Leeds resident Dame Fanny Waterman - still hitting the right note

PUBLISHED: 23:15 11 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:07 20 February 2013

Dame Fanny Waterman

Dame Fanny Waterman

Chris Titley meets a woman whose strength of character and determination has helped put Leeds on the musical map <br/>Photographs by Joan Russell

Forty years ago the music critic of The Times described her as 'the legendary Fanny Waterman'. The legend has only grown since then. Aged 89, Dame Fanny is now preparing for the 16th incarnation of the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition, which she co-founded in 1961.

She still travels around the world to judge piano competitions, and the world comes to her - pupils from Japan, Russia and Canada journey to her home in Oakwood, Leeds, to learn from the maestro. If that weren't enough to keep her busy, this year she took on the role of President of the Harrogate International Festival.

Sitting in her front room, next to the two Steinway grands on which some of the world's finest pianists have mastered their art, she talks of her many roles - teacher, impresario, fundraiser, and author - before making a discordant confession.

'I must say, I'm very lazy.' Having drawn hoots of disbelief from all sides, Dame Fanny qualifies her observation. 'I'm very lazy physically. I sit at that piano giving lessons and I don't have any exercise. I break all the rules - I don't have five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. But one of the secrets is, on the nights when I don't go out to dinner and come back late, I go to bed early and I recharge my batteries.'

On the other hand she doesn't smoke or drink and says if you left an opened box of chocolates on the table she wouldn't touch them.

'I'm one in a million, I'm told. I've never had a tooth out or a tooth filled. Going back to my childhood, we never had any money to buy sweets.'

She describes a humble but happy childhood. Her father, an migr from the Ukraine, ran his own jewellery business in Leeds. He was an artist - an exquisite, miniature violin he made is on display in the corner. 'My parents always impressed on me never to value anything that money can buy, like jewellery, which is unusual because my father was a jeweller. They taught me to value good health, talent, integrity and beauty.'

Music was always important. Her parents took her to see concerts by Rachmaninov and Paderewski at Leeds Town Hall. Their home had no inside loo but it had a piano, and by the age of seven, she began her love affair with the instrument. 'I would play by ear all the pieces of the day. People would say to my parents, "oh she's so gifted", and they realised they would have to give me the best teaching they could afford.'

This, as it turned out, wasn't up to snuff. 'My first teacher had her piano in the kitchen when she was doing her baking and cooking. I hope her culinary skills were better than her piano teaching,' she said.

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