Joanna MacGregor

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Joanna MacGregor (born 16 July 1959) is a British concert pianist, conductor, composer and festival curator. She is Head of Piano at The Royal Academy of Music and a Professor of London University.



  • I didn't go to school until I was 11. On your own you develop imagination.
  • Evening Standard, 04/07/2002
  • As I get older I realise that start has made me rather, well, different. It set down a tremendous template for the rest of my life. I grew up believing the piano is a great instrument because you can play everything on it.
  • The Independent, 23/06/2003
  • My education was very intensive and I applied that training later on to playing the piano. I had always played, but having no one to compare myself to, I had no idea if I was any good.
  • The Express on Sunday, 06/01/2002
  • I can see it must seem strange, but to me it was normality. Really, my memory of my childhood is that the sun always shone and I spent all my time playing in the park. Since then I've discovered that some of the great musicians I admire - Charles Ives, John Cage, even Bob Dylan - had quite unconventional childhoods." Evening Standard - 04/07/2002
  • Not only was I fiddling around at the keyboard but there were all these other children of all backgrounds wanting to play every sort of music bits of classical, jazz, pop, improvisation." The Guardian - 26/05/2000
  • School was strange, rather amusing - with a teacher standing at the front telling you what to write. The camaraderie was interesting. I tend to remember the things you can't recreate on your own - queuing up for your dinner, learning team games, which were a complete mystery to me. I remember having to pretend I knew how to play hockey, that kind of thing." The Mail on Sunday - 06/02/2000
  • What was most odd was that teachers would tell you what to do and what to think and they would write everything on a blackboard and you would copy it all down." The Evening Standard - 04/07/2002
  • I wasn't part of that hothouse thing. I didn't go to the Yehudi Menuhin school. I grew up with the idea of trying to make music available to people of all abilities." The Guardian - 26/05/2000
  • I'm trained quite classically but quite freely by my mum, so even when I was little, I had this rather freewheeling approach. When I trained more seriously in my late teens at college, it was: here are the notes, here is what is expected of you. I didn't mind because you need technique, particularly on the piano, which requires a lot of stamina. And it was natural that once I had done that, I would want to go beyond classical music. How can you be yourself if all you do is reproduce someone else's notes?" The Guardian - 05/10/2001
  • I used to do Grade Exams, but my mum will tell you I didn't over-practise for them at all. I never practised, just played. I loved to play. I loved to play a lot* If one mistake is made with young children, it is trying to make them practise rather than just letting them play.' She played hymns at church ('My parents were very religious when we were young') and 'all the Top of the Pops number ones next morning at school. Things like David Bowie's "Life On Mars". That's got a very good piano part. And ever since I was six or seven years old, I always liked Bach - that's why I recorded the Anna Magdalene Notebook, little 16-bar preludes that Bach wrote for children.' I was amazed at how serious the other kids were about the whole thing, much more disciplined than I was, and with this attitude of "Ooh, I can't play sports because I might hurt my fingers" or "I can't listen to pop music because that's really terrible.
  • The Mail on Sunday, 06/02/2000
  • I was given so much advice. About how my hair should be, what I should wear, which competitions I should enter, what stuff I should play. None of that was relevant for me. I just had a kind of instinct.
  • Financial Times, 11/11/199
  • I've played Bach since I was a little girl. I can't let a day go by without playing him. He's so witty and secretive and funny and mathematical and brilliant.
  • The Independent, 23/06/2003

Musician's life[edit]

