Interview with pianist Viv McLean

January 31, 2019
Pianist Viv McLean

A world-class musician, pianist Viv McLean has captivated audiences with his expressive playing. His illustrious career has seen him perform with leading orchestras and ensembles, from the BBC Concert Orchestra and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to the Adderbury Ensemble and the Sacconi String Quartet. He was a previous winner of the Maria Canals Piano Competition in Barcelona. Here, Gill Seaton meets Viv to talk performance nerves, daily practice routines and musical life.

I first encountered Viv’s playing at a concert in Norwich some 10 years ago. Since then I have had the privilege of hearing him play in various musical formations – from solo recitals to ensemble playing and concerti. He is as much at home playing to a small number of people in an intimate chamber setting as on a London concert platform. As well as his poise and seemingly effortless playing, I have always been struck by his ability to appear so incredibly calm and relaxed – not only after a concert but before one too! Is this something which came naturally to him or is it a skill acquired over time?

Viv says, “I always get a bit nervous before concerts but with experience one learns to deal with these feelings and try to use the adrenaline in positive ways.” His pre-concert routine varies, but he likes to have at least an hour trying out the piano on the day of a concert; Viv also tries to lie down and relax for half an hour beforehand. Afterwards he particularly enjoys a pint of beer or glass of wine and is often seen mingling with fellow musicians and audience members after a concert.

Practise makes perfect

Viv is a virtuosic performer who is dedicated to his art and it goes without saying that endless hours of practising are required to achieve the end result. However, he is unable to recommend a specific amount of practice time for students as he says it’s very much up to the individual. I wondered how important the instrument is? Viv has two pianos – a Ronisch grand which belonged to his grandmother and a Yamaha upright. “I think it’s a good idea to practice on different pianos as one has to be able to adjust quickly to all the different pianos one encounters at concerts.”

When it comes to memorising a piece, Viv acknowledges that people have very different learning styles, but he advocates “studying the score, practising a lot and giving oneself enough time to absorb the piece.”

With a schedule which involves travelling and performing, the key seems to be organisation and discipline. Viv says, “I just try to be very organised and plan ahead – and to make sure I make the most of free practice days. When I have a lot of repertoire on the go, it’s sometimes difficult to be as prepared as one would like but I think one has to try to be positive and do the best you possibly can.

There is a pianist’s recurring nightmare which many of us have – sitting down to perform a concerto and the orchestra start off with one that we don’t know and haven’t prepared!”

New repertoire

I wondered how long Viv allows himself to learn a new work? He says, “it depends on the difficulty of the work in question, but generally I try to allow at least two to three months. The more complex the work, the more time I give myself to learn it. When I first learnt the Rachmaninov 3rd concerto, for example, I made sure I started it over a year before the performance.”

Viv McLean pianist

Competitions and constructive criticism

I asked Viv what he thinks of music competitions. He says, “In my younger days I found it rather difficult to deal with setbacks, but I just try to use competitions as a spur to work harder and become better. I think they can be useful if viewed in the right way – as an opportunity to be heard and to learn from other musicians (both jurors and competitors). One has to try to remember that they are entirely subjective, and a completely different result could occur with the same group of competitors on any day.” Viv is a previous winner of the prestigious Maria Canals Piano Competition. He says, “being lucky enough to win in Barcelona certainly helped in giving me more concert opportunities, and also it really helped with confidence too!”

Critical reviews are also an inevitable part of a performer’s life and I wondered how these affected him? “I suppose one has to try to develop a thicker skin and to always remember that not everyone will like everything you do.”

Away from the piano

Viv loves sport and says, “I really enjoy watching football, tennis, cricket, athletics. I used to play quite a bit of football and tennis, but I don’t do anything other than running now as I have to be careful with my hands – they’re not insured!” Viv enjoys all sorts of music but when it comes to relaxing, he prefers the sound of silence.

Marooned on a desert island?

I didn’t need to ask this question because I think I already know the answer! But if Viv had to save one possession, it would undoubtedly be a piano (probably his grandmother’s Ronisch). He says he can’t be away from a piano for longer than a few days and yes, he would most definitely suffer withdrawal symptoms if he was parted for longer!

Finally, a word of advice to aspiring musicians:

Viv has one unfulfilled musical ambition which is to play at Carnegie Hall one day. There are many works that he still really wants to perform and record, “the piano repertoire is so brilliantly vast that there is much too much for one lifetime!”

His advice is “work hard and enjoy having the chance to play and study beautiful music!”

Viv McLean has recorded Gershwin’s Songbook for Piano and Orchestra with the RPO. He has also recently released a recording of solo Gershwin works American Dreams (ICSM Records)

Gill Seaton is the Artistic Director of the Eaton Concert Series in Norwich, Norfolk.

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