Empowering talent8:00, 8th November 2017
At just 10, pianist Alanna Crouch already has all eight grades and a diploma under her belt. Rhian Morgan catches up with her tutors and asks what they consider when teaching such a talented young player
For a teacher, a prodigiously talented pupil can be a dream or a nightmare. Whichever way it goes, it is undoubtedly a huge responsibility – not only to develop the child musically, but to keep them grounded and happy and to guide their development.
Pianist and teacher Christine Croshaw has been a professor of piano, chamber music and accompaniment at Trinity Laban since the late 1970s, and she has seen many talented young performers come and go.
With her pupils she is keen to avoid the pitfalls which can afflict many such precocious performers – who can end up as being, as she puts it ‘little more than performing monkeys’.
She believes that 10-year-old pianist Alanna Crouch, who lives in Romford, genuinely has something special which marks her out as a potentially great musician.
‘She started with me when she was seven and sometimes I sit in a lesson with her, I hear her play, and I think “where did that come from?”,’ says Croshaw. ‘She has a special skill which can’t be taught and it absolutely melts your heart.’
But teaching children with a special skill brings its own challenges and both Croshaw and Crouch’s jazz teacher, Tom Donald of the London Contemporary School of Piano (with whom she has learnt since the age of three), believe in taking each lesson as it comes, and not locking into any single method or imposing a single methodology.
‘I always say I am an enabler, not a teacher,’ says Croshaw. ‘I draw out rather than put in, and I give my pupils the means to perform.’
Alanna’s other teacher, Tom Donald, agrees with Croshaw, citing a sense of empowerment – both musically and technically – as being of paramount importance for Alanna.
‘When her mum sent videos of Alanna to me at the age of 3, she was playing nursery songs by ear and she was already extremely advanced,’ he says. ‘Within a few weeks she was playing early Mozart keyboard pieces.
‘We have worked organically, repertoire-based and not at all exam-orientated. In fact, her first exam was Grade 5, then Grade 8, followed by a diploma at the age of 8.
‘It’s a big journey and it’s been my job to see that she plays in a free way, with no roadblocks.’
Composer and publisher Elena Cobb knows Alanna well, and also believes that she stands out from the crowd. ‘I am her biggest fan,’ she says. ‘She is a ray of sunshine in today’s world where there is so much negative talk regarding education and music education specifically. She works hard and has an extremely professional work ethic. Her prodigious talent is evident to anyone who hears her playing and I predict a very big future.’
Croshaw, while developing Crouch’s repertoire and virtuosity – she is now playing studies by Chopin and Liszt – sees the fostering of physical suppleness and correct alignment as key to her successful development, especially when she is tackling big works. ‘She has a natural poise at the keyboard, and it’s been so important to establish that effortlessness, freedom and spontaneity. It’s like a dance.
‘We are not interested in quick outcomes, but long-term development. Alanna is playing a few well-chosen concerts, building her repertoire and virtuosity, and I simply want to respond to her marvellous greed for knowledge, her astonishing maturity. She plays brilliantly – phenomenally – and I believe she has the makings of a great artist.’
High praise indeed, but the young pianist herself sounds refreshingly straightforward in her approach. ‘I have other hobbies too,’ she says cheerfully. ‘I like reading, arts and crafts, trampolining, playing the violin and playing with my friends. My favourite composers are Debussy, Gershwin and Chopin but I also like playing music from Disney soundtracks.
‘I do love performing but sometimes when I am playing I get the slightest bit nervous because I think I’m going to mess up the pieces. I like playing in competitions as well because then I can see how some of the other children are playing and I get feedback from the judges which helps me improve the pieces.
‘I always try to do my best and normally I play them quite well.’
There are several YouTube recordings of Alanna, but for a cheering two minutes, have a listen to her playing Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Take the A Train’ at tinyurl.com/MTAlanna