The girl who fell in love with music all over again

There are few people in this city, and much farther afield, who are unaware of the name Ruth Mc Ginley. In music circles she is held in awe by most who have seen or heard her perform.

Quercus Ensemble pianist Ruth McGinley. (1705PG55)
Quercus Ensemble pianist Ruth McGinley. (1705PG55)

This young woman has been mesmerising audiences with her ability to play the piano since she was a tiny child – little has changed in that respect in the years that followed.

I first saw Ruth Mc Ginley many years ago as a child myself, most often Spring in the corridors of the Guildhall at the annual feises –Londonderry or Derry – take your pick.

I have a clear vision of a smiling curly haired little girl, who unassumingly went about her performances to emerge a while later from the Minor Hall labouring under silver trophies that were often almost bigger than her.

Minutes later, she would be hoisted onto the piano stool in front of the grand piano in the Main Hall and would spend hours then accompanying Irish dancers.

She never missed a note or beat in the process, amazing and beguiling all who saw her.

At the age of nine Ruth was awarded a scholarship to the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin to study under Dr John O’ Conor.

By 1995 she had received a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London, however she completed her studies at the Royal Irish Academy in 1999. Here she obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Music Performance with First Class Honours. In 2002, Ruth was awarded a Postgraduate Diploma in Performance as a Solo Recitalist from the Royal College of Music in London. Just for good measure in between times, in 1992 she won the piano final of RTE’s Young Musician of the Future followed in 1994 by winning the massive accolade of the best pianist in the BBC Young Musician of the Year.

There followed of course a great demand on her to perform as a concert pianist across Ireland, the UK, Europe and the Middle East including performances with the BBC Philharmonic, London Mozart Players, the National Symphony Orchestra, RTE Concert Orchestra and the Ulster Orchestra.

With a demanding schedule, an agent in London and tutors to take her through A levels away from school, teenage normality was a thing of the past.

Success had been achieved at such a young age. Surely it was guaranteed for her lifespan?

Whilst the young mother of one lauds the year 2013 and the UK City of Culture as a metamorphic one for her native city, it has also proved to be an utterly transforming one for her personally.

Unknown to most, in the last number of years a combination of factors made the consummate performer lose faith in her ability as a soloist and indeed question her love for music itself.

Ruth said: “I had completely lost my confidence in being a solo performer. So, 2013 above all years was the chance to get that confidence back. I thought, if I can’t do it this year...

“It felt the right time in my personal and professional journey to get out and try it again. I finally felt there was nothing to lose! I’ve spent years performing as part of duo partnerships, ensembles and have been incredibly blessed to be an accompanist for the award winning Classical trio, The Priests, which has given me fantastic opportunities in travel and performance experiences.”

Years of being lauded as a child prodigy and being perhaps pigeon-holed as only a classical performer had taken their toll on Ruth Mc Ginley. And, 2013 as the City of Culture whilst acting as a catalyst to get back to performing solo has had another effect.

“I want it to be more relaxed and authentic this time round. I don’t know exactly where I want to be with it all yet, but I’m still learning, experimenting, challenging myself and most importantly loving it. For years I had lost my passion for it. I didn’t want to perform anymore. It was complicated.Life was complicated! It was born from fear that was blown out of proportion. Only I know now, that I am the only person who could make sense of it all.

“Having this year has confirmed for me that I don’t want to do the serious, classical solo concert pianist thing again, although I have always said I’d love to perform Rach 2 concerto one last time before hanging up my gloves! I want to be a pianist who simply plays beautiful music that touches people in the way I feel music should, and this doesn’t have to be only in the classical genre,” she said.

So, the pianist has embarked on the exploration of other musical genres, specifically with her friend and renowned jazz drummer and producer, David Lyttle with whom she is planning to record an album in 2014.

Ruth said: “David is a great friend of mine who has been trying to persuade me for the last two years to do some recording.

“At the beginning I thought, well, I don’t feel the need to do that, life is fine as it is and who would want to listen? But now, finally, I’ve realised how great it would be to have my own voice again and share my new found love for it. So, it’s going to happen.”

