You might like to read the interview while listening to Gabrielle’s original compositions. You can find her work here, on Spotify.
In this interview with Jannah, pianist, composer, and teacher Gabrielle Peake reflects on her growth, and on how patience has shaped her life and work as a musician.
Tell me about your early experiences with music and learning the piano.
I grew up on a dairy farm. Mum and Dad got gifted money to buy a piano by my great grandmother as a wedding present. Mum learned piano as an adult student. She had four of us children, and actually taught me piano when I was five, for the year, and then I went on to my local piano teacher at age six and stayed with her until I left school at seventeen, which is an amazing length of time!
I had an incredible relationship with my teacher—not that I knew it at the time. She really helped me fall in love with the instrument. She would host concerts and competitions, which I always found nerve-wracking and inspiring. Her house was warm and ambient, and I just loved sitting down to play for her. She had a cupboard filled with all the scores you could ever imagine, and I remember thinking it was the biggest treasure trove of music waiting to be played. I loved new music and listening to her CDs of some of the great classical works.
So, from quite an early age, I was thinking a lot about music. Our environment growing up on the farm in the 1990s, we didn’t have a whole lot to do—but we had the piano! I went to bed hearing Mum playing Für Elise and Richard Clayderman—anything Richard Clayderman. That was how I got serenaded to sleep.
I’ve just always loved the piano; I’ve been so drawn to the sound. I must have had a natural knack for the expression of music. I always felt that it really means something to me.
What happened after school, with the piano?
Well, I’ve just kept on doing it. It was an option at the end of school to stop. But then I considered my life without practice or the piano, and I imagined what that would be like. So then I went and studied music at university. It became quite a massive part of my life. I kept on going—and I’m still going(!) in a slightly different capacity.
Can you tell me about specific challenges you experienced studying at this high level?
I don’t even know how I did five years … this is where the love of music comes in. It’s quite full-on when you’re at university, and you’re under pressure, and you’ve got performance exams. You’re always being critiqued, and you have to memorise everything as well. I would do 6–7 hours in the practice room at a time. You’d spend the whole year on something, and, sometimes, it wouldn’t go well when it came to a performance. Once, I got on stage for an exam, and I started in the development section rather than at the beginning! Those were incredibly frustrating times. I’d do all this work—hours and hours and hours—and then, when I’m being assessed or there’s a performance, I could just crumble under the pressure and fluff my way through it and lose the essence of the music.
It was incredibly frustrating at points. I don’t even know how I got back to the practice room sometimes. I wanted to quit at the end of every year. There were some big disappointments, big setbacks, but something drew me back. Determination, patience—what drew me back? I just love music so much. It just resonates with your soul and your being, somehow.
It’s probably a stubbornness about my personality that wanted to see how far I could go. And so I went as far as I could within New Zealand. I’m so pleased that I did it. I have no regrets.
I often think of the groundwork of music practice—scales, arpeggios, exercises—as a kind of a liturgical practice, in which you’re grounding yourself in the nuts and bolts of this musical tradition, and you’re training yourself. There’s a patient repetition and discipline that’s involved. Does this resonate with you?
Yes, I love that framing actually. I appreciate scales more and more the older I get because you can rest in them. I’ve got two different perspectives with scales. I’ve got one as a pianist when I’m playing scales every day. I find them deeply restful—I don’t have to develop them now, and they’re such a good foundation for what is to come after that. And now as an adult I’m beginning again on the cello, and I love them. I could play scales all day, and I’d be a happy woman!
That’s fascinating because so many people have a very limited tolerance—they find scales boring. So it strikes me that you’ve developed a kind of patience around scales that has turned into a love of them. How would you describe that?
I guess I could see the fruits from the scales. I understand where they can send me. They develop my technical ability at the instrument, so I become a more fluent pianist or cellist. Practically, they warm your fingers up. They give you a good understanding of keys and how they work and how they relate. This is very hard to teach students—you try to help them understand that there’s actually going to be really pivotal learning, but I’ve never really been able to explain to a student how important scales are except for, “please just play them every day and one day you’ll understand!”
They’re quite, quite meditative. You have to trust that they will send you places. Scales and technical work are about getting the foundations and the grounding right. You can’t really skip the scales. They’re a fundamental stepping-stone to music, and you can’t just practice your scales for a year and then you’re done. It doesn’t matter how good you are. You have to come back to them over and over again.
Jeremy Begbie, in his book, Theology, Music and Time, says: ‘The performance and enjoyment of music can teach us a constructive of waiting in patience. A waiting which need not be empty or resigned but felicitous and abundant. To state the obvious, because music takes or demands our time, it cannot be rushed. It schools us in the art of patience.’”
