By Kieran Andrew Khan
Though her invitation to visit TT came as a surprise, pianist Belinda Mikhaïl, graduate of the Royal College of Music and recipient of, among other awards, the Queen Mother Scholarship and Hopkinson Gold Medal, was not surprised at the talent that she would come here to adjudicate at the ever-growing Trinidad and Tobago Music Festival.
During one of her few rare hours off from her duties at the festival, WMN caught up with the British-born talent to discuss her experiences here and at home.
“Well, I received an email from the chairman of the festival 11 months ago, most likely due to my being a member of The British and International Federation of Festivals. I have never been to the Caribbean at all before, but I had definitely heard of TT and various aspects of it, so I was keen to come. What I didn’t know was that the festival is as big as it is here,” she said.
“And the talent,” she continued, “I have loved hearing the folk and religious songs being performed by the choirs. They are really special and it’s clear that they have an affinity to this type of song. I have also had the thrill of hearing steelpan for the first time, being performed live. I’ve heard some good steelpan here.” she noted, “But I have also heard some exceptional steelpan here too,” she laughed.
Well before Mikhaïl performed at The Royal Albert Hall, before the London Olympics, and before having her pieces featured on numerous recordings for film and TV being played globally, she too was first and foremost a child, mesmerised, as she recalled, "by the lady who played the piano for us at school and the way her fingers moved so effortlessly to bring sound from the keys."
Luckily for her, her parents, on her insistence, were able to secure lessons from that very lady.
“Initially I struggled with the lessons,” she shared, “but soon I was able to catch up and completed Grades 3-5 in one year. Then, when I was about nine years of age it really took off. I ‘caught the bug’ as it were and enrolled in the Royal College of Music (RCM) Junior Department. At that point, I started winning all the competitions I could win; most were for piano, some were for singing, none were for the violin though!
“There’s a music teacher out there who would laugh at the very mention of me playing the violin as it simply wasn’t my instrument, but it gave me an insight into orchestral playing.”
The multi-talented Mikhaïl would also go on to play for the school’s annual presentation of prizes, which just so happened to be in the presence of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, Andrew Lloyd Webber (of Phantom of the Opera et al fame) and Murray Perahia, a noted and gifted pianist. She remained at The RCM on award of scholarships to continue in both piano and singing as a joint first study and would go on to win the gold medal, the highest award there, on completion of her degree programme.
Since then, her talent and dedication to her craft, alongside hours of hard work, have made her the choice of talent for West End actors, performing artistes, students, dancers who need to also perfect their singing for the stage, rock musicians like Siouxsie Sioux and the Banshees, members of TV show Downton Abbey, an Oscar-winning actress and members of the well-known Akram Khan Dance Academy.
It may seem an abstract concept to be able to lead a life built around a craft like music and to do so full-time, but even Mikhaïl admits that it takes a tremendous amount of effort and goes far beyond simply having talent in hand.
“You really have to learn and grow to develop a plethora of abilities. You can’t just be a performer or expert in one field – it’s a combination of skill, talent, work and being able to network and inform people that this is what you do. Most of my work and contacts have come from word of mouth – which is the best way: to have people recommend you. You have to also remember that no two projects are the same – so it’s challenging but also rewarding,” she advised.
“I’ve also been dedicated and a very hard worker. A day never ends until the work is done regardless of what the clock says; it needs to be done so you get it done. I think that came from my experience as a child where I would be up by 5:30 am to do Grade 8 scales until 7:30 before heading off to school.
“You have to push through the challenges to arrive at the place where you enjoy the things you do. You also need to have clear and realistic expectations and work to achieve them steadily and comprehensively – repetition in music practice, is key.”
In between her adjudication of the festival, she’s taken the time to immerse herself in the places and culture of her host country.
“I’ve really been overwhelmed by the friendliness and welcome I received at all corners of this country. I’ve had the chance to visit San Fernando Hill, the Pitch Lake, the markets in Marabella, Penal and Siparia, the Hindu temples and experience street foods. I really love to engage with the people whenever I travel, and it’s been an enjoyable experience both in the streets and at the festival.”
For young and upcoming artistes like the many talented ones she met at the Music Festival here, she also left some advice based on her own experiences, “Play to the cat, the dog! Don’t wait until the big day to get into performance mode. Nerves will be there, but you can use that adrenaline to focus and enhance and improve your performance. It’s a matter of controlling it to your benefit.
“If you are prepared (and I can always tell when a student is prepared) you will do well. And above all, listen to the teacher but also have fun. There’s no progression without fun.”