A singer's piano-journey
Described by the Sunday Times in as "A Leading Lady of the retro party scene", Patricia Hammond is a UK-based singer (mezzo-soprano), who can go from Cathedral to cocktail bar, and change from Handel to hot jazz in the same night.
Patricia's beautifully reconstructed performances of Victorian, Edwardian, 1920s, 30s and 40s songs have charmed audiences around the world. Her recordings have been played on BBC 2, 3 and 4, and in November 2018 she sung in the Bundestag in Berlin for Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron for the centenary of the end of the First World War.
Patricia wrote several articles on singing to people in hospitals, care homes and hospices, published in the Telegraph's Weekend magazine and The Week. Her first book, "She Wrote the Songs", about Victorian women songwriters, accompanied by a CD, came out on Valley Press this summer.
I first met Patricia in 2011 when she was recording her album "Our Lovely Day" on which I play the piano. We have since worked together on several projects, including her last project on the old popular songs written by women. I have always found Patricia's stories very intriguing.
Just before the start of the second national lockdown, I met Patricia for a chat, and I decided to bring you Patricia's piano-journey, which has led her to a career of a professional singer.
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A: Patricia, tell us a little bit about your 'piano story'?
P: Well, I started my first piano lessons when I was eight years old, and they were because I idolised my aunt Carina who was a piano teacher who lived in England. I grew up in Canada and kind of idolised her because England was a far-off and interesting place, and she was so glamorous, and so the piano was glamorous because she was. When she came to visit us in Canada, she gave me my first piano lesson, and she taught me how to play a piece called Redskins. It was my very first piano piece, and it involved both hands and chords. I can still play it now!
A: It sounds like your aunt Carina had quite an impact on you, so what happened after your first piano lesson with her?
P: So, before she went back to England, she went with my mum to a local piano teacher, and that was great because she met this teacher and it was like a handing-over. And, after that, my only problem was that I would have to practise the piano every day after school, and for me, that was terrible punishment, because there was only a little bit of light left for going outside and playing on the beach. I hated to sacrifice that time, but if I didn't I would have to stop my piano lessons, and if that happened I'd have to tell my auntie, and that was not an option! And that is how I kept playing.
A: Why did you idolise your auntie Carina, was it because she was a piano teacher?
P: She was young, and she dressed cool. England was so much more stylish than Canada, particularly back then. She wore bright, colourful clothes with interesting patterns. I felt like I could identify with her, she was like one of us, and there was something child-like about her.
And she is still a piano teacher, she teaches at Vinehall School in East Sussex, near Hastings.
A: That's interesting because I noticed that students and also the parents seem to prefer young tutors. Maybe they think that they bond better, who knows!
I am curious to know what your piano education looked like, how often did you work with your teacher and did you attend any theory classes?
P: I had a 30-minute lesson once a week, and this entailed mainly piano and also some music theory. I had a little booklet for lessons, where I would have to make a check-mark when I practised during the week.
A: So, how did you end up where you are now, a professional musician, Canadian mezzo-soprano based in London, specialising in your
P: First of all, what kept me interested was student recitals. My teacher organised several recitals for her students throughout the year. In February there was a Valentine's Day recital, in March we had St Patrick's Day recital, there was a recital just before Summer holidays, she had a Halloween recital, Christmas Recital, and one just before the local music festival. And each of them had cupcakes at the end.
They were great, and just for students. Parents were invited only for the Christmas recital.
A: Really, why was that?
P: Well, they were all taking place in my teacher's house, and there was always around 30 of us. She would take all her tables out of the room, and she would move all the chairs in, and some kids would sit on the floor. They were great, the reason I learned the music was so that I could share it with a room full of other students. It would give you a purpose for the music. Because otherwise, you are just practising, and the progress from day to day is so small that it's hard to see what you've achieved and whether you've improved.
A: So would these recitals inspire you, and spark your passion for performing?
P: Yes, absolutely. Because if you did well, you would see that you had power, the power of music, and you could move people and that people would respond to you. You could feel what people would like when you play, and you could sense that something was coming from you and going to them.
P: Communication, exchange of energy.. yes, exactly.
A: How far did you get in your piano training?
P: In Canada, we have the Royal Conservatoire of Music based in Toronto, which is very much like the associated board (ABRSM). Except that they have more grades, so you go up to grade 10 before you get to a diploma, rather than (with the ABRSM) grade 8 and then diploma. I say that's wise because they make so much more money! Anyway, I got up to grade 10, and then I went to music college, and where I did voice as my major, of course, as my love is singing.
A: And when did you start singing?
P: I started singing when I was around 12 years old, and I loved having the words. I loved the idea of expressing text. I also loved lyricism, and I found that my individuality was particularly well served by the vocal repertoire. BUT, you need piano skills to study songs. Otherwise, you have to hire a pianist to explore songs, so I started studying songs even before I started singing because I was able to play the piano. I was able to explore the songs before I even had a voice, so, there again, the piano was key..! Listening to recordings is absolutely not the same process.
