Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?
My mum taught piano and recorder, so from the very beginning I heard people playing music. The story goes that I sat under the piano whilst lessons happened and then at some point came out and played something and that was the beginning. Later, after graduating, I gave up for several months as I realised I hadn’t really ever decided to play the piano for a career. After a few months I suddenly missed it terribly and at that point committed to making it my life.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
My first main teacher (from age 8 to 14) Kate Miller was the most wonderful teacher and woman I could have hoped to meet. She taught in such an imaginative way and her teaching of technique was all based on natural phenomenon – a cat jumping, a bird of prey swooping – so that tension was left completely out of the picture. She is still teaching and recently I met a much younger pupil of hers, loved his playing immediately and then discovered we shared piano ancestry, which just made total sense.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
The singular greatest challenge I’ve experienced is the result of asking “why don’t we change the shape of the piano?”. It turns out this is at least a life’s work! As a postgraduate, I had become very involved in playing contemporary music, written by my peers. I loved the exchange with living composers – I found it stimulating and challenging in a new and exciting way. I loved the sounds and textures they wanted me to find and I enjoyed having to understand lots of new musical language. After several years of specialising in new music, I one day had the thought that leaning into the grand piano to play ‘extended techniques’ (plucking strings, knocking on the interior struts) was rather uncomfortable. I wanted to explore these sounds more but didn’t want to spend any more time leaning at such an awkward angle.
In 2008, I built my first ‘Inside-Out Piano’ by taking an old upright apart and turning the strings through 180 degrees – so instead of the strings running from just above the keys down to the ground, they now went straight up from the keys. In 2014, I commissioned Pierre Malbos to reconfigure a straight-strung Erard in the same way. It turned out that this model could move very fluidly (including swinging from side to side!) and that has exploded what I do at the piano, allowing me to also make theatre shows and teaching me how to make music about real life.
Now I am crowdfunding (further information here) to build a lightweight version of the same shape, with piano builder David Klavins and my own company, Future Piano. Working towards a lightweight piano has forced me to seek out collaborators in aerospace engineering (because piano strings have up to 30 tonnes of tension to be held, so doing that in lightweight means using very advanced materials) and attempt to learn the language of business, but this has also reinforced my dedication to why I make music and to what the arts might do for society.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
It was my life ambition to play a solo recital at the Wigmore Hall and the opportunity came much sooner than I expected. I was very proud of my performance of the Janáček Sonata there. Likewise, my Southbank Centre debut was a moment where I felt my capabilities grow. My show about having children, ‘Moments of Weightlessness’, was the first time I felt the joy of making an audience laugh and cry within a piece and my most recent work, ’12 Years’, I have been humbled to discover offers people the opportunity to feel climate change, rather than just learn about it.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
Now that I’m on a journey of reinventing the piano, I mainly perform my own music. To find the confidence to commit to this, over a long time, has been a journey in itself. Classical training tends to divorce the player from the creating of music and I think that it shouldn’t be so black and white. Everyone has something different to express.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I now tend to make shows which are about something, or have a particular goal. At the moment I’m arranging to tour ’12 Years’ and am also developing a new show for children about my amazing Inside-Out Piano II, to show them the incredible sounds it can make. I also hope to pique their own curiosity about exploring instruments to make their own music.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
Recently, I performed in the Stoller Hall (the new hall at Chetham’s School of Music, where I was a pupil and where I was recently teaching at the Chetham’s International Summer School and Festival for Pianists) and it was gorgeous – it projects very quiet sounds perfectly whilst giving the performer on stage a totally accurate representation of what the audience are hearing. It is also a beautiful space.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
A very unusual experience was performing a piano & orchestra piece by Richard Barrett called Mesopotamia, with Pierre-Andre Valade and the London Sinfonietta at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. It was in the Bates Mill and it was raining. The piece opens with a ppp, super complex piano solo – 4 distinct lines of massive intervallic leaps, in rhythms of 13 against 17 against 6 against 11 (that sort of thing – I don’t have the score to hand..!). I was waiting to begin and PAV had his hand up to stop me starting. I was confused but obediently waited. After maybe 20 seconds of radio silence (literally) I queried him visually. He gestured a noise was bothering him. I waited, thinking maybe it would be switched off. After about 50 seconds, I finally realised it was the rain on the tin roof so I had to give him the bad news (via the international sign for “it’s raining!” that sorry, that particular noise wasn’t going to stop any time soon! He clicked and gave me permission to start. Considering I was terrified of that opening, it probably helped to distract me enough to then play it I think almost perfectly. For anyone interested, try Barrett’s Lost – a solo piano beautifully delicate but very complicated Debussy-ian rhapsody.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
To communicate, move and inspire an audience.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
That music is only the expression of what we feel and think so you need to think and feel to be able to play well, that legato solves nearly every technical problem, that if something feels insurmountable you should just take it apart and play it very slowly, accurately and completely in character and soon you’ll learn it. Finally, that you should keep improvising or composing, in doing so to find your own musical voice and cherish and value that.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Running some kind of ‘art home’ which provides a space for people of very different disciplines to gather, exchange, teach each other and mutually learn and grow.
What is your present state of mind?
That the world is facing an extraordinarily enormous problem of a human-caused climate and ecological emergency and we need to work together to fix it.
Sarah Nicolls performs in this year’s London Piano Festival on 6 October at 10 and 12. More information
Sarah is crowd-funding to create the Standing Grand, an instrument which is light and compact enough to bring the fullness of a grand piano’s sound into modern homes, practise rooms and small venues. For more information and to support Sarah’s campaign please visit her Kickstarter page.
Sarah Nicolls is a UK-based experimental pianist, at the forefront of innovations in piano performance. She invented the ‘Inside-out Piano’, a sculptural feast of an instrument played, pushed and swung in her touring show Moments of Weightlessness. Sarah has also begun to branch out from piano altogether and is currently working on an installation for the Apollo atrium at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, supported by the OCM BOOM scheme.
Over the past years, Sarah has worked with interactive technologies to augment the acoustic piano with visceral live performances. She has commissioned collaborative new works with composers and has been a frequent soloist, performing at events such as the PRSF New Music Biennial and touring with Matthew Herbert’s 20 Pianos project. Sarah has given many world premieres with the London Sinfonietta including Larry Groves’ Piano Concerto and Richard Barrett’s Mesopotamia. She is regularly broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and features on several CDs.