Yes. That’s so cool. And it’s so true. To become good at your craft, whatever it is, takes a lot of time and discipline, a lot of patience, persistence, determination. You can’t just click your fingers and you’re going to be good at your instrument. You have to turn up.
Yes, that’s exactly right. It cannot be rushed. In fact, it will hamper you at every turn if you rush, right?
Yes, there’s no such thing. And, as teachers, we can see straight through that!
So would you say that part of the learning of patience is the ongoing acceptance of taking time and the refusal to be rushed, always?
Yes, always. I like that. There’s beauty in taking time. Even for something simple, like taking time over a cup of coffee, a long coffee in the morning. I gave up rushing a long time ago. There’s no point.
How did you discover composition?
I discovered composition about five years after university, in 2016. A friend asked if I could write a piece with him. I said yes, and, from there, I haven’t really stopped. Well, there have definitely been lulls in the composition journey part of my life, but there was something freeing about creating from scratch, without any sort of requirements or deadlines. I’ve been writing on and off since then.
Were you surprised to discover that you could compose?
It was a big, big surprise. And it gave me a bit more freedom at the piano. It was just another avenue to explore, which I wasn’t aware of. Composition alongside classical music has been a really beautiful avenue to be able to really enjoy and express music.
We’ve been talking about not rushing; that is abundantly clear in your compositions where it feels that you are not afraid of space—in fact, you have embraced a huge amount of space. Every note and chord has its place, and you’re unafraid to leave lots of room, which is beautiful. It’s always in motion, but there’s a kind of inner stillness to what I’m hearing.
Yes, there is, yes—that’s so interesting. My hope for when people listen to my music is that they can experience the breath and the time and the rest … as a Christian, my prayer is so simple: it’s just, “Can you please use my hands as a vessel for your work in this world?” I guess my prayer is that people get to experience the beauty and the love of God through my music. My hopes and dreams would be that they’d be 100% devoted to the music when they listen so they can feel and hear that breath, and care, and time.
Yes, that sense of time—it’s very interesting because it does feel like there’s a patience to your music. You’re not afraid, you’re not rushing—it seems that you have a great sense of “measure.” How do you think that embrace of spaciousness has come about in your music?
Especially at the piano, there’s a real tendency to want to fill space—because we can; you’ve got all these fingers—you can actually just fill up all the rests. But silence and rest are a massive part of music, and, without them, it’ll actually just be a terrible piece of music. I’m not a rushed person, so I guess it translates into the music that I create.
It’s interesting with art or creativity, isn’t it? We don’t tangibly sit there and say, “Oh, I am feeling this, now I’m going to write about this.” It’s a little bit more organic than that. It’s an expression of us that comes through whatever art form we’re doing; whether it be painting or music—there’s something of us.
So, to be able to create, you have to show up to the instrument, you have to turn up and know that there’ll be an idea there. Often, for me, I sit around and just noodle for a long time. But all that noodling adds up to something eventually, and then you have this little breakthrough, but you can’t hit the breakthrough without the noodling. So, in terms of patience, I think I trust that something will come. And I know that when I am writing, I feel fully alive, and that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing in this world.
You’ve used the phrase “turning up to the instrument” several times. What does it mean for you?
Don’t just talk about it. Do it! I do this a lot—I should be writing; I want to write, but I’m only human! I do want to create another album, and I want to create an album for two pianos. There are multiple things I want to do. And I think sometimes I talk about it more than doing it. So, for me, essentially, I think that if you want to do this, if you feel called to do it—which I do—just turn off your devices, carve out time, and turn up to your instrument.
How does the development of patience emerge in your teaching work?
In teaching, you need a lot of patience. In reflecting on this, I guess my approach is to treat others, to love others, like you would love yourself. So I sit there, and I always try the best I can to put myself into my students’ shoes to understand where they might be coming from, and to give them all the space and the time in the world to be able to accomplish what they’ve set out to accomplish. With every student, you need to adapt your teaching style—to their personality and their character, and their strengths and weaknesses. So patience is borne out of trying to understand exactly who this person is and where they’re at.
In terms of Strength Finders, “Developer” for me is right up there. So I celebrate the little wins with my students. I look, and I see them. And that’s why I do what I do. I’ve always known I’ve wanted to teach ever since I experienced a great relationship with my teacher. I loved stepping into the music room, and I always wanted to create the same in my adult life, which I hope I am doing.
What about in composition? Do you feel that the virtue of patience has emerged for you?
