Long read guest post by Dr Michael Low, in part in response to this article by Zach Manzi
For as long as I can remember, Classical music has touched me in a way no other musical genre was able to. This, coupled with my love for playing the piano, made it inevitable that I would dedicate my life to these two overlapping fields.
‘Musicians must be the luckiest people alive!’ I recall saying to my father as a wide-eyed teenager, ‘They travel the world and play beautiful music. Imagine the joy of sharing something that is so personal to you with thousands and thousands of people; I want to be a musician one day.’ My father was an amateur French horn player who went into finance and business to support his family, but, despite his career change, he never lost his love for music, and was supportive of my decision to dedicate my life to music.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said of everyone to whom I pitched my dream career, though hindsight shows that rejection and setbacks are just part of the journey in all walks of life. One extended family member was dismissive of my career choice and told me that I would end up ‘cleaning tables in restaurants for money’ (a derogatory statement itself aimed at those in the hospitality industry). Needless to say, I have not seen or been in touch with this particular person since I left England for South Africa.
My piano teacher at the time, Richard Frostick, also expressed his reservations about my choice of career. Richard told me that the views expressed by this particular member of my extended family were done out of care rather than cruelty, and that a reality check was needed on my part. However, it was the words of Graham Fitch, my teacher during my studies at London’s Centre for Young Musicians, that gave me the greatest hope: ‘If this is your dream, then I would like to believe that anything is possible.’ Graham warned that the competitive nature of Classical music grows in inverse relation to the ever-decreasing career opportunities, but added, ‘there will always be a place for someone who is talented and works hard.’
Because I was a late starter, a lot of catching up was needed on a technical and musical level. And I was willing to forsake my academic subjects for the purpose of pianistic and musical developments. Unfortunately, in my desire to be ‘on par’ with my pianistic contemporaries, many short cuts were taken and numerous corners slashed. I hadn’t taken time to learn the true value of rhythmic discipline and develop my sense of internal rhythm, which meant that everything was very approximate (in other words, I would play what I thought the music should be, as opposed to what is actually written). But I got away with it (at least for the time being) thanks to my musical temperament, as well as the uncanny Chinese ability to (more or less) replicate my favourite recordings. It was not until a few years later when I read Artur Rubenstein’s biography that I understood the following quote: ‘To Hell with the Germans and their exact fingers! TEMPERAMENT!!!’).
Failed auditions and disappointing performances mark every musician’s journey, but I kept my eyes firmly on the prize. The summer of 1996 was to be a watershed moment. I met an eminent piano professor at a summer school who expressed an interest in my playing. He openly told everyone during a masterclass that I had ‘a marvellous musical temperament, but very little else.’ At the same time he assured me that when all the aspects of my playing had developed, that I will be ‘some’ player. I was encouraged by these words and further lessons were arranged. Sadly, our last meeting was not a positive one. He reduced me to tears by laughing and ridiculing my playing. A few years ago I found out that the same professor has passed on. I sometimes wondered what he would make of my playing if he were to hear me now.
My university years proved to be some of the most productive in my life. I threw myself into learning some of the most challenging piano repertoire and listening to many of the 20th century’s greatest pianists. What is so special about their playing? What is their ‘X factor’? These were some of the questions that I often asked myself when I was in the listening library. Unfortunately, many of my contemporaries didn’t understand my obsession. One of them called me ‘a sad f**k’ when we crossed paths for the second day in a row. A final year student asked me, ‘Why do you insist on learning all these difficult pieces when you will never get the opportunity to perform them?’ I responded with just a smile, as I didn’t want to come across as rude, always reminding myself that I could spend the rest of my musical life ‘polishing,’ but the structural labour on the musical sculptures had to be done right now.
I was proud that all my efforts were not in vain, and there was validation amongst my lecturers and peers in regards to my hard work. One of the highlights of my student years was making my concerto debut performing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. But all of this came at a cost: one of my closest friends wrote me a letter when she was going through a particular difficult period during her final year, asking, ‘Where were you when I most needed you, Michael?’ I replied with, ‘I am sad to say that I was nowhere’. I was willing to sacrifice everything for an ideal while neglecting the more important aspects of life, such as the relationship between friends. I consoled myself with the excuse that some of the most creative personalities have never been ‘people’s people’, and how wrong was I? It was only years later that I came to the realisation that piano playing has always been a reflection of life, whereas life has never been just about playing the piano.
In spite of my enormous desire to make huge musical and pianistic strides, my playing was riddled with idiosyncrasies and plagued with physical tension. In hindsight, I can only thank my lucky stars that I didn’t pick up some form of physical injury, especially when I was practising up to six hours daily. I was told that I had ‘massive technical problems,’ but the reality was that my lack of rhythmic discipline and internal pulse finally caught up with me. The big musical structures of works such as Liszt’s ballades and Beethoven’s sonatas fragmented into intimate miniatures, and there was little awareness of the longer melodic line especially in the musical direction of the composition. ‘Moments of brilliance are often followed by moments of incompetence,’ was one lecturer’s assessment of my playing. I was also a ‘nightmare’ student to mark, according to the hierarchy, because I was so inconsistent. Though my lecturers may have had a point, one part of me didn’t take their criticism too seriously as another part of me strongly felt that their words had more to do with my inability to negotiate departmental politics. I reassured myself with the thought that the musicians who made the greatest impression on me were often some of the most controversial. Who on earth wants to play a mediocre 75 per cent in a performance anyway? At least I could hit the 90s, even though at times I was wide of the mark. ‘Just keep going and one day everything will fall into place,’ I told myself.
