Music

In tribute to Dame Fanny Waterman, the nation's piano teacher

Fanny Waterman died aged 100 just before Christmas. Claire Jackson hails an inspiration to many young pianists

Fanny Waterman

Our earliest memories are often highly fragmented, reduced to single shapes or specific smells. For me, the colour orange looms large in my woolly recollections of childhood. It was the shade of one of my very first music books, Me and My Piano.

Its title stretched out in a rainbow bubble font across a vibrant background, which sat atop an image of black and white keys. When I wasn’t pretending to be playing along to Wham!’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go – one of two beloved demo tunes available on the tiny electronic keyboard – I was learning how to read sheet music from this special book, via Sammy Squirrel and the Old Man With A Beard.

I wasn’t alone: thousands of children were doing the same thing, and the publication is now part of a 30-volume series that sells in its millions. Me and My Piano was co-written by Fanny Waterman, who, after being a formidable force for musical good, has died aged 100.

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In addition to the Me and My Piano books, Waterman – along with her late husband Geoffrey de Keyser and Marion Thorpe – set up The Leeds International Piano Competition, which had its first instalment in 1963.

Ignoring naysayers who said the city could never attract the same calibre of performance as London, the event – known as ‘The Leeds’ – is now one of the most prestigious piano contests in the world.

It was The Leeds that propelled the careers of today’s best-loved pianists, including András Schiff, Mitsuko Uchida, Radu Lupu, Murray Perahia, Paul Lewis and, more recently, Denis Kozhukhin, Eric Lu, Sunwook Kim and Federico Colli. Top prize at the triennial competition is £25,000, along with sizeable financial awards for finalists and packages of professional support.

Waterman – who was awarded an OBE in 1971, the CBE in 1999 and in 2005 was appointed a Dame – remained at the helm of The Leeds until 2015, and attended concerts until the beginning of last year. I had been scheduled to interview Waterman last March, a week before her 100th birthday. Of course, the meeting – and the public events planned in her honour – were early casualties of the pandemic cancellations. The 20th edition of The Leeds is due to take place this September, with commemorations expected to follow as the situation allows.

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