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Thomas Kelly - Piano

Interview

1- Who was your first music teacher?

My first teacher was Michael Belinfante, who luckily lived 2 minutes away back when I was in Kent! He was very charismatic and I especially remember his 1st lesson when he took apart the piano to explain to me exactly how everything worked, something which made a great impression on my 3-year-old brain. He took me through to my Grade 8 exam, and very rightly taught me how much good music stems from Bach!

2- Is your family musical?

I don't come from a family of musicians, but everyone enjoys classical music. My parents have an extensive CD collection, and once went to see Pavarotti at Covent Garden which I'm very envious about!

3- Since 2015, you have been studying with Andrew Ball, initially at the Purcell School of Music and now at the Royal College of Music. How is this progressing?

Andrew is a phenomenal teacher and I'm extremely lucky that I was allocated him when I arrived at the Purcell School! He is inspiring both musically and in his unfailingly kind and thoughtful persona. He has always known exactly how to balance criticism against positivity, has always guided rather than controlled my development, and has introduced me to many new composers such as Busoni, Tippett and Taneyev!

4- Aged 9 you performed the Mozart Concerto No. 24 in the Marlowe Theatre. How do you recall your feelings at the time?

It was a thrilling experience! I hadn't begun to feel self-conscious yet, and I will probably never be as relaxed playing with an orchestra again! Mozart didn't write a cadenza for this concerto and I, perhaps misguidedly, chose to play the Brahms cadenza. This probably did for my chances as the jury felt my selection was too "stormy", but I still don't regret it!

5- You have won many prizes and awards. Does anyone stand out for you?

Thank you, that's a kind assessment! Winning the Purcell School Concerto Prize performing my favorite concerto (Brahms 2nd) gave me lots of confidence and positive energy moving forward!

6- What are your fondest musical memories, privately or performing?

It's difficult to name my fondest musical memory, but having people I know in the audience always makes a difference! Performing the Tchaikovsky Concerto a couple of days before lockdown in March with Robert Max conducting the Oxford Symphony Orchestra had a really special atmosphere... a solo recital at the North Norfolk Music Festival will also live long in the memory.

7- How often do your practice?

I find it necessary if at all possible to practice every day - consistency is key. Sometimes a day off is necessary to refresh, but I generally let my body tell me when that is. I think 5 hours is ideal, provided that practicalities don't interfere!

8- Would you consider teaching in the future?

Music education is so important, especially quality education at a young age and I think it's become more challenging to forge a musical career as time has gone on. I definitely want to play my part in helping young musicians in the future, although I don't consider myself best placed to spend much time on teaching at the moment.

9- Who would your dream accompanist be, from the present or past?

Andrew Ball was a wonderful collaborative player within his performing career, and it is utterly frustrating that illness would prevent us the chance to perform together. Thinking of conductors from the past, I would find it hard to think of someone more admirable than Leonard Bernstein!

10- What advice would you give to young musicians at the start of their journey?

Never forget the reasons why you started out, however competitive or self-sacrificing life becomes. Listening to yourself, which teachers always emphasize especially with younger students, only becomes more essential growing up, building towards an independent career after studies. This relates to an idea Andrew instilled in me of always having one's own mental musical space, a special space for self-examination, growth, and finding joy in music, and completely away from competition.

11- How do you plan to maintain relevance as a classical musician?

Of course, piano-playing and music in general is simply a pleasurable activity, which provides entertainment and fulfillment to the amateur as much as the professional. By choosing to devote our life projects towards this art-form, we must be both upholding a tradition and pushing beyond new boundaries, which is all very dependent on audience participation. The audience who wish to listen to standard repertoire occasionally to supplement a varied lifestyle and the audience of professionals who wish to attend an all-21st century concert are poles apart, but both demands need to be met without any sacrifice of artistic integrity or further fragmentation into popular demand vs niche specialism. Both sides of the spectrum are equally valid - such has been my increasing enjoyment of contemporary music, I sometimes wonder whether my taste has gradually improved or whether I've simply become numb towards dissonance! It's up to performers to provide a riveting narrative of musical history up to the present, and to then plough their own furrow as a conduit to further the enthusiasm and interest of the general public. I regret that I haven't spent time developing compositional skills yet, but I want to use my playing to selectively push new music, shed new light on the 20th century, and really to bring old music and new together with as deep a perspective as I can. Perspective is so vital after all, as it is what can draw in or alienate different people listening to the same music.

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submission January 2021