Her teaching was so natural that it seemed as if I wasn't learning very much. But she knew exactly the thing to say at the right moment

4th November 2005 at 00:00
I started to learn the piano when I was five. Until then, I had just played on the edge of the table, because we had no piano in the house.

My father was in the RAF, and when we lived at RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire, I went to lessons with a Mr Brooks in Swindon. He was a really lovely old guy. I can't quite picture him in my head, but I remember him very fondly.

I remember the first time I played a chord on his piano. It was a G flat major, and I remember thinking how wonderful music was.

Mr Brooks would put very advanced things, like Chopin's "Etudes", in front of me and say: "Come on now, you can play this." I would have been about seven, but I remember this seeming very natural, because he gave no indication of the sort of standard of these pieces. What I couldn't get round, I improvised.

That sense of vision and there being no limits was really invaluable. I think it's very important to let kids aspire to what they are capable of achieving. There is nothing worse than having low expectations, especially for kids of ethnic minorities. To be ambitious on behalf of your charges is tremendously important, and Mr Brooks had great ambition.

I have perfect pitch and am able to play anything I hear, so what spurred me on at that stage was playing along to my dad's music - mainly Tamla Motown and Bob Marley. My parents got a second-hand piano once I started lessons, and things began to move along very quickly.

By the age of seven, I was the youngest church organist in Britain. We had moved to Surrey by then, and when I was 11, I auditioned for the Surrey County Council scheme for exceptionally gifted children. Through that, I won a place at the Royal Academy of Music, which was really the turning point.

I went to the academy every Saturday and met lots of wonderfully gifted kids. And I also met someone who would be very important to me - a lady by the name of Pamela Jaquarello, who was to be my piano teacher until I was 18.

Pamela engendered in me a consciousness of piano sonority and a singing tone. This golden sound was everything to her. But I think her greatest gift was passing on to me the ability to teach myself.

Pianists spend most of the time in a practice room by themselves, and they have to know what to do - what to listen to, how to be their own best critic. That is what she gave to me and what I try to instill in my students at Uppingham school.

Also at the academy was Professor Melanie Daiken, a wonderful, unconventional lady and top composition teacher who introduced me to the infinite possibilities of contemporary music-making. I remember desperately wanting to please her, and would write down an entire score by ear at breakneck speed, trying to catch her attention.

At 14, I went to the Purcell, a specialist music school in Harrow, while continuing my Saturday studies at the academy. There was a great headmaster called John Baines, who taught classics. He really understood the psyche of young, gifted children, and was a particularly wise and inspirational teacher.

Later, at the Guildhall School of Music, there was James Gibb, head of keyboard. To me, at the age of 18, he seemed to know everything about everything. We were very close.

But if I were to single out one teacher, it would have to be Pamela Jaquarello, for the subtlety of her message, the gentleness of her teaching, and the sense of imparting to me the ability to teach myself. Her teaching was so natural that it seemed at the time as if I wasn't learning very much. But she knew exactly the thing to say at the right moment, and I worked hard for her.

Portrait by Roy Kilcullen

Pianist Alexis Ffrench was talking to David Newnham. Ffrench will perform Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No 3 at the Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham, on November 12 with the BBC Concert Orchestra. Box office: 0115 989 5555. For details of free tickets for children and school parties, email harmonic@timandjoy.com


1970 Born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire

1975 Begins piano lessons

1977 Organist at Christ the King church, Bagshot, Surrey

1981 Royal Academy of Music scholarship

1984 Wins Iris Dyer piano competition and starts at Purcell School, Harrow

1988 Scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama

1992 Wins the Worshipful Company of Musicians' Carnwath scholarship and the first Portobello concert artists award

1992 Concerto debut as part of Simon Rattle's 'Towards the Millennium' series

1998 Head of keyboard studies, Rugby school

1999 to present Head of keyboard studies, Uppingham school

2000 Founder and artistic director, National Young Pianist Week

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