Promotional image for The Incredibly Talented Lucy featuring Lucy Illingworth, winner of Series 1 of The Piano

The Incredibly Talented Lucy: the Series 1 winner of The Piano in the words of her mother and teacher

Category: News Release
  • Interview: Lucy Illingworth captured the nation’s hearts as winner of Series 1 of the The Piano. Ahead of our special one-off documentary into her life, we spoke to two of the people who know her best, her mother Candice Flynn and her music teacher Daniel Bath.
  • The Incredibly Talented Lucy is available to stream and watch on TV from 10:05pm on Sunday 5 May.

Candice Flynn interview

In February 2023, Lucy Illingworth, a 13-year-old visually impaired pianist with additional needs, captured the nation’s imagination when she first appeared on The Piano, a competition to find Britain’s best amateur pianist. Lucy went on to win the series, after a stunning performance of Debussy’s Arabesque No 1 in the show’s final, filmed at The Royal Festival Hall. In May 2023, she performed at the Coronation Concert at Windsor Castle, in front of a UK TV audience of 12 million people.

Now, Channel 4 has made a feature-length documentary, The Incredibly Talented Lucy, following Lucy’s remarkable musical journey from gifted youngster to the mature, accomplished performer she is today. One person who has accompanied her on every step of that journey is her proud mother, Candice Flynn. Here, Candice reflects on her daughter’s remarkable affinity for music, and looks back at a year that has changed their lives.

Can you explain a little bit about Lucy’s early years? When did you realise she had additional needs?
This is quite a tough question to answer. I would say I probably started to realise after Lucy finished her chemotherapy treatment. [Lucy was diagnosed with bilateral retinoblastoma, an eye cancer, when she was nine months old]. Coming out of our cancer bubble brought things out into the open more, as we were able to start returning to normality again, with Lucy being able to attend sessions at CDU [Child Development Unit]. I remember when Lucy painted her very first picture using her hands. Watching her just having fun, exploring, but for me what was most noticeable was Lucy’s hands with the paint on.  Her hands never once went up to her mouth, which bothered me, as it’s instinctive to any baby to put things to their mouth.

You yourself have the chromosome 16 duplication. How does that affect you?
Yes, I was diagnosed at the same time as Lucy after we both had a blood test in 2017.  I think looking back on my life I never felt like I fitted in anywhere, but knowing what I do now it’s all beginning to make sense – I’m just simply unique!

When did you first discover Lucy had this extraordinary musical talent?
When Lucy was really young, like any child, she was surrounded with musical toys, but what was really noticeable with her was when she pressed it, it wasn’t just for the sound it produced. Lucy was using the different sounds to make rhythm – I suppose composing in her own way. Then, one Christmas, she received a gift of a book (Cinderella I think it was) and it had a tiny keyboard on the front. On this tiny keyboard Lucy managed to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star perfectly. It was a truly magical moment.

Where does she get it from? Are you musical?
I believe Lucy was born with her musical ability from her being in my tummy, as I played music to her, and I’ve always surrounded her with music!  I do sing, but only to Lucy, so I guess I’m musical in my own way.

Do you have a favourite piece of music that Lucy plays?
It might surprise you to learn that Lucy’s musical talent isn’t just classical or even jazz, Lucy enjoys many genres of music including The Beatles!  So if I was to pick a favourite it would have to be Don’t Let Me Down, watching her play and sing along, seeing and feeling her enjoyment is indescribable.

Do you think there is something about Lucy’s condition, perhaps her blindness, that contributes to her musical ability?
Honestly, I just believe Lucy is music – she has musical notes flowing through her blood.

How did Daniel Bath [Lucy’s music teacher] come into your lives?
When Lucy started her primary school journey, you’re always asked what your child enjoys and there was only ever one answer: music!  Lucy really loves music and playing the piano, so Lucy’s habilitation specialist introduced us to The Amber Trust, who provided the funding for her lessons.  Daniel was introduced to Lucy and they connected with their love and understanding of music.

What kind of an impact has he had on Lucy’s life?
Daniel’s ability to go into Lucy’s world, allowing her to teach him as much as he teaches her, means they have a beautiful friendship and respect for one another!  They are musical soulmates.

What is your relationship with Daniel like? How important is it that you’re on the same page?
In any relationship I believe it’s important to be on the same page, having a positive relationship, being able to talk everything through together.  Which I believe is what Daniel and I have – we understand one another and have good communication between one another.

