Interview with Wayne Marshall OBE

Kinderszenen: celebrity musician remembers his musical beginnings and childhood development

A new series of interviews with renowned musicians and composers in which they reflect on key experiences, influences and memories that had a significant impact on their future musical careers. Every musician is constantly on an artistic journey of discovery. Every day marks a new beginning- but the very first steps are crucial. This first interview brings fascinating insights into the early musical beginnings of that wonderfully vibrant, positive, and multi-talented internationally renowned musician Wayne Marshall.

British conductor, organist and pianist Wayne Marshall is world-renowned for his musicianship and versatility on the podium and at the keyboard. He served as Chief Conductor of WDR Funkhaus Orchestra Cologne 2014-2020, became Principal Guest Conductor of Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi in 2007 and is a celebrated interpreter of Gershwin, Bernstein, and other 20th-century composers.

Plans for the 21/22 season include his debut at the Edinburgh International Festival with special Rodgers and Hammerstein gala concerts featuring Danielle de Niese and his conducting debut with Munich Philharmonic, Seattle Symphony, and the Osaka Philharmonic Orchestras. He will also be conducting Bernstein’s Candide at Opera de Lyon in December 2022 as well as returns to Orchestre de Paris, BR Munich, Tonkunstler Orchestra, Czech Philharmonic, North Netherlands Orchestra, Bern and Lichtenstein Symphony Orchestras and concert performances of Porgy and Bess in St Gallen.

Wayne was born to parents originally from Barbados and spent his childhood in Oldham, Lancashire. He began piano studies at age three and heard organ music regularly as a child through Sunday church services, which initiated his interest in the organ. From 1971-79 he was a pupil at Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester.

Later Wayne continued his music studies at the Royal College of Music, where he held a Foundation scholarship whilst also working as an Organ Scholar for St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. He did post-graduate studies at the Hochschule für Musik in Vienna from 1983-1984. Still, this interview focuses exclusively on his childhood years up to eighteen and musical studies in Manchester and Oldham. It was wonderful to talk to Wayne last month. I began by asking Wayne about his earliest musical memories.


MM Tell us about your family and earliest memories. Were your parents and siblings also music enthusiasts?

WM My parents emigrated from Barbados in 1957, and both my sisters, Melanie, and Louise were and remain passionate about music. From my earliest memories I recall my mother playing the piano at home. Both of my parents sang in the church choir. Sadly, my mother passed away in 2016, but my father is still very active in singing in choirs. Because I was born in the sixties, there was no Internet, no mobile phones. All entertainment was either done by radio or television or live performance.

And that was how it was. And we were very fortunate because my parents took us to many concerts and shows in Oldham and all really saw this is always a fascinating story. We were definitely a musical household, though it was not until I attended Chetham’s and brought home a ‘cello and a violin that there were any instruments there other than with keyboards! We were a very strong church-attending family too. Every Sunday was spent in the church right across the street from where we lived. The services always included lots of music.

MM What is your first memory of making music?

WM I started playing the piano by ear at home when I was about three and continued with no professional guidance until I was about eight. I did not read music. I remember that my father eventually came home one day and announced that I would have piano lessons!

That was absolutely fine by me. I also remember my first concert with my older sister very well. I was about seven or eight. Very early on, we entered the Oldham Music Festival: Melanie sang, and I played. And I remember a performance of a piece called Beguine by Brian Bonsor. It was really for recorders…but we sort of made it into a piano duet anyway!

And I remember lots of music at my first school in Oldham too. I used to play the piano for the school assemblies every morning. Because I was going to church, I sort of knew the hymns and could play them. I used to accompany the choir. I was highly active.

MM How did you find your initial piano lessons?

WM I remember that the first few lessons with my teacher- called Marjorie Bush- were not really lessons at all: I used to always improvise. My teacher would play-then I would have a go at it. Of course, I’d be ‘improving’ it or adding to it in my own way! Lessons continued in this manner for about three or four weeks…and then I was issued an ultimatum: My teacher said that I was going to have to learn to read music if I was going to get any further with my piano studies. I had to stop doing what I was doing by ear and learn to read the notes.

…And so began one of the hardest parts of my musical education. Of course, I could play all kinds of accompaniments and imitate impressively after my teacher played something to me- but essentially, I was using my ears and not understanding anything on the printed page. It took a long time to learn how to read. The long road started. It involved having to sort of play with the right hand alone and then the left hand on its own.

