An award-winning solo pianist, Angela Hewitt, describes hours behind the piano and in front of audiences as a labour of love.

Most piano teachers will tell their students: Practice makes perfect. Most students will roll their eyes: There’s no such thing as perfect. Angela Hewitt brings to the piano bench such natural-born talent that practice, for her, is more than learning a succession of notes. Up to eight hours a day, she memorises and finesses her huge repertoire, perfecting her interpretation of Bach, Shubert and Chopin to name a few. “People think when I’ve got to my stage and I’m famous around the world, I don’t have to practise anymore but actually I’m still learning new pieces,” she says. Bringing them to perfection, she says, takes “hours and hours”.

Head start on the piano

A four-year-old Angela having passed her Grade One Royal Conservatory of Music exam in Toronto, Canada.

A four-year-old Angela in Toronto, Canada.

Born to two musicians, Angela was given her first piano, a toy, for Christmas when she was two and immediately asked for daily lessons from her mother. Even from those very early years Angela’s gift for music was obvious, passing grade one piano at just four years old and winning her first piano scholarship aged five.

Her talent only skyrocketed and she says she can’t recall a moment where practice became a chore. “I always loved it. Of course it wasn’t easy fitting in the hours of practice because I did so many other things.” As a six-year-old, Angela began a 10-year stint playing the violin and recorder. Her second love after piano, however, was classical ballet, which she practised seriously for 20 years from the age of three. “I cried when I had to give up ballet. I knew I was better at piano. It was always what I did with the most ease, which is important,” she says.

After finishing high school two years early, Angela studied piano performance at the University of Ottawa, while competing in international competitions. “I did 20 of them easily. Then, when I was 26, I won the big prize, the one that meant I didn’t have to do any more competitions,” she says. It was the Toronto International Bach competition and it was only held once in 1985 on Bach’s 300th birthday. The win gave her concerts around the world and her first recording contract.

Career of a lifetime

Thirty years later, even while audiences at classical concerts begin to wane, Angela is still at the top of her career. In 2006, she was awarded an OBE and the next year performed, from memory, all five hours of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier at 110 concerts. She chose the collection for its familiarity.

Photo: Peter Hundert

Photo: Peter Hundert

“Every piano student tries to play some of The Well-Tempered Clavier when they’re starting,” she says. “It was a remarkable experience to see how people from different cultures responded to this music, which is very universal. You might not be able to speak to them, but you can play Bach for them.”

The tour, which took place in major cities all over the world, meant days spent travelling. “I do enjoy seeing the world and meeting the different people. It’s become my life,” she says. “It’s very difficult because you’re alone most of the time. Not like a singer who has to take their pianist or a violinist who has a pianist also. A solo pianist is alone most of the time. I’m long used to that now.”

If the destination is particularly distant, Angela will give herself three days before the concert to overcome jetlag and prepare. “If I don’t have a piano I’m not happy, so I make sure I have a place to practise. I’m very careful about my diet. I don’t drink caffeine, I don’t eat wheat and I stay away from sugar. I try to stay in shape that way,” she says.

For a sedentary instrument, it’s surprising how physically taxing it is to play the piano. Angela has been practising her part in Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie for an upcoming concert in Utrecht, Netherlands with the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo. She says it’s heavy playing for 75 minutes straight, so simple stretches and a trip to the osteopath are essential. “It is incredibly physical, more physical than people realise.”

Once a concert is underway Angela focuses, as best she can, on the music. “I am very aware of the audience. I hear all the noises out there because I’m listening so acutely,” she says. “The worst is if somebody in the front row is fidgeting or following along with the score.” But when she hears tension in the silence she says she knows the audience is concentrating.

It’s a tough love

Photo: Lorenzo Dogana

Photo: Lorenzo Dogana

Angela isn’t handing out false hope to aspiring virtuosos. This is anything but a straightforward career path. “The places at the top are very few,” she says. “You have to have a passion for it.” A talented person might have a shot if they’ve got the right alchemy of introversion, extroversion, tenacity and fearlessness. Besides, pianists of her calibre she says are born, not made.

“You either have it or you don’t. Of course then you have to put in all the work.” Like learning a language, playing piano comes more naturally to the very young. “Seven is already late if you want to be a concert pianist,” she says. “Those early years are so important. You really have to start playing when you’re five.”

A late start to the music scene is no reason to give up now. Music is good training for many things in life, like memory. “The main thing is to instill a love of music in a child,” says Angela. “To make music in a group with others is a great thing.”