Alice Letts

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NZ Pianist Michael Houstoun

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Who is Michael Houstoun? Houston is one of the greatest living pianists in New Zealand. At the time of writing, he lives in the peaceful countryside near Fielding, which is a small town in the North Island of New Zealand.

Did you see the documentary on Michael Houstoun on Easter Sunday (2009)? Its a long way back to remember.  But I took down some notes!  I didn’t get to finish watching all the interview because it was still going in the early hours of the morning, well past my bedtime! The documentary was called ‘Piano Man’ and was broadcast by TV1 in New Zealand at 11.50pm on Sunday 12th April 2009.

Background
Houston grew up on the family farm near Timaru. His Mother taught Houstoun’s older siblings to play the piano. However, when Michael was older he just sat down at the piano and played it. He was able to reproduce the songs he heard on the radio and was able to correct his mistakes. By the time he turned five, Houstoun was asking for piano lessons. To begin with he took lessons from a local lady who played the hymns at the church. But she soon discovered Houstoun was too advanced. Houstoun is also blessed to possess a photographic memory.Houstoun’s parents went to the convent. The Sister who taught him was tasked to correct his technique. To begin with Houstoun refused to listen to what Sister was asking him to do, so Sister asked his Mother to come in for a chat. As a result, Houstoun’s Mother told him to either listen to what the Sister is telling him, or she would stop the music lessons. This was a reality wake up call for Houstoun who then promised he would listen to the Sister, and from then on he did very well.The Sister said Houstoun had a tremendous gift. She said “He was lovely to teach, he would cooperate all the way with me, and then he just went off leaps and bounds. I encouraged him to go out of Dunedin for competitions and all around, and he won them all. I recognised that as a teacher, I never taught him, I only guided him. He was so special.” Houstoun attended Claremont School. His teacher at that school, Ian Dando was in charge of the choir, which often gave full concerts. At these concerts Houstoun frequently played solos.
Object of ridicule
However, Houstoun was exposed to ridicule and teasing from other boys because he played the piano, so he ‘pretty quickly learnt to keep quiet’ (said Houston). Even Houstoun’s father, who was a hard working New Zealand farmer, was concerned that Houstoun’s piano playing was somehow abnormal. In stark contrast however, Houstoun’s Mother was a great fan of music and she was very supportive of Houstoun’s musical talents. Houstoun’s father worked regular hours, leaving the house in the morning and not returning until dinner. So to accommodate this, Houstoun would practise the piano every day before dinner, and would stop practising before his Father arrived home for dinner. Houston said “I never practised when my Father was in the house”. So far many years, Houstoun’s Father had literally never heard him play the piano.
The move to Auckland

In 1970 Houstoun went to Auckland. He was 17 years old and was competing against older students who were university trained. This was certainly a major testing ground for him. The competition was very tough, but even so, Houstoun won the competition! That accomplishment was very affirming to Houstoun, who did not know anybody in Auckland. When Houstoun went up to Auckland with his Mother and Sister, they stayed the YWCA. During the competition, Houstoun met another contestant who was older than Houstoun. His name was Ivan and he was a student from Auckland University. Ivan took Houston under his wings and introduced him to the Auckland scene. Houstoun met all of Ivan’s friends, and went to a café for the first time in his life. In that one week in Auckland Houstoun said he got an idea of a larger life and grew up immensely. Houstoun was in his element.

Beethoven Sonatas

In playing the piano, Houstoun describes the process as ‘projecting’ a feeling, rather than trying to capture it. Houstoun explained that when he is performing on stage, he is very sensitive, where “every nerve is working and every pore is open, it is a heightened state, and therefore you pick up these ambiences very quickly”.

Houston devised a project where he would tour the country performing all 32 Beethoven Sonatas in one concert. This extraordinary feat displays the stamina he possesses, as he took just three weeks to memorise 800 pages of manuscript, in what would take most pianists seven months. The Beethoven Sonata cycle has been described as the ‘Everest’ for most pianists. Houstoun is intrigued with “Beethoven’s delineations of us, human character”. In studying Beethoven’s music, Houston ponders what it is that Beethoven is “getting at” with these phrases? Just what are his themes? Ian Fraser (former manager of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra) said he was deeply affected by the response to Houstoun when at the end of the concert the audience threw flowers onto the stage. Morrison & Co Trust have recorded Houston’s performances of these Beethoven Sonatas and the CDs are now available from their website by clicking <here>.

Health issues

In early 2000 Houstoun was struck down with a disabling neurological disorder that rendered his right hand almost useless. This was a key moment to a concert pianist. Houstoun said there were “no big public announcements, people gradually got to know about it”.

It started off with Houstoun experiencing problems playing a descending scale, the e flat major scale that he couldn’t get down without a bump. He tried to find ways to practise to get rid of the bump, but everything he tried, “probably quietly started to make it worse”. Later on, Houstoun’s problems with his right hand started to “manifest itself in other pieces, in other scales, I started to lose my octave playing”. Houstoun said that apart from Bach, all other composers use octaves, and if he cannot play octaves then he cannot perform on the concert stage. Houston discovered that he had all but lost the use of his right hand. It was absolutely devastating.

The standard prognosis was not good. Houstoun was told he had an incurable disease. He said his neurologist said to him that he should “give up the piano and get a real job”. Regardless of this dire prediction, Houstoun did not give up, and instead he enlisted the help of four people who have been key to his recovery. He has had a lot of treatment from Simon Lauman, and Glen Williams (osteopath), Dale Speedy (sports doctor), and a piano teacher from Auckland University.

His piano teacher was reluctant due to Houstoun’s prominence, but she suggested that he change his technique. She was impressed with Houstoun because he has been so open and so receptive to these changes. Houstoun treats this whole thing as a learning process. To begin with, Houstoun started by playing five notes each day, so progress was slow. His progress was very gradual and was a day by day process.

Over the next five years Houston’s medical recovery was led by sports doctor Dale Speedy. Dale explained that Houstoun had just overloaded his muscles. Houstoun had knots everywhere and was out of alignment. Speedy went on to explain that if a pianist practises over and over again, they can develop the areas of the digits so that there is overlap, and there can be abnormal movements as signals between the brain and fingers. Houston’s treatment continued over the next five years.

Today Houstoun is back performing on the concert stage again.

For more information on the life and times of Michael Houstoun visit his official website by clicking <here>.


3 Comments

  1. val needham says:

    Please spell Michael’s surname the correct way – HOUSTOUN.

  2. val needham says:

    Hi Alice,
    You missed a few corrections on lines 9,27,33,42,46,50,60,72 and 76………but thanks for trying anyway!
    It would be nice to mention the latest important and most deserved accolade to be bestowed on Michael. He was made Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2012 Diamond Jubilee Queen’s Birthday Honours list. There is a very nice photo on http://WWW.gg.govt.nz/content/michael-houstoun.
    Val Needham

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