HomeEducationIn Conversation with Nikki Iles

In Conversation with Nikki Iles

Murray McLachlan interviews UK’s outstanding pianist-composer-pedagogue Nikki Iles. Iles is a Professor at the Royal Academy of Music, The Guildhall School of Music, and Drama and Middlesex University; and, driving force behind the innovative jazz syllabus at the ABRSM.

Whether she is performing, composing, teaching… or just generally inspiring via her warm, relaxed, always considerate, and charming manner, Nikki Iles exudes star quality. Recently awarded the BEM for outstanding services to music, her career is remarkably prolific, diverse, and universal. She has inspired and influenced the work of hundreds of young musicians over the years not only via her remarkably sympathetic and helpful teaching, but also through her numerous publications and compositions. Her remarkable collaborations with leading jazz musicians (see the list at the bottom) would be impressive enough in itself but is only one part of her phenomenal activity. Yes, she is one of the world’s leading jazz pianists…but she is also a composer of thrilling diversity, contrasting moods, approaches, and vision.

Having long been an admirer of Nikki’s charming, quaint and wonderfully accessible Piano Tales for Alice for EVC publications, I recently explored the follow-up album based on another well-loved children’s story favourite: Piano Tales for Peter Pan takes the grade 1-3 benchmark level of ‘Alice’ a stage further with music that sits nicely around intermediate grades (3-5) and which would be perfect material not only for players who naturally gravitate towards music inspired directly by jazz, but also for others in search of material that stimulates the development of colour, voicing, characterisation and strong rhythmic discipline.

‘Straight on till morning,’ the opening number, immediately establishes a sense of buoyant energy in quasi orchestral colours. ‘Shadow Play’ follows on with more pianistic refinement. The leggiero touch and volante characterisation in whispered pianissimo is pedagogically extremely useful. I particularly warmed to the exquisite tenderness of ‘Wendybird,’ in marked contrast to ‘Tic-Toc the crock,’ a wonderfully bluesy duet in which the influence of Richard Rodney Bennett’s ‘Three Piece Suite’ seems strong. The central pieces in the anthology continue to show fervent imaginative variety, with ‘Blue Lagoon’ surely destined for wide popularity: It has a direct memorable simplicity that immediately sticks in your mind. ‘Cut to the chase’ is arresting, energised and full of jazzy colours. Nothing could contrast more with the wistful wonder and quasi harp sounds of ‘Marooner’s Rock.’ Iles continues to show an enormous range of character with ‘Hook’s Hornpipe,’ building up character using fourths in a quaint miniature full of swashbuckling brio. The affirmative positivity continues with ‘Smec’ and the collection closes with a second duet (‘Tink,’ a puck-like essay with mischievous bur gentle clashing seconds) and ‘Lost boys blues’ (expressive and sonorous, as well as cheeky).

Though ‘Tales from Peter Pan’ shows only one side of Nikki’s astonishing gifts, it provides a special range of music for pianists of all persuasions. A most notable addition to the repertoire.

M: Tell us about music in your family and your first experiences of making music

N: There was always music around the house on the record player – all kinds of music. My father was a semi- pro jazz drummer in his younger days and loved Ella Fitzgerald, Sinatra, Oscar Peterson, and Nat Cole and I learned to phrase through unconsciously singing along, imitating their impeccable timing. My mum could play the piano and had a great love of classical music, so we regularly went to the ballet in London and again, listened to music on TV, the radio and to records of all sorts, from Tallis, through to Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, Vaughn Williams, and Bernstein. I always tinkered on the piano and began piano and clarinet lessons around the age of 7.

M: What was it like going to primary school in the late 60’s’/early 70’s? What were your musical experiences? What was different about music in school for you then than it is for children today?

N: We were extremely fortunate at my primary school to have a fantastically passionate and encouraging head of music called Douglas Tate. It was not until about 30 years later that I discovered he was a world- class harmonica player, well known on the session and classical scenes. He was highly respected teacher and had every single child in the school playing the harmonica and whilst making music fun, he stretched us all. He also encouraged us all to try a few instruments, which I am sure sparked my curiosity (and still does) regarding the sounds and personalities of various instruments. There were many ensembles and lots of assembly and choir singing of a high quality for everyone. Sadly, this is not the case now where primary schools do not often have specialist music teachers like Douglas.

M: Tell us about your move to the Saturday junior school at Royal Academy of Music (RAM)?

N: I began having lessons in Bedfordshire at the Saturday morning music school where I took piano and clarinet lessons, played in the wind band as well as the start of some aural/theory classes. This lead on to me being accepted as a Junior Exhibitioner at the Royal Academy from the age of 11. Here I worked my way up to the 1st Orchestra by the time I was 16 and even got to play the Mozart Clarinet Concerto with them.

