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Piano Woman

Derry pianist and former Young Musician of the year Ruth McGinley told David Hennessy about being diagnosed with autism, how Women’s Aid saved her life and why she’s uncomfortable with still being called a ‘child prodigy’.

Leading pianist and previous BBC Proms in the Park soloist Ruth McGinley will come to the Southbank Centre’s Unlimited festival, a five day major festival celebrating the extraordinary creative work of disabled artists, in September.

Ruth has performed as a soloist with orchestras such as the BBC Philharmonic, the National Symphony Orchestra and the RTE Orchestra.

She has also been a solo recitalist throughout the UK, Europe and Middle East and regularly broadcasts for BBC Radio 3, Classic FM and BBC Radio Ulster.

But the former child star – who won the piano final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in 1994 and RTÉ’s Young Musician of the Future piano final two years before that- had once completely fallen out of love with music.

Born into a musical family, Ruth won a scholarship to study at the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin at nine years old.

At 18, she was awarded another to continue her studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

Although she became well known and had success from a young age, she admits it was too much, too young and that she burnt out.

She would also have to survive an abusive relationship.

In 2004 she returned home to Derry and concentrated on the job of raising her son, putting music far out of her mind.

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For a long time, it looked like nothing would coax her back to the stage.

But she would rediscover the joy she got from the piano, record and release her debut album Reconnection in 2016.

In recent years Ruth has been diagnosed with autism which she describes as a life changing experience and makes her support of a festival and organisation promoting diversity more poignant although she was working with them before she got the news.

Ruth told The Irish World: “I’m refinding myself as the young girl who actually just loved playing the piano.

“I started playing when I was about three years old.

“And I started playing professionally from about 13.

“As a young child, I loved it.

“But like everybody in intense careers, I suppose you go through different periods of your life where you really love it, or maybe you get burned out.

“I won the piano final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year when I was 16 which was an amazing experience.

“But I think although I played the piano quite advanced for my age, emotionally I hadn’t really grown up.

“So then when I moved to London, it all fell apart.

“I think that’s the thing, whenever you identify so much at a young age as something- in Northern Ireland, I was known as ‘the piano girl’. I still will be known as ‘the piano girl’- So then you head off to London and there’s a lot of piano girls and piano guys and you can get lost very easily.

“Things just didn’t feel good anymore.

“It was just a little bit too fast, a little bit too intense.

“I think I had got very unwell, my mental health had very much declined. I needed the break, I really totally needed to just stop and just let myself be for a little while.

“I took a number of years off performing.

“I actually became a mum at 23, 24. That wasn’t my plan but was the best thing that happened to me in so many ways.

“I learned through being a young mum how to be a human being away from the piano and what I really wanted to do.

“I was concentrating on being a mother and also to give myself some space just to live a life and I find it very bizarre because my whole childhood had revolved around playing the piano and I did love it.

“People say, ‘Were you pushed into it?’ No, I wasn’t pushed into it, I loved playing from a very young age but things definitely got very out of balance.”

Did you fall out of love with music? “Yeah, very much.

“I did take music pretty much completely out of my life for a number of years.

“I’d lost my passion for it.

“I got diagnosed with autism just a few years ago, before lockdown.

“And that has very much made me see all of this through a different lens, realizing that the piano has always been my safe space and is a very healthy place for me to communicate.

“I chose for years, not to be onstage.

“I actually, I felt for many years that I would never perform again on stage.

“When I went (back) to the piano, it very much scared me.

“I really had to reconnect to that and find that it’s a safe space for me now.

“That’s when I learned to be vulnerable, learned to be okay with being there and showing that you’re just a human being.

“I found I missed the piano, I missed that communication.

“I realize because of my autism diagnosis that actually, I love communicating through the piano, because I’m actually somebody who would be happy not to speak for a number of days.

“You might not think that right now. But after this interview, I may have to lie down for a few hours.

“But playing the piano is where I can just let it be.”

How did it feel to learn you were autistic? Did it answer little questions that you didn’t even knew you had? “It’s not that it was answering questions that I wasn’t asking because I was asking all the questions.

“I have been in therapy for many years.

“Especially females on the spectrum, they present themselves very differently than boys on the spectrum.

“Autism is very much seen as a boys’ diagnosis, but females tend to mask a lot more.

“When I was working with a psychologist she said, ‘I’ve never met anybody that masks as well as you do’.

“I suppose that’s maybe the performance thing from a young age.

“I had already figured out all my questions in a certain way, and I sort of had wrapped it up in a little package.

“And I was like, ‘Okay, so that’s why it was so difficult for those years. That’s why that happened. This is why that happened’.

“Actually, it changed everything for me in a way that it allowed me to be more gentle with myself, it allowed me to not think, ‘Why does my brain not process the way I think it should?’

“It answered a lot of that, ‘Why am I so good at one thing but very simple things in life, I tend to have no common sense?’

“I do lots of silly things that I shouldn’t do.

“Somebody close to me had got a diagnosis, I started reading a lot about it, and then questioning it.

“And it definitely has been life changing.

“For me, it’s such a positive positive thing.

“It definitely has given me a lot more compassion for myself, a lot more acceptance, a lot more understanding of just, ‘Okay, that’s the little quiet, gentle girl I was’.

“And actually, that’s still who I am. And that’s why I am this way.

“And I actually allow myself to be that more now.

“When I got my own diagnosis, I did find it difficult to share with some people.

“Maybe the response wasn’t quite what I needed to hear because people would look at me and go, ‘But you’re so successful, and you’re this and that’.

