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Dame Fanny Waterman

John Robert Brown

Fanny Waterman

I am welcomed into a large and comfortable room in the Victorian suburb of Oakwood, Leeds. In this room stands a pair of Steinway grand pianos, for this is the home of Dame Fanny Waterman, Britain's best-known piano teacher. Photographs document friendships with gifted and famous musicians from Dame Fanny's career: Sir John Major, Sir Edward Heath, Lord Harewood, Sir Malcolm Sergeant, Eric Robinson, Gina Bachauer, Alan Schiller, Sir Simon Rattle, and a couple of dozen more. An autograph manuscript page of Benjamin Britten's Nocturne is displayed, together with the document - signed by Prince Philip - declaring Dame Fanny to be Dame Commander of the British Empire. The most recent keepsake is an invitation from Prime Minister Han Seung-soo, whom Dame Fanny met during a trip to South Korea.

'My interest in teaching began when I was at school,' she says. 'I loved to chalk on the blackboard, and get my friends to add up the sums. I used to love to put ticks on their work. I had teaching in me from the very early days. Then I won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, where I studied with Cyril Smith, after having lessons with Tobias Mathay, until Mathay died at the age of 86. Cyril Smith was very pleased with my progress. In my final report he said: 'A brilliant young musician, who will be an inspiration to her pupils.' At that moment, when I was only 20, I was still thinking I'd be a concert pianist, because I'd played at the Proms.'

Dame Fanny was born in 1920; this Prom appearance would have been during the early war years. She was called up to go into the Women's Land Army. 'I was no good with a spade,' she says. 'But the Director of the Royal College of Music, Sir George Dyson, called together a few of us who were eligible for service. He said: "You should really be looking for a reserved profession."

So Dame Fanny went into teaching. 'It's never been second best,' she says. 'I didn't pursue a big career with my piano playing, mainly because I married a doctor, and I had two sons. To devote myself to performing and not look after my family didn't appeal to me at the time.

'Mrs Schiller - that's Alan Schiller's mother - rang the doorbell one day and asked me if I would teach her son. I had been teaching at Allerton High School [in Leeds]. I sent my pupils in for exams. They all got distinctions. I was beginning to get a little reputation.

Alan Schiller became her pupil. 'I happened to go to a rehearsal of Sir John Barbirolli. He'd heard about Alan Schiller, and what a good little pianist he was, aged about 10 or 11. Barbirolli said: 'Can you prepare this boy to play Mozart's K453 with the Hallé Orchestra next September?' I think I must have been out of my mind to say yes, because all he was doing at that moment was a Scarlatti Sonata!

"However, he did play the Mozart. His career flourished while he was with me. I had five prodigies at the same time, all playing with Carlo Maria Giulini, or with Sir Charles Groves, Sir John Pritchard, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Sir John Barbirolli or Harry Blech. All of these young pianists had been playing concertos and all getting marvellous reviews in The Times. That went to the parents' heads. It didn't go to the children's heads; it went to the parents' heads. Their children had played for Arthur Rubinstein; the parents thought that I was the local piano teacher. I was very hurt when one-by-one they decided that they'd go and study elsewhere. So, one sleepless night I woke my husband up and said: "Do you know, I'd like to have an international piano competition here in Leeds". He said: "It won't work in Leeds. It has to be in a capital city." So I said: "I'll show you!"

'I then rang up Marion, who was then the Countess of Harewood. Now she is Marion Thorpe. She said: "Let's try." She used to bring her son to have lessons with me. She'd heard all of my young pupils, and was greatly impressed by the work that I did. When she first heard my pupils play with Sir John Barbirolli she said: "It should be shouted from the rooftops." She came - with her husband, the Earl of Harewood, and her mother in law, the Princess Mary, and her mother and father - to a concert I gave at Leeds Town Hall during the early 'fifties.

'The piano competition was triggered off by my disillusionment about the ingratitude of parents of prodigies. I thought, "Why do that just for your own students? Why don't you extend your influence to young people throughout the world?" And that's how the piano competition was born.'