I did lots of counting. I sort of got the gist of everything because I had a perfect pitch. I didn’t know at the time that I had a perfect pitch, but that definitely made things easier. I figured out the ‘mathematics’ side of music: It felt as though I had already constructed a building but had to go back afterwards and, like you, figure out how and why I’d built it!

Of course, I could do all the things I was practicing from the music instinctively, but I had to learn to do it a second way. It was really strange. It was really hard. I was frustrated because I had to constantly focus on counting and reading middle C 1 2 3 4, all the things I did naturally. It was a very strange process in my brain, but I am extremely glad that I persevered. Of course, if I hadn’t learned to read music, I would not have progressed as a musician.

MM Unquestionably there are many young players who have had the same problem as you, though they may not be as gifted as you in terms of playing by ear, they can find that they are able to imitate and reproduce sounds a little, but frustratingly find the process of assimilating notation too laborious. It is sad to note that one of the main reasons people give up playing in the early stages is because they cannot relate their playing by ear to the printed page.

WM That’s it. But I still think that playing by ear is the best way to learn because the ear is the most important aspect of music. It is a mistake to think that the only way you can really play is by reading. That’s why a lot of people can’t improvise. I’d much rather be able to improvise than read if I had a choice between the two. It is awful to think that you would need to ask for music when people ask you to play the national anthem! I’ve been fortunate in the respect that I could always sit down and play without any notes in front of me.

Wayne Marshall aged 11 at Chetham’s
From the Chetham’s School Archive

MM You’re fantastic at it; you are renowned for your improvisation. But how long did it take until reading music became less painful? 

WM, I can’t remember exactly but it was a struggle. Maybe about six months to a year. Occasionally my teacher would sort of like reward me and let me imitate and play by ear. It was just funny, really; I think a bit like keeping a dog on a leash!

MM, You never wanted to rebel? 

WM No, I never wanted to rebel because I always knew what I wanted to do. And music, to me, was everything, really, and that was it. There was no other path I was going to be going down. This music was what it was. That was it.

MM: After you initially came to terms with notation, did sight reading remains a challenge? Did you eventually become an exceptionally talented sight-reader? 

WM  I became a good sight-reader because once I could learn to read and play, I had developed the technical ability to process music, and everything was so much easier. But initially, sight-reading was rather tricky. It is learning the process from the other side. Even today, I view it in this way. When I look at music, I always approach it instinctively. Everything comes from the ear. That’s how I do it, really: I still do it like this.

But of course, I’m lucky as a conductor because I can look at the score and hear it. I can only do that because I learned to read music. How can people do it when they don’t read? When you think of so many people, like jazz musicians, how they play, I mean, you could never learn that skill, but they are able just to sit down and play, and despite what their technique looks like, it doesn’t matter the fact that they can just reproduce or just play this stuff. Yet, if you put a piece of music in front of them, they will have no clue.

And that’s hard when you’re conducting and dealing with jazz musicians who don’t know how to follow the conductor; they don’t know how to read music. So, if we say, oh, I’m going two bars before figure 48, you can get into problems. But then you have to just adapt everything, and it’s a very interesting process.

Wayne Marshall with Philip Sharp (now is a piano tutor at St Mary’s School of Music in Edinburgh) and Tom Hicks (now associate professor of piano at Whitman University in Washington State, US), at Chetham’s in November 2010 
From the Chetham’s School Archive

MM It is wonderful that you have an emotional, aural response to music as your default. It is wonderful that you will never get distracted by the intellectual, mathematical aspect. 

WM Oh, no, no! For me, it’s all about emotional responses. That’s it. It’s not about the academic side of it, it’s all about the feeling, and that’s what’s so important. I mean, I don’t think I could be the musician that I have become if it wasn’t for that. I certainly wouldn’t enjoy it the same way.

MM Tell us about your Chetham’s years! 

WM Chet’s was an especially important part of my musical education. It was the foundation, the concrete. My whole journey there, from Junior A going through to Upper 6th, was so interesting. I was motivated and inspired by older, more experienced students. Listening to the senior organists, including David Hill, was inspirational when I was younger. Then when I was older, I played the organ myself on important occasions such as the Founders Day service and Speech Day. It was basically a journey.

 I remember my first day at Chets when I realised that I was not the only person in school who could play the piano! I wanted to be as good as David Hill, who was higher up in the school from me: He played the organ magnificently, and I wanted to be like him! You know it’s funny. When you grow up, you have role models you watch as you progress to school and beyond.