Nikki Iles at the Ivors Academy Awards in 2019, where she won Best in Jazz Composition for “Caged Bird” commissioned by The International Society of Jazz Arrangers and Composer

M: What were some of the pivotal musical experiences at RAM?

N: There were many great opportunities in accompanying singers and instrumentalists and getting involved in chamber ensembles, where, as a pianist, I felt most at home and in a way, it is not surprising that I ended up in a similar chamber setting in the jazz ensemble, where accompanying and listening skills are essential. Having the chance to sit in the woodwind section of an excellent orchestra every week in the Dukes Hall was a privilege. I loved the orchestration; the timbres and I really took note of the colour in the orchestra’s palette. I am now righting for the jazz orchestra 40 years later and I am returning to the combinations of those sounds I heard all those years ago. My wonderful clarinet professor, Christopher Ball, wrote bespoke exercises which were beautifully copied with his fountain pen and pasted to coloured card. Receiving these each week led to a life-long love of handwriting music – the whole process- good quality paper waiting to be filled, sharpening my 2b pencils and beginning. I try to instil this love for handwriting in my students – at least in the early ideas part of their compositional process.

M: Was there a moment when Jazz took over? Was there a moment when Piano became more important than clarinet?

N: Unfortunately, where we lived in Dunstable was the wrong end of the catchment area which would have allowed me to go to the upper schools that had a decent music department. I ended up at an awful school with no music to talk of at all – so I was lucky to have Saturdays at RAM. Around the time of my O levels, a new music teacher arrived from Jersey – Brian Willoughby. He bought a full set of instruments to form a big band, and this was a significant moment for me. I began playing alto sax (with no teacher) and loved every minute of the time in that ensemble. We toured in the summer term and Brian bought in British Jazz Legends such as Kenny Baker and Don Lusher to play with the band. It was on one of these occasions where the regular pianist became sick, and I had to step into the piano chair. I hadn’t a clue how to improvise but loved the feeling and excitement of creating music in the moment. This led to me joining the Bedfordshire Dance Orchestra alongside some professional players (on alto) and this was when I decided this was the path I wanted to pursue (to the disappointment of my clarinet prof.!)

Nikki Iles with the NDR Bigband, one of Germany’s best radio Germany’s radio jazz ensemble

M: What were the most invaluable things you learnt and experienced at Leeds College of Music?

N: Jazz education was still in its infancy in the early 80s in Britain and Leeds was the only place in Europe where you could study jazz at an undergraduate level. At the heart of the course in Leeds was playing – there were so many different ensembles that were available to us, ranging from the big band, Webern contemporary group, the studio orchestra with strings, Duke Ellington rep band etc. it was an important time to understand and experience many different idioms before beginning to decide on a direction and vision for my own music.’

M: How and when did you first develop an interest in teaching and pedagogy?

N: I have always been very aware of the strengths and different approaches of my teachers, and it always interested me. I found myself in a full-time lecturing job in Ashton – under – Lyne at the age of 21, teaching out of work miners, special needs, A level and BTEC music. It was a baptism of fire, and I just about survived the first year! I like people and the thought of lifting them to a place they thought they could never reach or giving them a love of music even as amateurs is extremely rewarding.

M: Writing educational music for piano is only a small part of what you do. Do you specifically put on a ‘teaching hat’ to write music for ABRSM etc?

N: There must be some consideration of level and requirements when writing pieces for a syllabus, which is part of the challenge! I always like to think about writing music that has some corners that will need some study and understanding. It needs to be music that can bear repeated listening and keep the pupil and teacher’s interest. However, I also like to include a slightly more dissonant chords for example, that I would play in a ‘real world ‘situation. Often the pupil will say “is that correct?” and after a while it ends up being their favourite chord! Even at the early stages the authentic sound and feel of the idiom as is very important and I do not like to dilute the essence of the music.

M: Has your teaching directly influenced your piano music publications?

N: ‘Yes, definitely. I tend to teach jazz from around grade 3 and my work with NYJC and at two of the local schools here in Bedford gives me a real insight into the earlier grades. I also teach at 3 London Conservatoires and work with classical adult players, which again, helps me to understand where the strengths and weaknesses of non- jazz players lay’.

M: Tell us about how you came to write Tales from Alice? What were the strongest influences in producing this most charming collection?

N: Elena Cobb, my publisher at EVC Music invited me to write a series of pieces at grade 1-3 level, leaving me with a free rein to come up with the idea for the collection. Even in my own pieces, I am more easily inspired when imagining a story, character or creating an atmosphere. There are so many wonderfully quirky characters in Alice in Wonderland, so it was easy to start to conjure them up and let my inner child run wild and the ideas started flowing! I thought it would also be nice to have each title working as a standalone piece with the collection also working as a complete set for a group sharing or concert setting.