  • I got my apprenticeship, with the Young Concert Artists Trust, playing all these warhorses in Raymond Gubbay concerts. Some are not for me anymore, but I'd still play the Grieg at the drop of a hat; it's so fresh. I'm very careful to keep on playing a lot of mainstream repertoire. I'm not into being the court jester who just does the wacky stuff. Making the connections and taking people down new paths is what I enjoy.
  • The Times, 15/12/1998
  • As a musician you can cover everything. I'm not just a concert pianist.
  • The Irish News, 22/01/2005
  • Once you start cancelling, there's always something which is not quite right.
  • The Express on Sunday, 06/01/2002
  • Memory is the fear, and I play most of my repertoire from memory.
  • The Express on Sunday, 06/01/2002
  • I quite like shutting the door, putting the answering machine on and sitting at the piano for six or seven hours.
  • Straits Times, 01/11/1991
  • If you want a nine-to-five existence with weekends off then don't be a musician. I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now if I had children. But it hasn't worked out like that.
  • The Mail on Sunday, 06/02/2000
  • I know I get up people's noses," "Everyone wants to pigeonhole you. Early on in my career I somehow got labelled 'Bach, John Cage and a bit of jazz'. But the fact that I love to play Beethoven, too, really infuriates people. It doesn't fit. They can't make sense of it. The received wisdom is that you can't possibly do all these things without it sounding terrible or crass or just plain wrong.
  • The Evening Standard, 04/07/2002
  • I tour a bit in America and a lot in Europe, Holland especially, where they have this forward-looking music scene because they got through the barriers 15 years ago. They gobble up the things I do. I go to the Far East - I like working with the orchestra in Singapore - but my favourite places tend to be the ones where it's more than turning up and doing a big concert. Next month I go to the Sydney Festival, where I've persuaded them to do the Lou Harrison concerto. As penance, though I don't mind it, I have to play the Gershwin concerto in the first half. And I hope to return year after year to South Africa, where I've been with the National Symphony Orchestra into Soweto. Education work is being done there for the first time. Previously they had never bothered to find new audiences, and now they are staring into an abyss which we may face too. Events there are a fast-forward version of what could happen here.
  • The Times, 15/12/1998
  • I'm becoming very interested in non-Western things, and in Europe a lot of what's offered to me is the Western tradition I've grown up with. Now I've got to find a way out, but the problem is that the piano is just about as Western as you can get. The piano's my instrument, and I wouldn't want it any other way, but I'm gravitating quite naturally towards things that have developed my sense of rhythm. "I've come to all this incredible Indian classical music and its more modern formations late in the day; the Messiaen I've played has led me down that road, and I've been following my nose all the time.
  • The Times, 15/12/1998
  • I want to move away from complexity. I've done my time as far as virtuosity and piles of notes are concerned. It's what puts me off a lot of contemporary classical music - there are so many notes. In fact, I think I'm moving away from classical music altogether. I'm not sure that in 10 years' time I'll be playing it at all.
  • The Daily Telegraph, 18/11/2003
  • It's a life of planes and trains.
  • Newsquest Media Group Newspapers, 03/03/2005

On Classical Music[edit]

