Forget the Piano Men – what about the Piano Women?

Pianist Emma Knights has been striking the keys for many years, but she came to realise that while there’s a host of famous male musicians known as piano men, the women who play the instrument are not as well known.

While Billy Joel, Ben Folds, Elton John and Ray Charles may be the names that spring to most minds, Knights’ show honours the women who deserve to be celebrated in the same light.

Your show The Piano Men looks at the gender imbalance, we can name lots of famous piano men, but women’s musical contributions are less well known. Who are some of the piano women?

In The Piano Men, I introduce two wonderful women pianists; Winifred Atwell and Fanny Hansel-Mendelssohn. I also look briefly at Alicia Keys, Clara Schumann, Maria Anna Mozart, Vanessa Carlton, Norah Jones, Nanette Stein, Diana Krall and there is a song by Pat Wilson.

During my research for the show I found so many more, accompanied with some inspirational stories, that I created a secondary show The Piano Women!

When did you love of playing the piano begin? How long does it take to become really good at it?

I have loved the piano my whole life. My dad is a piano teacher so it was a rule that we had to learn up until AMEB grade 5 before we could quit.

I really loved it though, so continued well beyond that. I don’t know about how long it takes, some things come easier to some than others. I do know that I still love learning and pushing myself, especially with different styles.

When did you become aware only men were famous in the field?

When I finished university and started working as a musician. All the people getting the big jobs were men and I even applied for a few piano bar jobs and was told that they did not really hire women. Then a lot of girlfriends and colleagues who were singers who I worked with on small shows would then book a whole band but liked the “woman fronting an all-male band” look so I lost work that way too.

They have even been occasions where I have offered to wear my hair a particular way and dress like a man to get a gig. So, I guess it came about locally and then I started to look around elsewhere and saw what was happening.

Things are changing though. This show was first performed in 2018 and the statistics have changed slightly! My show is about equality but without diminishing the work of the male pianists who have inspired me and who excel at the piano. I hope that young upcoming women can find more women to be inspired by as well…to have a balance.

I can think of many female artists I’ve seen playing the piano from Delta Goodrem to Tori Amos, Annie Lennox, Taylor Swift, Sarah McLachlan and Lady Gaga – but we never think of them as being closely tied to their instrument, my first mental image of them doesn’t involve a piano, Why do you think that is?

Initially, I would say that men are “allowed” to wear what they want with no makeup but then how does that explain Elton John. He was flamboyant and fantastic at piano and is known as a pianist.

I think perhaps these women are such great singers that they are promoted as pop artists instead of musicians. It is more about their look or their ability to dance so we don’t always think of them as sitting at the piano. Most male pianists don’t leave the piano!

What kind of a journey do you take us on with your show?

I take you on a journey through my life from my first piano performance at age 4 through to now. There are some heavier moments as well as some funny moments and it is a musical journey from the 1800s to today.

Who is your personal musical hero?

My dad. He has always been such an amazing pianist. I will never be as good as he is!

The Piano Men is playing at Fringe World on 9 February. Tickets are on sale now

Graeme Watson