How much does Lucy practice?
Lucy attends three weekly lessons in school with Daniel where she practices, and she has her own Steinway piano at home (thanks to the producers of the TV series The Piano) which she is on playing whenever she can.

Do you ever have to encourage her to do it, or is it more a case of getting her to stop?
Lucy has never needed encouragement when it comes to playing the piano, stopping though that is definitely where the encouragement comes in!

Did you have any misgivings about putting her forward for The Piano TV series?
As Lucy’s Mum I’m incredibly protective, so I make sure I look into everything thoroughly, before I even take the first step, and even after confirming, there’s still those worries. As Lucy is blind, with significant additional needs, there’s so much more to take into consideration!  Also, it’s always just been me and her against the world, and now she was actually going to be seen (possibly judged) for not only how she plays but who she is too.  

What do you remember about that first day, at Leeds station?
I remember walking up to Claudia nervously without Lucy (my security blanket) holding my hand, I remember how warm and genuine Claudia was as we chatted. Then my beautiful daughter walking up just wanting to play piano, and as she started, from the very first note, I remember how Leeds train station came to a complete stop!  As passengers and passers-by gathered around to listen, mesmerised and lost in the music, that my beautiful bright shining star was so delicately playing on the piano.

How did you feel during the final, at the Royal Festival Hall?
I always knew my beautiful bright shining star would play piano on a big stage one day (I just didn’t know when it would happen).  I honestly simply wanted Lucy to enjoy her moment, I was feeling a nervous excitement mixed in with so much pride for her.

That led on to some extraordinary opportunities – not least the Coronation. Did you worry, beforehand, about her performing on such a big occasion?
Lucy being invited to perform at The King’s Coronation Concert was an absolute honour, knowing that this would be going out live to not just the UK but other countries around the world!  Not to mention the live audience who were there at Windsor Castle watching on the night! Lucy was looked after as the principal artist, all her individual needs were taken care of, which alleviated any concerns or worries I may have been having beforehand.

Does she get nervous? What do you do to prepare her?
Lucy doesn’t get nervous as Mum takes on the nerves for her. Preparation is all about routine, Lucy knowing exactly what is happening step-by-step, which we usually go through at least a week in advance, so Lucy has it ingrained into her mind. This stops any anxiety creeping in.

Do you get nervous watching her?
As I take Lucy’s nerves on, as well as my own, I definitely do feel nervous for Lucy’s performances.

It’s clear you only want the best for Lucy – how do you go about deciding what is in her best interests? Presumably you have to turn some things down, and allow her a bit of normality?
I have put into place an incredible, caring, intelligent, savvy manager for Lucy who understands that me and Lucy are a team. I trust her implicitly, as she understands Lucy’s needs, communicating everything with me so we can go through everything together!  Teamwork makes the dream work, and we’d truly be lost without her. She also understands that Lucy is still just a young girl, so maintains a healthy balance between her education and career.

Are there ever occasions when she doesn’t want to perform?
Although Lucy’s blind with additional needs, she’s also a teenager too, so yes there are times where’s she’s feeling more tired and simply just wants her own space of having her headphones on and listening to rather than playing music!

What are her other interests, away from music?
Honestly, Lucy’s interests are never away from music. We go to the theatre together, where she enjoys the musicals, especially ones with Jason Manford!  We recently attended The Wizard Of Oz in Manchester, and Lucy was enjoying the sensory experience, smiling, giggling, swaying her head!  She enjoys swimming, but again music is incorporated into that too. We read books together, and she enjoys Mummy’s voices for the characters in the stories!

How have the events of the last couple of years changed your life? You and Lucy must get recognised a lot…
It’s all still very surreal from the beginning of our journey of entering a world we just weren’t familiar with. We do get recognised, yes, but I have to say the public have always been very respectful of Lucy and don’t approach us often.  You’ll see them watching as we are passing through, which again, going from never being noticed to suddenly being everywhere was quite overwhelming to begin with.

What’s been your own high point of the whole experience?
I’m going to say when Lucy met Lang Lang. Watching him enter her world, which was obviously completely unfamiliar to him (especially when she asked him to sing!) That’s a moment I’ll never forget, and of course she’s now been welcomed into The Lang Lang Foundation family as an International Ambassador.  Knowing that he sees what I have seen in her all these years is very special.

