Profile: Helen Morris, pianist / “Music for Meditation and Relaxation” sessions at the Portsmouth Menuhin Room

On Wednesday 15 March Helen Morris and Andrew McVittie are holding two “Music for Meditation and Relaxation” sessions at the Portsmouth Menuhin Room in Portsmouth Central Library.

What are you looking most forward to when performing at this event?

Playing some gentle, reflective music on the Steinway concert grand, which is a superbly responsive piano: it will be as much a treat for me and Andrew as I hope it will be for the listeners.

Who and/or what have been the most important influences on your musical career or interest in music?

My Dad taught himself the piano and I used to hear him tinkling away on it while going off to sleep, so I have always associated it with comfort and security. I couldn’t wait to start lessons and was finally allowed to do so at the age of 6. In my adult life I have been profoundly influenced by Diana Swann, local teacher and ABRSM examiner (now retired) who taught me when I came back to the piano at the age of 30 after a break. I hope I can encourage and inspire my pupils in the same way she did me.

What have been the greatest challenges of your musical career so far?

Following a Bachelor of Music Degree at Bangor University, where I specialised in performance, I did a post-graduate year at Trinity College, London (now Trinity Laban). Later, in 2003, I did an MA at Reading University. My dissertation was an investigation into the problem of bi-manual coordination in piano playing and the switch from an arts subject to a primarily science-based one was a challenge.

I’ve got 30 years’ of teaching experience behind me. It’s always challenging. But if teaching does not feel like a challenge, then you’re not doing your job right!

What are the particular pleasures and challenges of collaborating with other musicians?

I have given numerous recitals both as a soloist and (more recently) in a duo with fellow pianist Kate Burrows. Playing piano duets is hard since you need to achieve a balance between the two of you. Four hands on the piano may sound too loud, and sometimes you have to “shut your RH hand up” if you’re playing the bottom part and think about which hand needs to dominate – but that’s not intuitive at all to a piano player! Quite often Kate and I record ourselves to hear the performance more objectively. Playing duets with Kate has improved my musicianship immeasurably and for this reason I also encourage my pupils to play duets with me and each other (and it’s so much fun!)

As a composer, how would you describe your musical language?

I developed an interest in composition while studying with Professor William Mathias at Bangor, and have been writing accessible and fun pieces for my pupils for many years. My aim is to create music for older beginners (11 and up) that sounds sophisticated despite being quite simple to play. An added advantage is that parents don’t have to buy expensive books! Some of my beginners’ pieces have been approved as Grade pieces with the Music Teachers’ Board (MTB) and I have recently written a set of more advanced pieces (Grade 6-7) called ‘5 Moods for Piano’ which I am intending to self-publish. I will play one of these in the Meditation and Relaxation sessions and some of my music can be heard on my SoundCloud profile:

How do you work as a composer?

At Bangor I was required to write an original piece every week as well as produce pastiche in many different styles which was a good grounding. We were strongly encouraged to compose away from the piano but I much prefer to sit at the instrument, improvising to generate ideas and then just allowing it to grow from there. I once heard the author, Philip Pullman, saying that his novels emerge in a similar way, often beginning with a single image, and I thought this was a liberating idea. To anyone who has never written their own music, I would say just have a go and don’t worry if some people don’t like it.

Are there any composers for whom you feel a particular affinity? 

I like whoever I am working on at any moment but I admire the following in particular: Scarlatti, for his audacity; Haydn, whose piano sonatas are, I feel, more inventive than Mozart’s; Liszt, such a warm and generous personality, who loved the big, dramatic sweeps. I love playing Prokofiev, who can be tender and lyrical one minute and percussive the next. Messiaen has a unique sound world and he’s difficult to learn but the unconventional scales he uses finally do fall into place once you’ve got your head around them.

Which works do you think you are able to perform best, and why? 

Any music that’s got a strong narrative.

Which performances are you most proud of?

I am satisfied when there’s a connection with the audience and I am able to focus on the music without worrying about “technical” issues.

What are your most memorable experiences, either as a performer, composer or listener?

When I heard Murray Perahia live, many years ago, I found every note revelatory. More recently I attended a concert by Valerie Tryon, who (already in her 80’s) waltzed into the room (she’s an avid dancer as well as a pianist), played a programme of Scarlatti and others faultlessly from memory, and then came and chatted with the audience in the interval. I love Stephen Osborne as he has a very individual take on every piece he performs.

What advice would you give to those who are considering a career in music?

As a musician you have to be prepared for financial insecurity so only go for it if you can’t imagine doing anything else. Otherwise I’d recommend that you pursue another career and do your music making as a hobby (which will give so much pleasure both to yourself and to others).

How would you define success as a musician?

Ultimately, you’re a success as a musician if you make a living from it but in a broader sense any musical performance that moves its listeners is a success. As a teacher, I find that it’s not always the most advanced musicians that move me: a beautiful, sensitive performance given by someone at Grade 1 level can be the highlight of my week!

What would you like to be doing in 5 years’ time?

Having the freedom to do more composing and performing, and less teaching.

About Helen


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