Performing aside, as the daughter of one of the most well known and successful music teachers around, Ray Mc Ginley, Ruth spends a portion of her week teaching herself.

“I try to keep my teaching to two days a week as much as I can. I like to have only a minimal number of students so that I can care for each one of them personally. Too many, and I lose inspiration! I’ve learnt about having a quality of life also, which is really important to me. Some days I enjoy having nothing to do, so I relax in coffee shops, go for walks and just be. Practising is always there though – that’s daily,” said Ruth.

Yet, is there a time when practising becomes a chore?

Ruth said: “No. I adore practising, I really do. I have moments, as a grown up where there are lots of other things in life to do, when I wish the world would just go away and leave me with the piano.

“I have my time though, usually very late at night when I sit at the piano and play until 3am for myself, because I can. It hasn’t always been like this though. When I returned home to Derry after living in London and not playing for a few years in 2004, I felt I should try to regain my career as a concert pianist, entering and preparing for international piano competitions.

“Back to the punishing eight hours a day sessions, I spent a lot of time crying at the piano at this stage. It just didn’t feel right any more. I felt I wanted to run away from it. I had no idea who I was as a person, without being ‘the

pianist.’ With a lot of inner struggle I had to relearn how to live again as a human being, and more importantly a mother. This has been life changing.

“I tried to not play for a period of time, but no surprise, this didn’t last. I crawled back to the black and white monster in time, and fell back in love with it again. This time, though, on my terms.

“And, finally this year, it has been a case where I want to share my playing with people again. However, I’ve been challenged by a new found fear on stage as a soloist, something I never suffered with. I’ve learnt about the reality of stage fright, and it’s not pleasant!

“The only way to beat it though is to get out there and do it, and to not always listen to what the head is telling us. I’ve also learnt that it’s ok not to be perfect..!”

Having battled through the stresses and strains of finding the path to what she wants to do with her unquestionable talent has led Ruth McGinley to develop other skills that have helped her along the way.

Years of sitting on piano stools took a toll on her back. So, for some years now she has been an avid practitioner of yoga and meditation and even has a room dedicated to this in her house.

More surprisingly however for a concert pianist has been the more recent addition to her life of kick boxing-in which she has recently attained her first belt.

“People don’t realise that as a musician you need a degree of physical strength. For me exercise is something that keeps me not only physically well but mentally healthy,” said Ruth.

One of the highlights of the UK City of Culture was on mid-summer’s day, 2013, when BBC Northern Ireland’s Stephen McCauley hosted a live broadcast from the Glass Works on Great James Street.

Whilst the main thrust of the night was to showcase pop and rock acts the BBC presenter asked Ruth McGinley to play a contemporary classical piece. It was Glassworks, by Phillip Glass to be played in the Glass Works. At first Ruth baulked at the idea because the piece was completely at odds with the rest of the material.

Yet, it was this total contrast that was in the end superb. During Ruth’s performance a perfect silence was observed and the local girl completely stole the entire show.

Ruth McGinley’s personal highlight of 2013, was Hofesch Schecter’s ‘Political Mother’-a performance of contemporary dance and music she says “blew her mind.”

“Of course, I also felt hugely privileged being part of the main opening concert, ‘Sons and Daughters’. As for the legacy of 2013, I think it has increased people’s confidence that we can do this. A lot of us knew that the talent has been here all along but the chance to showcase it to the world is something we should be grateful for. It’s been very special.”

As 2013 ended and 2014 was about to begin, this remarkably open and honest woman placed a post on Facebook. It said: “2013…a year which I will never forget! I’ve made, and rekindled amazing friendships with incredible people.

“I’ve learned to trust myself as a performing musician for the second time round in my life again...trusting people who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself, breaking a cycle of fear to perform as a soloist again...finding myself entering 2014 with more self belief and confidence in myself than I ever could have imagined.

“It’s only the beginning! Here’s to the next chapter of love and life. Let’s make it the best one yet!!! Happy New Year Xxx.”