Photo by Phillip Nangle
British piano teaching guru Dame Fanny Waterman has announced that she will step down as artistic director of the Leeds International Piano Competition after its September instalment. Waterman co-founded ‘The Leeds’ in 1961, and the contest has propelled the likes of Murray Perahia, Radu Lupu and Artur Pizarro into the spotlight. (It has also seen its share of historically amusing placements: András Schiff famously came third in 1975 – but then he was against Dmitri Alexeev and Mitsuko Uchida, who took first and second prize, respectively.) Waterman has made an invaluable contribution to the music world, and under ordinary circumstances, this column would simply speculate on the appointment of her successor. However, Waterman’s recent comments in the UK press must be addressed.
In an interview published in the Observer, Waterman appeared to blame the popularity of digital pianos for the UK failing to produce performers who can compete internationally. When asked if the standard of British playing has deteriorated, Waterman replied: ‘Definitely’ and suggested that few teachers in Britain were teaching students ‘the subtleties you can bring out of the piano’.
Firstly, this is hugely offensive to the vast swathes of piano teachers who are doing exactly that. Secondly, where is the evidence to support that British playing has deteriorated? There may well be fewer British entrants to The Leeds – and other international competitions – but this is not an accurate barometer of talent levels.
The issue of digital pianos is more complex and has been discussed at length in these pages. There are many types of electronic instruments, from entry level to grand piano. Waterman is incorrect to liken them to ‘playing the violin but studying the guitar’ – perhaps this was the case 20 years ago but technology has developed. Of course, an aspiring professional pianist at conservatoire level should be playing an acoustic the majority of the time. But if they live in a flat and practice with headphones, is that such a terrible thing? And what about the families that cannot afford an acoustic instrument but can provide their children with a keyboard? For better or worse, electronic keyboards have democratised piano playing: isn’t that what Dame Fanny and her colleagues have been fighting for?