For this blog post we interviewed Frances Wilson, a pianist and classical music writer with whom we've interacted a lot on social media. Read on to learn more about her passion for the piano and music, as well as her work in the classical music industry.
Hi Frances, for anyone who hasn't heard of you before, please could you briefly introduce yourself and explain what you do?
I'm a writer and blogger on classical music as The Cross-Eyed Pianist, a PR/publicist working with musicians and music-related organisations, concerts manager for a lunchtime concert series in Weymouth, West Dorset, and an advanced amateur pianist and former piano teacher.
Many people will know you as ‘The Cross-Eyed Pianist’, so it’s only fitting that we start with some questions about the piano!
How old were you when you first started playing the piano and what drew you to it?
I think I was about 5 when I first started to learn to play the piano. I don't actually remember what drew me to it initially, but there was always music in my home when I was growing up. My parents were keen concert goers (they would take me to concerts given by the CBSO in Birmingham Old Town Hall), they listened to a lot of music at home on LPs and Radio 3, and my father played clarinet in a local amateur orchestra. My paternal grandfather had a piano in the front (best) room of his house and as a very young child, I can remember sitting next to him as he played. So maybe that's where the interest came from. Once I started having lessons and became reasonably competent, the piano became a wonderful place for escapism and also a kind of companion - it still feels like it 50 years on.
What is your favourite piece to play on the piano?
My tastes change regularly and I have a rather magpie-like approach to the music I play, but I tend to return to the piano music of Schubert, and especially the D899 Impromptus, which I first encountered when I was about 13.
How many different pianos have you owned and what model do you currently have?
As a child/teenager, I had a good early 20th century Challen upright. It had been living in a summerhouse before it came to me, and my parents spent quite a lot of money and effort having it restored. When I left home to go university, my parents sold it, and I didn't acquire another piano until I was in my late 30s when my mother bought me a digital instrument and suggested I start playing again. By this time, I'd be away from the piano for 20 years. In 2007, my husband bought me a decent Yamaha upright and that got me through two professional diplomas, and many lessons for my students (I taught piano for 12 years from 2006 until I moved from London to Dorset in 2018). As a gift to myself after passing my Licentiate diploma with distinction, I decided to buy a grand piano, but I was limited by budget. My piano technician suggested I try an old C. Bechstein 1913 model A grand which he had in his workshop. I was very taken with its warm and colourful sound, but also its connection to Wigmore Hall (formerly Bechstein Hall), my favourite London concert venue. I bought this piano in 2013 with some help from family and friends, and I am very fond of it. Owning a grand piano has been transformative from a playing point of view - it offers so many more possibilities - but it took me about 2 years to fully get used to playing it.
What piece of classical music has had the biggest impression on you?
After I returned to playing the piano seriously in my early 40s, I attended a course run by my then teacher and one of the other students played a piece by Messiaen. I knew very little about this composer at the time and I was more familiar with his organ music than his piano works, but I found the piece intriguing. A few years later I attended a performance of his Quartet for the End of Time at the Wigmore Hall and found the experience profoundly moving. I think this and the Vingt Regards will remain the most significant pieces for me. It's not easy music to listen to or even like (I played the 4th Vingt Regard at a piano meetup event and the host told me afterwards that she thought the piece sounded "like something out of a horror film soundtrack"!) but I find the music endlessly fascinating, compelling and incredibly expressive.
Now let’s move on to your writing and work in the field of classical music.
Your blog, The Cross-Eyed Pianist, covers the classical music world, with a particular focus on pianists and the piano. When did you start the blog and what led you to do so?
I started the blog in 2010, but before that I'd been writing a food blog called Demon Cook, so I had an idea about how to go about it. At this time, I'd been playing the piano seriously for about 5 years and had been having lessons for two years. Initially, the blog was a kind of online practice diary where I could record my thoughts and reflections on the music I was currently playing, and also teaching. Gradually reviews and more esoteric musings on the piano and music in more general were added to the content, plus guest posts by other contributors, to keep the content varied and, I hope, interesting.
