A Chat With Rosey Chan
The pioneering pianist Rosey Chan knows a thing or two (or 10) about the human body’s most expressive extremities. After all, hands and fingers are the source of both her livelihood and her blissfully melancholic music for the here and now. Even while observing the current moratorium on handshaking, Rosey isn’t afraid to reach out to creatives she admires, a habit that’s resulted in fruitful collaborations with dancers, designers, DJs – even architects. Alone in her home studio, the British-born virtuoso speaks to Mark Smith about digital dexterity, ill-advised political gestures and who has the hottest hands in showbusiness.
Mark: Even via Zoom I can see you have the graceful hands of the archetypal pianist, Rosey.
Rosey: I do have quite long, slender fingers, it’s true. But actually, some of the best pianists in the world had short fingers. Count Basie had really short, stubby fingers and that gave him more of an attack – more power when he struck the keys. In general, if you can stretch an octave – that’s eight notes – you can play most music, unless it’s really intense, hardcore contemporary classical or atonal music.
M: I’ve seen you play with just one hand, haven’t I?
R: Yes, I make a habit of opening my concerts with an improvisation for the left hand. The assumption that the piano is a 10-digit, two-handed instrument is wrong, and it was proved wrong by Scriabin, one of my favourite Russian Romantic composers. In 1894, he wrote a prelude and nocturne for the left hand which Ravel turned to for inspiration while writing his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D major, commissioned by the Austrian concert pianist Paul Wittgenstein – he lost his right arm in the First World War. I became utterly fascinated by the idea.
M: Do you pay much attention to other people’s hands and what they’re communicating?
R: I do. For example, when politicians are told by media trainers to use their hands in a certain way it’s often distractingly out of sync with the message itself. Lots of actors bite their fingernails – possibly their insecurities are going into their hands – although I’ve noticed that both Rhys Ifans and Robert De Niro have exceptionally beautiful ones. In any case, an ugly hand – or what one might think is an ugly hand – can become beautiful very quickly when you see it in motion.
“An ugly hand – or what one might think is an ugly hand – can become beautiful very quickly when you see it in motion.”
M: Are your own hands insured?
R: Oh yes. As a pianist, these 10 fingers are my tools. They’re all I have, and I need to be able to access the best possible help if I get tendonitis or if I strain myself by over-practising. It only takes one of those digits to be injured or swollen or whatever and everything goes out the window. Fortunately, there are some amazing hand specialists in London.
M: Aside from the perils of overwork, are your hands vulnerable in daily life?
R: One of my biggest concerns is shaking hands. Men in particular will grasp your hand and literally hurt it by squeezing it. It’s particularly bad if I’m wearing rings – which is a shame, because I love jewellery, especially pieces by Hannah Martin and Lara Bohinc – and I’m yet to come up with a good line for extricating myself that isn’t somehow offensive.
M: What is it with the alpha male and his vice-like grip? So 1970s.
R: I like to think that often it’s because they’re enthusiastic about a performance I’ve just done and they want to convey that in their handshake. Unfortunately, while I have incredibly strong fingers, my hand itself is quite delicate.
M: Social distancing must feel like quite the reprieve.
R: Indeed. But coronavirus has reminded us that hands can be a source of infection, too. Being Asian, that’s something I had instilled in me by my parents – I think people who grow up in hot climates tend to be more aware of those dangers. So I’ve always washed my hands regularly and used sanitiser, both of which can really take a toll on your hands. As a pianist, you need to moisturise fastidiously to keep your hands supple, but greasiness is its own kind of nightmare. I’ve searched far and wide for a hand sanitiser that could moisturise well, but I could never find one that came close.
M: Don’t tell me you’ve gone and invented one, Rosey.
R: I have! Over the past couple of years I’ve been working with a Swiss laboratory, and the resulting serum, called Performance by Rosey Chan, will be available before the end of this year, all being well. I’m very excited because the project really feels like my baby and I think it has potential to become a staple in people’s handbags. It’s unisex, too – organic, natural...
M: I’m sold. They say the devil makes work for idle hands. Doesn’t sound like you’ve slacked off much during lockdown.
R: It’s extraordinary, I’ve been recording almost every single day. I signed with an amazing label called Platoon, which was founded by Denzyl Feigelson, the guy who created iTunes with Steve Jobs back in the day, and we’ve put out a mindful piano playlist specifically for lockdown. I do miss human interaction and the special energy of the concert hall, but I also feel lucky to live in the age of live streaming. Recently, I was able to perform remotely in Piano City Milano, the world’s biggest piano festival, and it was thrilling.
M: And while there’s no danger of anyone trying to shake your hand, you can wear a whopping sparkler on every finger.
Rosey is wearing a grey Shetland virgin wool knit top by PRADA.
Interview by Mark Smith
Photography by Esther Theaker
Thank you Sally Bottomley