Alex Kelly was my dear teacher at the Royal Academy of Music. This was an excerpt from the reference he wrote for my job application for Head of Keyboard at the Royal Welsh Conservatoire. This seems to be the worst possible reference from a teacher for a student. However, I consider this to be the best reference I have ever received!
I chose this particular source because it was a pivotal point in my life. I enjoyed an incredibly close working relationship with my teacher, Alex Kelly. He was not only my teacher but a great mentor, supporter, friend and colleague. His rather shocking reference for my job application took me some time to understand.
I applied for this Head of Keyboard position in 1990. The Principal of the Welsh Conservatoire phoned me to say that I had won the interview and they were about to appoint me. However, they decided to respect Alex’s reference and appointed another person. This was a blow to me at this particular point in my life. I had just lost both my parents and sister within a short space of time the previous year. I lost almost all of my family ties in America and I was trying to survive in the U.K. This job could have been pivotal for me. However, Alex saw this completely differently. He had the courage to see that if I took the job in Wales, I would be completely marginalised from the concert career I was building in London and Europe. When I spoke to him following this incident, he said that rather than opening my career, this position would be a dead end for me. He said I should be playing and not tied to a desk.
He was right, of course. Many, many more fruitful doors, relationships, professional engagements followed shortly after this rejection from Wales. Shortly after, I was also appointed to the piano faculty of the Royal Academy of Music, where I remained until my appointment in Scotland in 2006. I could never have predicted this pathway, but Alex saw things far more clearly than I did at the time. Even to this day, I question whether I could have the courage to write such a recommendation for one of my students. Alex was a visionary, iconoclast and poet, not just a piano teacher. For me, he has been an inspirational figure who gave me the confidence and tools to flourish in music.
I have decided to use Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson,” not for the obvious teacher/student depiction but because it reminds me of my wonderful first lesson with Alex Kelly. I arrived in his teaching room and played a varied programme of music for him. Rather than giving me a piano lesson, he asked me to go over to the harpsichord in the corner of his room. He asked me to play Bach on the harpsichord. I protested, as I did not play the harpsichord. I had no experience at all on this instrument. However, he insisted and I complied. After I finished, he asked me to play the same Bach work again on the harpsichord – and then again! I was very puzzled but I tried to go along with this odd request. We then parted and agreed to begin lessons the following month.
After over a year of studying with Alex, I finally asked him about our first lesson and why he had me play the harpsichord, which I found very awkward. Alex said, “I was curious to see how you adjusted to the harpsichord. I saw that this was awkward for you and I wanted to see how you listened and learned as you tried to figure out how to play on the harpsichord.” Again, this had marvellous meaning for me. For most students, his logic might have escaped them. However, I grew to appreciate Alex’s techniques for penetrating deep into all aspects of teaching, music and life. He used to post me a letter after each lesson. They were often hilarious, deep and thought provoking. I remember one letter when he complained how boring he found the playing of most students! (He added that it did not apply to me. However, I can now see this comment as a cautionary warning for all pianists, including me!)