Where art is craft

Nina Schumann in conversation with Godfrey Johnson

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Nina Schumann is one of the leading pianists of her generation, and is Professor of Piano at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa. She was born into a musical family, receiving her early music tuition from Rona Rupert and Lamar Crowson. Her first appearance with an orchestra was at the age of 15 and her talent soon captured the attention of the public when she won the Fifth National Music Competition for high school pupils in 1988.

She went on to win the Oude Meester Music Prize (1989), the Forte Competition (1990) and during 1991 both the Wooltru Scholarship and the Adcock-Ingram Music Prize. She has over 140 concerto performances with orchestras in South Africa, Germany, Portugal, Scotland, Armenia and the United States to her credit, and some 40 concertos in her repertoire.

Her life as a teacher, performer and recording artist is a major artistic contribution, which she balances with life at home with her two children.

Godfrey Johnson (GJ) chats to Professor Nina Schumann (NS) about growing up with music, the path to becoming a concert pianist, and her life as a mother, teacher, performer and recording artist. Recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Nina’s insights take on a particular poignancy.

GJ: Hi Nina; it’s been great to chat after all this time (GJ and NS met whilst studying music at the University of Cape Town’s College of Music). Can you remember the first time you touched a piano?
NS: I don’t really. Music was simply a part of our family’s life – we were five sisters and we all played at least two instruments. One of my older sisters was a very proficient pianist, and her playing was just a great example for me from an early age. I formally began piano studies at the age of five, and also took violin lessons.

GJ: When did you realise that you wanted to be a concert performer?
NS: It wasn’t really a conscious decision, it just was the natural path to follow. The only other thing I could was to type, so it was a clear choice. I always loved the stage and especially playing concerti with orchestras. The formality and anticipation of seeing the soloist enter the stage the first time, the big flashy dress, flowers on stage…..the drama hooked me.

GJ: Does practice make perfect?
NS: Unfortunately not. As someone who’s always been very diligent, it’s a fantastic idea which is far from the reality! Over the years I have found I need less time physically practising, and I make a lot of the structural and musical decisions before I even touch the piano. Right now, my time at the piano is spent trying to analyse movements and due to the Parkinson’s in my right arm and focal dystonia in the left, I almost have to relearn how to play the piano and it certainly demands an entirely different approach.

GJ: You do so many things: professor of music, parent, concert pianist and the list is endless. How do you juggle everything?
NS: I am not always successful at juggling these roles but I try my best to compartmentalise them.  So when I am with my kids I focus entirely on them, and when I am teaching focus entirely on my students. ‘Me-time’ is when I practice or perform and is sometimes last on the priority list – but I do know when I need it.

GJ: What inspires you to perform?
NS: On the one hand I love the challenge of striving for perfection, overcoming fears and physical obstacles. But the simpler answer is I find performing absolutely glorious, and to allow myself to be engulfed my sounds and feelings is just the best gift ever.

GJ: How can music heal us?
NS:I think music means different things to different people.  Music can trigger so much:  memories, feelings, senses. A recent personal example of healing through music was when I performed the Rachmaninoff Concerto no.2 with the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra.  It was a tremendous challenge, one I was not sure I could overcome. But the day before the performance I suddenly just realised how lucky I was to be performing again and how absolutely wonderful the music is.  My physical tension subsided and I felt such incredible happiness.  The sadness of my medical condition just evaporated – it was a really special moment.

GJ: Have you found that the way you listen to music has changed over the years?
NS: I struggle to listen to music in general because I tend to analyse too much – but I have returned to listening to my recordings.  Prior to the disease I hated my playing and couldn’t stomach listening.  Now I listen much more appreciatively, even admiring myself (in silence of course!).

GJ: Who are some of your artistic inspirations (writers, artists, friends etc.) and why?
NS: My biggest inspirations were my teachers, and in particular Lamar Crowson and Vladimir Viardo.  They were both forces of nature and taught me everything I know about music. Viardo also checked my reading list and expanded my understanding of art in general, although it was very much slanted towards the Russian tradition!  My reading is now much more geared towards current affairs, so I wouldn’t say it has a direct inspirational line to my interpretation of music, but rather my understanding of humanity and kinship.

GJ: How do you handle fear?
NS: Lamar Crowson used to say that you only experience nerves when performing if you are either unprepared or worried about what people might think.  I focus on what I can control, which is my preparation and musical feelings.  And in the last few years `I came to accept that I am on borrowed time when playing and that has made me understand that I have nothing to lose.

GJ: Please name a few career highlights.
NS: My first solo concerto performance.
Rachmaninoff Concerto no.2 with the National Youth Orchestra in Aberdeen, Scotland.
Concerto performance with the Yerevan Philharmonic Orchestra in Armenia.
Performance in WIgmore Hall, London
Performance in Zurich Tonhalle.
All of the two-piano recordings made as one half of Two Pianists
Receiving the German Critics Award for ‘Shakespeare Inspired’ with Michelle Breedt

GJ: What advice do you have for any young artist with big dreams, especially in this age of instant fame without substance?
NS: You have to be determined and respectful of your art but you must also be incredibly flexible.  Even if you train to become a solo performance artist you must be able to perform chamber music and accompaniment.  You have to be entrepreneurial and adept in business and media.

GJ: Can you name some of your favourite compositions?
NS: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no.4, everything by Scriabin and Bach.

GJ: How do you relax after a performance?
NS: With a huge glass of red wine!  Normally it takes me hours to fall asleep as I run the performance through my head repeatedly.

GJ: What are you currently working on?
NS: I am preparing for a concert in September with the ~Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition and sniffing around for a new recital program.

GJ: What are your various social media handles and where can we find your recordings?
NS:  www.ninaandluis.com and www.twopianists.com
Our recordings are available internationally on all platforms – Apple music, Spotify, iTunes, Amazon

  1. Trevor du Buisson says

    What a lovely interview. One of the best pianists to come out of South Africa to my mind. I am sorry to learn of Nina Schumann’s diagnosis with Parkison’s disease. I do hope there will be many performances to come and that she will overcome this difficult obstacle for as long as possible. Thank you for the extraordinary music making. I listen to your 2 piano Goldberg Variations often.

    1. Urban Craft says

      Thank you for the positive feedback

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