Stephen Hough (MM ’83, piano) returned to Juilliard in 2014 to join the piano faculty. In addition to being a pianist, he’s also a composer, author, and, per The Economist, one of 20 “living polymaths.” Hough grew up in Cheshire, in northwest England, received his bachelor’s degree at Royal Northern College in Manchester, where he’s the international chair of piano, and lives in London with his partner. His fourth book, the essay collection Rough Ideas: Reflections on Music and More (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), is now out.
When did you start playing music/first know you wanted to be a musician?
From the moment I saw an upright piano in an aunt’s house—I was 5 years old. We had no classical music of any kind in my home when I was a child.
How do you define the term “living polymath”?
I really don’t think about it, and certainly not in reference to myself. What I do artistically, whether playing the piano or writing music and words, comes from an inner necessity. I write instead of exploding!
If your students could remember just three things from your teaching, what would they be?
My main teacher, the wonderful Gordon Green (I owe so much to him), said to a graduating student, “Now I want you to leave here and forget everything I told you.” He was only being semiserious of course, but he wanted her to be free, to be herself. And any great artist is unique—a teacher must allow that individuality to flourish as a first priority. Beyond that I would say: study the score; choose, explore, and write down good fingerings; don’t listen to too many recordings.
What’s your “elevator answer” to the question “What is music theory?”
The logical inner-workings of an art form which delights heart and head in equal measure.
Do you have any particular pre-performance warmups or rituals?
I am completely nonsuperstitious. Tell me something is “unlucky” and I rush to do it. In the same spirit I try to avoid having routines that cannot always be done. And I’ve found so many times that when things do not go according to plan they go better. I do have a few exercises to warm up the fingers though and if there’s a piano in the dressing room I usually tinker through them.
What would surprise people about you?
That I eat chocolate most mornings at breakfast.
What are you reading?
Alan Riding’s And the Show Went On, a history of cultural life in Paris during World War II.
If you weren’t in the career you are in, what would you be doing?
For a while I wanted to be a priest. Now it would depend how financially secure I was. I write a lot but I’m not sure if I would be able to afford that chocolate for breakfast if that’s all I did.
If you could have any meal, who would prepare it and what would it be?
Fellow Juilliard faculty member Robert (Bobby) White. A trip to his apartment is always a delight—we used to live in the same building. A bowl of pasta, some crisp, fresh salad, a bottle of wine, and a big hug. My perfect meal!
What question do you always get asked?
How do you remember all that music?
What do you wish you’d get asked?
Is memorizing music all that important?
Is there anything you’d like to add?