For his last trip to Singapore this year, acclaimed London-based classical pianist Melvyn Tan will be headlining the first of Aureus Academy‘s Aureus Great Artists Series of concerts with a programme that includes Weber’s Invitation to the Dance, Ravel’s Valses Nobles Sentimentales, Liszt’s Feux Follets and two sonatas by Scarlatti. We chat with the 61-year-old Melvyn Tan to find out what’s keeping him busy these days.
What are you working on right now?
At this stage of my career, most of my repertoire is revisiting or reworking pieces I’ve recorded or performed before. This season it’s Ravel in G major, a couple of Beethoven sonatas and some Mozart or Mendelssohn. And recently I had 21st century modern British composers write pieces for me. Jonathan Dove wrote a piece for my 60th birthday called Catching Fire. And in October at the London Piano Festival, I premiered a piece by a South African composer called Kevin Volans, L’Africaine, an intensely difficult 22-minute piece of solo piano, and it was a huge success.
Do you have a practice routine?
I do, actually, I’m quite strict about my routine. When I’m in Sussex or at home in London, I always work in the mornings because I find that is probably the best for me, mainly because when I was at the Yehudi Menuhin School we did a lot of music classes in the morning, so I was trained to be quite alert in the morning. I generally work three hours in the morning, and then take a break, and maybe continue for a couple of hours in the afternoon. But when I’m on tour I don’t practise to much.
What about exercises or a set practice piece?
I personally don’t do those, I just warm up or practise the pieces that I need to work on. But there are pianists who like to do certain exercises, like scales. I’ve never been one to do that, so I don’t do that, I’m afraid. (laughs) Confession time! If people ask me, “Do you practise scales,” I’d say, “I haven’t practised scales for 35 years! (chuckles) I like to apply the techniques to the music and vice versa, so if a piece has a particular technical difficulty — a fast passage, chord playing that requires a lot of strength, or just tricky notes — I practice that, but I don’t do exercises that can divorce myself from the actual music.
You were playing piano by the time you were 5. Was your family musical?
During the war, my mother played in a ukelele band, and my father taught himself to play the violin then when they didn’t have much to do, so I suppose they were quite musical. My father played violin into his 90s in church, and I don’t think he could read music — he learned it all by ear, but he got the intonation right and he could do the vibrato — so I guess he did have an aptitude for music.
Who do you consider your mentors or inspirations?
I would say all my teachers at the Yehudi Menuhin school, and Nadia Boulanger in particular, she taught just about everyone who was anyone in the 20th century. Boulanger would make you do awful things, though — have you ever tried to perform a Bach fugue by playing three of the voices and singing the fourth in solfege? Try it! She often made us do that in front of everyone in the school. And she once made me play the D major prelude with my hands crossed, to train your brain to be completely independent in what you do. I was 14 at the time, so I thought, This woman is crazy, because why would I want to do that, that’s not how the piece is written, it’s mad! But it’s great brain training because it makes you able to separate yourself from what you’re doing, and it enables you as a pianist to hear all the voices in the texture. Boulanger’s idea was that every voice was equal, not necessarily in volume but equal in importance, and that’s very much how I work and teach.
What’s the best life lesson that music or the piano has taught you?
Humility — actually that’s something Yehudi taught all of us, that you’re only one person in the world, you’re nothing more. I can’t bear arrogance, and I always try to instill that in students, that you can’t just walk over everybody. Lots of people get grand, and it’s horrible.
Read our full interview with Melvyn Tan in our January 2018 issue of Prestige Singapore.
Melvyn Tan Gala Concert
December 27, 7.30pm, Esplanade Concert Hall
Tickets available at Sistic
(Photos: Sheila Rock, Eoin Carey)