New Zealand Woman’s Weekly - - THIS WEEK IN... - Fleur Guthrie

The talented mu­si­cian is back at the pi­ano

The last time renowned con­cert pian­ist Rae de Lisle and vet­eran broad­caster Bill McCarthy graced the cover of the Weekly, they were bright-eyed young new­ly­weds in the late 1970s.

Now, 41 years later, rem­i­nisc­ing on more high notes than low, Rae has a one-word an­swer when asked their se­cret to mar­i­tal har­mony.

“Tol­er­ance!” she laughs. “We’re very dif­fer­ent,

Bill and I. But we both love clas­si­cal mu­sic, so that has been an im­por­tant part of our life to­gether.”

It was on one of Rae’s brief trips back to New Zealand in 1975 – af­ter study­ing at the pres­ti­gious Guild­hall School of Mu­sic in Lon­don – that she met her fu­ture hus­band when he in­ter­viewed her for TV One News.

A short in­ter­view stretched to two hours, thanks to “tech­ni­cal prob­lems”. “That was quite funny re­ally, be­cause I went back to Eng­land a week later.”

They car­ried on the ini­tial spark of ro­mance through let­ters and when Bill was in South Africa com­men­tat­ing on the 1976 All Blacks tour, he made a spe­cial trip to Lon­don to per­suade Rae to re­turn to Auck­land with him.

“I came back, we got mar­ried, had two daugh­ters and I con­tin­ued play­ing con­certs most months, which meant a lot of trav­el­ling,” she says, ad­mit­ting it was quite hard for the chil­dren. “But I tried not to be away for more than two weeks at a time.”

A pas­sion for mu­sic has been a fam­ily af­fair. Bill, in ad­di­tion to his TV ca­reer, has con­ducted the Auck­land Phil­har­mo­nia Orches­tra and played as pi­ano soloist with the New Zealand Sym­phony Orches­tra. Their el­dest daugh­ter Rachael (39) learnt the cello and younger daugh­ter Ju­lia (35) is cur­rently the Prin­ci­pal Vi­ola in the NZSO.

Rae toured Eng­land, Canada and the US as a con­cert pian­ist, reg­u­larly record­ing for ra­dio and TV un­til 1993, when she suf­fered an in­jury. At the time, she had been prac­tis­ing six hours a day to learn a con­certo at short notice, when she felt some­thing go “snap” in her wrist.

The chronic pain that en­sued forced her to give up play­ing, and shifted her fo­cus to­wards teach­ing and re­search. “Once that in­jury hap­pened, my whole ner­vous sys­tem col­lapsed,” she re­calls.“It was de­press­ing and ter­ri­bly hard be­cause I ac­tu­ally lost all my strength.

“I had been play­ing all my life and sud­denly I couldn’t. For me, be­ing a pian­ist was my iden­tity and I re­ally didn’t know who

I was any more.”

While ini­tially heart­break­ing, the change in di­rec­tion did even­tu­ally pay off. She dis­cov­ered she “ab­so­lutely loved” teach­ing and went on to un­der­take ground­break­ing re­search into the re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and pre­ven­tion of mu­si­cians’ in­juries.

Now As­so­ciate Pro­fes­sor in Pi­ano at the Univer­sity of Auck­land, Rae is about to re­lease an elec­tronic book, Fit 4 Pi­ano, which in­cludes video ex­am­ples of ex­er­cises to help pi­anists and teach­ers es­tab­lish an in­jury-free tech­nique.

Af­ter help­ing many pi­anists re­cover from in­jury, she has turned her at­ten­tion to her own con­di­tion. “Re­search has dis­cov­ered that the way through chronic pain is to re­train your brain. At the mo­ment, I’m work­ing on be­ing able to play for more than an hour a day, for my own plea­sure re­ally, which is an interesting goal af­ter decades of not be­ing able to play!”

Ev­ery morn­ing at dawn, the fit grand­mother-of-three swims 500m to build up strength in her arms. She can’t imag­ine her­self ever com­pletely re­tir­ing from teach­ing and is thank­ful that Bill is a very sup­port­ive hus­band.

It was this back­ing that helped Rae through a re­cent bat­tle with breast can­cer.

“To be hon­est, the trauma I went through when I couldn’t play the pi­ano any more was big­ger than can­cer. That might be sur­pris­ing to most peo­ple,” she muses. “Can­cer’s not the hard­est thing I’ve been through in my life, prob­a­bly be­cause peo­ple un­der­stand it and you get a mas­sive amount of sup­port. The Can­cer So­ci­ety checked up on me all the time.”

The ma­lig­nant lump in Rae’s breast was picked up dur­ing a rou­tine mam­mo­gram and she was op­er­ated on 10 days later, fol­lowed by rounds of chemo­ther­apy and ra­di­a­tion treat­ment.“I was given a 90% chance of re­cov­ery, so I’m not ex­pect­ing it to come back,” smiles Rae.

“Hav­ing can­cer was an op­por­tu­nity to re­assess things, which in one’s nor­mal busy life, you don’t get much chance to do. A friend said to me, ’It’s al­most a gift’ and I’d agree that in some ways it was – a gift to stop, to rest and just ’be’ for a lit­tle while.”

Above left: Rae is back play­ing the pi­ano again. Top: Bill and Rae’s wed­ding. Above: Per­form­ing with the orches­tra.

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