Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
My mum, first of all. I had this tiny red keyboard and I used to write down tunes by ear using a number system we devised because neither of us knew how to read music. At school I learnt the recorder, and that somehow progressed into me coming home one day and declaring that I wanted to play the piano, the clarinet and the flute. As children do. Understandably, my parents opted to start with just piano. So, we upgraded from the little red keyboard to an old upright piano from the YMCA that had been rehomed from a school hall- full of ‘character’ and…ping pong balls. I began lessons at the age of 11. The piano has stuck around to this day- unfortunately I can’t say the same for a lot of its notes! I am eternally indebted to my parents.
As for pursuing a career in music, I don’t remember ever making the conscious decision to do so. It is more that I couldn’t imagine music not being the central focus of my life. I think other musicians would say the same. Or maybe it was when I realised how messy being a vet would have been. One of the two.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
My piano teachers throughout the years, without a doubt. Mary Gibbons, my first teacher, who taught with such enthusiasm that she never once had to tell me to practice. Mei Yi Foo, for guiding me through my four years at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and for making me realise how much I have to learn! And now, at the Royal College of Music, Simon Lepper – an absolute legend in collaborative piano – who now has the mammoth task of helping me to learn it all.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I think as a collaborative pianist the greatest challenge is knowing when to say no. There are always singers and instrumentalists looking for accompanists and as a young artist it is really hard to turn down opportunities which could open other doors. I’ve struggled with balance before and ended up completely overloaded but now I’m trying to focus on doing fewer things well, rather than trying to do everything.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
Probably my recent performance at St Martin-in-the-Field’s with Chanáe Curtis, as we got a fab review. I am so excited to return to St Martin-in-the-Field’s on January 5th to accompany an opera gala with four wonderful singer friends of mine, and then February 13th for a lunchtime song concert with tenor Tom Smith.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
I couldn’t begin to answer that, you would have to ask someone else! I love playing all the great Romantic music though- Rachmaninoff, Richard Strauss, Brahms, Liszt…
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
As an accompanist, it’s rarely me that has the final say regarding repertoire, which is probably for the best as I’m incredibly indecisive! This question reflects one of the things I love about the job though, which is that there’s so much variety. To start with, I don’t just play for song, but also chamber music, instrumentalists, opera, ballet, etc. But also within the context of vocal accompaniment, I love that songs are like little snapshots of colour and story. They can say as much in two minutes as an entire symphony. That is both the charm and the challenge of song.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
As I said, I’m incredibly indecisive! I’ve been privileged to play in some beautiful venues- including the Dora Stoutzker Hall (Cardiff) and St Martin-in the-Field’s, to name a couple- but I think far more than that for me it’s about the audience…and the piano. At the end of the day there would be no concert without an audience, and their support and reaction mean everything. As for the piano, pianists are very vulnerable in that they cannot choose an instrument and take it to every concert with them like most other musicians can. We all have to play our fair share of less-than-ideal pianos, and there’s a lot to be learned from those. However, when I am lucky enough to perform on a good piano, it is a huge confidence boost to feel that the instrument is on my side. I find it very motivating knowing that a certain piano has the potential to sound amazing if played well.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
It would have to be one of my performances for Live Music Now. Through this charity, I- together with my duo partner Tom Smith- have performed in all sorts of community venues. Our concert in a prison would probably top the list for most memorable, particularly as it happened to be the morning after a headline-making prison riot elsewhere in the UK! Most of our concerts, however, were in elderly care homes and those experiences will stay with me forever. They are both inspiring and sobering. Plus, the residents give loads of compliments! A woman told me she loved me once. Another grabbed my hand, held me hostage and bribed me with biscuits until I agreed that we would do two more songs. But the best of all is watching someone with no day-to-day memory- sometimes even no speech- sing along with you word-perfect.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
As a music student living in London, money is at the forefront of my mind at the moment, but money definitely does not equal success. I think success is more personal – it’s about satisfaction in your chosen vocation. That said, if I can one day live comfortably on money earned through music, that would mean I could dedicate all of my working time to music- and that would make me happy. I would like to perform regularly and I would like to reach a standard where I could be proud of every single concert and recording.
Alternatively, if either of my music colleges ever decided to list me as an ‘alumnus’ in their prospectus, that would be a pretty good indication of success!
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I am still an aspiring musician myself, so I have no authority to give advice, but I would say:
- Be organised
- Never lose sight of why you do music
- Treat every concert as if it’s the Wigmore Hall, because you never know who might be in the audience
- Always treat your accompanist well. Because they might be able to sight-transpose.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
I think you can tell you’re happy when you don’t find yourself asking ‘am I happy?’. For me that is being surrounded by family and friends, and being able to spend my days working with inspiring musicians. And roast dinners. They are happiness.
Ella O’Neill has performed extensively as a song pianist in venues across the UK, including St Martin-in-the-Field’s; the Amadeus Centre; St David’s Hall, Cardiff; the Wales Millennium Centre for HRH the Prince of Wales; and the Dora Stoutzker Hall, Cardiff, as part of BBC Cardiff Singer of the World’s fringe series. Recent festival performances include Leeds Lieder Festival 2017, St David’s Cathedral Festival 2017 and the live-recorded headline concert for the Federation of Recorded Music Societies’ Daventry Festival 2016, where she was praised for her ‘alert and immaculate playing’ (Gwyn Parry-Jones for Seen and Heard International).
Outside of song, Ella’s interests span instrumental accompaniment, chamber music, orchestral piano, ballet and opera. She first became involved in opera when she played orchestral piano and celeste for a production of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw in 2014. Since then, she has worked as a répétiteur for Welsh National Opera, Mid Wales Opera, Barefoot Opera, Operasonic, Opera’r Ddraig and RWCMD Opera. Ella also works as a pianist for ballet schools, an exam accompanist for the Corps of Army Music and an ensemble musician for charity Live Music Now.
Ella is currently studying postgraduate piano accompaniment at the Royal College of Music with Simon Lepper and Kathron Sturrock, having graduated from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD) in July 2017 with first class honours. During her time there she was a recipient of the RWCMD Bryan Davies Memorial Prize for accompanying. She studied with Mei Yi Foo, and participated in masterclasses by Jeremy Denk, Peter Jablonski, Charles Owen, Llyr Williams, Joseph Middleton and James Baillieu. She looks forward to furthering her education at the Royal College of Music whilst continuing to perform around London.