Then suddenly, you get to the age of sixty-four and then there you are: You’ve arrived. You are the next David Hill. Then you find younger musicians saying they want to play like you and be the next Wayne Marshall! It’s interesting that the whole cycle continues from generation to generation.

MM Who were your main instrumental tutors?

WM Derrick Cantrell and Robert Vincent were my organ teachers. Both were organists at Manchester Cathedral. Gordon Fergus-Thompson was my second piano teacher after Donald Clarke, the teacher who also taught Peter Donohoe in his early years at Chet’s.  

MM Gordon Fergus-Thompson is now based at the Royal College in London with a large class of students and came back to Chet’s for the piano summer school recently.

WM Gordon was amazing. I mean, a phenomenal teacher: rigorous, but it was great! We had a wonderful time. He’s not much older than me.

MM When you were at Chetham’s, did you participate in chamber music and piano duets? 

WM Yes, I enjoyed playing duets with the pianist Nicola Jane Kemp. Do you remember her?

MM Gosh-there is a wonderful track on an old Chet’s black vinyl disc from the 1970s with you and Nikki giving a spirited rendering of Arthur Benjamin’s ‘Jamaican Rumba’ that I haven’t heard in quite a while!

WM Nikki and I used to play a lot of stuff together. But I also used a lot of chamber music too. I remember playing Brahm’s cello and clarinet sonatas and so much else! Of course, I was also busy over at the cathedral

MM In your journey, particularly at Chethams, were there times when you had to battle with things like practising or patience? How did you come to terms with the whole practice procedure? Because it’s a challenge to stay in a room or an organ oft, isn’t it, for hours alone?

WM Practising was my oxygen! For me, practising was never a problem. The problem was when I was told I couldn’t practise, that was the issue. And particularly at home. If I was at home and my parents said I had to do some work, that was always a big issue. And the same at school. I never wanted to do physical games and stuff like that: I’d much rather be sitting in a practice room!

MM I think there is a tremendous sense of enthusiastic energy about the way you describe your childhood, which is very inspiring, so presumably, you were always determined that you were going to be a musician from the start. 

WM It was never an issue. There’s never a question of what it was going to be. Music was what I wanted to do, and that hasn’t changed at all.

MM Looking back on your childhood, is there anything you wish you had done or that could have been done for you that did not happen? If you could turn the clock back, is there anything musically regrettable? 

WM Well, musically, I have no regret at all. In some ways, I just wish that I was probably a little bit more academically minded. I just wasn’t really interested in the academic side of it. It just didn’t do it for me. I mean, I was very quiet vocal in class with subjects that didn’t interest me: I would really make it known! I was quite arrogant in some ways. I remember being particularly unwilling to study history. For me, then, history was all in the past.

I was more interested in the present! Of course, my father was always onto me about mathematics and English. Homework was always something of a battle. But for me, it was all about music. I just wanted to do music. I needed to understand about having O-level geography or mathematics and what that had to do with playing a Vierne symphony on the organ!

But now, of course, now as a father, I have to be careful: I have two children of my own. They’re nine and eleven, and they’ve just started school in Cambridge. We’ve only just moved from Malta over the summer. So, of course, I had to be very careful how I conducted myself because I still don’t feel totally comfortable with homework and stuff like that. For me, when you’re at school, you’re at school; when you come home, you’re at home.

This idea of continuing school at home is still an issue, so I must be very careful with my children. This whole thing of exams for me was again a complete waste of time. This sitting, having to remember things, then going to a three-hour examination hall and having to remember everything. So, for me, nothing has changed: I still feel the same about academic studies. We are all different.

MM Thank goodness. Indeed, we are all different. You are such an incredible, positive musician! There are so many other really talented musicians that are very academic- and that is fine. But your story shows that there are other ways of developing. It will give much hope to many people. Thank you so much for sharing your memories and thoughts. 

WM, It has been an incredible journey. And for me also, to be awarded the OBE in 2021 was a great honour, really, and I am immensely proud of that.

MM Long overdue, I would say. 

WM And it was just wonderful to be at the Palace in July. It was amazing to be there. And now, of course, watching the television, seeing the funeral and everything else. And it is an incredibly sad situation, but it’s very special. Yes, it’s historic.

MM You just cannot imagine life without the Queen.

WM That’s the thing. It’s like a light has gone out. The things that were unfolding last week were incredible. The new Prime Minister, the Queen, passed away. New King. Extraordinary times.

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