Zoe Rahman - Piano

“I love ivory keys”, says Rahman. “I really like the pianos that really inspire you and give you something back and make you play in a completely different way as to how you were expecting and give you the freedom to create in the moment – it’s not necessarily their make or their age.”
Rahman was fortunate to have been encouraged to play and develop her musical skills from an early age. “I had a fantastic primary school teacher called Miss Hawkins,” says Rahman. “She used to teach us recorders and guitar, and we were always singing and doing musicals. She was really enthusiastic.”
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Rahman’s parents were also very encouraging. “My parents didn’t play any instruments, but they really liked music and took us to a lot of gigs,” she remembers. “Eventually, when I was about four, they bought a piano for about ten quid and put it in the backroom – it was one of those old ones with an ornate cover – it might even have had candelabras!” Rahman continues. “I remember it had holes in the back where the woodworm had got in but I have really fond memories of playing on it.” When Rahman’s parents realised that both their daughters were serious about wanting to play music (Rahman’s sister is now a professional classical pianist), they bought an Erard Baby Grand piano. “Then for some reason I remember we housed a Bechstein grand for a while,” continues Rahman. “I think it belonged to someone else, but it came to stay in our house. So that was really good, as we could both practice at the same time.”

Between the ages of 11 and 18 Rahman went up to the Royal Academy Junior Exhibition on Saturdays, “where I had the privilege of playing on a nice Steinway.” So where did her musical influences come from?

“Very early on I transposed some Horace Silver’s pieces. I listened to a lot of Eddie Palmieri, and then later Abdullah Ibrahim and Bud Powell. I also really love Chopin, Rachmaninov and Bartok.” Rahman went on to study classical music at Oxford University, “with as much emphasis on other things as I could possibly get into the degree,” she says. “Like a dissertation on Bill Evans!” However, every Saturday she continued to go down to the Academy to have a lesson. “Because the course was really academic and historical, and you didn’t really have to play an instrument to follow the course and get your degree!”

But we’re soon back to talking about Rahman’s favourite subject – live performance. “Every gig is different for a piano player”, she starts. “You don’t come along with your instrument and your own specific sound – although that of course is affected by the space you’re playing in. For a piano player when you arrive at a gig, you have to spend a little time getting to know your instrument – trying to get the best out of that instrument in the short time that you have. If you do two sets on a gig, it takes the first set to find out where the sound on the piano really is and then you can really play.”

But Rahman doesn’t always enjoy her meetings with new pianos.” You’d be amazed at what I have to deal with,” she says in incredulous tones. “Cigarette ash, cracked keys and even blood! Then there’s the Steinway in the library of the British Council offices in Bangladesh which has a few strings missing. So this time when I go, I shall take a few strings with me – I don’t really know how to do it, so hopefully there will be a tuner there!”

So what and where is Rahman’s favourite piano? “Bosendorfers are one of my favourite pianos,” she swoons. “Because they have such an amazing dynamic range. The ones that I have played have got a big fat bass end – and that’s my favourite end of a piano. I played a Bosendorfer at the Ramshorn Theatre in Glasgow and that was the most stunning piano and the space it was in allowed the sound to go right up and it was really inspiring to play on.”

“The joy of being a piano player is that you have the full keyboard and you can play as many notes as you like at the same time, and then of course you can play inside the piano and play the strings – I did that once with a theatre project I was working on.”

More recent projects have included working in Damascus with a Syrian singer and coming to terms with the challenging quarter tones of an Arabic scale. She has also been transposing rhythm and melody off an African ‘thumb’ piano to accompany a Zimbabwean singer.

I finish by asking what Rahman’s perfect piano might be. Rahman chuckles… then offers: “In my ideal other life I would have my own custom made piano with its own inbuilt stereo, so that I could do all my transcribing work and of course, its very own attached mini-bar!”