Mean what you play

Rachael Shipard – a Classical musician and 2016 University Medallist from the Queensland Conservatorium – tells SO about the beauty and great labour of love needed to pursue a career in music, whilst also sharing some tips for aspiring musicians.

Next month, Rachael will be travelling to Japan to attend the International Hamamatsu Piano Academy so we wish her all the very best!

Do you remember when you first fell in love with music? Why did you choose the piano?

I’ve been surrounded by music for so long, it feels as if it would be impossible to live without it now! Mum introduced me to Classical music from very early on – aside from absorbing all of the much loved tunes from her CDs, she also played the piano herself. When she could catch a break from us she would often do some private practice to relax. This usually occurred during our afternoon ‘nap time’, but I was a bit naughty… I hardly slept and instead I listened to her playing!

I certainly wasn’t brought up in an environment of solely Classical music though. Dad loves his rock and roll and often I would pick out records of The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, put them on the turntable myself, and dance around the lounge room, much to my family’s entertainment!

The piano always fascinated me – in its dimensions as well as in its vast capabilities. My parents noticed my interest in the instrument early on and decided to enrol me in piano lessons. I’m not sure they anticipated that I would still be heavily involved in music years down the track!

How long have you been playing the piano? Are you still studying music to this day?

I started lessons at the age of 5, so I’ve been playing for 15 years now. I actually just graduated last year from a Bachelor of Music with First Class Honours and University Medal from the Queensland Conservatorium (Griffith University), but the studies are definitely not finished yet! This year I hope to be embarking on postgraduate study here in Brisbane, which should be very beneficial to my development as a musician.

What are three points of advice you would give to aspiring musicians? What do you think are some of the biggest challenges in pursuing a career in music?

The performing arts is probably the area in which it is most difficult to find a steady income, and so the challenge lies in finding a way to always make your art interesting, relevant, and thought provoking. Music isn’t just for entertainment, the whole fabric of society is sewn together by the arts. I still have a lot to learn ahead of me, but I know that you have to believe strongly in the music that you create, so that others actually want to take the time to listen to your performance and the message that you want to deliver. Music needs passion, love and dedication. It’s not about showing off, playing at breakneck speeds, or projecting some kind of false image. I think what’s most important on stage is to be sincere and honest – many people can quickly spot feigned passionate playing.

A mastery of all technical aspects is of course always expected from professional musicians, and this takes thousands of hours of practice, exposure, and experience. Music isn’t all just euphoria; sometimes practice can get tedious and repetitive, but if done effectively, it pays off in the end. Nothing is going to happen instantly, and patience is a virtue! I have found it helpful to keep the music itself in the foreground, so that my technique moulds around the shape of my ideas.

Pursuing a career in music is certainly extremely difficult, but I believe that the single most important thing to have is integrity: play what you mean, and mean what you play.

Where do you see your music taking you this year?

For my postgraduate research, I am interested in looking at how music affects and helps the aged with neurodegenerative diseases, as well as young people with mental illness. It’s going to be a huge project, but I’m looking forward to it!

In terms of performing, I’m actually in the middle of preparing for the International Hamamatsu Piano Academy in Japan, which is taking place in March. It’s a 10 day intensive academy which includes lessons from renowned pianists and teachers, seminars, and even a competition at the end. I have also been invited to be part of the Lucas Parklands Winter Festival in July. The festival takes place up on the Sunshine Coast, in the quaint town of Montville. I will be performing solo, concerto and chamber music in four concerts over three days, and it should be an extremely rewarding experience!

Among a number of other concerts and competitions throughout the year, my main goal is the national Lev Vlassenko Piano Competition in September, for which I have to prepare about two and a half hours’ worth of repertoire. The competition is held at the Queensland Conservatorium, and the public are welcome to attend each round, as well as the finals.

So it looks like it’s going to be a busy year, with lots of performing, researching, and teaching going on, but I am sure I will learn a huge amount from it all.

What is your favourite piece to play?

There’s so much piano repertoire out there that I am yet to learn, but I have most enjoyed working on two particular pieces from my recent repertoire: ‘The Lark’ – originally an art song by Glinka, transcribed for the piano by Balakirev – and ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ by Mussorgsky. The latter piece is more like a large scale piano suite, full of descriptive scenes which invite the pianist to evoke a whole range of colours and emotions.

Who is your favourite musician/composer? Why?

I have always had the strongest affinity with two composers: Beethoven and Rachmaninov. I know these guys may be some of the most prolific composers for solo piano works, but I love them for a lot more than that. Beethoven was a revolutionary in so many ways; he challenged artistic forms and the culture around him, always providing a piece of work that was inherently new, but yet still founded upon respected traditions. I love much of Beethoven’s symphonic works, chamber music, and of course his monumental piano sonatas. Nevertheless, there is always something new to discover with him!

I think Rachmaninov has a special place in the hearts of all pianists, and musicians in general. He lived a tough life, and yet always managed to create the most tender, soulful melodies in every one of his compositions. His piano music is particularly difficult with a lot going on at once, and it requires a great deal of patience and attention to detail, but it’s very satisfying in the end. The music of Rachmaninov seems to touch listeners everywhere, regardless of their background.

There are so many musicians of today that I admire, but probably my top two favourites right now are Vladimir Ashkenazy and Alice Sara Ott. Ashkenazy has recorded a mountain of piano repertoire (notably all of Rachmaninov’s piano works!), but he has also been heavily involved in chamber music as well as orchestral conducting in more recent years. I find that what makes him such a convincing artist are his strong, bold, and authoritative interpretations – he never fails to impress upon his audience his musical convictions, and executes these with the utmost clarity. Alice Sara Ott is a highly successful German-Japanese pianist, who manages to push the boundaries of classical music that little bit further by reaching out to wider and more eclectic audiences, while still respecting and presenting much loved traditional repertoire, for which I am sure there will be an endless market.

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