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Ruth McGinley: In my darkest hours, I told myself I didn't want to play piano again

Ahead of her appearance at today's BBC's Proms In The Park at the Titanic Slipways, Londonderry pianist Ruth McGinley tells Una Brankin how she overcame years of abuse and addiction to find her way back into music

Published 10/09/2016

Londonderry musician Ruth McGinley is back at the top of her chosen profession
Londonderry musician Ruth McGinley is back at the top of her chosen profession
Ruth McGinley has rediscovered her love of the piano

When Ruth McGinley was a very young girl, she stunned the judging panel at a talent contest at the Waterworld leisure complex in Portrush without even trying.

The little child, with a mop of curly dark hair, was accompanying one of her older sisters on piano, her feet barely touching the stage under her stool.

Although the judges were impressed by the official entrant, they were left wondering why the tiny pianist wasn't competing as a soloist.

Tinkling the ivories since she was three, it was obvious that the Londonderry girl was a prodigious talent.

The youngest of the family behind the esteemed McGinley School of Music and Drama, Ruth went on to win both the BBC and RTE Young Musician of the Year competitions.

Destined for stardom, she was invited to play concertos with orchestras such as the BBC Philharmonic and the London Mozart Players, and also toured as a solo recitalist throughout Europe.

"My mother Ray (short for Rachel) encouraged my obvious love of music," Ruth recalls. "She worked extremely hard at giving me every opportunity to be a successful musician.

"I used to perform with my sisters a lot - we even did The Late Late Toy Show. I had a very intense career at a very young age. Because we were from a musical family, we were expected to play at the drop of a hat. I felt like a performing monkey at times and I didn't like competitions."

The pressures Ruth felt she was under would eventually result in a breakdown, which in turn led her into addiction and a relationship she later described as "toxic".

During concerts, the once flawless performer began to have memory lapses, which heightened her anxiety.

The traumas caused Ruth to abandon her solo career for many years. But she has made a comeback, at 39, with her first album, Reconnection, a collection of classical and jazz numbers that reflect her life story.

She plays expressively; her upper body in rhythm with every chord in her live performances. You can tell she feels every note as her small hands glide over the keys - she doesn't have the long fingers of the stereotypical classical pianist, but she can create the most exquisite sound, and produces one of the best renditions of Debussy's Clair de Lune that I, for one, have ever heard.

In the striking photography for the album, her flawless features are beautifully made-up and that mass of dark curls has been enhanced further with extensions. She looks nowhere near 40 - a landmark she has no qualms over.

"I've no fear of turning 40 - I was such a mess in my 20s, I actually liked turning 30," she says with candour. "I was in London, at the Royal Academy of Music, and had no idea how to look after myself. By the time I was 19, I was completely burned out. I was very unwell in myself and I lost my love for music. I'd do my eight hours a day just because it was the only thing I knew how to do.

"The cracks were beginning to show, although n -one else was aware of it. Going from such an intense musical childhood into adulthood doesn't always go smoothly. Looking back, I just fell apart."

Ruth has spent the morning at her Waterside home with her 16-year-old son, Mikey, who is also musically gifted. They have lived back in the city since 2010 after Ruth walked out on a partner.

"It has taken years of therapy to understand why it happened," she says quietly. "I didn't know how to handle the pressure. I was very vulnerable and then I fell into this toxic relationship. I was seven years in a controlling relationship and it tore me apart.

"I didn't perform for a very long time. My partner didn't like me performing. He didn't want me to leave his side. It was a very dark time for me."

To deal with the darkness, Ruth developed an addiction to codeine-based painkillers. "We never even had a paracetamol in the house when I was growing up," she remembers.

"I never drank very well, and after I met this guy I was in a lot of emotional pain and I became a codeine addict. It's very easy to obtain and get addicted to, but I'd clean myself up every now and then, so I was very lucky it didn't reach crisis point.

"I'd exercise and do yoga, which actually brings vulnerabilities to the surface. But I didn't know how to live a normal life. The painkillers made me feel numb. I couldn't deal with my feelings or the realities of life. After seven years of it, I was a toxic shell of a person.

"Even two years after I'd left London, I was in so much fear."

Following her harrowing experiences, Ruth underwent extensive counselling and was subsequently diagnosed with post-traumatic syndrome. She is full of praise for the Women's Aid centre in Derry, which provided support.

"During the relationship I stopped playing the piano publicly," she says. "I felt like a failure and very bad about myself because I hadn't carried on my with musical career. I needed to take control back."

