Mhairi Hall, pianist & composer

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?

I was four years old when I started asking my parents for a piano. I have a clear memory (at age five) of my father, grandpa and uncle carrying a large ‘something’ into the house and my uncle opening the lid and playing a few notes and feeling very excited, I knew it was a piano. My family was full of singers so I’m not sure why I was drawn to the piano. I was classically trained, and when I was in my mid teens I discovered a love for Scottish traditional music. I joined a folk group in school and was assigned the job as pianist, however, it is unusual for notation to be used in traditional music so I had to muddle along and teach myself a new style of music and improvisation. As a pianist playing traditional music you are often put in the role of accompanist, but I have always loved playing melodies so I also developed a solo style that suited Scottish melodies on the piano. The career path of a musician chose me when during holidays I played concerts and festivals with different bands and singers, instead of getting a summer job. After university I was a lecturer in music for a few years before I left that to do what I was teaching. I have always loved performing, travelling and working with lots of different musicians and artists and the variety that brings, I feel very fortunate to be able to this as my career.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Growing up, my parents gave me constant support and encouragement with music and especially gentle pushes to practice when I was a child! As a teenager, they drove me all over the country to events where I could play with and learn from other musicians. I was brought up in the Highland village of Aviemore surrounded by mountains, lochs, trees, and stories of the historical traditions and music from the area. These have all had a profound impact on the music I create, and the music that inspires me. There were very few pianists playing traditional music on the piano when I was growing up but I was introduced to Tracy Dares from Cape Breton in Canada and the late Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, whom I later studied with in Ireland. Both of these pianists were hugely influential to me, and I wore out their recordings learning them by ear, note for note.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

More recently balancing a young family and keeping my career going has been and is an ongoing challenge. I have a yearning to be playing more music and then feel guilty when I am away from my children. It’s a very difficult balance for all working parents. On a musical level, my live concert for ‘Airs’ has been a huge technical challenge for me to work the electronic equipment live while triggering sounds, looping and playing the pieces the way I would like to on the piano. It’s been a huge learning curve and also hugely rewarding when it goes well.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I’m proud of all my recordings, and do my best to make them as good as I can at the time. They all mark a moment in time and with each recording I feel I improve and grow as a musician. I feel the same with concerts, and some of the high pressure concerts I do now I am much more at ease with as I have much more experience.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

At the moment I play slower pieces best – hence ‘Airs’. I feel emotionally connected with that kind of music just now, I am really enjoying finding space in music and not cluttering, time to breathe and unwind and hopefully that comes over in the music.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I spent time going through old collections of Scottish music from the 17th and 18th centuries and online archives of old recordings. If anything catches my ear then I’ll work on it on and off for a few months, sometimes longer, sometimes shorter then when I feel it is ready it’ll enter my repertoire for public performance.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I recorded ‘Airs’ in one of my favourite spaces to play in. Crear Space to Create is an old barn that has been converted into an artists’ space. It has a room the size of a tennis court with one length of the glass wall looking over to the Hebridean island of Jura. It also houses a beautiful Model D Steinway, and a Yamaha C3. I also love to play the Steinway in the City Halls, Glasgow. It’s a beautiful space, acoustic and piano there.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I get to work with lots of lovely different musicians and singers, my favourite regulars are the percussionist Fraser Stone and guitarist Michael Bryan who play in my trio. I grew up with both of them and value their friendship, musicianship and support. I love the playing of fiddle player Aonghas Grant, who features on my ‘Airs’ album. He has a wealth of repertoire and knowledge on the history of our Scottish music and at 86 years is still playing and teaching every day.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I find I don’t remember my best concerts, just little glimmers of them! My most memorable venue was launching my debut album ‘Cairngorm’ on top of Cairngorm mountain. We took a grand piano to the top of the mountain and played our music to a lovely audience and the reindeer from the mountain all gathered and listened from the outside too, it was a very special evening.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

A happy audience at the end of a concert. People’s time is so precious and I’m grateful if they come to a concert and leave feeling good; for me that is a success.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I believe it’s all about feeling connected to the music. You can’t convince an audience if you aren’t convinced yourself. People should find the music or composer that they love and play that first and foremost.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

A walk around a pretty loch on a clear crisp day with the people I love.

What is your most treasured possession?

My little Yamaha harmonium. It was given to me by an old family friend, and was restored by a piano friend after I was told it would only ever be an ornament. It works beautifully now and is my concert companion on tour.

What is your present state of mind?

Excited and nervous to be releasing a new record!

Mhairi Hall’s single St Kilda from her new album ‘Airs’ (released 31 January 2020) is released today

Pianist, composer and arranger Mhairi Hall was born and brought up in Aviemore, Strathspey which lies in the heart of the central Highlands of Scotland. Mhairi was classically trained on the piano however, at a young age was drawn to traditional Scottish music and has developed a unique style of playing both lead and accompaniment.

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