Megan-Geoffrey Prins in Cleveland

Megan-Geoffrey Prins in Cleveland

After his success on the local competition circuit and concert stage, the young South African pianist, Megan-Geoffrey Prins, jetted of to the USA for further his studies. He is currently in South Africa after completing his first year as master’s student at the renowned Cleveland Institute of Music. classicsa.co.za spoke to him about his experiences over the past months.

You have just completed your first year as master’s student at the Cleveland Institute of Music (CIM) in the USA under Antonio Pompa-Baldi. What did it feel like to leave known turf behind you and head into the unkown?

MGP: At first it was a very intimidating experience. Not only was it daunting to fly across the world, to leave my family and friends behind, and to adjust to a new culture and climate, I was also intimidated by the exceptional standard in Cleveland. Initially, it felt like I had to work twice as hard to keep my head above water. But as time went by, and my repertoire started growing, I began to feel more comfortable in the new environment and I benefitted increasingly from the high standard of my teachers and fellow postgrad students. One thing I’m sure of is that I wouldn’t have coped with the transition at all if I hadn’t received such an exceptional education from Nina Schumann and Luis Magalhaes at Stellenbosch University. Although it was scary at first, they prepared me well enough so that I could adapt to the new environment.

What has been the highlight of this first year abroad?

MGP: There have been so many highlights. Firstly, it is such an honour to have lessons with Antonio Pompa-Baldi. He is an incredibly knowledgable man, a brilliant pianist and a very good teacher. Another highlight that really stands out for me is being surrounded by other music students that are so hard-working, talented and committed. It is incredibly inspiring. The students at CIM come from all over the world, and it is both intimidating and exhilarating to work with them every day. Lastly, I must mention the concerts I get to watch frequently. The renowned Cleveland Orchestra truly is excellent and I have had the honour of seeing many musical giants that tour to Cleveland, not to mention exceptional faculty from all over the world who give master classes in the area.

What is the most important thing that you have learnt during your fist year as a master’s student?

MGP: Probably the value of perseverance and tenacity. The music industry is saturated- there are so many hard-working, talented musicians out there. If you want to keep going you have to keep working and putting your heart into it until you create something that’s out of this world. And you have to keep doing that even when you realise that there are many people out there capable of doing it too. This first year made me realise more than ever that if I want to become a successful musician I have to work very hard, with long term goals. It’s not that you can or you can’t, you either will or you won’t.

How does Antonio Pompa-Baldi’s style of teaching differ from your previous teachers Nina Schumann and Luis Magalhães’ style?

MGP: In many ways their teaching styles are similar. They are all very knowledegable individuals - they focus on stylistic and historical aspects of compositions and they encourage independent growth in their students. I really appreciate this aspect of Professor Schumann and Professor Magalhaes’ teaching style - it prepared me for my experience with Professor Pompa-Baldi who expects all my repertoire to be memorised for lessons. In fact, every lesson with Professor Pompa-Baldi is similar to a master class - I must perform the entire work for him more or less from memory and he will only comment on it after. In the past, with Professor Schumann and Professor Magalhaes, we would work intensively on smaller sections of a work, and I would only perform the entire work and receive commentary on the play-through after a few weeks of working on it. In terms of stylistic and technical approaches, Professors Schumann, Magalhaes and Pompa-Baldi have very similar ideas and very high expectations which make them excellent teachers.

Have you had the opportunity to broaden your repertoire over the past year?

MGP: Yes, I have. The high standard at CIM, and the repertoire expectations of international competitions drove me to expand my repertoire as much as possible, and to focus on learning larger sets of works. For example, I learned Rachmaninov’s Etudes Tableaux, Op. 39, Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto and Schumann’s Kreisleriana. I also solidified sets I had started working on before, such as Rachmaninov’s Corelli Variations, Chopin’s Etudes, Opus 25, and Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. I recently learned Chopin’s Third Ballade, Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso and I am currently working on memorising the second book of J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. I also had the opportunity to work on styles that I have had less experience with in the past, such as the mazurka. It is all very exciting and I hope to do even more if I can raise the funds to go back in September.

Have you been taking part in any piano competitions recently?

MGP: Yes. I have entered a few (they are expensive, so my opportunities in this regard are limited), and the competition is very tough. I had the honour of taking part in the Midwest International Piano Competition in Iowa last month. It was a fantastic experience. The competition is very well organised. The standard of playing is exceptionally high and they look after the competitors very well. They even put up a South African flag, which I found very exciting! I was so grateful to make it to the semifinals, because the competitors were truly amazing musicians. The judges also gave very helpful feedback, making it a great learning opportunity. I am hoping to take part in more competitions in the upcoming year - the experience is invaluable, it really makes a person grow so much as a musician.

You were successful in South Africa and won numerous music competitions. How stiff do you find the competition on an international level?

MGP: Very stiff. There is an extreme level of professionalism that is expected of competitors. Music must always be memorised, pieces must sound comfortable, and repertoire must be very impressive. On top of that, there isn’t really room for many technical slip ups, yet you have to be very spontaneous and unique with your interpretation. The competitors that take part in these competitions are all very committed, driven people that work very, very hard. You thus have to remain incredibly focused. As my theory teacher said, “If you want to eat, you need to play perfectly”.

Let’s take things back a bit – you hail from Riversdal. Please tell us a bit about your first encounters with classical music and what inspired and motivated you throughout your youth to persue this as a career?

MGP: My mother, who is a school teacher, did a few UNISA piano exams, so she was familiar with classical music. She often played Mozart and Bach recordings, so I listened to classical music from a very young age. My mother inherited a piano, so there was one in the house, and there were beginner piano books in the house. I started to read through these books under her guidance, and according to her, I made very quick progress and was soon playing her UNISA pieces. My uncle, who works for the traffic department in Stellenbosch, went to the Conservatory to find out about piano lessons, and that’s how I started taking lessons with Mario Nel at the Conserve at the age of 8 or 9. My parents drove all the way from Riversdal to Stellenbosch every third Saturday or so. They really invested a lot and made many sacrifices to ensure that I could get the best education. This has been, and still is, my greatest inspiration and motivation. There have been other people too, who have invested money, time and other forms of encouragement in my education. This makes me want to keep doing well and making them proud.

You are giving a concert on the 8th of August to raise funds to complete your master’s studies. What will you be playing at the concert?

MGP: In the first half I will be playing Bach’s Toccata in e minor, BWV 914, Chopin’s Etudes, Op. 25, no. 1,3,4,5 and 6, a Chopin Mazurka, and Chopin’s Third Ballade. In the second half I will be playing Rachmaninov’s Etudes-Tableaux, Op. 39, no. 1-5 and 8-9, and Ravel’s Alborada del Gracioso.

When are you hoping to go back to Cleveland and what will your second year of study there entail?

MGP: I will go back to Cleveland in September, but only if I manage to raise the funds I need. I have a half scholarship from CIM, but unfortunately costs are very high in the States and the dollar is obviously quite strong against the rand. I have had support from various scholarships in my first year, such as the Mabel Quick Scholarship, an SASMT bursary, prize money from the SAMRO competition, a very generous sponsor from the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust and two private sponsors. Unfortunately, a lot of this funding cannot be renewed, so I am working very hard to try and get the funds together so that I can go back. If I do go back, I intend to broaden my repertoire even more, and most importantly, to enter even more international competitions so that I can continue to grow as a musician and represent South Africa abroad.

Megan-Geoffrey Prins will perform at the St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Cape Town on 8 August in order to raise funds for his continued studies abroad.

Interview by Christien Coetzee Klingler

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