She is also indebted to the Northlands Centre in Derry for helping her overcome her painkiller addiction, through talking therapy.

"Yoga, meditation and learning mindfulness have played a huge part in my recovery back to health," she explains. "I have learnt to live a simpler life and I try my best to live life day-by-day, in the moment.

"Some days I'm better at this than others. I have a morning routine that sets me up for the day. I wake at 6.15am and go to the gym for a session most mornings. Then I come home, light a candle and meditate before making a coffee and doing some reading from books by spiritual authors such as Pema Chodro, Wayne W. Dyer or Paulo Coelho.

"I then feel set to start my day. Being self-aware is what keeps me in a healthy mind and trying to give myself lots of space these days, though I'm finding this harder at the moment with a growing schedule."

The Derry City of Culture year in 2013 was a turning point for Ruth, and she gathered up the confidence to play live, in-the-round, from St Columb's Hall. The following year, she was invited to play as a soloist with the Ulster Orchestra.

"I was slowly getting my confidence back, but I still didn't know who I was as an artist and a person," she admits. "I didn't want to do a big classical repertoire and, being a single mum, I had to try to survive.

"But even in the dark days, when my son would go to bed, I'd go and play the piano until about 2am. It was a beautiful time - I was playing for myself, not for a competition. I always disliked competitions.

"When I was recovering from my addiction, I told myself that I didn't want to play the piano any longer, but I started to realise it was just a huge fear and that I'd always love the piano. But I was also hiding behind it."

Enter David Lyttle, the MOBO-nominated jazz musician from Northern Ireland and owner of the Lyte Records label. Last year, Lyttle persuaded Ruth, as part of the pathway back to being a solo concert artist, to make an album of her favourite piano pieces. The result, Reconnection, was released in March, including Somewhere Over The Rainbow and the Charlie Chaplin-penned Smile (Though Your Heart Is Breaking), one of the former child-star Michael Jackson's all-time favourites, incidentally.

The title Reconnection is explained in the CD notes as "a sharing of my inward journey back to myself - my true self. The intensity of an early career had taken its toll on my humanness, leaving a dark trail where the light once shone. Feeling isolated and numb on the inside, the story of Reconnection began.

"Every now and then a piece of music I would hear touched a little part of my soul, nudging me gently back to the piano, where I searched to make sense of my inner struggle. In the small hours of night, at the black and white keys, awakening slowly transpired. Soothing space, breath between the notes and freedom from expectation drew me back in, moment by moment, over a period of time. Each piece of music is a glimpse into this time of my Reconnection."

Co-incidentally, Ruth made another extremely meaningful reconnection in 2015, when she met her first love, photographer Glenn Norwood, completely out of the blue for the first time in 19 years.

"We met just by chance in September and as he's such as amazing photographer, I asked him to do my album photoshoot the next month," she says. "We met for coffee a few times. I was resolutely single at the time. As a single mother, dating was not my priority. We only had a genuine friendship until April this year, when he invited me to see the Miles Davis film at the Queen's Film Theatre.

"On that evening we realised there was more feeling than a friendship of exes, and we very slowly and gently started a romantic relationship again.

"This was a matter of weeks before my album launch at the end of May, so the album title really isn't about my reconnection with Glenn! My new relationship with him, for the second time around, is only in early days, though it's beautiful."

When the album was recorded, the proudest moment for Ruth was giving a copy of the CD to her father, Michael, who runs the McGinley School of Music and Drama with Ray. The couple's older daughters are also talented musicians - Tanya on the violin, and Rachel on the cello.

"To hold that CD in my hand and to be able to hand it to my dad has been amazing - he's my champion," Ruth says.

"Making the album has been extremely empowering for me. It has given me a sense of freedom to be who I am as a person and as an artist. It has also been so therapeutic and beautiful to share my journey through music.

"And from my experience, I like to pass on that life should be lived at a natural pace. There is no rush! There should not be pressure put onto young people to succeed. They should be allowed time and space to find out who they are themselves and learn about self-care and acceptance. It is vital in life. The simple things in life are what matter most."

Broadway sensation John Owen-Jones and internationally acclaimed soprano Lesley Garrett will headline this evening's BBC Proms In The Park event from the Titanic Quarter in Belfast. Extracts from the concert will be shown across the UK on BBC One and BBC Two on the night. Radio Ulster will also be live throughout the evening from the Titanic Slipways, starting at 7.30pm. See Ruth's BBC Proms in the Park performance at http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/latestnews/2016/northern-ireland-bbc-proms-in-the-park-artist-line-up

Belfast Telegraph

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