Interview: Clíodna Shanahan
23rd November 2016
Ingenium piano faculty member Clíodna is in demand as both a soloist and concert pianist. We asked her what it's like to pursue a career as a freelance pianist, her passion for music, and what's in store for her this year.
Born in Limerick in western Ireland, Clíodna began lessons on piano and violin at a very young age, and at 13 moved to England to attend the famous Yehudi Menuhin school in Cobham, Surrey.
After choosing to focus solely on the piano, Clíodna gained a place at the Royal College of Music in London. Here she completed both an undergraduate and master's degree, and launched her career as a freelance pianist and organist. Today she is in demand as a solo, orchestral and chamber musician, both in the UK and internationally, and has just finished performing at the Royal Opera House for their production of The Nose by Shostakovich.
Did you always know you wanted to be a musician?
When I was five I wanted to be a dentist... but yes, from a young age I knew I wanted a career in music. Music was a big part of family life - my mother is a piano teacher, although we decided I would learn with someone else to keep the peace at home! My father has always been a keen amateur singer, and my brother even has a PHD in hip hop from University College Dublin.
How does being a professional pianist compare to your expectations?
When I was little, I always imagined Tom and Jerry in the episode with the piano concerto. Tom walks on stage, bows, and ceremoniously swishes out his tailcoat - now I have my own tailcoat that I can swish! People imagine that it's a very solitary lifestyle, but it doesn't have to be at all. I do a lot of work collaborating with other musicians, with chamber groups and workshopping contemporary music.
I wasn't initially aware of the variety of work you can do, whether in chamber music or particularly as an orchestral pianist - lots of works call for a piano in the orchestra. What excites me about making music is making something new; whether it's a new composition, or performing in a new space, or with new people. I love the feeling of freedom you have as a performer, to discover music together, to explore and be inspired each other and by one's surroundings.
What is life like as a freelance pianist? Can you describe an average week?
Being a freelance pianist is such a varied career. One month I could be preparing a solo recital and collaborating with composers in Aldeburgh, the next performing in an opera like The Nose in London. I'm currently developing an American tour of music for trombone and organ with David Whitwell. A career as a freelancer is an ever changing combination of orchestral playing, chamber groups, collaborative projects, teaching, solo recitals... there really is no such thing as an average week!
Do you have a favourite piece, pianist or recording?
I have to say my favourite pianist is Glen Gould. We had the 32 Short Films on VHS growing up, and I love his recordings of Bach. As for a favourite piece, I would love one day to perform the solo part of Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie.
Do you have any favourite musical memories of experiences that inspired you?
Seeing a double performance of Gruppen by Stockhausen at the Royal College of Music, with a speech by the composer himself, was a really wonderful experience. More recently, in Valparaiso, Chile I gave a performance of Scarlatti as part of Ordinary Courage, an amazing dance work by Theo Clinkard. It was one of the most beautiful and inspirational places I've ever been, and I was playing piano surrounded by six extraordinarily committed and talented dancers. A creative experience that was energising and moving and joyous and heartbreaking all at once!
If you could give yourself any advice as a student, what would it be?
I think my best advice to myself, and indeed any young people who want to pursue a career as a pianist, would be that people in general are delightful, and will always help you if you ask them - but you have to learn to ask them. Remember it's ok to make mistakes, especially in public. Being a perfectionist is admirable but it can be crippling as a performer. Also, have a rounded life - go to galleries, go outside and go for a walk in the forest. Challenge yourself outside of music, because it will feed back into your work and make you a better musician.
What is your favourite thing about teaching at Ingenium?
I love so many things about working at Ingenium! There is so much energy, enthusiasm and talent. I always learn something from every student I teach, whether it's a piece of repertoire I haven't encountered or simply a new perspective on music or the instrument.
"What excites me about making music is making something new; whether it's new music, or performing old music in a new space, or with new people. I love the feeling of freedom you have as a performer, to discover music together, to explore and be inspired each other and by one's surroundings."
"People in general are delightful, and will always help you if you ask them - but you have to learn to ask them"