“I actually stopped sharing it.

“It’s important to challenge diversity and acceptance of people of all different abilities, disabilities, be neurodiverse.

“And just to really be able to express and celebrate diversity of all kinds.

“I think it’s a really, really important thing to do.”

Although it was harrowing, it was an honour for Ruth to write and record the White Ribbon anthem released last year after being commissioned by Northern Ireland Opera in conjunction with Women’s Aid.

The anthem supports the White Ribbon campaign, a global movement by Women’s Aid to end male violence against women.

Ruth penned the song with Duke Special after participating in two months of online workshops with female survivors of domestic abuse.

It was harrowing for Ruth as it brought her own experiences of being in a toxic relationship back to her.

“That was amazing.

“White Ribbon basically said, ‘Domestic violence against women and girls is a man’s problem rather than a woman’s problem’, which is very, very powerful.

“It’s about re-educating our young males and having zero tolerance to all this locker room talk where it all starts from.

“I was very nervous about agreeing to it.

“Number one. I’m not known as a composer at all, although it’s something I’ve been developing more in the time of lockdown.

“So I did the sessions with the women and we all shared our experiences.

“I’d used the services of Women’s Aid when I came home to Northern Ireland in 2005.

“They saved my life, the support that I had from them.

“I was just a shadow of myself as a young woman.

“And you don’t know things are so wrong until you say them out loud to people that know these things.

“So again, it felt like a full circle for me to then be able to feel healed in myself to be back playing the piano on stage.

“And actually to write this anthem for the White Ribbon Campaign and then getting to actually to record it on International Women’s Day at the waterfront in Belfast with Ulster orchestra, wonderful singer Jolene O’Hara, myself on piano.

“So yeah, it was definitely a hard, emotional, but wonderful, wonderful thing to be able to do and to be involved in.”

Did it open old wounds? “I think it’s always going to trigger you, always.

“And I knew that going into the process, but made sure that I had good support.

“And there’s something very beautiful about whenever women that are going through that come together.

“Some of the women that we were working with were in the very early stages of their own recovery or even acceptance, because at the beginning of coming out of an abusive relationship, there’s a long period of even accepting that this has happened, and that you are not wrong because you’ve been told maybe for many years that it’s all your fault.

“And it was a very, very poignant moment and having music to be able to help people on their healing journey like that is very important.

“I remember when I decided to stop playing for years, I remember just really feeling the whole classical solo concert pianist thing, at that time of my life, it felt like a very selfish thing.

“I felt like, ‘I am not helping anybody with this, it’s a very self-absorbed sort of thing’.

“Now I realize it’s not if you share it because music is so healing, but whenever I started wanting to get music back in to my life, I really wanted to be able to do things like that to use music as a healing thing for people as well.”

Although it was once a place of bad memories, Ruth is looking forward to coming back to London: “This feels a little bit like me maybe 20 years ago.

“You know, I was talking to somebody about it the other day and said, I kind of feel like I’m taking the little girl that was me over to do this.

“She said it would be funny if you just thought of yourself in all the different stages of your life. Bring them all over together.”

At 45, it amuses Ruth that the label ‘child prodigy’ has stuck somewhat.

“I’m 45.

“They say, ‘She won Young Musician of the Year’, and I’m like, ‘That was when I was 16. I’m now 45’.

“Or, ‘Child prodigy’. My son knows how much it frustrates me and he’ll throw it in sometimes, ‘You’re a child prodigy’.

“I don’t believe that I ever was.

“What does that even mean?

“But I suppose people hold on to these labels, makes them feel good about themselves for a moment, but I was always very uncomfortable with that.

“And again Northern Ireland is quite small and I am still ‘the piano girl’.

“And I’m like, ‘Okay, so I’m still gonna be the piano girl when I’m like 85?’”

Ruth collaborated with Derry electronic artist Ryan Vail on the single Chrysalism last year.

But even more special, it saw her working with her now 22 year old son Michael, who is a guitarist.

“Ryan said, ‘Would Mike put down a guitar line?’

“I said, ‘I will ask him, I’m sure he’ll say no because it’s really not cool to do things with your mum’. But he surprised me, agreed to it.

“And actually, we had a great time, we recorded a live video, he agreed to come along and play on it.

“So it was a wonderful thing to do.”

Has Ruth been careful to not let her son get too burdened by music’s pressures like she was? “I definitely have done the opposite.

“I could feel that there was a lot of music in him.

“But I very much wanted him to find it for himself.

“He taught himself the guitar and he plays by ear, he has learned music very much in a totally different way than I have learned.

“But I very much admire how he can just pick up the guitar and just go for things where I still love a score in front of me.

“But we’re still able to make music together.”

When Ruth comes for Unlimited, she will play some of the reimagined Irish folk of composer Neil Martin that will feature on the collaboration album to come from Ruth and Neil.

“I do have an album coming out on 29 October.

“It’s being launched here at the Belfast International Arts Festival.

“It’s a collaboration with a Belfast musician Neil Martin, and Neil as a Belfast composer. It’s called Aura and it’s reimagined folk, Irish songs, arranged in a more classical form but hasn’t lost obviously, its trad vibe either.

“It’s a beautiful album.”

Ruth also continues working on her next solo album.

Ruth performs at the Southbank Centre as part of Unlimited festival on Thursday 8 September.

Unlimited festival at the Southbank Centre runs 7- 11 September.

For more information about Ruth, click here.

For more information on the festival, click here.

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