  • I don't really go along with this sense that you sometimes pick up - that is, classical music is superior to everything else. I think classical music is a very great music form, but I can also think of other great music forms. And certainly within each field, you have absolute geniuses operating. Over the years, I've tried to bring together different people from different fields, and I do try to put Bach and Beethoven next to other types of musicians.
  • Denver Post, 18/02/2005
  • I have absolutely no difficulty in coming out and saying Bach and Beethoven are great composers. You must school young people into great classical music, but you must also allow them to hear other music as well. At one point classical music colonised the high ground. Now we're reaping the backlash for that.
  • The Times, 21/04/2006
  • In a lot of classical playing there isn't much expressiveness: I don't hear a voice in the playing. What I really admire about jazz musicians is that they develop a sound early on and it's unique to them. Classical players are screened from that by always playing other people's notes.
  • The Times, 21/04/2006
  • I think there is an incredible crisis now of how we train performers. Their training encourages them to behave as though they are back in the 19th century, and they are not allowed to get out of that box very much. 'If they play a tiny bit of contemporary music, it's looked on as a bit eccentric, and it's sort of tolerated instead of absolutely encouraged. And they certainly can't improvise, and they find it difficult to encounter jazz or jazz styles. 'I think they're all waking up to this, and it's very difficult for them, because the training and the value systems that get put on them go against what we all know to be the real world. Musicians do want to break out of these constraints. It's slightly boring to just play the same cycle of pieces over and over again.
  • Denver Post, 18/02/2005
  • You can give music variation without changing the notes. When you get close to a piece there will inevitable be tinkering. I sometimes wonder if concert pianists expend so much effort and energy finding new ways to interpret that what they really need is some more direct form of self-expression.
  • Denver Post, 18/02/2005
  • As a professional I practice six or seven hours per day, though it depends on my schedule. That's how it is as a musician. It's only when you reach grade five you take them more serious. Until then I saw it as fun. I used to learn them by play pop tunes on the piano. They have harmonies and broken chords and can be used as building blocks to help you with scales.
  • The Irish News, 22/01/2005
  • Being a specialist is a 20th century thing, and now rather old fashioned as an idea. I realised early on that you can be the kind of superstar who jets around playing the same programmes all over the world, or you can be the sort of musician who perhaps can be a little influential.
  • The Evening Standard, 04/07/2002
  • My favorite composers tend to be great improvisers as well as great players. It doesn't matter whether they're contemporary or classical.
  • The Independent, 23/06/2003
  • The musicians who interest me most are people like Nitin Sawhney, Talvin Singh, Django Bates. They are not just writing music but performing it, recording it, putting tours together and running their own labels. That is what real musicians are, rather than over-publicised specialists.
  • Independent On Sunday, 14/10/2001
  • A lot of musicians are going to have to retrain. It's nonsense to say that traditional classical music is more complex. Contemporary pieces by Harrison Birtwistle are much harder to play than Mozart or Wagner. I know a lot of people don't want to hear that.
  • The Mail on Sunday, 06/02/2000
  • Classical music has struggled to keep up. Unlike any other art form, it keeps on looking backwards all the time. It used to have a real museum culture. Then it went: "Oh my God, what are we going to do? Call for Nigel Kennedy. Quick!" Classical musicians have got to change or die,' she asserts strongly, 'but they just don't know how to. Audiences for classical music have dropped. The old blue rinse audience is dying out, and young people aren't coming in.
  • The Mail on Sunday, 06/02/2000
  • We're really not very good about putting music in a social and political context, particularly classical music. It's all sort of above everything. But in South Africa, everything is politicised. You play a piece of classical music out there and you are making a real cultural statement. Or you play with a marimba band and you are saying something else. I think that's the way things should be. The way people write about music makes it seem completely devoid of social context. And audiences drift away as a result.
  • Financial Times, 11/11/1999
  • The freedom of improvising over a bass line disappeared from music only in the 19th century, and we're still paying for it. There's a culture among classical musicians of being passive, and it stems from following the notes, rather than one's own instincts.
  • The Times, 15/12/1998
  • Classical musicians can sometimes get very hung up on the idea that there's a right way and there's a wrong way. You can see this destroy a lot of players. Jazz musicians have a way of understanding that there are a lot of different ways of doing things. That's what's great about them, they're so friendly. And they are so individualistic - that's why they can accept someone like me.
  • The Independent, 03/04/1998
  • You don't rely on a great army of people to spoon-feed you. Today's classical-music world is very self-defeating. I love the fact that all these corporations are falling apart. They're sinking millions into acts and getting it wrong. And I know why - it's not about the music, or the audiences. So in many ways this is a very encouraging time.
  • The Independent, 23/06/2003


"Because I'd collaborated with a lot of musicians, either through running festivals or series, there were lots of things I wanted to create that a conventional label didn't seem able to cope with. So it seemed the right time to make my own." The Irish News - 22/01/2005

"Record companies are dead, aren't they?' she smiles. 'I'm pleased about that. I think it's hilarious* A lot of classical albums sound the same. They even have the same gaps of silence between tracks. The pieces are always in chronological order, they're the same length, the same packaging. Why?" The Mail on Sunday - 06/02/2000

"It was a logical step for me. It gives me the chance to promote young musicians like the jazz pianist-composer Nikki Yeoh, with whom I work." The Times - 15/12/1998

"Everybody pays lip service to the concept, but there's nothing worse than being in your early twenties and trying to get a gig. I know how hard it is to get people to take you seriously. It also gives me the chance to record some of the music I've been doing live, especially the unusual programmes that just don't fit into the classical-label way of doing things." The Times - 15/12/1998