South Africa gave me a chance to press the reset button, but the stakes were too high. I told myself that being an international scholarship student meant that I had to be close to ‘perfect’ every time I performed, when this was far from the truth. I yielded to my musical neurosis by spending hours on end polishing my repertoire when I should have taken advantage of the considerable performing opportunities available. And because I raised the performance bar to near impossibility, it only meant that I had that much further to fall when things didn’t go as planned. Every time I walked off stage, I was haunted by wrong notes, memory lapses as well as other interpretive discrepancies. That is not to say that there weren’t moments where I made an impression, but the consistency that I so desperately craved never materialised, and it often felt like the harder I worked, the further away I was straying from my musical goal. ‘If it doesn’t happen for you now, maybe you have to accept the fact that it will never happen,’ was one professor’s assessment of my progress. Another told me that while he found my playing ‘very sensitive and very musical,’ he also wondered if I had what it takes to ‘stomach my nerves.’ The same person also assured me that, ‘There is no shame in this, I know a lot of wonderful musicians who cannot quite make things happen on stage.’ These words may sound harsh, but they were nothing like the brutal assessment given by a visiting professor, who told me, ‘Sort out your rhythm, or stop playing the piano entirely.’ I was desolate because I knew that was the truth. I looked on as my musical peers gained scholarships to study with some of the industry’s most prolific performers in Europe and America. Although I feel a sense of happiness and pride for them, I now knew the inevitable: I would never have a career as a concert pianist.
When I started teaching in my late twenties, I was determined that none of my students would be as rhythmically undisciplined as I was. Hence, I started formulating my own teaching method and in doing so found some form of closure with regard to my inability to become a performer. The fabled stories of Adele Marcus and some of the 20th century’s greatest pedagogues gave me hope: ‘The greatest performers don’t necessarily make the greatest teachers,’ I said to myself. I was determined to be the best educator I could be. Even though I still perform in the occasional soirees and private functions, the fire within me that longs for the stage no longer burns with the same intensity. I then found Christianity, which affirmed my ability as a mere mortal. ‘There are those who are chosen by God to be performers,’ I recall saying to a colleague, ‘and then there are people like myself who chose to do music as a career, and that is the difference.’ The elders in my congregation praised me for my insightfulness, while my Christian friends commended me for entrusting my life in the hands of the Almighty. ‘Everything seems to make sense now’, I said to myself. Little was I to know that in the years to come, the one person who would challenge both my spiritual and musical beliefs turned out to become the most important person of my life.
Piano and Classical music took a further ‘back seat’ when I fell in love with the game of golf. I saw a lot of parallels between this strange yet beautiful game and playing the piano. I traded the practice room for the driving range, and I signed up to become a member of one of South Africa’s top golf clubs. For the next three years I learned only one piece of piano music – Scott Joplin’s Bethena Waltz – which haunted me for weeks after I watch David Fincher’s movie adaptation of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Any spare time I had was spent forging a repeatable golf swing or inputting musical scores into Sibelius as I looked to finish my PhD in Music. Playing the piano was now a distant memory, and the truth is that I had not given myself a timeline as to when I would reconnect with my black and white friend again.
In Part 2, Michael Low describes how he reconnected with the piano.
As a teenager, Michael Low studied piano under the guidance of Richard Frostick before enrolling in London’s prestigious Centre for Young Musicians, where he studied composition with the English composer Julian Grant, and piano with the internationally acclaimed pedagogue Graham Fitch. During his studies at Surrey University in England, Michael made his debut playing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in the 1999 Guildford International Music Festival, before graduating with Honours under the tutelage of Clive Williamson. In 2000, Michael obtained his Masters in Music (also from Surrey University), specialising in music criticism, studio production and solo performance under Nils Franke.
An international scholarship brought Michael to the University of Cape Town, where he resumed his studies with Graham Fitch. During this time, Michael was invited to perform Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto for The Penang Governer’s Birthday Celebration Gala Concert. In 2009, Michael obtained his Doctorate in Music from the University of Cape Town under the supervision of South Africa greatest living composer, Hendrik Hofmeyr. His thesis set out to explore the Influence of Romanticism on the Evolution of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes.
In 2013, Michael started a project in Singapore collaborating with The Kawai School Elite in a series of masterclasses and workshops for teachers and students. Having grown up in the East and lived his life in the West, Michael believes that both cultures has much to offer and envisage an exchange between Singapore and Cape Town in the future.
Michael is also the co-founder of the Elvira Ensemble – a Classical Chamber Orchestra specialising in the Piano Concertos of Mozart and Beethoven as well as Soundtracks from Blockbuster Hollywood Movies. The Ensemble have given performances at several high-profile events such as the wedding of Justin Snaith, South Africa’s leading race-horse trainer. In January 2020, the ensemble was engaged to perform at the wedding of the former Miss Universe and Miss South Africa, Miss Demi-Leigh Nel Peters.
Michael has also worked with numerous eminent teachers and pianists, including Nina Svetlanova, Niel Immelman, Frank Heneghan, James Gibb, Phillip Fowke, Renna Kellaway, Carolina Oltsmann, Florian Uhlig, Gordon Fergus Thompson, Francois du Toit and Helena van Heerden.
Michael currently holds teaching positions in two of Cape Town’s exclusive education centres: Western Province Preparatory School and Herschel School for Girls. He is very much sought after as a passionate educator of young children.
Michael has also served as a jury member in the 2nd WPTA Singapore International Piano Competition in 2020. He has been engaged for a series of talks and masterclasses with the WPTA Indonesia in September of 2021.