't choose when you play, you might be playing at a time when the jury are sleepy after their lunch, or who knows - they've even had a glass of wine, those kind of things. The first competition I did had 80 people in the first round. Let's say you play first in that competition, it comes to number 80, how on earth is the jury supposed to remember back?

Competitions are great for learning repertoire, and in a way, that's reason enough to do them, but you can't take it personally when you get voted out. It's hard not to, you put so much work into them, and it hurts to get voted out, but it's just simple reality. There are lots of good players around, and you need some luck to get through the first round of these competitions, and more so, you need luck that the jury are going to relate to what you're doing. The danger with competitions is that you start adapting your playing to what you think the jury wants to hear, and that's a fatal flaw if you go down that route. Audiences want to hear what you have to say, and unfortunately, when you do that in competitions, some people will like it and some people won’t.

People often say that in order to make it as a musician or as a soloist you have to make a name for yourself by winning a competition. How much of that do you think is actually the case?

It's definitely not necessary. It helps. It helps because, firstly, it gives you some concerts, generally. In a way, the more important thing is having a good manager working with you, but that's also difficult, because it's not that easy to find a good manager because there are lots and lots of people wanting that. You can win a competition, and then if you don't have somebody that's really working to build on the momentum from that, it very easily it kind of peters out after a couple years.

Have you had moments in your life where you've doubted yourself musically? And if so, how have you got over that?

"I had always had a basic sense that I had something to say, I had always felt engaged with music"

Yes. When I got voted out of the third competition in a row in the first round. The first competition I did, I won and I thought, "Ah, excellent", the second competition I got voted out in the first round, and I thought, "There was obviously just some terrible mistake", and the next one I got voted out, and then one again after that, I got voted out in the first round. At that point I thought, "Oh", and I really thought, "Well, how much do I have to say?" My parents helped a bit and said how much they believed in what I was doing, and I can't remember ... I'm trying to think what else was happening around then, I think the disappointment of it gradually subsided. I think I must've had a few concerts I think from elsewhere, and I was learning the repertoire, and I was enjoying that, so gradually, it sort of faded into the background.

I had always had a basic sense that I had something to say, I had always felt engaged with music, so I guess that if I was trying to advise someone I would probably be saying you should fall back on that, your love of music.

This sort of question of love for music is such a crucial thing because it's easy to lose it in the profession. There's lots of orchestral musicians that just don't enjoy it anymore and it's kind of understandable. It's not easy in orchestras when they're working very busy schedules, and there's very little time to prepare the music. In that kind of situation, it's easy to lose touch with what's motivating. But also, even doing solo things, when you've got much more control over what you're doing, it's still stressful giving concerts, you need to make sure you're not losing touch with that basic enthusiasm.

"it's so important to make your musical decision based on your enthusiasm and not based on what you think the composer meant but you don't quite feel, or what you think the jury wants to hear. "

So again, it sort of comes back to this question of engagement, why it's so important to make your musical decision based on your enthusiasm and not based on what you think the composer meant but you don't quite feel, or what you think the jury wants to hear. That core of enthusiasm and of the pleasure you have in music, it's everything. You have to guard it jealously.

I wonder, how have you dealt with performance anxiety because I'm sure there are quite a lot of people who have struggles at some point in their life. So what has been your journey with that?

Well, initially, I didn't really get anxious at all. And then at some point in my 20s I think it was, suddenly out of nowhere I had massive anxiety and I thought I was going to forget everything I was playing. In some Mozart concerto, out of the blue..... nothing had disappeared in my fingers, but my brain has gone haywire. I didn't forget anything, but I kept thinking I was going to, so that was really horrible, obviously.

Initially I went to a therapist who used some kind of cognitive behavioral therapy - just some tools that help to slightly calm down your anxiety. So then over a period it got better, and then a few years later something similar happened, not quite as bad, but I suddenly got really anxious again, I thought I was going to forget everything.

There are two ways of approaching it. There are tools by which you help settle things down, things like breathing exercises are the most basic. There are two things that go on, and it's like the fight or flight response, the sort of feeling we're in danger and we feel we have to get away from the danger. We perceive somehow the performance situation as being a kind of existential threat like there's a tiger running at you, so there's a physiological response, your heart rate goes up, your breathing increases. So what we're tackling is counteracting those things, so we start breathing slower.

There's one interesting exercise, which is the one physical thing I found most helpful. One thing that happens in the fight or flight response, is that your eyesight gets very focused on what's in front of you, so the exercise is that you unfocus your eyes, and then you start enlarging your awareness of your peripheral vision, and you go all the way around. And then you imagine that you can go all the way around to the back of your head, which is quite fun in itself, but that puts you in quite a spacey frame of mind so that helps a little bit.

There's the physical things, but also your brain becomes preoccupied with the threat. So another thing is finding something else to put in your brain that might be a little mantra like, "I can do this," or "There's no danger," something that feels real to you, something that you recognize is true and that can help counteract the obsessive thoughts. So those are all things you can do as a direct response to feeling anxious in the moment.

The one thing I found most useful is writing about it in a kind of stream of consciousness, just writing what I feel, maybe what it feels like in my body, seeing if it connects to anything, being alert to feelings of judgment, feelings of humiliation, of shame and you gradually piece it together, you try and bring alongside that sense of what the reality is. For example, it's quite common to think that the audience are going to pounce on any mistakes or pounce on any flaws and yet, we know from being in audiences that all we want is to enjoy ourselves. So it's things like that, things that you can put alongside the anxieties. It doesn't make them go away, but it just gives you a context.

Can you try to find the words to describe the meaning music to you personally?

"To me, music feels like one of the fundamental ways I connect to other people."

To me, music feels like one of the fundamental ways I connect to other people. I was talking about how an audience knows when someone's saying something genuine and when they're not. Well, it's funny, in British society, although maybe not quite so much now, there's a real prohibition on expressing strong emotion, stiff upper lip, all this kind of thing, the pretence, things within bounds, so there's always a surprise when things go off the rails. Suddenly there's a divorce, or you suddenly discover someone's angry at you, you discover they've been angry with you for years and have never said, or whatever the thing is, there's this tendency in our culture here to cover those things over.

"music is a way of sharing with an audience the full spectrum of human emotion, from despair, to ecstasy, to jealousy."

So music is a way of sharing with an audience the full spectrum of human emotion, from despair, to ecstasy, to jealousy. I don't know if you get jealousy in music. You may not be able to pinpoint exactly, "That tune is a jealous tune," but just a feeling. I talked before about extremes in music, because when I play, I have this strong sense that I need to get these extremes out somehow.

"And there is something amazing to feel that an audience is with you when you're playing, that there is a silence, that there is this shared engagement with the music"

And there is something amazing to feel that an audience is with you when you're playing, that there is a silence, that there is this shared engagement with the music. So in terms of meaning, the word meaning is exactly the right word because we feel this meaning in it. But it's very hard to say what it means. But when the music is played with that genuine feeling and engagement, it does create this connection between people.

Visit Steven Osborne's website 

Images: Benjamin Ealogeva and Fiona Duncan 

Copyright St Mary's Music School June 2021

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30 June 2021

An Interview with Steven Osborne

In June 2020 first study pianist Pavlina (S6) interviewed pianist and alumnus Steven Osborne. The result is an in-depth an insightful insight into the thinking of one of our greatest pianists and contains lots of advice for young players aiming for a professional career. 

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