What inspired you to launch your ‘Meet the Artist’ series, in which you share interviews with musicians, composers, conductors and performers from various musical genres?
As I mentioned, I think it's important to keep the content of the blog varied and an interview series seemed a good way to do this, as well as relating to the existing content. I was inspired by a regular feature in Vanity Fair magazine called The Proust Questionnaire where A Famous Person or Celebrity answers the same set of questions. I devised a questionnaire for Meet the Artist and started off by inviting musician friends and colleagues to participate. I didn't expect it to take off, but quite soon people were asking if they could take part and it grew to such an extent that it needed its own website. The series celebrated its 10th birthday earlier this year and includes over 500 interviews to date.
How did you come to be Concerts Manager for Weymouth Lunchtime Chamber Concerts and what’s your favourite part of doing this?
This was entirely serendipitous and came about through my friendship with concert pianist Duncan Honeybourne, a long-time Weymouth resident who founded the series in 2002. We had been friends via Facebook for some years before I moved to Dorset and when we met in person, we hit it off immediately. Duncan was looking for a new concerts manager and approached me and I jumped at the chance. I really enjoy interacting with our audience and liaising with and meeting the musicians who come to play for us. And of course the music too - I get a monthly "fix" of exceptionally high quality classical music.
What’s the most rewarding part of sharing your passion for the piano and classical music with the world, both online and in person?
It has put me in touch with so many interesting and like-minded people, many of whom have become good friends in real life, whom I meet at concerts, piano meetups, and other events. From a professional point of view, it has also led to work as a PR/publicist in classical music, and I feel my experience as a musician and regular concert-goer gives me a more informed perspective of the industry and an insider's feel for the people and material I work with.
Now for some questions to get to know you a bit better.
Who was your favourite artist/band/ensemble when you were growing up, and what’s your current go-to music?
I've never been a really big fan of pop music and my tastes tend to be rather leftfield. As a teenager I adored Kate Bush (and still do), also Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith, The Doors, The Velvet Underground and Talking Heads. Today it's still Kate Bush and Joni, also Kraftwerk, Goldfrapp, and, for fun, Flight of the Conchords. I don't really have "go-to music", as I don't have music playing when I'm working or writing. I listen to Radio 3 in the morning and late at night (Night Tracks and Unclassified offer some very interesting listening). During the first lockdown, I found I couldn't listen to classical music at all, and instead I got into Hip Hop and Rap, via my son's Spotify playlists. He and I also like to listen to Reggae and Ska when we're cooking together (he's a professional chef).
What are your hobbies outside of playing the piano and classical music?
I love cooking and food in general. Also visiting art exhibitions, and gardens, walking and venturing out on my new E-mountainbike!
What’s your favourite animal and why?
Cat - I've always had a pet cat, or cats, and I find them endlessly intriguing and enigmatic, but also affectionate and companionable (when they choose to be!).
One of the most important questions for us, what’s your current HiFi/music listening setup like?
I have a Bose Soundlink bluetooth speaker in my office, a Pure Evoke CD player/radio/Bluetooth player in the bedroom, and a bluetooth amplifier in the kitchen, left by the previous occupants, which plays through 4 speakers in the ceiling. It does the job (I mostly listen to music via streaming services like Spotify) but at some point I want to upgrade to something better, like a Sonos system or similar.
And finally, have you got any exciting projects coming soon?
I've just started working on a super project with Sonoro choir which aims to introduce contemporary choral music to amateur choirs via 6 brand new pieces, which Sonoro commissioned from 6 leading UK composers, inspired by "choral classics". I'm very much in favour of supporting amateur musicians and amateur music-making and the music Sonoro has commissioned is really wonderful. I'm also working on a project based in Edinburgh exploring the life and music of a Polish-Lithuanian violinist, composer and impresario called Felix Yaniewicz, who was instrumental in the founding of the first Edinburgh Music Festival.
Many thanks to Frances for such an interesting interview! Be sure to check out her articles about the piano and classical music, plus her interviews with musicians, composers and conductors.