An interview with the pianist Gamal Khamis

Gamal Khamis is a concert pianist who spent a week on Arran in December 2017 and gave a wonderful recital of Liszt and Brahms hosted by the Arran Music Society. Here he talks to Alice Maxwell, musician, teacher and celebrant on Arran

You have rather an exotic name – what is your heritage?

I was born in London to parents from Honduras and Egypt. Growing up with such a wide range of influences around you can be enriching but also confusing; if I’m honest I’m still not sure whether I feel more Latin-American, Middle-Eastern or British!

What inspired you to take up the piano?

My mum and I visited Honduras when I was four years old. At my grandma’s house there was an upright piano in the corner, and I went across and played a few notes. It quickly became difficult to prise me away from the instrument, so when we got back to London my parents decided to get me some lessons.

Were you passionate about practising and playing from the very beginning?

At the beginning I needed to be reminded to practise… a lot! Things changed after I was accepted to the Royal College of Music Junior Department. I was suddenly immersed in music, singing in choirs, playing in orchestras (back then I also moonlighted on the violin), composing and playing chamber music, and it all spurred me on. Then at the age of 10 I was asked to perform at The Wigmore Hall at the launch of Spectrum 2, a collection of brand new piano pieces. At the time I had no idea, but the list of contributors read like a who’s who of UK-based classical composers.

Where did you study?

I took Maths at Imperial College, London, before joining the Royal College of Music as a postgrad student. During my undergrad I felt guilty for practising and missing maths lectures, or annoyed when I was in lectures when I needed to practise. When I joined the RCM I felt I was finally at home.

Was it difficult starting out as a pianist getting gigs?

At first it was difficult getting paid gigs. I just kept plugging away, always trying to improve, entering competitions, going to masterclasses in the UK and abroad, and learning the mechanics of the profession. I got picked up by the Concordia Foundation and the Park Lane Group, and won prizes at the Royal Over-Seas League Competition and the Ferrier Awards. It took the best part of a decade to build up but eventually I was playing roughly 60 concerts a year before the lockdown hit. There are always people who need to hear music.

Can you talk about the group you play with?

I joined the Lipatti Piano Quartet in 2014, and I’ve been lucky to have them as one of my “constants” during the lockdowns. We’ve worked with composers including Mark Anthony Turnage, Huw Watkins and Alex Woolf, and gave the UK premiere of Francisco Coll’s “Cuando el niño era niño…” at the St John’s Smith Square in 2016. We’re named after the remarkable Romanian pianist from the 20th Century, Dinu Lipatti.

And the poetry?

Another of my favourite collaborations is with the actor Christopher Kent. We first worked together on “Never Such Innocence”, a narrative recital based on the poetry and music of the First World War, creating a narrative arc from innocence to loss. Chris’s great uncle Percy was conscripted into the army, and we used excerpts from his diary in the recital. Our next project, “Odyssey – words and music of Finding Home”, included newly-commissioned poetry and music by Amy Bryce, Vahni Capildeo, Daniel Kidane, Yousif M. Qasmiyeh, George Stevenson and JL Williams. The story involved migration and diaspora, so it was crucial to find collaborators from as diverse a talent pool as possible. That worked so well that we now still do that whether it’s relevant to the subject-matter or not.

Does lockdown have any benefits for you?

It’s let me slow down, learn new repertoire and do a lot more cooking! It’s also allowed me to spend more time teaching: it’s been so rewarding to help others develop their own talents, and I wouldn’t want to go back to how things were before if it meant giving that up.
Do you ever get lost in the music, so there doesn’t feel a separation between you, the piano, and the music? Is music “a calling?”
Yes! Isn’t that what people call “being in the zone”? For me, my calling would be connecting with others, telling stories, and helping them connect with themselves; the piano is just the tool.

Do you think music has social benefits? Can music heal?

I definitely feel that it can heal the performer. Music has been proven to improve brain function and reduce stress. Just giving yourself time to learn and recite any kind of music is an act of self-love. But when people join together to perform or listen to music, communities are formed, and more people gain a sense of belonging. That’s what can heal the world.

Which composers do you like to play the most?

It’s such a cliché but we almost always love the composers we’re playing at the moment. Ravel and Beethoven have been two favourites for opposite reasons, Ravel because it’s both luxurious and like clockwork, and Beethoven because the sense of struggle in his music is so relatable. And I also love playing new pieces where I’m the first to perform them. They have less baggage!

When practising these heavy Romantic composers, does your piano go out of tune with the consistent hammering on the keys? How did you manage during lockdown getting your piano tuned?

When I’m practising regularly my piano needs to be tuned every four months or so. But it wasn’t an issue during the first lockdown: the piano and I had a 12-week break!

Have you any funny stories about your concerts?

Once I was doing some stretches to warm up before a concert, and just a minute before I had to go onstage, I did a squat that ripped my trousers open! I had to waddle very carefully to avoid exposing myself.

Have you done much radio work?

Oh gosh I’ve been on so many times, it’s always great! The BBC now give me a call when they have someone coming in who needs a pianist. It’s nerve-racking but also incredibly exciting to work with amazing musicians from around the world – you meet them for the first time and then you’re often live on the air within half an hour.

How do you find online teaching?

I teach privately and at a couple of different schools/academies. I was actually quite scared about the prospect of teaching online, but for some of my students it actually has more pros than cons. There’s something quite democratic about being two equal boxes on a screen. And yes I do take beginners!

How do you inspire your pupils to practise and love music?

I try to let students see what’s special about each piece, and show them how they can bring that out themselves. I like it when they know all the theory, but the most important aspect is that they are playing pieces or songs that mean something to them. And yes, students and teachers can learn so much from each other! Teaching can sometimes be like collaborative problem-solving, so every moment you’re doing that with someone else, it will help you in your own work too.

How did you find Arran?

I loved it! The calm pace of life is a real balm for the soul, and the scenery at Glen Rosa is just spectacular. I’m still grateful to my friend Elisa, whom I met at a festival in Denmark, and who invited me to take part in some concerts and workshops on Arran. At one concert a very lively and imaginative student called Jemma Totty turned pages for me. She did a great job and I hope she’s still playing music!

Can you tell us about the you-tube link you’ve given us?

This is a recent concert I gave in Oxford in aid of Help Musicians UK, who have done incredible work helping so many musicians during the pandemic. I chose to include a touching opener by Bach, a reassuring nocturne by Fauré, a dramatic new composition by my friend Amy Bryce, and an uplifting sonata by Mozart.

What do you like doing when not playing the piano?

Cooking and reading recipes! My favourite chefs at the moment are Yotam Ottolenghi, Thomasina Miers and Samin Nosrat, whose book “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” has changed my life.

What is your favourite dessert?

All of them, especially anything with dark chocolate and salted caramel. Yum!

Do you have any particular ambition? (musical or otherwise!)

I’ve always been a bit scared of the two sets of 12 Chopin studies, so they are my project for this lockdown. If I can play one of the sets before audiences can return to concert halls, that would be amazing.

Thanks Gamal – Let’s hope you can come back to Arran again soon!

Photography by Philip Wilson

And Thank you to both Gamal and Alice for sharing your conversation with the Voice!