"I heard a lot about not mixing composers, not being able to do this and that because the distributors wouldn't know where to put it. The shops can't cope: they force me to go upstairs to classical, downstairs to jazz, sideways to techno, and I wanted to make records that would encompass all of those." The Times - 15/12/1998

"I can't believe that people out there are so anorak that they only want things to be a certain size. I assume that they all have books, so they can put them on bookshelves. There's an audience out there that's one step ahead, that wants to have all kinds of music together. There's a tendency to underestimate how hungry audiences are for new experiences." The Times - 15/12/1998

"I got very tired of playing to large audiences all round the world and finding that there were never any records for people to buy afterwards in the foyer. Classical companies make recordings in a void. They don't make the necessary link with concerts.""I wanted to question every part of the recording process, including the packaging of the product. We're not selling in the shops, which means we don't have to use that horrible little plastic box which splits and falls apart. It also means we can marry styles in a way the big labels and record shops - which pigeonhole rigidly - can never contemplate. I'm just hoping to cover my costs. I don't want to fall into the trap of having to price things at the same level as everyone else." The Independent - 21/08/1998

"I want to record a far broader range than I would ever get asked to. Musicians get profiled quite quickly by their labels - then by distributors, then by critics, then by the shops. It doesn't reflect the artist's diversity.' Worse than that, she points out, records often don't reflect the artist's working life at all. Much recorded music these days is specially learnt to fill `gaps in the catalogue' and won't ever be played live." The Independent - 21/08/1998

"Record companies will say, `You can't put these composers together because the distributors won't like it. So one of the real sticking points with record companies is: How can we fill this CD up? `But take Harrison's Clocks - that's 25 minutes of fantastically rich, full music. I'd be wary of adding anything. Why not a CD single, appropriately priced?" The Guardian - 26/06/1998

"I've just always wanted control over my artistic life. Working with so much new music, I'm always doing things people might not like. I risk my reputation every time I play. It's no different with records." The Guardian - 26/06/1998

"I had large audiences up at the Manchester SoundCircus for both Ensemble Modern doing Mark-Anthony Turnage's Blood On The Floor and for John Harle's Terror And Magnificence. In neither case did the record company manage to get the CDs to us. You just think, `Who are these people?' `I do all these premieres, and if they get onto disc at all, it's a year and a half later. By then, the media excitement and urgency has gone." The Guardian - 26/06/1998

"The key to it is to work with living composers. The record companies keep going back to old music and recording the same pieces over and over, and then they try to find ways to sell it. And the way they do this is to put a girl into a short dress and give a boy an interesting haircut." The Mail on Sunday - 06/02/2000

"Well, it's early days. But it's a long-term artistic investment more than a financial investment." Financial Times - 11/11/1999


"My criteria to work with someone are really rather simple and quite foolish, I meet people and I get interested in them, and I ask them to write something for me. Sometimes I meet people and I haven't even heard their music; it sounds risky but I haven't been caught out by doing that yet. Especially with young composers. They may not have been published, they don't have an agent, they don't have backup, they don't have anything on CD, but you know that they're interesting and you know that there is something there." The Guardian - 05/10/2001

MacGregor collaborated with Jin Xing in 2002.

"When I visit a country, I really want to find out about the musicians there. I was in China recently, working with a group of dancers, and was curious to know what pop music they listened to. I always travel with CDs, so I played them Eminem to Miles Davis to African drumming music, and they hadn't heard any of those things, but what they really loved was Nitin Sawhney's Beyond Skin, and most of all, they loved it when I played them John Cage on the piano. Straight away, they realised that it was a western instrument transformed into an eastern object." The Guardian - 05/10/2001

"People get themselves into collaborative fixes in order to try and reach a new audience. The ones that work are the ones that work from the bottom up, not from the top down." The Times - 21/04/2006

"If an orchestra commissions a jazz player to write a symphony you know there's going to be a problem. Unless you allow them to do what it is they're so good at doing, it's a very unequal approach. You can't just say come over to our territory and we'll allow you to play around with an orchestra for a little while and hope that something good comes out of it." The Times - 21/04/2006

