Meet Rob Rennie: Winner of the 2023 Pianist Amateur Piano Competition (Modern Category)

17 September 2023
By Erica Worth
Rob, a 53-year-old software engineer from the US, wowed the judges with a mixed bag of works by Monk, Mingus, Powell and Evans. He shares his thoughts on his success below...

How does it feel?

Surprised would be an understatement. It’s mind-blowing. I read your mag, cover to cover, I try to sight-read the scores first, without listening, and listen to the CD afterwards in the car. I have been reading it since issue 87. I came across it in Barnes & Noble. I in fact I recorded some of the pieces on my YouTube channel. I love the Alkan piece you featured once, Mad woman on the shore, because it has a different feel and different sound. It’s super cool!

The reason I love your mag is that classical to me seems to be all about ‘feel’ – about what the composer is trying to get across. The jazz world is lacking that. My buddies are just trying to do runs and harmonies. Music has to be about a ‘feeling’ experience for the listener. I can do all the runs and the silly stuff, but that doesn’t get the audience excited. The trick to jazz is really learning classical! You take jazz courses and all that, but it’s hard to describe. For me, it’s studying all types of music. I’ve studied a lot of West Africa jazz and rhythms –also Irish stuff (I love those syncopations).


How long did you prepare?

I had Celia by Bud Powell under my fingers (because my wife’s name is Celia!) The other pieces I was working on harder, but it took me about a month to work out what I was going to play. Then it took me about three weeks of really working on them. I’ve been playing Monk songs for decades. He’s most probably my biggest influence. Bill Evans is very hard, but the one that I played is manageable. The Mingus is totally out of control!


A bit about yourself and your piano?

I started by teaching myself in my late teens. Then I had private lessons for 4 or 5 years with two different teachers. They were so instrumental in everything I became. First one taught me the blues and I wanted to learn more about jazz – second teacher was a specialist in bebop. I took a couple of lessons in Classical. Classical has always been a part of my life, though. The piano is all about wood and steel… and it’s amazing to me the way that different people can make a different sound. That’s my thing.

I play 2 hours every day – and that’s for almost 35 years now. I don’t like to go on vacation unless there’s a piano where I am staying! I play in four big bands. I volunteer in some of these senior bands. I do little gigs here and there – no way this could they ever become my primary source of income, though! I’m 53 years old. I’m a computer programmer. There are so many software developers in music. A lot of the engineers that I work with are musicians. I see a lot of lawyers also in classical music.


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Now having won, what are your piano goals?

I am looking to leverage this a little to get into some more solo gigs. I had a trio of my own before the pandemic, but that ceased. I now have something I can point to.


How do you feel now?

You never think you’re good, you always doubt yourself… it’s nice to get some recognition after all these years! I can’t believe I’m on the phone to the editor of Pianist… all the people you’ve interviewed… I can’t believe you’re interviewing me! My niece says she’s going to call me ‘an international award-winning pianist’ now!

You can read the full story of the Pianist 2023 Amateur Piano Competition results here.