Ruth McGinley Reconnects

From childhood stardom to having children of her own, the Derry pianist has rediscovered her passion for performing after years in the wilderness

Twenty-two years ago a talented young classical pianist from Derry~Londonderry entered the fabled BBC Young Musician of the Year competition, mischievously informing readers of her biographical summary that, apart from playing the piano, she loved 'shopping and going to discos.'

Her name was Ruth McGinley, and she was understandably excited. 'It was the ultimate goal for me at that time of my life, as it was an extremely high-profile competition for young, ambitious classical players. We all dreamed of being on that stage.'

McGinley had entered the BBC competition before, two years previously, and reached the semi-finals. In 1994 she went one better, winning the piano section in a year where percussionist Colin Currie and violinist Jack Liebeck were also finalists, and cellist Natalie Clein was the overall winner.

For McGinley, who began playing the piano just a few months short of her third birthday, success in the BBC final led to a sudden, vertiginous rise in her personal profile, and a string of professional engagements.

'My diary filled up very quickly with quite high-profile performances,' she remembers, 'including being invited to play concertos with orchestras such as the BBC Philharmonic and the London Mozart Players. I toured as a solo recitalist throughout Europe, meeting wonderful people wherever I went. I look back on that time of my life fondly.'

Gradually, though, the hectic, energy-sapping schedule of practicing, performing, travelling, and studying new repertoire began to take its toll, and suck the pleasure out of playing for the young Derry~Londonderry musician.

'At 19 or 20 years old when I was studying full-time at the Royal Academy of Music,' recalls McGinley, 'I realised I was completely burnt out, and my passion for playing was going. I questioned my ability, my reasons for playing, and the lifestyle, and it left me pretty confused as it really was the only thing I knew how to do.'

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Away from friends and family in London, the clouds of disillusion were slowly gathering. 'I had no idea how to take care of myself as a young woman away from home,' McGinley says, with disarming honesty.

'The pressure of expectation to continue successfully, from myself mainly, became a burden. I felt like I was going through the motions because this was what I was ‘supposed’ to be doing, instead of because I really wanted to do it. Life didn’t make sense to me anymore. I was struggling for the first time.'

The struggle eventually proved too much, and McGinley moved back to her native Derry. Two more years attempting to re-invigorate her faltering career as a performer followed, before she finally pulled the lid down on her piano, uncertain whether it would ever be opened again in the future.

'My confidence was at an all-time low. As difficult as it was to make the decision, I chose to take a step back and away from playing solo concerts in public, for almost a decade. I needed to take the space and time to heal as a person and truly find out who I was. The fog needed to clear.'

The road back to the recital platform was a long and hard one. Playing regularly as an accompanist proved to be a big help, eventually landing McGinley a spot on the piano stool with multi-platinum-selling vocal trio The Priests. 'It really is the best gig!', she enthuses. 

Motherhood, she says, has also helped immensely. 'Being a mother has taught me everything about connecting with life again in its purest form, and I still am learning every day from my son. It’s a beautiful thing.'

Crucially, McGinley also met David Lyttle, the MOBO-nominated jazz musician from Northern Ireland and owner of the Lyte Records label. She describes him as 'not only an incredible jazz drummer but an extremely generous spirit who inspires people around him every day with his great attitude.'

Lyttle’s idea was simple: McGinley, as part of the pathway back to being a solo concert artist, should make an album of her favourite piano pieces. 'At first I wasn’t convinced,' she admits. 'But as time went on and I continued to play at home in my piano room for myself night after night, I began to feel it would be nice to share what I care about again, even just for a moment.'

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The result is Reconnection, a new album recorded with producer Michael Keeney at the First Presbyterian Church in Rosemary Street, Belfast, which McGinley calls 'a gem of a building, steeped in history and right in the heart of Belfast city centre.'

The thirteen pieces tell a very personal story. 'Almost biographical,' says McGinley, 'from my early Rachmaninov days, through the dark, brooding twists and turns of Satie and Philip Glass, the space and vacancy in Arvo Pärt’s 'Für Alina', leading me home to the beauty of my favourite songs in the world - 'Over the Rainbow' and Charlie Chaplin’s 'Smile'.

'It wasn’t difficult for me to choose the music,' adds McGinley. 'I simply wanted to play pieces that touched my heart over the years of putting it back together again. 'At times, I felt I “should” play certain things on the album, but I would quickly be reminded by David or Michael of the reason I was doing the recording - to keep it simple and true to me. I hope this comes across.'

As the album hits the record stores and digital platforms, McGinley is looking forward to playing a series of live concerts to promote it in September, something that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

The real ‘reconnection’ of the project, however, runs deeper, to what inspired and enthused the young McGinley to take piano lessons from her mother in the first place. ‘I feel I have come full circle in my attitude towards music from when I first started playing,’ she explains.

‘I played as a young girl because I simply loved playing the piano, the feeling I got from it and sharing it with those around me. My relationship with music got complicated along the way when I, as a person, became complex.

'The most important thing for me today is that I am happy back making music in a way that feels right for me, and it’s wonderful being part of the rich musical culture that we have here in Northern Ireland. I still am that little girl who just loves playing the piano.'

Ruth McGinley's debut album Reconnection is out on Lyte Records from May 27. Pre-order a CD copy or a digital download on iTunes. Ruth will be touring the album with live dates this September at Strule Arts Centre, Omagh, Island Arts Centre, Lisburn, Armagh's Market Place Theatre, Crescent Arts Centre Belfast, Portico in Portaferry and a Derry venue to be decided. For full details visit www.ruthmcginley.co.uk.

You can also enter to win a limited edition vinyl of Scenarios, a new album of collaborations between David Lyttle and fifteen different Northern Ireland artists. Enter here.