Pianist Barry Douglas on the transformative power of education

Barry Douglas thoughts on education
Pianist Barry Douglas
Barry Douglas has established a major international career since winning the Gold Medal at the 1986 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition, Moscow. As Artistic Director of Camerata Ireland and the Clandeboye Festival, he continues to celebrate his Irish heritage whilst also maintaining a busy international touring schedule.
Katya Kraynova

As Classical MPR marks back-to-school month, it seemed appropriate to talk to pianist Barry Douglas, whose album is featured on this week's New Classical Tracks, about the role of education in his life. It turns out that education has and continues to play a large and inspiring role in Douglas's life and work.

Douglas is the founder and artistic director of the chamber orchestra Camerata Ireland, which, in addition to its performances, is very involved in education. Here's how Douglas describes its education programs:

"We have two main education 'hubs', I call them, on the island of Ireland … one in Cork and one in Derry, and these are the two 'second cities' of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

"What we do is base ourselves in one of the schools and then we bring the children in from various music schools and they come and listen up close and personal to great music. We don't dumb down, we just talk about music. We've done John Cage, Philip Glass and Penderecki as well as Bach and Beethoven. And it's important that they hear great music. And they have no inhibitions as kids, so you can play anything to them … and in fact the kids are much more receptive in many ways than us pernickety adults, and that's always refreshing.

"Unfortunately, as in every community, there are schools and neighborhoods which are not as happy. You may have one school that comes in and when the kids come in, their heads are bowed, they look totally dejected and slightly bored, [as in] 'Why are we going here?'

"There was one particular school that came in from a very, very sad community in Derry. I asked our lead cellist, Maureen, to play a sarabande from a Bach solo cello suite. You could see the transformation was instantaneous: Their heads went up, and they stared and you could see in their eyes — their eyes got bigger and bigger. And it totally transformed them. They walked out after 45 minutes of listening to great music with a spring in their step.

"And those kinds of experiences — of course, we were all in tears. It inspires you to do more and more. Because this is so important.

"Great music, great art — whether it's visual art or performance art or going to see a great theater play — this is so important for young people, so important for us all. This is food for the soul. We can't minimize that; we can't underestimate the importance of that in human beings' lives."

Following that description, I asked Douglas if he himself had a transformative experience from his own life that he could share. Here's what he had to say:

"This seems kind of strange, and it's strange to me when I think of it, [but] from the age of three, I knew I wanted to be a musician. And I don't know how that happened — some Martian must have imprinted it on my DNA or something — but I just knew I wanted to be a pianist. So from the word go, that's all I did — practiced and practiced and practiced.

"But I was very lucky that in my school, they had a big music department and you had the chance to learn lots of different instruments. And I used to play the clarinet, the cello, the organ, the tymps. I conducted choirs. I conducted orchestras. And I had an incredible time dabbling — doing some things well, other things not so well; my cello playing wasn't the greatest! But it was a great way of experimentation, experimenting with different kinds of forms whether it was Baroque or Classical — or I played the clarinet in a jazz band. All those things really formed me, and I guess have helped me in my piano playing and certainly in my conducting.

"But I guess it was meeting, when I was 16, this incredible pianist teacher, Felicitas LeWinter. It was a chance meeting; my father met this old friend and he said, 'Felicitas is in town; you must introduce your son to Felicitias.'

"And she'd been a Jewish refugee from Austria, and she'd fled to Ireland, as many Jewish people did. Her family set up in Dublin and in Belfast. She went to London but she was coming back to visit her family. And the interesting thing about her, she was a great pianist and she had studied with Emil von Sauer who had been a pupil of Liszt, so she had this incredible connection to Liszt and therefore back to Beethoven, surely.

"She gave me a whole summer's full of lessons, and then I went on to see her often. When I was 16, that totally changed my life; it inspired me. I had great teachers here in Ireland, but she was something very special because of that lineage. So that was certainly a transformative experience."

Barry Douglas's most recent album, Schubert: Works for Solo Piano, Vol. 1 is featured on this week's episode of New Classical Tracks.

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