A: What sort of songs were you exploring then?
P: Oh, I loved Grieg's Solvejg's Song from Peer Gynt, and I just looked at my mum's old sheet music and vocal anthologies. I really, really loved old sheet music, and I also collected old sheet music because they had beautiful, gorgeous covers.
A: So, coming in contact with old sheet music covers made you look at songs?
P: Yes, because it's nice for a pianist to explore music outside of the syllabus. You realise that there is endless music, and being able to play the piano gives you the skill to explore what's out there. Musical literacy through piano is a great tool and great power.
A: It was the singing that made you decide that you want to go to music college?
P: Yes, that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a singer, and I went to a college rather than a university because it was cheaper. Unfortunately, that also meant that they didn't have the budget to offer me the piano as a proper second study. Everybody's second study there was a class piano, which was just learning the basics. So I sight-read the final exam for my class piano in the first week of college, and I didn't have to attend the classes. And that was my second study, which was sad. I thought that was going to be it, the end of my piano journey.
A: But you still play...
P: Well, this is what happened. I continued playing, obviously, once you have the skill you have the skill! I would learn my vocal pieces by reading them on a piano, so I didn't have to pay a pianist or rely on recordings, which is something that so many singers do. It's great if you can play your pieces and draw your own stylistic conclusions.
A: And when did you come to England?
P: I came to England because I love Europe. I love history here. Also, I have citizenship through my mum. So I just saved up and came. When in London, I thought I needed a place to practice my singing because in Canada you can't practice in your flat because people will complain about the noise. In Vancouver you'd look for a local church to practice, so I did that in London. I found a church and what was more, they needed an organist, and this is how I started playing the organ. And suddenly all my piano skills were incredibly useful!
A: And fifteen years later, you are still playing in the same church! And you continued singing, and your love for the old sheet music covers has led you to discover your niche...
P: Well, one of the things about studying old popular songs is that a lot of women wrote these songs in the past. And that was a very interesting subject to me, especially the fact that you'll get all these so-called great composers, pretty much all men, and if you go to the old popular songs from 100-150 years ago, a lot of them were written by women.
A: I wonder when did you realise that music history speaks more about men composers than women?
P: That is such a good question! Believe it or not, I always, always wondered why. I had a sneaking suspicion that the reason why people marginalise the popular music of the past, saying that it's not 'great' music, is because women wrote them. They are by women and for women because music in the parlour, as opposed to the concert hall, was the feminine domain, and domestic. The idea of the domestic not being professional, not being great, not being worthy of study, is an embedded one in our society. Only now we are starting to see that those things done in domestic settings can be extremely worthy of study. Look at quiltmakers, embroiderers, and even the world of novels.
A: Yes, but when did all this suddenly 'click'?
P: The crystal clear moment came when I went to the shop called Persephone Books in Holborn, specialising in 'lost', or out-of-print books, most of them novels by women. I had a conversation with Nicola Beauman, the founder of the shop and author of "A Very Great Profession: The Woman's Novel 1914-39". The stories in her book reminded me so much of women composers and parlour songs, and she said; "..oh yes, it's because it's domestic." And this is when I realised that somebody should write about all these songwriters, and I decided that I was going to do that. And I did! I have finally managed to materialise and put together all the research that I have done over the years.
A: That's brilliant, you have achieved your goal, and you are now the author of your first book called She Wrote the Songs, where you tell lots of fascinating stories about the "unsung women of sheet music", published with Valley Press a few months ago.
P: Yes, and the book comes with the CD on which you play the piano!
A: Indeed, the Canadian Mezzo-soprano and Eastern-European pianist perform (mostly) English parlour songs. How exciting is that! :) Tell us, where can people buy your book and the CD?
They are sold separately; you can order the book on Amazon, Waterstones or Valley Press website. The CD can be ordered through my website. Or your students can buy the CD from you!
A: Do you have a favourite composer from all the women you write about, or perhaps a story that resonates with you most?
P: Well, I don't know, they are all great. I suppose the one that really moves me is "The House and the Road" by Dorothy Parke. You can't find much about her, but if you search, you will find her in the British newspaper archive because she was always being mentioned in connection with her pupils, and how well they have done. She must have been a great teacher. Her legacy is in the sharing of musical literacy and the love of music. She gave her life to spreading the joy of playing the musical instrument, which is a superpower. Being able to play the piano makes you a happier and more powerful person. And people who choose to do that are truly great. There will always be symphonies, and there is never any shortage of virtuosos, but to have somebody who can spread that joy so that people can transform their lives, that's the real magic.
- Interviewed by Andrea Vargas Kmecova for Piano Maestros,