“The next thing I remember I was man handled by these two Italian Mafioso types, bundled into a lift, the lift went up the stairs and I was brought into this private dining room with Sergio Lenoe waiting to have dinner with me. And I remember what I was wearing, this little blue suede watch and they had broken the strap, and I went in and shouted YOU’VE BROKEN MY STRAP, YOU’VE BROKEN MY STRAP and he pulled out a wad of cash and gave it to me.”
This is my piano teacher. Leonora Carney. She is not your average classical concert pianist.
“I was 17 at the time and he was about 112, I got a lift in his limo to Wicklow the next day, where they were shooting the film Duck You Sucker and he wanted me to be in it. He was old and fat and sweaty and he wanted to make me a star. Of course I didn’t have any of that.”
Leonora Carney is the model interviewee. After playing a beautiful Grieg piano Nocturne she relaxes so naturally into the interview. Why wouldn’t she? She has seen and done it all. From acting in films to cycling around the world, to getting free rides on six star cruise liners and playing in London’s Wigmore Hall, to living in one bedroom flats on North Circular Road with no money, no man and no piano. Of course this tall slim blonde didn’t need Sergio Leone’s help in climbing the ladder of stardom. She has her own talent. And that is of course, the gift of music. “You’re given a gift and you must hold on to that gift and it’s there with you for life, and no-body can take it away unless they cut your hand off. It’s your little thing. So through thick and thin, through relationships, through everything, it’s your friend. And that is the most important thing about music.”
We sit and chat in the living room beside the extravagant black grand piano, looking out at the cheery-blossom trees hanging over the river Liffey. There is a beauty to this room. “Have I ever told you the story about my grand piano?” She begins excitedly. Leonora was given this piano as a gift after playing her debut concert in the National Concert Hall. “I was doing an interview with Mike Murphy on radio one the day after the concert, so I had to go into RTE hung-over at seven in the morning, and my phone rang in the middle of the interview and it was the man from Brother [the sponsors of the concert] to say I could keep the grand piano. I was thrilled.” Leonora lives on the bottom floor of an apartment block on Conyngham road. “The builder was a lovely man and I told him the only things that I really needed were my piano and my cats of which I had three at the time. He gave me the use of a crane and they organised that the police stopped the traffic on the main road and the crane lifted my piano four stories high, over the back of the apartments, and it came around the side and in through my patio doors. Funnily enough, Duncan Stewart soundproofed the entire apartment for her. “He’s a great friend of mine. He jumped on floors and banged on walls to make sure the sound proofing was right. My biggest worry would have been if I moved somewhere that somebody said stop playing the piano. Well, one of us would have had to go. Neighbour or me I don’t know!” she jokes.
Leonora began playing the piano when she was three years old. Her Mother, who was a nurse, taught her. There was no musical background in the family but her Father loved to sing. “I was very lucky. My father was a doctor. We had three pianos in the house with six Children, so there wasn’t an issue of practicing. My music was definitely nurtured. We made it my business every year that I would win a scholarship to the academy so I wouldn’t have to pay. Or if I went it to a feis my mother would say, “oh I’ll give you a radio if you win both feises.” Probably like an ipad or an iphone today.”
Out of six children they all played piano. Her brother Des [Desmond Carney, Consultant Oncologist in the Mater private], has a diploma in Organ and piano. Her sister Maria played “and was brilliant”, but she chose a different path, and is now a physiotherapist. Leonora also used to play duets with her sister Maria. “There was no competition at all between us”, she laughs. Her sister Deirdre is a piano teacher. “She teaches little ones. Unfortunately as much as I love them, I’m rather impatient so I prefer teaching the older students”
Leonora is a piano teacher in Maynooth. “I absolutely adore my students , I do feel bad if I’m hard on them but they know if they’ve been messing. They’re fantastic though. Some have their own music schools and some are teaching in Maynooth as we speak.”
“Music gets you through trauma is your life. You thunder Rachmaninoff’s prelude in C Sharp Minor if some boyfriend has let you down and by the time you’re finished you’ve done it. He’s beaten up. And then you play something like the Grieg Nocturne when you’re sad and you visualise something amazing”
When Leonora was just 20 her mother died and due to “family disorganisation” she was left homeless for about 2 years after that. “So I went from living in this huge house with three pianos to a one roomed bed sitter in North circular road, which obviously I had no piano in. So In fact I didn’t play the piano for about ten years then. It was strange not playing for such a long time but I had no choice really.” It was after those ten years, when she met her husband and they moved in together that she rang her old teacher Valerie Walker and started lessons again. “I bought my first piano out of the paper for 50 pounds and put that in this funny little room in the house we moved into.” After this she had made up her mind. She was going to become a classical concert pianist. ” I then bought one for 500 pounds called a Zender, which was basically like buying the worst television ever. This was the worst make of piano ever, in history! It was no good for tone production, so I used to sneak into the academy at seven o clock in the morning and the cleaners used to let me in to practice, and I’d sneak up to John O’Connor’s room until somebody would tell me to stop. You really have to want to do it and I really did. I was lucky in that my husband supported me.”
