SXS sits down with 2020 Next Gen artist Francis Atkins to discuss the importance of being vulnerable on stage and how he prefers playing piano at midnight.
Francis entered the Next Gen Artists Program in 2020 and is currently enrolled in a Bachelor of Music majoring in Performance at the Queensland Conservatorium, studying piano with Natasha Vlassenko. In conjunction with his association with SXS, Francis will be receiving an ADFAS bursary from the Byron Bay branch to assist him in his tertiary studies. In 2019, Francis gave his debut performance as concerto soloist, performing with the Ipswich City Symphony to an enthusiastic reception. He has performed in notable venues around Australia including the Sydney Opera House and the Southbank ABC centre.
What inspired you to seriously pursue piano studies? How would you describe the musical landscape of your hometown?
I’m from South Golden Beach in Northern N.S.W and my first piano teacher lived in the town over in New Brighton. I always thought he looked like Beethoven… if Beethoven was a surfer. He took me under his wing just before I turned twelve, and we studied Mozart, Bartók and Bach. I decided to seriously pursue piano because I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else. I love the calming feeling of sitting with a piece of music and shaping it like clay. I feel comfortable to sit alone for hours and to be content at the piano.
Musically speaking, there wasn’t a lot going on in my hometown, so my performance experience extended to several other venues around the Northern Rivers. I also play trumpet and trombone which lead to my involvement in regional jazz and wind orchestras, brass ensembles, big bands, and playing principal trombone in the Lismore Symphony Orchestra for a few years. Sadly South Golden Beach is not suited for a grand piano as the salty sea air rusts the strings and makes them snap spontaneously, which can be terrifying!
What does a typical practise session look like?
When it comes to diligent study, I am the most erratic person and am often inspired to play at odd times of the day. I find there’s something more intimate in practising sporadically rather than forcing a schedule upon myself. I love to play Bach in the morning—I’ve heard the concert pianist Andras Schiff does this—it’s a much more wholesome warm-up than scales. Once my fingers are warmed up, I’ll move on to Liszt and Rachmaninov. There is a transcendental feeling about playing piano at midnight and this is the time I most enjoy really listening to what I’m playing. I find myself captivated by complex harmonic structures within the music I study, particularly pieces of Debussy, Rachmaninov, and Scriabin. As well as diligently learning my fingerwork, I love spending time to simply enjoy the lavish harmonies that occur in music.
Being vulnerable, and sharing something beautiful and transient with the audience is what makes the musical experience so special to me.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your musical life?
Under normal circumstances I would practise at the Conservatorium on their grand pianos, but I only have a digital piano at home. Being without a ‘real’ instrument has given my motivation a pretty big knock, and I had to try to work around this to keep on schedule for my performance assessments. Writing post-it notes with technical facets to work on was helpful, as well as delving into other creative endeavours; I’ve resumed learning Russian again and have found a new passion for arranging and transcribing music. I learned the importance of keeping my daily activities diverse in order to avoid any risk of loathing the things I love out of routine. I have found it’s not until you’re forced to stay inside that you realise how important a daily walk or run can be, just like that song Big Yellow Taxi: “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone…”
What's on your music stand today?
I’m studying a Bach keyboard partita for one of my first serious piano competitions in three weeks’ time, and I’ve finally begun to tackle the Rachmaninov concerto No. 2, as well as some choral accompaniment for a rehearsal starting next week.
Francis' home studio in Brisbane.
Does the Bangalow Music Festival hold any special significance for you?
BMF was my first performance opportunity as a solo artist in front of a big crowd. Playing at Bangalow taught me that it’s okay to mess up onstage and that it’s okay to be human. I learnt that there is absolutely no point in being worried. Being vulnerable, and sharing something beautiful and transient with the audience is what makes the musical experience so special to me. There’s always a chance it might go wrong, so you just have to be ready to roll with it and ‘get back up on the horse’.
Where do you go for musical inspiration? Do you look up to any particular pianists and if so, what is it about their playing you admire?
I do have a few favourite pianists; at the top of my list would have to be Evgeny Kissin, Seong Jin Cho, Charles Richard–Hamelin, Vyacheslav Gryaznov, and my own QCGU lecturers Daniel de Borah and Natasha Vlassenko. I’m always so amazed by their artistry, craftsmanship, and intelligence at the piano. I go to Evgeny Kissin’s recording of the Rachmaninov piano concerto Op. 18 for ultimate inspiration—I’m a bit of a romantic soul and can easily find myself in tears at the end of the second movement! Kissin’s approach to the architecture of the piece as a whole is always so inspiring, and inspires me that I too might reach that level of musicianship one day.
What do you hope to gain from your time as a Next Gen artist?
As coronavirus has taken away most of our interpersonal communications for the greater part of the year, I’m so excited to begin making music with others again soon. I’m looking forward to making new connections with the other Next Gen artists both as professionals and as friends. Personally, I hope to find new ways to reach outside of my comfort zone as I am somewhat inclined to shy away from things that might be too hard, or that push me. Realistically, one never feels ready for change and I think it’s important to consciously force yourself to grow. I want that for myself as a musician—to learn to work my way out from under mountains of music and come out at the other end still loving it.
My current major goal is to become the best pianist that I can while I’m at University. I’m in the fourth year of my Bachelor at the moment and I hope to engage in an Honours research project next year, possibly pursuing a Masters degree after that. I’d love to study overseas at either the Moscow Conservatory in Russia or McGill University in Canada one day, as many of my favourite pianists have studied music at these Universities. I’m also quite passionate about psychology and mental health studies. I’m curious to study how our minds work when we play music and how we can achieve the most healthy balance of discipline, study, and enjoyment. I feel strongly that I want to become a concerto pianist. I’ve had a small taste of this before, I performed a concerto with the Ipswich Symphony Orchestra last year. It was the most fun I’ve ever had as a musician. Really, my life would be perfect as long as I can make music every day.