Back in Colombo to give a piano performance, Deepani de Alwis talks to Namali Premawardhane of the highs and lows in her musical journey Deepani de Alwis is one of a few Sri Lankan pianists capable of making half a thousand musical notes glitter and sparkle in succession within the span of a minute. Watching [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

When you start practising, you start falling in love with the music


Back in Colombo to give a piano performance, Deepani de Alwis talks to Namali Premawardhane of the highs and lows in her musical journey
Deepani de Alwis is one of a few Sri Lankan pianists capable of making half a thousand musical notes glitter and sparkle in succession within the span of a minute. Watching her hands, utterly relaxed during the whole process, makes Claude Debussy’s ‘Pagodes’ from Estampes seem a simple piece to conquer. But the firmness of Deepani’s handshake communicates the strength, the determination and the long years of hard work it takes to become the calibre of performer she represents.

Deepani de Alwis. Pic by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

In 2015, Deepani received the Canadian National Gold Medal for Licentiate Piano from the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. She had scored an uncommonly high 95-percent of the marks at the exam. Days later she also received First Class Honours for a Grade 10 singing exam she took at the same conservatory. Deepani holds a Bachelors Degree and Postgraduate Diploma, both in performance, from the Royal Conservatoire in Scotland, and is also a Fellow of the Trinity College of London and a Licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music in London. She has performed in Italy, Scotland and London.

On Sunday, September 18, Deepani de Alwis will perform at the Lionel Wendt Auditorium, in aid of The Music Project which supports peace building among schoolchildren through music education. “I love these composers!” she says, speaking of the programme for the evening which is almost identical to the “gold medal” programme.

For Deepani, a performance is more an opportunity to hear the music herself, than to entertain an audience. She will never tire of the works of J. S. Bach, she says, and the ‘Partita No. 6’ is a piece she really loves and feels comfortable with.

She will also play Schummann’s ‘Kreisleriana’ which she describes as “very emotional and tangible. It has a sort of back and forth, violence and softness, but it is also very beautiful.” The ‘Appassionata’ from Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 57 and Debussy’s ‘Image II’ complete the collection.

The last time Deepani performed for a Colombo audience was in 2008.“I was just coming out a hand injury, so it became an important performance for me,” she says.After pushing herself too much with practising the piano, playing badminton and weight training, both Deepani’s arms gave way, and she began losing sensation. Doctors gave her the option of surgery or rest. For nearly two years, Deepani was simply not allowed to play the piano.

“You think of yourself as a pianist, and then you can’t even play ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ because you’re not supposed to,” she exclaims, describing the frustration. Her commitment to the keyboard hadn’t always been this high, she admits.
Deepani started playing the piano when she was a mere four-year-old. Her mother, Ranjani de Alwis, was a piano teacher, and there was no question about Deepani or her sister learning an instrument.

“I was drawn to the piano from the beginning,” Deepani says.But becoming a pianist for life wasn’t a given. She recalls regular conversations with her parents about giving up music altogether, once at age ten and again after completing her watershed grade eight exams. The only reason she continued up to diploma level was because her father informed her that as long as she lived under his roof, she was going to play music.

When Deepani was in her early teens, the whole de Alwis family moved to Italy, where the budding pianist began training with Leon Harshenin, a product of The Julliard School, the premier school for music in New York City. The pupil recognised the value of learning she would acquire from the teacher, but that did not effect any change in her approach to the learning experience.
“I would go weeks without practising,” she admits now, shaking her head.

Failing all other tactics to get his pupil to work, Harshenin, now a prominent figure in the piano performance and education spheres, threatened to tell her parents and quit teaching himself. Deepani finally began practising the piano.

“I had a Hayden Sonata to learn for my diploma,” she begins describing what unfolded. “I started taking the music to school and there and everywhere I went, and within a week I had memorized the whole thing. When I went back, [my teacher] had the shock of his life!”

Deepani skipped her Associate level exams and jumped straight into her Licentiate. This was the first exam she says she “put some effort into”. The hard work paid off, and she was given an opportunity to audition at the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow, Scotland.
Deepani continued into university with a relaxed attitude, “not showing up for lessons, not practising, trying to wing it” until she was brought hard back to reality by her professor, concert pianist Graeme McNaught. In the face of Deepani’s obvious lack of improvement, he had arrived at the conclusion that she was trying very, very hard but couldn’t do any better. Gently and tactfully, he suggested that she might do better as a voice major.

“Basically, he thought I was crap!”
She laughs at the memory now, but to the 19-year-old aspiring pianist, it was the shock of her life. Deepani finally started really practising.

“And when you spend time practicing, you start falling in love with the music,” and this is now the only motivation Deepani needs.
She is currently also studying for a diploma in vocal performance, following which she plans also to perform as a singer. Deepani also composes, though less frequently and mostly for herself.

“Maybe in my retirement…” she drifts, describing a rocking chair and not knitting needles but a laptop with a programme to compose on her lap. Deepani de Alwis will perform at the Lionel Wendt Theatre starting 7 pm on Sunday, September 18. Tickets for the event are now available at the venue.

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