“I think music chooses you, rather than the other way around.”
Having had the No.1 spots on the Australian iTunes Classical charts (2020, 2018, 2017, 2016) and debuting at #2 on
the ARIA Classical/Crossover Charts for her album ‘Pop Alchemy’ (January, 2019), Universal Music/Decca Records signed concert pianist & composer Van-Anh Nguyen became the first Australian-Vietnamese to ever in history enter the US iTunes Classical Charts. Van-Anh has become a worldwide sensation and in-demand artist, leading an intense touring
career across the globe. Her first single ‘Children’ with Universal landed her in the Australian (#2), US (#13) and Canadian Classical Charts (#9).
You have been learning the piano since before you were two years old – how has your relationship with music and the piano changed throughout your career?
I think I started so young that it just became a part of me. I can’t imagine life without the piano. I definitely have broadened the genres that I play and listen to through the course of my career and I think that will continue. There’s so much good music out there!
Has the piano always been your instrument of choice? Why?
I started so young that I think I didn’t know any better – it’s also the easiest instrument to start when you’re that young because you don’t need to worry about intonation (haha!). I did start the cello when I was about 6 years old but by that stage, I think I was so far ahead on the piano that the cello felt hard to me. I always say though, if I started on the cello first, I’d probably have become a cellist. I love the tones of a cello so much!
What steers you towards particular piano repertoire and why?
I love melody and lush harmonies. I’m a sucker for Romantic works. I’m an emotional creature and very passionate in everything I do so the music reflects this.
When, how and why did you incorporate/combine your other passions with the piano (producing, composing, teaching, fashion, etc)? What have been the benefits and drawbacks?
I think Mum was always conscientious in how she dresses us (me, my sister and brother) for concerts. I remember wearing kitten heels even when I was 5 or 6 years old for concerts and she would sew dresses for me (partly because we couldn’t afford buying new dresses all the time, partly because my Mum is so super talented). Fashion to me is an extension of who you are so what you wear reflects who you are – it does for me anyways. It’s colors, it’s mood. In the past 10 years, I’ve delved into the crossover world and the producing really has played a huge roll in this – my love for other genres drove this into mash ups and mixing genres. Teaching took a major backseat once I started traveling and performing a lot (basically the last 10 years). Composing was a huge thing Mum encouraged us to do when we were young – she’d almost coax us (one would say bribe) into writing compositions by saying ‘I’ll give you $10 if you can write me a song’. I rattled off 5 songs in a week and asked for my $50 haha!! They were based on 2-3 part inventions and that was when I was about 8-9 years old. Composing didn’t grab me until my early 20s when I travelled a lot and got inspired by the things I saw. I think all of the above has been beneficial in the sense that it’s made me unique in who I am. I got a backlash at a piano competition once when I wore a scrapingly low back dress and in the conservative classical world at the time, it was a big no-no and got told off by one of the adjudicators ‘this is not a fashion show’. That really turned me off competitions (amongst many other things) – why couldn’t I wear what I wanted? Shouldn’t it be the playing that they were to judge?
What has been the greatest ‘life lesson’ you have learnt through being in the arts industry?
Never take ‘No’ for an answer and consistency is key.
What has been your biggest challenge in juggling such a multi-faceted career?
Time. Not enough time. I love everything I do. Also, because I love everything I do hence why I don’t think it’s work which then causes me to burn out without me knowing so one of the biggest challenges was working out a healthy work-life balance because it kind of merges itself.
Have there been any opportunities that you chose not to take and regretted? And have there been opportunities you have taken and wished that you hadn’t?
I am a firm believer that if you take an opportunity and it went pear-shaped, then you’ve learnt from it and you move on and vice versa; if for some reason you didn’t take an opportunity, it’s for a reason and something else will come up. You are equally as responsible in creating your opportunities.
What are important things you consider when deciding to release an album? How do you choose the repertoire (what is the criteria)? How do you decide on a theme? When do you pick a date?
Where my mind is, is the first thing – does the album excite me and does the music excite me. To me, it’s a reflection of you in that snippet of time in your life. That then determines what music I choose to fit into the album and how to theme it. As for a release date, that sometimes depends on the scheduling of the label, if they have other artists releasing at a time or if there’s any sort of event/anniversary of a composer or worldly event that could coincide for marketing reasons.
Why is your Peaceful Piano Essentials different to other albums and what can people expect from it?
This album is THE most peaceful of any of my 8 albums I’ve produced. I’m usually known to throw in some sort of virtuosic pieces in the mix of an album or like the last album ‘Pop Alchemy’, mash ups of classical and pop tunes but I have to say, this album includes only calm, sensitive, beautiful pieces. It includes works by Chopin, Bach, Debussy, Beethoven and more – the most requested pieces by these composers that fall into the peaceful category. I felt that during these COVID lockdowns and during the pandemic, when I did my facebook & Instagram livestreams, people requested these songs the most. It was only natural for me to go and record and document this moment in time.
