MUSIC is full of prima donnas, with ego playing a key role in the performer’s coping mechanism, but Dublin-born concert pianist Finghin Collins has this sussed. “You need to have confidence in yourself,” he admits, “and you have to tell yourself that you’re good. It’s a balance between arrogance and confidence and you have to keep that balance.”
While his parents, Jim (from West Cork) and Brid (from Cappoquin), will have instilled this sensible attitude into their son, there is also possibly a hint of his schooling at Gonzaga College where, he asserts, “I got a good Jesuit education.”
Asked to enlarge on that, he explained: “They were very supportive of the whole cultural thing and my music. I missed half my exams in my Junior Cert because I was away in the Czech Republic at a competition representing Ireland, and then playing concerts around that area.”
For his Leaving Cert, Finghin concentrated on languages, and received As in Latin, Greek, French, German and Italian, as well as English and Irish. He also sat music and maths, receiving As in those too.
From the age of six, he studied piano under John O’Conor in the Royal Irish Academy of Music, and he completed a four-year BA in Music Performance there, before taking a post-graduate course at Geneva Conservatoire.
“John O’Conor was the main influence in my music,” he said. “I have a gift and I’m trying to tap into that and make the most of it. You have to know your own weaknesses and do what you have to do to become the best you can be. John O’Conor was always very positive and encouraging and it was that encouragement that helped. He engendered in me a love and respect for the music.”
However, despite his admiration for O’Conor, Finghin doesn’t see himself following the same career path. “Teaching is not something I’m hugely excited by,” he admitted, although he does put on a masterclass in Waterford each month.
After secondary school he also studied Russian and “can get by in it,” making the point that his knowledge of languages is a big help when communicating with conductors, and on his constant travels.
“I’ve been travelling regularly since I was 15 for performances. The last few years I have been to the US and Asia once a year and I have had lots of short haul flights. It gets tiring when you lose baggage or miss flights, but I don’t get too stressed. I tend to take things in my stride.”
Which is just as well because, according to Finghin, the life of a classical pianist is “a seven-day a week vocation: you never get away from it. It’s a solitary occupation, but I’m very happy with that. I don’t need a huge amount of social stimulation.”
The 30-year-old from Dundrum spends most of his time – when he’s not travelling to concerts – in his house in The Rower, Kilkenny. Like many other young people from his Dublin parish, he couldn’t afford to buy a house there. “I could have bought an apartment, but I need a place where I can have space for a piano.”
While still a regular visitor to his home parish, he uses his Kilkenny base “to refresh and practise. Some days I would practise four to five hours, others three to four, depending on what’s coming up. Still, it’s great doing what you love doing. No two days are the same, which is great because I like to do new things all the time and meet different people.
“I didn’t get into it for the money because I was in it before the age where one thinks logically of how to make a living. I make money from it, but there is a great disparity between fees. However, I am earning more each year.”
He no longer enters competitions, explaining that they are used solely to get “in on the circuit.” He made that breakthrough in 1999, when he won the prestigious Clara Haskil International Piano Competition in Switzerland.
“That’s a very well respected competition, a quality label, and I got a lot of engagements as a result of winning it, also a CD recording.”
The Clara Haskil attracts pianists from all over the world, aged between 18 and 30, but only about 90 are accepted.
“There are four rounds over a period of two weeks,” Finghin explained, “starting with an obligatory piece by Schumann and Brahms of 15 minutes. For the second round, the numbers are reduced to 25 and I played 50 minutes of Schubert and Liszt. For the third round, there were only six of us and I played a Mozart concerto with a string quartet. For the fourth round, there were four of us and I played a Beethoven concerto with an orchestra.
“Claves Records made a CD on the last two rounds, and the same company asked me to record a Schumann double CD, which was the Editor’s choice in ‘Gramophone Magazine’, and I will do another volume, double CD, this year.”
Pinning him down on his favourite pieces proved difficult. “Mozart is my favourite composer,” he responded, “then there’s Beethoven, Schumann and a host of others. I love discovering new pieces, some of which are old, but I also do some new stuff as, for instance, Ian Wilson’s piece, ‘The handsomest drowned man in the world’, based on a Gabriel Garcia Marquez story, which I played in the National Gallery and which was commissioned by the Festival of Music in Great Irish Houses.”
Yes, but can you be more specific about your favourite pieces in your vast repertoire? “Okay, well Schubert sonata in B flat, which lasts about 45 minutes, is one which I try to get into my programme as much as I can, and Scenes of Childhood by Schumann, which takes 15 minutes, is another I try to fit in.”
Finghin has performed in front of up to 4,000 in an outdoor park north of Chicago and to a full house of 1,200 in the National Concert Hall, and believes that the bigger the audience the easier it is.
“In Airfield House I played for 80 and some of them were right up beside me. At other times there might be only 20 around the country in a 200-seater and that’s mortifying. It can make it difficult to focus.”
Any awkward moments then? “No one’s perfect, you can be put off by something, but the key is to jump back on the rails and hope that the audience doesn’t notice. Most people don’t notice, but I would be annoyed at myself (when this happens).”
Finghin’s three older siblings are all classical musicians – he has had the privilege of playing with his sister Dearbhla in the National Concert Hall – so it’s no wonder he is so well grounded.