Pianist Peter Donohoe's advice for young musicians: 'go and be a doctor or a lawyer instead'

6 October 2015, 15:52 | Updated: 28 February 2017, 09:59

The British pianist speaks frankly about the trouble with the music industry, the piano competition he really should have won and why he'd like to re-make all his recordings.

What's your earliest musical memory?

My mother had an upright piano that her parents bought her and she played the piano rather well before I was born. She'd stopped playing but I was interested in the instrument. I’m told I used to reach up to the keys and make sounds on it – and be quite taken by the sounds.

There was also a nursery at the school I went to, a kindergarten and I can actually remember learning a carol. I went home and tried to find it on the piano. And I just happened to start in the dominant of F major, but it could have been key. And I couldn’t work out why the B sounded wrong, and of course it was because it needed to be B flat, not B. It was my grandfather who came up and said “you need that black thing up there, they’re not all white” – I thought you only played the white ones.


Hear Peter Donohoe live in Ardingly College Chapel, West Sussex

Why did you choose to play the piano?

Largely because we had one and I was surrounded by people who were good at it. My mother was pretty good, my music staff at school were very good – I was very lucky with my school, first a state primary school, then Chethams in Manchester. Particularly the primary school –  because I could sight-read very well and had a good memory, I became like the local dogsbody for accompanying and eventually playing in assembly and hymns and so on. The basic lesson is that I was terribly lucky because all of that could have been a complete shambles.

What achievement are you most proud of in your career?

The one that made the most difference was winning joint Silver Medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1982, for sure. Although they withheld the gold medal, most of the people here wanted it to be me and they made it very clear they did. It’s the biggest competition in the world, so of course it changed my life.

I entered the Leeds International Piano Competition the year before the Tchaikovsky and I was tipped to win – and then I didn't and there was a big stink. Everyone just thought 'what the hell were the judges thinking?'. And they were right to think that – I'm sorry, that sounds awfully immodest and arrogant, but it was 34 years ago, I can say it now. But I was glad I didn't win Leeds, because I wouldn't have entered the Tchaikovsky Competition if I had.

What piece of advice would you give to someone trying to become a pianist?

You need to find your own way – a way that makes you confident enough to be marketable because if you try and do something else, if you try and copy anyone else, either musically or in your image it won’t work.

But it’s not good for someone of a previous era to give advice out to young people, because it’s so different now. You can’t compare anything. The competition route is probably just about the only way you can really make a splash now, unless you have big business behind you or a massively successful conductor believing in you, who can basically make it happen for you. if you don’t have those things, this is the only way.

The honest answer to this question is: don’t do it. Unless you absolutely have to be a musician because it’s the only thing you can do and you can’t stop yourself. But if there’s any choice – go and be a doctor or a lawyer because being a musician is a nightmare. The way things are at the moment with the world’s educational policies as they are – more or less everywhere apart from China – the interest in listening isn’t there.

Watch: Peter Donohoe play Tchaikovsky's very own Piano

What audiences respond to now is less deeply thought about than it used to be. At the moment it’s all about smiling and being sexy for the camera – and if you get the right photographer anyone can do it. It’s not enough to make a music career out of. And the music isn’t enough for the marketing people. It’s a difficult period.

Is there a recording you'd like to do again, differently?

All of them – that makes 39.

Which one composer from the past or the present would you most like to meet and why?

I think I’d be disappointed in all of them because I get the feeling that being a great composer doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a nice person, or at least a very sociable one.

Although having said that, I do believe Beethoven despite his apparent gruffness was probably a very golden-hearted person underneath. But that doesn’t mean to say he wouldn’t be gruff, does it?

Hear great pianist @PeterHDonohoe live in Ardingly College Chapel, West Sussex