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Minding the Music
When, at age five, Anne-Marie McDermott attended her first concert, she was absolutely mesmerized. She remembers it well. “I don’t recall the piece of music, but I remember going to a concert with a full orchestra and a piano soloist and seeing the big black shiny piano with a spotlight on it, “ McDermott says. “When the soloist walked out on stage and the applause began, I just thought it was the most glamorous and powerful thing I had ever seen. It really stuck with me. It put this spirit of a great challenge in me where I just wanted to do that.
“And, obviously, over the years, when you realize what having a career in music entails, it’s not glamorous. It’s hard work. It’s great work, but it’s very hard work.”
Yes. McDermott, artistic director of Bravo!Vail, as well as the Ocean Reef Chamber Music Festival, The Avila Chamber Music Celebration in Curacao and the Spotlight Chamber Music Series in San Diego knows, all too well, the dedication and work it takes to become a world-renowned concert pianist.
Let’s just say, McDermott took the road less traveled.
At age five, McDermott began taking music lessons — piano and guitar — along with her two older sisters, Maureen, who began with piano but then switched to the cello, and Kerry (a violinist with the New York Philharmonic) who played the violin as well as the mandolin. They even formed The McDermott Trio.
“Growing up, we were always playing chamber music,” says McDermott, in her rapid-fire manner. “I also began playing “one piano-four hands” with Maureen, so that was great. Having siblings loving what they were doing as much as I loved what I was doing was a great motivator.”
In fact, McDermott attended her sisters’ music lessons and learned their repertoire so she could accompany them. She played her first Beethoven “Triple” Concerto at home, with her sisters and, at 12, played the Mendelssohn Piano Concerto in Carnegie Hall.
McDermott’s parents soon realized how serious the girls were about their music and decided that they should be home-schooled, at a time when it was less common. So McDermott and Kerry (Maureen was a couple of years older) attended a private school for two hours, then were tutored by their mother and, after school, practiced four to five hours a day.
“I have to admit, I really didn’t immerse myself in the educational side,” says McDermott reflectively. “And after my mother died (from breast cancer) when I was 15, I barely continued to go to school and I lost interest in music for a period of time. It took a little bit of time to find my love of music again. I lost it for a while. My sisters were much more pulled together than I.”
“I grew up Irish Catholic — so very disciplined, so very structured. John was a heavy drinker and a heavy smoker. Well, musicians just have to open the floodgates and let it all pour out. And at the lessons, I’d be blushing. I had never heard the language that he used. It was absolutely wonderful. He pushed me so hard. I think he liked my feisty spirit and I adored him.”
After McDermott went through her “jazz phase,” as she calls it, she began accompanying “everbody on the planet” for their competitions. “At the time, I was going to the ‘Prep’ program at the Manhattan School of Music, every Saturday,” explains McDermott. “And, students had to play what is called a ‘jury,’ once a year for about 10 minutes. I knew so much chamber music and I needed to make some money, because I wasn’t living at home. So someone would say, ‘I have to play my jury, will you accompany me? I’ll pay you $40.’ And I was there!” And, McDermott, who was learning repertoire at record speed, didn’t even have a bank account.
Then, while accompanying a performer at an organization called Young Concert Artists, McDermott, at 17, attracted the attention of Susan Wadsworth, the group’s founder, who suggested the she audition solo. McDermott waited a year, before deciding to do so. And when she did, she won every award at the competition. “It changed my life because I was really lost at that time. “ McDermott says. “My sisters were so worried about my dad and me. In fact, my older sister was saying the Rosary for me.”
When you become a member of Young Concert Artists, the organization becomes your manager and mentor. The first year, after winning the competition, McDermott played 30 concerts. “I began earning money and had to start learning repertoire and concertos,” she says. “The next year I had, probably, 70 concerts and had to rise to the occasion.”
At the same time, she began attending the college division of the Manhattan School of music. “I got thrown out, after six months, because I did nothing. I showed up for nothing,” admits McDermott. “I was completely immature. I really hadn’t grown up. But, the Young Concert Artists really put me on track and once I was on that track, I realized how much I loved doing what I was doing. I just became obsessed and I’ve never stopped. It was a rough start, for sure. I believe, somehow, my mom was looking out for me. It really could have gone any way during that period of time.”
“When I was about 18 or 20, I got obsessed with this concept of how can I be my absolute best when I play every single concert,” McDermott explains. “You know, some days you’re feeling creative and great and, some days you walk on stage for a concert and you’re thinking, ‘I’m tired’ or ‘I have a headache.’ The principles of Jung and Arrau are always with me.”
In her 20s, McDermott admits that she was “freer” and thought “Wow, this is fun, fun, fun.” But after that, she says she got more and more serious. It’s her nature.
At 27, McDermott married a trombone player, but in her mid-30s, after a “horrendous five-year divorce,” was single again. “We just went in completely different directions,” recalls McDermott. “I took all of my music and my clothes and just moved out. I didn’t even take a fork. Again, that was my rebellious nature.
“I was 34, got an apartment, as I had money at that point — and rebuilt. But, for months, I felt like there was no ground under me. I remember night after night, hysterically crying while listening to Schubert. That’s what I do at the worst times as well as the best times of my life.”
“You know, it’s great to be a young artist. It’s a great novelty. Everybody wants to hear young artists. But, then you’re not a young artist anymore. And I remember being in my mid–30s and, in articles, writers would still be calling me a ‘young artist’ and it started to bother me because I thought, I’m 35 years old. I’m not a young artist. I would like to be an artist, not a young artist. It felt like this qualifier. Like, ‘she’s really good for a young artist.’ I never would have pictured, when I was starting out, at 18, as a professional, what life in music meant and just how thrilling and gratifying it is, the bond between all the creative people truly is.
“And, the older I get, the more humbling I find it to be because of that fact that I’ve been so blessed with having a career for these many years. To me, the longevity of a career is what defines it. Not that you can have a great career for five years. But that you can keep reinventing yourself.
“And you have to.” •
When I was 15, and studying with John Browning, he was touring with a dog named Tyler, who was a Papillon. They toured together for about 18 years. And I once went on tour with John, playing one piano-four hands, and I saw the relationship the two of them had. It was unbelievable. So, one day, about 13 years ago, (my husband) Mike and I were walking by a pet shop in New York and met this little 2-pound white fluff ball, a Maltese, and I put her on my shoulder and she immediately calmed down. I didn’t buy her that day. I called my sisters and they said, “Annie, don’t do it.” But we went back the next morning and got her! And she has toured with me for almost 13 years. She’s like my therapist, when I travel. She keeps me calm and happy. And if there’s a flight delay, I look at her cute face and say, “Alright. Whatever.” Read the rest of the article here