With composition, I guess it’s just me and the music that is not yet here in the world. It is understanding that something will come. It’s being patient with all the crappy little ideas that you have—and they are terrible! You’re creating something from scratch. Sometimes, it’s awful and it doesn’t sound great. So, it’s learning to search and be patient, and to trust and to know that something will come eventually.
Do you think that because this is a calling for you, a vocation, that part of this trust is—as you say—turning up and trusting that this is who God’s made you to be? And so the ideas will come?
Definitely, because you hear from God or you know … There’s so many different things in my life that have led me to this point, even the piano that I’m sitting at right now. I’ve never been able to afford this grand piano, but it’s here in my lounge. I own the piano as basically a gift from God, and it’s here for me to create on. And there are a few different opportunities that have come up in the composition world, which I would have never been able to map out for myself. It’s far greater than what I could have ever imagined. God’s opened up doors for me, and I need to be able to come and meet him here—for the music to be created and then sent out into the world.
Are there other ways in which patience as a virtue connects with your faith, in your experience?
I guess I’ve learned how to apply the lessons of patience to other areas of my life through the different endurances that I’ve had with performance piano and then composition. As a Christian, if you don’t “turn up,” things don’t just magically happen by us just “being,” so, in terms of my relationship with God, the patience that has been required through learning the piano and composition can also be applied to having a close relationship with him. It doesn’t happen by just thinking about him.
Turning up again, right?
Yeah, it is. It’s been a revelation to me to learn that, and it’s something that I will continue working on for the rest of my life. You go through moments of really carving up time—turning up and learning how to be with him or learning how he speaks to you that you need time for. For me, it actually isn’t sitting down on the couch and waiting. It’s walking, or driving, or being at the piano.
Do you think that God is patient with you over your life? Can you see a connection between your learnings as a teacher, with your students, and your experience of God?
There probably is because God has had to be incredibly patient with me. I’m a slow mover. I tend to move when I’m ready, but he probably does knock on my door a lot sooner than what I realise. And I do get there eventually. I think God is probably the epitome of patience. And so, then, as a teacher, I do believe he lives within me; I’ve got his love and his spirit within me. So, I need to also be that for the students that I mentor as well—just knowing they will get there eventually. I have to repeat what I say every week. And I love repetition, but God does it for me too until it actually sits with me.
It’s interesting to think of your long journey as a musician and the embrace of repetition that you’ve gained. Many people would just be irritated and have such a limited tolerance for this kind of repetition.
Gosh, yes, you see it all the time in your students; you’ve got students that understand—not many of them—and others that just want instant gratification. It’s so hard to teach because even if you understand the concept—even my adults understand that it takes practice—it’s hard to fully realise it.
Tell me about learning the cello as an adult.
At the beginning of the year, I started learning the cello. I have always wanted to learn, always been fascinated by the instrument. I’ve always played with cellists. I want to write better for strings as, at the moment, I write pretty much solely for piano or two pianos. And I’d love to write for strings. So I just needed a bit of understanding of how the instrument worked. I love it! As an adult learner, and a teacher too, I thought I’d have a whole lot more discipline to know better than to not practice, but I still need the weekly lessons to hold me accountable to my learning.
I guess that the process of going back to being a beginner again on the cello would require a new dose of patience and perhaps a kind of humility?
It’s been the most humbling experience. It’s been humbling because I am good at the piano—I’m good at what I do—and to step into this … I mean, it’s music—I understand the notation, the timings, but then it actually sounds terrible. It’s been humbling, but I love it. Maybe with patience, I know that it will turn into something. And from what I’ve learned with the piano, I know that if I keep practising, keep going to my lessons, I will eventually get there. You’ve got no other option if you want to get to where you want to hit if you do that. It’s made me a more gracious teacher, and I feel like I was quite patient already, but it’s made me even more so, particularly with my adult students.
Do you teach adult students?
Yes, my cello lessons were really inspired by my adult students that I have coming in for piano. I have learned through them just the joys of learning. I think as a student, growing up, I didn’t understand the beauty of learning or the process of learning—I was all about the destination. But now, as an adult, and having seen my adult students literally get so excited about the smallest little details at the piano, I’m approaching learning in a whole new way because of them. I mean, I’m a pretty terrible cellist, and I will be probably for the rest of my life because I started later, but it doesn’t matter.
Music is such a wonderful thing, isn’t it? I really, really encourage my students: people, just experience the arts! It is life, isn’t it? That’s the air we breathe. It doesn’t pay well … but it makes you feel fully alive and at one with what you’re supposed to be doing in the world. I feel closer to God through it. I’m so thankful for it.
(Images: supplied by Gabrielle Peake)