Celebrating women who play

Bringing women to the front

To celebrate Women’s History Month, we take a look into some of the most prolific female piano players in history.

Bringing women to the front of the music scene has been a long historical road. Bigotry, sexism and inequality line the path to liberation. For centuries, women have made their voices heard through their incredible musical abilities and unwavering resilience. From Professor Louise Farrenc, to Nina Simone, Elena Kats Chernin, Tori Amos and everyone in-between, women who play the piano have been a game-changer on the music scene and an inspiration for so many who followed them.

When teaching young people- especially young female students, it is important to provide them with material to learn that was written by female composers. It is so easy to get lost in the abyss of male dominated syllabus lists, that it’s very easy to unintentionally raise young musicians on a diet of compositions written by men. So when you do give them something to learn that was written by a female composer, point it out; tell them why this is special. Why it’s important, and most importantly, why it means that they too, can achieve great things.

In celebration of Women’s History Month and the upcoming International Day for Women (March 8), The Piano Teacher has put together a list of women who have been game changers in the music scene and beyond – all of which, play the piano.

Louise Farrenc

Born in 1804 (the year that the world population first hit 1 billion!), Louise Farrenc was a French composer, pianist and teacher that was the only female professor at the Paris Conservatory in the 19th century. Battling endless bigotry from her colleagues, Farrenc went on to be one of the greatest piano professors in Europe. On top of this, she managed to be one of the first women to fight for, and win, equal pay to her male counterparts. What a boss.

Louise Farrenc – Etude in F Sharp Minor, op. 26 no. 10. Perf. Madeline Jones

Dame Myra Hess

During World War II, Britain’s arts culture was plunged into darkness. Galleries, theatres, concert halls and cinemas all closed (sounds hauntingly familiar, doesn’t it?). Dame Myra Hess was concerned about the effect of of cultural absence on the people of London, and gained government approval to perform lunchtime concerts outside the London National Gallery. The concerts were such a hit, that they continued for six and half years. That’s 1,698 concerts. Her stunning performance of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring was so moving, that some people thought it was her who composed it. What a woman.

Myra Hess plays her very famous arrangement of Bach’s Chorale “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”.

Elena Kats-Chernin

Originally hailing from Tashkent (Uzbekistan), Elena Kats-Chernin immgrated to Australia when she was 18 years old. Since then, she has established herself as one of the prolific Australian composers. Having composed an impressive range of works for nearly every genre of music, Kats-Chernin’s music was featured in the opening ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, a long-running UK advertising campaign, the Komische Oper Berlin, the Sydney Ensemble Theatre, the Sydney Opera House, The Melbourne Recital Centre and the stunning claymation film Max & Mary. With a string of CD’s and orchestral works behind her name, her stunning Eliza Aria from her Wild Swans ballet is one of the most treasured pieces for pianists and sopranos alike.

Lang Lang plays Elena Kats-Chernin’s “Eliza Aria” from Wild Swans Suite

Nina Simone

Nina Simone (birth name Eunice Kathleen Waymon) began playing piano by ear at the age of three. Becoming infatuated with classical music, Simone’s community raised money for her to study at The Julliard School in NYC. After a rejected application to study at Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Simone recognised how difficult it would be for a woman of colour to succeed in the classical music world, and began to play blues and jazz gigs at local establishments. Her first job was offered to her on the condition that she also sing whilst she played piano. Thus, one of the greatest blues musicians was born.

In addition to a very successful touring and recording career, Simone used her position to speak out and write songs about racial injustice, and became a powerful voice for people of colour who didn’t feel like they had one of their own.

Nina Simone – Little Girl Blue (1976)

Yuja Wang

Never has classical piano looked more punk, then when Yuja Wang exploded onto the scene. Studying at Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music from age seven, Wang was appointed as a Steinway Artist at just 14 years old. With her outrageously cool outfits (no long, flowy traditional ballgowns to be found here!), Wang has revived classical piano with a whole new generation of young people by being one of the most incredibly entertaining and impressive pianists of the 21st century.

Yuja Wang – “Gretchen am Spinnrade” Schuber/Liszt – Carnegie Hall 2017 

Alicia Keys

In 2001, Alicia Keys’ career exploded when she performed her t single ‘Fallin” on the world’s most-watched daytime talkshow, Oprah. At just 20 years old, Keys pulled piano back into the pop sene with style. A whole host of Grammy Awards later, she has mashed her classical piano roots with modern RnB and soul inspirations. Never one to be defined by money or fame, Keys has made her mark as a musician, a humanitarian, a philanthropist and activist. A true inspiration to young people all over the world, she proves you don’t need to seek a life of constant approval to live a fulfilled life.

Alicia Keys: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert

Diana Krall

Just like all of the greats, Diana Krall began with playing classical piano as a child. Kicking off a professional performance career at age 15 and studying classical and jazz at Berklee College of Music, Krall became obsessed with jazz greats like Nat King Cole and George Gershwin. Her career has established her as one of the biggest selling and most successful jazz artists of all time.

Diana Krall – Frim Fram Sauce

Tori Amos

Tori Amos lost her scholarship to the preparatory school at Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory when at the age of 11 she discovered that she preferred playing Led Zepplin over Chopin and Bach. Later in her teens she kick-started a pop-metal band called Y Kant Tori Read – which very quickly vanished into the black hole where many-a pop records go to die when nobody wants to play them on the radio. Refusing to give up, Amos finally established herself as one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time with her solo album Little Earthquakes in 1991. Amos’ songs contained a rawness that was reminiscent of Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell, singing of her experiences with growing up in a vehemently religious family, rape, trauma and social pressures. All of these songs were surrounded by incredibly complex piano lines that drove many of her fans to begin to learn to play the piano so they could try and tackle the hot licks of songs like ‘Cornflake Girl’ and ‘Silent All These Years’.

Tori Amos – Cornflake Girl (2007)
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