‘Western classical musicians in India have to go abroad to make a career’

Julian Clef at Asia House

Indian classical pianist Julian Clef gave an interview after his Coffee Concert during the first day of the Music Futures Festival at Asia House

‘Western classical musicians in India have to go abroad to make a career’

21 January 2015

By Naomi Canton

24-year-old award-winning Indian pianist Julian Clef had no formal musical training until he was 16 and instead taught himself on his father’s electronic keyboard in Kerala, India. Naomi Canton caught up with him after his Coffee Concert during the Music Futures Festival at Asia House where he played Preludes by Scriabin and Etudes by Nikolai Kapustin.

Tell me about your background and how you got into playing western classical music on the piano. I know you were raised in Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala.

Yes, my parents are both government civil servants. My Dad is a keen musician and teaches a few instruments part-time including the piano. He started me off on the electronic keyboard when I was five or six and taught me to read music, piano notes and scales. I listened to CDs of famous composers as well.  I learnt it because I was told to, but when I was 10, I became more interested in it and I started learning more demanding stuff, so that’s how it progressed until I was 16.

We did not have a piano at home so I had to use an electronic keyboard. I started off on a really small one, and then someone heard me perform and came to my house and brought a full-sized one. I would read books and learn from them and listen to CDs and learn from that. The main problem was there is no grand piano in Thiruvananthapuram. They have one in Mumbai, in fact in Mumbai, they have a professional orchestra – it’s called the Symphony Orchestra of India – there are only a handful of Indians in that orchestra though. Since they have a grand piano in Mumbai, they have regular visiting artists so I think the western classical music scene in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore is much better than the rest of India. There are other singers and instrumentalists who occasionally come to Thiruvananthapuram but compared to Mumbai it is much less. Of course there is plenty of Indian classical music in my home town.

There were a couple of places in my city that had an upright piano where I could practise but nowhere in Thiruvananthapuram had a grand piano. You can get more colours and tones and so on from a grand and more possibilities dynamically; the sound is quite different.

Were you ever drawn to Indian classical music?

No, I never got into Indian classical music. I do listen to it, as I do to any style of music, but I have not learnt it. I play all mainstream western classical music – Bach, Beethoven, Chopin. I started on the piano and I did not really think about any other instrument.

Why were you so drawn to western classical music?

It’s about what it expresses and what it has to say.  You can play all your life and still not be bored by it. Probably the main thing for me was the different sounds it had compared to Indian sounds. From a young age I was attracted to a different sound world.

Tell me about how you were spotted at the age of 16 then.

A British couple originally from Thiruvananthapuram, Dr Celestine and Linda John, were back visiting family and friends and they heard me play in a concert and because of their goodwill they decided to host me for a couple of months in the UK. I stayed with them in Mansfield. During that time in 2006 I was offered a place at Chetham’s School of Music.

Did you get a scholarship?

No, unfortunately not. So I had to pay the fees and that was a big hurdle, so the British couple fundraised and formed a trust to pay for me and over the last eight years that has been key to me staying here.

How was it going to Chetham’s?

The trip to England was my first trip outside India but the fact I had met them in India made it easier. It was quite scary but exciting at the same time.

How do your parents feel?

My father was definitely pleased.  He is a musician so he is passionate about music. It was he who invited the couple to attend a concert where they first heard me. They were anxious about me coming to England but since they knew the family they were a bit more relaxed.  They are very supportive of my career.

It was exciting and scary as well because in India not many people are doing classical music and I got to Chetham’s and there were all these young people playing these instruments magnificently. What I got out of it was definitely a realisation of how far I still needed to go, so that was scary, but the people were so friendly.

Julian Clef performed during the Music Futures Festival at Asia House

Julian Clef performed during the Music Futures Festival at Asia House

You got straight As in your A levels in Music, Maths and Chemistry and then  went to the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) where you got a B.Mus (Hons) and Master’s degree and won the RNCM Gold Medal in 2011. Tell me about that.

The focus at RNCM is very much on performance but it’s not the same as doing a music degree at university.  It was great as Murray McLachlan taught me at Chetham’s and also at RNCM. Then I had Professor Dina Parakhina for my Master’s degree.

Is there any particular type of music you like playing?

All kinds of mainstream western classical music. I like to play all of the composers. It is the foundation of many things. I also like to play 20th century pieces like the Kapustin Etudes I played at Asia House. I generally perform as a solo pianist as I have not really found a regular group to play with but I have done a lot of accompanying and chamber music in Manchester. I’m now studying an Artist Diploma at the Guildhall School or Music and Drama.

Coming to London has made quite a difference and I am learning new stuff. The Guildhall has people from all over the world but I have not met anyone from India yet. I think quite a lot of British Asians are going into classical music nowadays however.

Are there many emerging pianists in India like you?

There are a lot of talented pianists in India. It’s just the opportunity is missing – there is a lack of people to guide them.  There are no dedicated music schools, no Guildhall equivalent – though we do have weekend and evening classes.  There are some efforts trying to form a music college but nothing has happened so far. If you are a professional playing western classical music you can’t really survive in India.  I grew up with it and it was always in the home as my Dad taught music. There are different teachers in India who can train you to a good level but for someone to make a career out of western classical music, the training required is not there. You have to go abroad. The expenses of studying music are another hurdle. My parents could not afford to send me to the UK so, if I had not had this opportunity, it would not have been possible.  I would like to see more western orchestras going to India to perform. There is a growing interest in the music in cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata, but the more exposure the better. Then again, the costs of bringing such orchestras are so high the tickets will be to expensive for the masses. Not in the near future, but later in life, I would like to contribute towards musical education in India. There are a few established musicians who do go back to India to conduct workshops like Patricia Rozario OBE (a Bombay-born British soprano.)

There used to be one piano song in all the old Bollywood movies so they got their moment of glory, but now they don’t have it. The NCPA is the only purpose-built venue for western classical music.

Any pianist you really admire?

Yes there is an Argentine pianist Martha Argerich. I have listened to her CDs and she has a very exciting interpretation and at the same time is interesting musically.

How often do you rehearse the piano?

For five to six hours a day.

Are you famous in India yet?

No, just the people in my home town know me. I played at the NCPA in Mumbai in 2013 and there was a good turnout.

What are your future plans?

I would like to do my own CD in the future and my ambition is to play at the Royal Albert Hall in London. But the musical scene is very competitive.

It’s very hard when you come out of university to go into directly what you want to do so it will definitely take some time to figure out what’s best for me but I would like to be a freelance pianist as a career and perform on the stage.

I like being in England. I do miss Kerala – I go back once a year. I miss the food and things. I stay in touch with my family and friends through Skype.

What has been your most memorable performance to date?

Playing at Buckingham Palace in 2010 at a fundraising event for Chetham’s School where I met Prince Edward.

What is the secret to being a successful professional pianist?

The secret is to always be excited about what you are doing. There will be a lot of moments when you are studying, that things do not go so well and it’s quite frustrating, but you just need to keep going, focus on music and your love of it and don’t be put off.


To find out more about the Music Futures Festival and what it is all about, read our interview with Canan Muxton, the founder of Talent Unlimited, who we co-organised it with Asia House here.

To book tickets for the Music Futures Festival click here.

Don’t miss the chance to meet the renowned Japanese dancer and filmmaker Kaori Ito at Asia House on Monday, 26 January following her performances of Plexus at Sadler’s Wells Theatre on 22 and 23 January. She will be in conversation with Pamela Kember. To book and for more information click here.