This album has been a project of yours during the Covid-19 pandemic – how has this global event affected you? How have you been able to stay motivated and focussed? Did you have other projects that were affected? How did you pivot or adapt?
The pandemic took my life as I knew it away the moment we went into lockdowns, March 21. All my gigs got cancelled. I live half my year in Los Angeles and half my year here and I became stuck in Sydney (not complaining!), all my shows in LA and then Europe got cancelled and what was my ‘job’ – a concert pianist and performer became redundant. I immediately started doing free livestreams on Facebook and Instagram, every single day at 12:30pm. I said I’d do it every day until lockdowns lifted thinking it’d be 3 weeks. I did it for 3 weeks straight, no breaks and then burnt out! I played over 160 songs during the course of those 3 weeks. I learnt how to us OBS and built up the streaming quality to a point where I then did my wine and music pairings concert series virtually. That was super cool to see it pivot like that and I was able to reach viewers and people from all over the world which normally, if I played in 1 city, would only be people in that city. After the livestreams, I did collaborations and duets with musician friends from around the world weekly. I started teaching piano again and I’d have to say my biggest achievement of 2020 is definitely teaching an 8 year old in San Jose the piano, from scratch over Facebook Messenger video calls. Technology is amazing and I am so thankful for it. I also did virtual birthday performances and was recruited to go on Cameo which also is where people pay for song requests. Then, of course, went into the studio in July to record Peaceful Piano Essentials and that takes me to now.
I have to say at this point of the year, having been stuck in Sydney for 7 months now, I’m ready to go back to the concert stage. Being locked down gave me time to write, compose, even write sheet music and sell some of my sheet music for some of the pieces I’ve arranged. My heart is on the stage though.
What do you think the longer-term effects of Covid-19 on the music industry will be?
This is a very very sad long term effect. Who knows when theaters and festivals will be back to how we once knew it? The fact that Broadway/Carnegie Hall is called through to 2021 is just horrifying.
Knowing now how your career has unfolded over the past three decades, what advice would you give to your younger self?
Don’t believe that competitions is the be all and end all. There are so many other ways now to create a platform for yourself, put yourself out there and collaborate with other musicians. Also, don’t just stick to learning classical – be open to other genres, not just listening but playing too!
What is your view of social media and how do you think it has aided or hampered the music industry?
I am a big advocate for using social media as a marketing tool as well as a tool to stay connected with your followers and fans. I have had concert bookings from all social media platforms I’ve been on. I’ve also built so many new followers particularly during COVID because I was able to reach and connect with them. It also allowed me to create collaborations with people I’ve never even met or old musician friends who are overseas.
In terms of hampering, I think it’s important to understand that it’s important but should not consume you.
What would be the three most important things a young, aspiring artist should consider when embarking on a career in music/performing?
- How much do you really love it and can you see yourself doing something else? Because if you can, you shouldn’t be doing music. It requires 5000000% dedication and love to a point of almost craziness.
- Ask yourself why you want to be a musician or performer and then what SORT of performer do you want to be? A soloist? A chamber musician? Orchestral?
- Consider the fact that you’ll be on your own a lot and that you should be strong and ok about that (especially if you’re a pianist).
Professor Stephen McIntyre is known nationally and internationally as one of Australia’s most eminent pianists. He is the chosen accompanist of many singers and instrumentalists, a sought-after concerto artist and chamber music player. He has performed in France, UK, Italy, Germany, Holland, Japan, Singapore and India. Considered a master interpreter of French music, Stephen made a major impact on the Australian concert scene with his cycle of the complete piano music of Ravel, for which he won the National Critics Award – he was invited to repeat the cycle in Paris.
When did you realise you wanted to be a performing artist?
I think I probably always wanted to be a musician, as I spent most of my teenage years winning competitions, and hanging out with other musicians, even though I didn’t do a music course at University. I think Music chooses you, rather than the other way around.
Who inspired you the most and why?
It has to be Ada Corder, who was my teacher in Melbourne from the age of 11 till 20, such an important period in the training life of a musician. Despite her many personal eccentricities, she certainly knew what she was doing, and in many important ways, I still play the way she taught me, particularly technically-great efficiency combined with minimum of movement.
Which pianists do you enjoy listening to the most?
I enjoy listening to many pianists, as there is always something to learn from both young and old. Sensational players of the younger generation are Yuja Wang, Daniil Trifonov, and Benjamin Grosvenor; and of the older, Stephen Hough, Grigory Sokolov, Martha Argerich. And even earlier, my Italian teacher Benedetti Michelangeli, and Russian Sviatoslav Richter. Thanks to Youtube, we can hear all of these players today-what a fantastic resource.
Is there any repertoire that you stay away from?
I like to listen to Bach, but I find that I don’t succeed very well in transferring it to the modern piano, and in general I always find contrapuntal music difficult to play-it’s wonderful to listen to Angela Hewitt in this repertoire.
Do you have a ‘warm up’ practise routine?
Start with the big muscles, from the shoulder, and end with the finger exercises, and not the other way around. And all exercises should be practised with a musical aim in mind, not just a physical one.