She invested in a type writer and wrote letters to festivals all over the country. “I remember writing about a hundred letters to all the festivals around Ireland and I thought, if I write a hundred letters and I get ten replies and I get one concert, then that will pay for the stamps. I had to think like that because we had no money. So bit by bit things came back, and now I have the grand piano!”
And so began her career as a concert pianist, and it really has changed her life. “I had to start looking for work that paid and Ireland is a very small place. I’ve played every venue in Ireland several, several times. You’ve got to start broadening your horizons. So all of a sudden I got a call from P&O cruise liners at the time to say that the pianist they had had died and they just asked me to take his place instead. I begged and borrowed and I stole bridesmaid’s dresses and you name it to go! I had to do five concerts in two weeks on the cruise ship so I needed five concert dresses. There was also formal nights every second night, so I had to have seven formal dresses. And you couldn’t wear the same dress to the concert because the whole thing about a concert is it’s showbiz! This was my very first cruise. I literally have been around the world with them. I pick music that I know will appeal to an array of people. I’m not going to go out thundering Precofiev or Bartok because I know people will get a headache.”
She boasts elaborately of the glamorous life she leads, but only because she thinks she is a little different from most female concert pianists. “By that I don’t mean I’m better or worse than them. I love clothes, I love dressing up and a bit of it for me is the drama, the eyelashes, the clothes, everything matching. I remember this woman used to come to my concerts just to see what I was going to wear. A lot of concert pianists for whatever reason think they should come out in a black dress with a black piano and it looks terribly drab, And I think, lets go the show biz route but also deliver. There’s no point in going the glamorous route if you’re going to play crap. But practicing five hours a day is not glamorous and when you’re getting ganglion cists on your wrists that somebody has to bash with a book to get rid of, it’s not glamorous. But the bottom line is the music.”
Leonora’s favourite concert was when she played in the Wigmore Hall in London “They dropped my piano the night before my concert into the front row and the whole thing about being a pianist is you can’t bring your piano on your back so I arrived to find there was something wrong with the pedaling because they had dropped it, but I got a very good review in the London Times. The whole point about doing a recital like that is getting a good review. Charles Acton is a main reviewer in Dublin and has actually mentioned me in one of his books. I also played a lunchtime concert with conductor, Bryden Thompson. It went out live on radio as well. I absolutely loved it. I love playing with Orchestras. It’s just fantastic” she enthused.
Asked if she ever thought piano wasn’t for her, her face lit up, “If I had a pound for every time I thought that I would be a multi-gazilionare! When you’re waiting to go on stage, when you’re driving to the concert hall and you see people at a bus stop and think, they have no worries, they’re just going home to have their tea. WHY AM I DOING THIS! But the highs after it are so good. And whether you’re playing or not. It’s the love of music that counts. But if you can get up on stage you can do anything after that.”
Piano isn’t her only passion though. “My hobby is fishing for Salmon and everyone thinks it’s mad because I’m standing there wearing whatever, with water dripping down my nose, putting worms onto hooks. But I’m quite good.” In 2005 she was presented with a medal in the Burlington hotel for catching a specimen salmon of 21 and three quarter pounds. “I decided for the laugh because I knew there would be all men there, in check shirts with sleeves rolled up, to wear a little check mini and boots and a cream jacket. So when I walked, everyone was wondering who the hell I was and when it was announced that the specimen salmon was caught by Lenora Carney the whole place just erupted in total riot. It was hilarious. Fishing Is like Meditation though. After three days fishing you realise how much of lunatic you’ve been.”
Leonora end s the interview on a high note, no pun intended. For anyone who wants to follow in her career path she encourages, “be prepared for tears, pain, let down, but keep going. I’m an existentialist at heart. I have a degree in philosophy and psychology. I believe in nurture over nature, but musicians by nature are insecure people. You think they’re full of confidence but they’re not. They have to be emotional people too. Yes you can get these Japanese pianists, who a lot of the time play like robots because they’ve all been taught the same way, and that’s fantastic.” She says sarcastically, “I could teach Rosie, my cat, to do a little bit of stuff too, but at the end of the day you can’t teach them to feel. Rachmaninoff said, “Music is the expression of the emotions of the heart”, and if you’re listening to music, unless it touches you, then why would you bother?”
Leonora is the essence of a true musician. She is a vivacious, crazy, but brilliant character. There is passion flowing in her blood and ambition with it. She has led an extraordinary life to say the least, and this is only part of it. She is an inspiration to any aspiring musician in Ireland and she will hopefully be playing in Dublin again soon.