A Concert Pianist in Training: J.J. McNamara

Interview and write-up: @EmerNestor

Photographs: @FMarshallPhoto

17-year old Irish pianist J.J. McNamara is setting the scene for a very promising career in music. A former student of Sutton Park Secondary School (Dublin), McNamara was awarded a full scholarship to study at the prestigious Chetham’s Music School in Manchester, where he is currently taking his A-level examinations. A fearless pianist, McNamara has been tackling the technically demanding repertoire of Liszt from an early age. No stranger to the competition circuit, the young student has won prizes at Dublin Feis Ceoil, Piano Academy National Music Festival, DIT Music festival, Newpark Music Festival, Sligo Feis Ceoil, and Arklow Music festival. McNamara has appeared on Ireland’s longest running TV chat show, The Late Late Show, and has performed on RTÉ Radio 1. He has participated in the celebrated Clandeboye Music Festival, and was invited to play at the iDIG festival in Dublin (2015), where he rocked a Lisztian-inspired take on the classic Tetris theme [click here for the link]. McNamara is set to return to the games festival this weekend with a recital in the RDS at 4.30pm on 30 April.

McNamara chats to us about his love of music, the influence of his father Frank on his developing career, preparing for forthcoming competitions, video games, and his studies at Chetham’s Music School.

As an active and award-winning competitor, how do you prepare for the demands of the piano competition circuit, and what do you enjoy most about the experience?

Well I'm still in secondary school at Chetham’s Music School in Manchester, so I'm only starting out on the International Piano Competition circuit. My teacher, Jonathan Middleton, is preparing me for a competition in Germany, another in Norway, and one in the US. It's such an exciting time for me, and I'm planning to enjoy every single minute of it.

Competitions are a great opportunity for me to hear who else is out there, and to measure myself against the best of the best.

Take us through your general practice routine.

My dad has always advised me that slow practice is the only practice! So I do a lot of that. For technical exercises I use Beringer’s 5-finger exercises and some scales. I usually practice 5-6 hours a day, although I rarely time it...it could be more or less (if Liverpool are playing, then definitely less!!)

How much has your father Frank influenced your musical development?

For as long as I can remember, I've been watching my Dad play piano. I’m constantly learning from him. He can play anything! He has always helped me and encouraged me. He taught me how to deal with disappointment when I didn't win a competition, and how to be a gracious winner. Dad always told me: "It's how you play that's important, not whether you win or lose".

Do you enjoy performing together and collaborating on arrangements?

My dad and I used to do fun arrangements together. Once we came up with this arrangement that mixed up the Irish tune ‘The Rakes of Mallow’ with Mozart's ‘Rondo alla Turca’...we called it ‘The Rakes of Mozart’! We loved playing it! Another time, for The Late Late Show, we came up with a fun arrangement of Chopin's Fantasie Impromptu, which we did like a face-off, trading bars!

How did you get involved in the iDIG festival last year, and what draws you to the music of video games?

Eimear Noone, a great Irish conductor, heard me play and asked if I would like to do a piano arrangement of a video game theme for the show. I was so thrilled—when I’m not playing piano or football, I'm playing games on my PS4! I have always loved the Tetris theme (which is a Hungarian Dance tune), and I thought it would sound really good à la Franz Liszt. So I arranged a Liszt-inspired version for the show. People seemed to like it, which was great! I'm so delighted to be asked back again this year.

Having earned a scholarship to study at Chetham’s School of Music, how are you finding the change in piano teacher and education system?

I am so incredibly lucky to have this amazing opportunity, and to be surrounded by such fantastic musicians here. Every day there are wonderful lunchtime concerts performed by students. The standard is incredibly high, which inspires and drives me to work harder, and hopefully get better and better. I've always been lucky to have great piano teachers—my mom [Theresa Lowe] and dad made sure of that. Starting out with Gogoshka Kinkladze, then Padhraic O'Cuinneagain, and now Jonathan Middleton at Chetham’s. Each teacher has given me something and brought me further along. Now I get two piano lessons per week, plus separate lessons in chamber music and technique. We even get lessons in Alexandra technique!

Leaving home at such a young age (16) can be quite challenging — how are you settling in to the new environment?

It can be hard being away from my family. Sometimes that gets to me a bit but I get a long weekend off every three weeks and get to go home. Anytime I miss home, I play piano and that always makes me feel better.

What does an average day at Chetham’s School of Music entail?

I'm doing A-levels at the moment, which is fairly intense. I have 10 hours per week on my academic subjects, and the rest is devoted to music study and performance. We get to go out three times a week, so there is plenty of recreation time too.

Do you want to be a concert pianist — what attracts you to this career?

I definitely want to be a concert pianist. I suppose it's in the blood! I've never considered doing anything else. I just love to play music for people. I love what music can do—it can convey any emotion.

What pianists do you admire the most at the moment and why?

My favourite pianist at the moment is Martha Argerich. Her finger work, sound, and control are all second to none.

Where do you hope to continue your studies upon completion of your A-levels?

I will be auditioning for several conservatories next November. I most probably will go to London to the Royal College of Music, if I get in there.

What are your favourite non-classical albums on your iTunes playlist?

Calvin Harris, and anything from dance music to house.

How do you like to unwind during the weekends?

I love to watch football...particularly Liverpool, and going out with my friends to Nandos.

Family gatherings must be great fun in such a talented household — what is your party piece?

At the moment my favourite piece to play is Liszt's transcription of Gounod's Faust Waltz (Valse de l’opéra Faust de Gounod).

What's next for you?

At the moment I’m focused on preparing for forthcoming international piano competitions and the conservatory auditions. I’m really looking forward to some masterclasses with Murray McLachlan in July, and I would love to have the opportunity to take part in the Piano Academy of Ireland International Festival again, which always has a great faculty. Barry Douglas will be giving masterclasses this year—I was very lucky to be a participant in the Clandeboye Festival last year...it was a fantastic week of masterclasses with Barry Douglas, and so much fun working with other young musicians and enjoying great food!! I’m thrilled to be invited back to perform at the iDIG Music Festival (28 April–1 May), and I’m really looking forward to my recital there in the RDS.

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