Classical Q & A with pianist Marion Miller

Marion Miller is one of those people who don’t seek the spotlight. Yet she has been a regular on the London concert stage for many years, most notably performing with fellow pianist Clark Bryan at Aeolian Hall.

This dynamic piano duo is at it again this month, playing the first concert of Aeolian’s Spring Classical Concert Series on March 24.

You started playing the piano at the age of 4. What made you fall in love with the instrument and want to pursue a professional career?
I started piano at age four because my mother recognized that I was, as she said: “full of music.” When I was very young I made up operas about my neighbors and my family. I sang instead of talking, blissfully sitting on our front steps or swinging on the old swing suspended from the old pine tree in front of our farm-house and pouring out my heart.

There was a specific reason for piano because of a severe burn suffered when I was a toddler. My brother pushed me and held my hand on the wood stove and the skin melted on my right hand causing the fourth and fifth fingers to fuse together for a while. The doctor who looked after me told my mother that I should start piano as soon as possible because it would help my hand to recover.

I remember vividly the day she called about piano lessons. I had done something bad and my mother told me that she would “fix me.” She had this weird way of pretending that something awful was going to happen, I was scared but so relieved to find myself at my first piano lesson with my beautiful, loving first teacher, Mrs. Hingst.

You and Clark Bryan have performed many concerts for two pianos over the years at Aeolian Hall. What do you like about this repertoire, and about playing it with Clark?
Clark is an inspiring man. I love being around him. It's all about passion and joy and finding the emotional context in whatever we are playing and telling the story to the audience. We tease each other a lot and have little hissy fits about who is taking up too much room or playing too loud but we never get upset with each other. We support each other.

What will you be performing at the March 24 concert?
We're playing Mendelssohn, Debussy, Barber, and Rachmaninoff. Although we started our relationship using two instruments all of our concerts in the last several years have been one piano four-hands.

The choreography of the pieces we play can be intricate, with markings in the score such as elbow up or lean right. We switch with each piece from primo to second (top to bottom) because it's hard on the shoulders and arms if we stay in the same position at the keyboard.

In this concert we will start the first piece with me on the top, the second with Clark on the top. The person on the bottom is responsible for pedaling.

You have played regularly at Aeolian Hall since for the past several years. What are your thoughts on how the space has developed as a performance venue, and as a neighbourhood hub?
Clark is a miracle worker. He has led a renaissance in a part of London that had long been neglected - written off as a place for prostitutes and drug dealers.

Several years ago I was playing for Orchestra London's flute auditions at the Aeolian. The women auditioning were shocked to be propositioned by people in cars who thought there were a bunch of new street workers in town.

There are many people who have given their time, financial support and passion to the Aeolian but none of this would have happened without Clark's crazy idea to buy the Hall and in spite of impossible setbacks to persevere and get this big boat pushed into the water.

You maintain a large class of private students, from beginners to aspiring concert artists. What is the best piece of advice that you were ever given as a musician that you would like to pass on to your own students?
My students inspire me. It is a privilege to see the joy that learning and music bring to people.

Expression is the most important thing in a performance. Express not impress. Lots of people can play a lot of notes very quickly and loudly.  Not so many can move people to tears. Passion is number one, and learning to think for oneself is another.

I don't want to spoon-feed my students. There's not one single way to play a piece, of course we have to get the notes, fingering, balance, sound right but then there has to be something beyond that and their job is to find that magical thing that makes the piece come to life for them.

Here's advice for parents: even musicians hate to practice, so if kids say they don't want to that's not a reason for them to stop lessons. If they say they hate their teacher then, yes, find another one.

What do you like to do when you are not at the keyboard?
I love gardening, books, my two wonderful daughters, hot yoga, riding my bicycle and looking after the sweetest man in the world, Doug Bale.

If You Go
What: Clark Bryan & Marion Miller (Spring Classical Concert Series)
When: March 24 @ 7:30 pm
Where: Aeolian Hall (795 Dundas Street E.)

The Spring Classical Concert Series continues with The Aeolian Trio (April 14 & May 26) and Clark Bryan & Lesley Andrew (June 28).