M: Have you always loved the Peter Pan story? Did you know any other composers who were directly inspired to write music based on the tale? Do you see this newer collection as growing from the Alice anthology?

N: Elena and I were thinking of a follow up to Alice and she mentioned Winnie the Pooh, which would have been great, but we decided to move the level up to grades 3-5 so there is a progression from Alice. I also wanted a story that would appeal to both boys and girls and have always loved the Peter Pan Fantasy, having seen the Walt Disney film many times as a child. I also knew the 1950 adaptation of J..M Barrie’s play with words and music by Leonard Bernstein. There was also a personal story that attracted me to this tale. Our daughter, Imogen was born with transposition of the great arteries and had open heart surgery at Great Ormond Street hospital that saved her life at 10 days old. J.M Barrie donated all his royalties from Peter Pan to the hospital and its research – so even more reason to write the collection.

Early sketches for “Jabberwocky” from Piano Tales for Alice and “Wendy Bird” from Piano Tales for Peter Pan

M: Would you like to see younger players decorate, branch off from and extend passages in the music of the Peter Pan and Alice collections? Would they be suitable as arrangements for other instruments?

N: I always like to encourage all players to embellish the pieces. Perhaps the first time, play as written and then experiment and explore. Most of the pieces could easily be arranged for other instruments – good idea!

M: Do you see the Peter Pan and Alice collections as being totally different from you other works? Is there a third or even fourth and fifth collection in this spirit that you could work on in the future?

N: I think there is a narrative through the book, which is unique to these publications. I would love to write another series… there maybe something in the pipeline!

M: What are some of the plans for future publications?

N: I’m in talks with Elena about future ideas including a simple and practical introduction to improvisation with my husband, Pete Churchill – a wonderful educator. I have just finished a three-book series called Nikki Iles and Friends for the ABRSM from initial level to grade 8.

M: With your busy diary of engagements, your teaching and your compositions, you embrace at least three careers simultaneously. How do you manage to do so much? How does each aspect of your work relate to each other? Do they conflict or do they synergise and help each other?

N: I think the old saying: “Ask a busy person to do it.” It is very true, and I’ve always enjoyed a deadline! I find all strands of my musical life do synergise and help each other. Post Covid, I have been fortunate to have lots on in all areas and are finding there are not enough hours in the day. I also feel that life should feed your music – it is important to have time out to read, watch films see an exhibition or have time with friends and family. So, this year, I am taking a career break for the first time from most of my regular college teaching as I have just been appointed Artist in Residence at the NDR Radio Big Band in Hamburg. So, I will be composing lots of music for them and working with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra in Germany, The HR Frankfurt Big Band and the UMO Jazz orchestra in Helsinki. So, it is an exciting new phase for me.

Nikki Iles, BEM

As a founder member of the hugely innovative Creative Jazz Orchestra in the early 90s, Nikki Iles came to prominence working with musicians such as Anthony Braxton, Vince Mendoza, Mark Anthony Turnage, Kenny Wheeler and Mike Gibbs. Although well known as a pianist, composition remains a major part of her musical life. The breadth of Nikki’s artistic vision has led her to disregard the arbitrary boundaries of the jazz scene and most notably, commissions have included a collaboration with American dancer Mimi Cichanowicz, the UMO Jazz Orchestra in Finland, the London Sinfonietta, The LPO’s Renga ensemble, the International Society of Jazz Arrangers and Composers and National Youth Jazz Orchestra.

In 2019, she was awarded the prestigious Ivors Academy Gold Badge and Ivor Novello Award for exceptional contribution to the music. Thorough lockdown, she won the Seattle jazz composition prize and was a recipient of both The British Jazz and Parliamentary Jazz Awards and in the Queens New Year’s Honours list 2022, a British Empire Medal for services to music. An inspirational teacher, she was also awarded an Honorary RAM from The Royal Academy of Music and a Fellow of Birmingham Conservatoire for outstanding contributions to the music. As a player she remains much in demand with over 30 recordings to her name.

With a parallel career as a widely respected teacher in composition and arranging, Nikki is a Professor at the Royal Academy of Music, The Guildhall School of Music and Drama and Middlesex University. She also gives masterclasses around the world and has been a driving force behind the innovative jazz syllabus at the ABRSM and continues to publish extensively with Oxford University Press and EVC Music.

About Murray McLachlan

Murray McLachlan has made over 40 commercial recordings and performed on all five continents to critical acclaim. His three books on piano technique were published by Faber Music and have been acclaimed internationally. He is a distinguished teacher and works on the faculty at RNCM as Head of Keyboard at Chetham’s School of Music and well known for his long-standing column in International Piano Magazine. As founder and artistic director of the world famous Chetham’s International Summer School and Festival for Pianists oversees an event which has been running for over 20 years as the largest summer school in Europe devoted exclusively to the piano.

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