Hamish Milne: How this quiet man made me play again

The pianist Gabriela Montero pays tribute to her teacher Hamish Milne, who died sadly at the weekend.

When I arrived at the Royal Academy of Music (London) in 1990, I had stopped playing for nearly 2 years.

I had “survived” close to 9 difficult years with my teacher in Miami, and wanted nothing to do with music. I was trapped inside my musical, round-the-clock brain and saddened that I lived through an adolescence devoid of beauty or inspiration. This became clearer as I grew older.

I wasn’t supposed to study with Hamish. Bored, and back in Venezuela after Miami, without any purpose or money, I decided to risk it and send a tape of my live Rachmaninov 3 in Caracas (I think I was 17) to see if the RAM would accept me. They did, and gave me a full tuition scholarship.

But, as the beginning of term was approaching and I had not as yet been able to fund my way to London, Hamish told me the RAM didn’t really think I would make it over. The possibility that I would indeed arrive, seemed remote, and they almost gave up on me. I was initially assigned another professor, and then passed on to Hamish. He recounted, “They told me there was a tape from a wild Rachmaninov 3 performance. Talented girl, but without any resources. She’ll never make it over. You take her if she does come.”

I ended up being pretty lucky. I did make it, thanks to help from the British Council and the Venezuelan government of the time, and a few, wonderful people involved.

Now, Hamish was stuck with me.

What a student needs most from a teacher is a role model. Someone who inspires and teaches you to read between the lines. Someone who will guide you to the core, the meaning of a piece, a moment or even self-reflection.

Someone who is able to carry you to a higher understanding of the story-telling, can demonstrate, show you the path, and wait for you at the finish line while you make your way up to meet them.

Hamish was that person to me. His gentle manner, his mumbled, clever descriptions of a person or a work, his architecturally beautiful examples at the second piano in his study at the RAM and his love, support and motivation will always be etched in my memories.

My twenties was not an easy time for me. I still could not figure out who I was or what I was meant to do, yet he always accepted my undisciplined, under-prepared, “off the cuff” lessons as my way of struggling to find my inner voice, while he watched and would say, “You’re like a wild horse, Gabriela. You have all this passion and energy. You need to learn to control it.”

He was so quiet, a pianissimo tone, and I would inevitably ask,” WHAT? WHAT DID YOU SAY?” and he would repeat it, with a little smile in his loudest possible voice. It was very funny and I always felt embarrassed to force him to repeat everything twice, rarely rising above a mezzo forte.

It always seemed to me he wanted to make himself invisible. From his delicate speaking to his elegant slenderness, his strength and fire would surface when he played the Russian composers. I always thought he resembled Rachmaninov. His physique and his playing as well. He loved them all. He also loved the Russian pianists: Virsaladze, Berezovksy, Lifschitz.

I learnt the power and importance of silence, of nothingness, in music. He spoke to me of composers I had never been acquainted with, of performers I had never heard off. I felt, and was, completely ignorant. A silly, talented girl from Venezuela who used too much hairspray and make-up, and played and learnt everything as quickly as possible. Always rushing to that finish line. He brought me back to loving music and never quite understood how I could play so uninhibitedly after recounting my stories of those years of studying in Miami and how much they had hurt me. I suppose he expected me to show my scars more visibly, which I didn’t. I think he was a bit perplexed by all my contradictions.

I only wish I had heard him more in concert. I only wish we had performed that two-piano concert in Caracas I had promised. I only wish I had been wiser and more prepared to understand and digest his teachings. I wish I had appreciated his musicianship more, which I have as I’ve grown older, because I’ve slowly connected the dots as to what all of this means.

He knew how much I loved him and respected him. The last time I saw Hamish was at the hospital in 2017. I visited him, gave him the gushiest of cards I had written for him, stayed a while until I felt he was uncomfortable with my witnessing his frailty and the grim surroundings of the hospital. I told him how he had changed my relationship to music. I had a feeling it would be the last time I would see him.

Hamish was relieved I had found a wonderful partner in Sam. I suppose he was also relieved of not having to endure further accounts of my failed, sometimes tormented and often misguided relationships for 20 years. He would listen and smile, then mumble some advice that I probably didn’t really want to hear, so I would not ask him to repeat it. I would nod, just to move on to more important topics.

We had a lovely friendship and, I would like to believe, a mutual respect. His greatest compliment to me was that he was proud of me. That meant more to me than my prize at the Chopin Competition. He knew where I came from, and I have a sense that, somehow, he was quite surprised that I organised my life and made something of it. I believe he always hoped I would, but wasn’t quite sure that it would happen. He saw me grow up, jump off cliffs, climb back up and finally fly after a bumpy lift-off.

There is so much more I could write, but I have to go back to practicing. Hamish would be surprised of how often I sit at the piano nowadays. Back when I was a student, I would spend more time at the RAM bar, chatting with my friends than sitting on a piano bench.

I’d like to end this little memoriam by sharing a typically-Hamish anecdote. One of the last times he heard play was at Cadogan Hall with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Orchestra. I was performing Beethoven’s Concerto No. 5 and ExPatria. Sam relayed to me that he was visibly moved by ExPatria, and when he asked him what he had thought of my Beethoven, he paused for a moment and through that wide and cheeky smile, replied: “She doesn’t do anything I taught her. Everything Gabriela does goes against convention, but when you have a performance as compelling as that, who the hell cares!!”

I just laughed, because I knew what he meant. It was his way of him still telling me, after all these years, to reign in “that wild horse you are”, while acknowledging that there is room in music, between the lines and outside of the rules, for the personal voice.

This Saturday I’m playing in Belfast, and the concert will be live on the radio. It would be my honor to dedicate that performance to my dear Hamish.

I will always miss him.

Were you a student of Hamish Milne? Do post your memories below.

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  • Thank you Ms. Montero for your wonderful remembrances of Mr. Milne. I never was able to hear him play in the US, but I do treasure his Hyperion discs of Medtner’s pieces. I look forward to hearing you in NY at your next performances.

  • What a wonderful read! Deeply moved by Gabriela Montero’s very personal and heartfelt tribute to her former teacher. I’m sure he’s smiling – and mumbling something in his pianissimo – in that studio in heaven…

    • I studied with Hamish in the 1980s too and his musical presence in my life lives on. My piano lessons with him were eagerly awaited each week, and I was bowled over every time by the brilliance of his playing, and inspired by his astute and intuitive guidance to play better than I had ever thought I could. What a wonderful gift we received from him as his students.

  • I didn’t study with Hamish Milne but a pianist colleague of mine did and I went with her to his house for a lesson before she accompanied me in a singing competition in the early 90’s. For some reason the memory of that lesson has stayed with me after all this time. I remember a quiet unassuming man, interested very much in what we were doing and generous and deeply insightful in his suggestions both to me as a singer as well as to his pupil. It was a experience I am very happy to have and I am prompted now to seek out some of his recordings.

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