Interview : Steven Vanhauwaert
I first learned of pianist, Steven Vanhauwaert quite by accident! Back in January 2018, my longtime friend and music collaborator, cellist Caroline C. invited me to join her for a free concert of beautiful works by composer Franz Schubert at Adat Ari El Temple, down the street from my home. Free Concert, Free Parking, and Refreshments, oh my! How could I refuse?! Besides, we were long overdue for some quality girlfriend time.
One of the performances included a piano accompaniment by a pianist whose bell-like delicate yet intense playing rang through over the string instruments while remaining soft and subdued. This was no easy feat! My ears perked up at this amazing skill. I asked Caroline to introduce me to this fine pianist at the end of the show, which she graciously obliged.
I found Steven to be polite, warm and a pleasure to talk to. We learned we knew several great pianists in common such as Eduardo Delgado and Dmitry Rachmanov. After following each other on Facebook, and chatting by Facebook Messenger about everything from composers to practicing techniques, I knew I had to interview Steven for the blog so I could share his wit and wisdom with my readers.
I hope you enjoy the interview and find it as stimulating as I did.
Q1. What is your style of playing referred to? For my piano students, would you please describe what this style means or represents?
A1. I can’t say I subscribe much to the notion of ‘schools’ in performance. Ideally, you find a way to master the instrument (being able to bring out the sound and effects you want), and a way to understand music (that is, finding out what the composition is about, and how it flows through you). I guess what I have always been looking for is honesty and integrity in performance. Doing everything needed to bring the piece to life, without doing anything superfluous. I wish I could say it was as easy as it sounds….
Q2. Your piano recordings are a mix of solos and collaborations by Romantic era and 20th Century composers such as Liszt, Debussy, Poulenc, and Gaubert. What is the story or inspiration behind your choice of composers, compositions?
A2. I am rather curious by nature; I am always eager to learn new works and to discover unknown/underrated composers. Often their life stories provide interesting insights into the thinking behind the composition, as well as the circumstances various composers had to deal with in their lives. As a youngster already, I spent about as much time sight-reading new works as much as I would do actual practicing. One of the advantages of playing the piano is that the repertoire is enormous and incredibly diverse.
Q3. My students are interested in the latest rehearsal trends, tips, and techniques. For example, how do you prefer to mentally and physically prepare for a rehearsal? Do you have a set routine (best days/times)? How long do you usually rehearse to prepare repertoire? How do you prepare for a concert?
A3. Practicing is an art form as much as performing, and it can be equally rewarding as well. I have always aspired to master the craft of practicing efficiently, thereby avoiding the mantra of ‘repeating ad nauseam’. Just aimlessly spending endless hours behind the piano can be fun, or make you feel like you are putting in a lot of effort, but it is rarely effective. I practice much more mentally, away from the piano, and find that this allows for quicker assimilation of certain problem spots, and it also ensures that when you actually do play the piano, it is always with freshness and enthusiasm.
Q4. At what age did you realize you were a musical spirit?
A4. I always had music in my heart and ears. The desire to become a professional musician came in my mid-teens I think, and the more I learn about music over the years, the more grateful I feel. The joy music can give you is such a wonderful mystery; making it a profession has become more of a side effect for me.
Q5. Did anyone try to talk you out of fulfilling your dream as a musician? If so, how did you handle it?
A5. Actually yes! I had several people try to talk me out of it when I was a teenager. My other passion, engineering, and physics would likely have made for a ‘smoother’ career path and their intention was probably to make sure I knew what I was getting into. I didn’t really see it as an issue as I didn’t feel I had a real choice in the matter; there was a certain sense of destiny that propelled me to become a musician. Looking back, I’m happy about those conversations, as they helped me prepare for the rather unpredictable path and life of a musician.
Q6. How old were you when you performed your first professional concert? How did you get the gig? Was it through teacher connections or via a professional manager?
A6. My debut concert was playing “Rhapsody in Blue” with an orchestra in Europe, and I must have been 15 or 16. It was set up through the school where I was studying at the time. I remember being very nervous! I don’t remember being as nervous again since.
Q7. Do you currently have a manager? If so, what tasks does a manager handle on your behalf?
A7. I have somebody helping me with various projects, and then I also collaborate with some agencies for specific tours. I also handle a lot of concerts myself. It all depends on the scale of the tour. I am a bit of a control freak and like taking charge of the programming, etc.
Q8. Have you composed works of your own? If so, what style are they in? Have/Will you be recording any of them?
A8. Sadly, I have stayed away from composing. I was very intrigued by the counterpoint and fugue classes in the conservatory and I loved music analysis as well, but I never really felt the urge to write compositions myself. I am quite critical and selective of all the compositions I encounter and I fear my works wouldn’t meet my own standards:-)
Q9. Music can touch people’s lives, bringing happiness and hope. For example, my piano school partners with CoachArt to provide free piano lessons for families impacted by childhood chronic illness. Is there a charity you are fond of or support, that you might like my readers to learn more about?
A9. Music does bring out a sense of basic common humanity. I frequently do outreach projects in underprivileged areas, and I also play concerts for charities and fundraisers. Sharing music and sharing my passion for music is always very fulfilling.
In closing, do you have a favorite quote, mantra or process that you find inspiring or helpful when faced with a creative block, that you would like to share with my readers?
When I hear the words ‘creative block’, it always reminds me of the Glenn Gould story; he got stuck on a passage in Beethoven’s “Opus 109”, and couldn’t wrap his mind or fingers around it. His solution was to turn on the vacuum cleaner, which was so loud that he couldn’t hear himself play anymore, and then continue practicing. The fact that he couldn’t hear or judge what his fingers were doing, freed up his mind, and immediately removed his block! Thinking outside of the box can work miracles.
Indeed! Thank you, Steven, for this wonderful and inspiring interview. We wish you all the best and look forward to attending your next local concert and listening to your latest recordings.
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