The competition got off to a strong start. 'Embarrassingly enough, Michael Roll, aged 17, who had entered for a bit of fun, and who was a schoolboy at Roundhay School, won the competition,' she says. 'I wasn't on the jury. I didn't go into the jury room. When Michael Roll played, Clifford Curzon left his seat among the jury to come and sit with me in the audience. He said: "It's the finest performance I've ever heard of the Appassionata Sonata." He really played well at that time. There was no collusion. I never went into the jury room when they had their coffee or tea. I can say, when I look back now, that my behaviour was exemplary.

'I don't think there's a Waterman method. All I can say is that the point of departure with me is to teach them, however young, how to make the piano sing.'

All of Dame Fanny's pupils, however young, receive a one-hour lesson. 'Making the piano sing involves balancing of the hands as soon as they play hands together. I'm sad to say that not much of this is going on in the world. It was, with the great teachers, in America and Russia. They really understood how to make the piano sing, how to make the piano sound like an orchestra. They were devoted to the composers' instructions. Now, if I go and give masterclasses, I ask them "What is the tempo indication?" They don't know. They don't know the dynamics. They don't know the fingerprints of Beethoven - the sforzato or the subito piano.

'It's a teacher's duty to help a pupil, at whatever stage, to read the score. So I decided to compose little pieces, and to give introductory paragraphs to the chapters, on how to get beautiful running passages. You don't just run up and down the piano, but you practise the passages in segments - two notes, three notes, four notes - and always go to the last note with sforzando, because it gives it impetus and direction.

'Scales aren't metronomic, one accent per four notes. No! Scales are bridging passages, and they have their own beauty. They either have diminuendos, or crescendos, or diminuendos and crescendos at close quarters. But you have to get a wonderful evenness of sound. When you think of quick passages, they are slow tunes played fast. So every note in a scale passage is meaningful. It's not a matter of accenting the first of every four.

'Then there's the title of the piece. When I've adjudicated, some candidates didn't even know the title. Is it a Dolly's Funeral? Is it a Brisk Walk in the Country?

'I stopped sending my pupils in for the Associated Board (ABRSM) exams. The pieces were not stimulating enough. It's much better now than it was. One of my complaints about the ABRSM is that candidates have to play far too many scales. It isn't just playing the notes of a scale. I'd rather spend the time on improving the sound of the scale.

'Think of a young person learning the piano. They come home from school. They have to have a little relaxation. They have to have a meal. They have their school work to do, which is pretty heavy. They might not want immediately to go to the piano, unless they're inspired. They might want to watch some television. So, considering the young person as a whole, you've got to take into account how much is feasible to do everyday. In some of the later exams I could spend a whole lesson on scales alone.

'In many schools - and I'm going to take this up with the cultural secretary - their music lessons are only half an hour. I don't think that we in this country are conscious of the explosion of interest within Asia and Russia.

'The Prime Minister has very kindly offered a reception for people I've invited who are interested in the education of young musicians. I've bought over a young boy of ten, from Tiblizi in Georgia. To watch him play the cello is an inspiration. But he has three lessons a week, not neglecting his other studies, and his learning of several languages. So we've got to think a lot about where we are going wrong. Somehow, they are not starting early enough.

'I was Chairman of the Hong Kong Asia International Piano Competition, where children of three and four are playing concert grands like masters. Some of them can't reach the pedals, so of course the repertoire is restricted. But their finger work is marvellous, and they are practising.

'That can be done from a very early age. I'm hearing it being done. All my pupils come with tape recorders. They tape my lessons. So they receive only one lesson a week, but they are getting the replay of that lesson, with the evidence for their parents to hear. I have a boy next week who's coming from Milan. He'll stay for two and a half hours, and he'll go back. He says it's worth it.'

For Dame Fanny Waterman, her 'reserved profession' of teaching has clearly proved to be a very successful choice.

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An extended version of the article 'Queen of the Keyboard', published in Music Teacher, February 2009. With thanks to the editor. Reproduction forbidden
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