"I've always wanted to be challenging intellectually and artistically, but I still feel that you can make that accessible. What's happened is that the complex nature of some of the music we're talking about has become the preserve of a small coterie and that's somehow seen as OK. I don't think it's OK at all. My experience of audiences is that they are very intelligent, creative. If they feel they can't come to a Birtwistle concert there's something wrong with the presentation. There's nothing wrong with the music, and there's nothing wrong with the audience. There's just been a major communication breakdown. I agree that there's a tendency to play up trashy things, but then we also fall victim to this high-and low-culture scenario." Financial Times - 11/11/1999

"The key to commissioning is inviting the composer to have fun, because writing for the piano can be a frightening burden. It's a difficult instrument to compose for, everybody's done it, and it lays you bare because there been this incredible history of fantastic keyboard music." The Times - 15/12/1998

"Bach, Beethoven and Mozart's time was much more chaotic and energetic than it is today. There was a hands-on approach that allowed them to run their own orchestras, to do everything. Now, as soon as you turn 16, it's like, OK, what are you going to be? Performer? Composer? Conductor?" The Independent - London - 23/06/2003

"For a start, there is really no difference between Bach and Mozart's financial and creative struggles and the ones most living composers face today. They certainly have the same maverick qualities. It's only the telescope of time that makes them look all divine and God-given." The Independent - 23/06/2003


"When my students are playing Bach, I say to them, `Start by improvising around the ornamentations.' It's a way to open up a different part of your brain, and classical musicians have that knocked out of them. The training they go through makes them very skilful, but it induces a certain passivity. That has to change. At the moment, classical music is imploding, which is a painful process, but eventually it will lead to a new generation of musicians who are able to think for themselves." Independent On Sunday - 14/10/2001

"Personally, I see no meaningful difference between performing and informing. When you study the historical models for pianists, you find they spent their lives informing -- often about music that had just been written, often music of their own or in their own transcription -- and that was how they defined themselves." The New York Times - 28/08/2005

"One of the things I discussed in my lecture, and it's on the blackboard, is the extent to which Bach was keenly aware of what was going on around him, of contemporary styles other than his own. You see it time and again in the 'Goldberg,' and I find most composers today share that curiosity. But not performers. Young pianists get trapped into thinking all the time about technique and leave themselves a depressingly narrow view of repertoire, with no concern for their wider role as musicians." The New York Times - 28/08/2005

"I have enormous sympathy with people who find it difficult to practise. I don't think people talk about practice enough.' The secret of any practice, whether for 20 minutes or five hours, is to work out beforehand exactly what it is you are aiming to do, she says. Other tips: treat yourself play the whole piece through, however many wrong notes. And mix hard with easy. `If I'm learning a Birtwistle, and gosh that's hard. It's nice to play a piece by Eric Satie afterwards." The Guardian - 26/05/2000


"It was an exciting time, but that's not me. I'm just a musician who travels and plays." Newsquest Media Group Newspapers - 03/03/2005

"I didn't have that thing about, "Oh, you're talented. That means you must practice four hours a day. I just grew up and I played. I played for my friends, and I mucked around, basically. One of my great fortunes was not being trained too much." Denver Post - 18/02/2005

"I suppose I'm there because I'm outspoken. Lots of people are struggling to do their best under appalling circumstances. I believe even the most conservative arts organisations are desperate not to play quite so safe, but have no choice because of underfunding. It's like constantly trying to bail out a leaky ship. The good thing is that in letting people like me be part of the discussion, they hear from those who are out there, doing it." The Evening Standard - 04/07/2002

"I believe that if you have something to contribute, you should be willing to come forward." The Express on Sunday - 06/01/2002

"I think we were able to do certain things and we were totally unable to do other things. We invested a huge amount of money in orchestras but they used it mostly to pay off their debts." "Everybody wants to maintain the status quo all the time but the status quo itself is in total flux. I find that even in Bath. There's a sense that what people crave is change and when change comes it's very painful." The Times - 21/04/2006

The government "should take the bull by the horns, and double or treble the arts budget. Society needs art." Financial Times - 11/11/1999