What future do you see for Lucy?
As Lucy’s Mum, all I really want for her is to be happy, safe, secure, and to continue just being Lucy. I’ve always maintained that if one day Lucy decided music wasn’t for her anymore, I’d respect that decision!  Honestly, though, I can’t see that ever happening, as music and Lucy are soulmates connected in every way possible.


Daniel Bath interview

Daniel Bath is a jazz and classical pianist, and music education activist, and founder of the charity Music for the Many, which aims to ensure equal musical opportunities for all children.

He has worked as a community musician and teacher in all sorts of settings, including nurseries, refugee centres, high schools, churches and prisons, and has composed music for theatre, opera, choir and for community events. He has trained youth and adult choirs, and orchestras.

Through his work as a tutor for the Amber Trust, a charity for visually impaired young musicians, Daniel met Lucy Illingworth more than a decade ago. Lucy, a visually impaired pianist with additional needs, captured the nation’s imagination when she went on to win Channel 4’s search to find Britain’s best amateur pianist in The Piano.

Under Daniel’s tutelage, Lucy has performed at The Royal Festival Hall, The Royal Albert Hall, and in May 2023, she performed at the Coronation Concert at Windsor Castle, in front of a UK TV audience of 12 million people.

Not surprisingly, Daniel features heavily in a new Channel 4 documentary, The Incredibly Talented Lucy, following Lucy’s remarkable musical journey from gifted youngster to the mature, accomplished performer she is today. Here, Daniel discusses her musical development, some of the barriers they encounter, and his hopes for her future.

Can you explain a little bit about your background, and what you do?
Well, I’m a professional musician, and I play the piano. I spend most of my time these days running an organisation called Music for the Many, which is a music education charity. We look at the barriers that stop children being able to access music education, and then try and overcome the barriers. And we get instruments donated from all over the place, and we give them to children and teach them to play them. So that’s what I spend almost all of my time doing.

When I’m not doing that, I teach blind and visually-impaired children for the Amber Trust, a national organisation specifically providing musical opportunities for blind and visually-impaired children, and helping their families support their musical development. And that’s how I met Lucy. The Amber Trust assessed her when she was three-years-old, and said she needed a piano teacher. So eventually, after a few months looking for someone, I ended up doing the job.

You didn’t say yes straightaway, did you?
No. They’d been trying to get me to come in for ages, and I just didn’t have the capacity to do it at that time. It was my old boss at our local schools’ music service – the school got in touch with him, and he said to me “You’re the only person who can do this.” I’d worked with a lot of children with additional needs in the past. But I told him I couldn’t do it. And he kept pestering me, until eventually I said I’d go and see what I could do.

What do you remember about that first meeting?
It was amazing, the first time. Her level of musical understanding is so profound. Obviously, anyone who sees her play the piano thinks “Wow, that’s incredible.” Because of the mismatch of what she’s doing on the piano and what you can see, in terms of the difficulties that she has. But when musicians see her, it’s a different thing, because we can see that she’s got such a deep understanding of how music works. She loves complex music – the more complicated, the better. Her favourite music is Bach, that’s what she loves playing, that’s her default. She loves the complex texture of Bach, and musicians always love Bach, he’s like our number one composer.

So when I first met her, there was that real excitement, because this child really understood what she was hearing. Not what she’s doing, because at that stage she couldn’t physically play, for example, a Mozart sonata properly, because her fingers were too small, and she didn’t really understand about how to use her left hand and her right hand. So then I had to train her, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since, for the past ten or more years. Just training her in technique.

How did you two get on, initially?
It took quite a long time to get her to trust me. Partly because she’d only just turned four when I met her. And she’d spent so many of her early years before that in hospital, she’d missed out on a whole load of developmental things and experiences that babies and toddlers would normally access.

So she had to get to know me. When I tried to play the piano, she pushed me out of the way, we ended up wrestling quite a lot, she scratched me, occasionally she bit me. And she was only little, she had to sit on my knee to play the piano. It was a matter of working out how we do this. Eventually after a few weeks she gradually trusted me more, and I was able to play the piano for her more. I would play ten seconds before she’d shove me out of the way, and then it would go up to 20 seconds. So after a few months, she started to appreciate the fact that I was there to help her play the piano better, which is quite a sophisticated thing to understand.

How did you go about teaching her?
At first, it was just a matter of finding what music she was interested in. She listened to loads of classical music – her mum used to put it on when she couldn’t sleep, and slowly she just absorbed it. And she remembered it all – things like Bach and Chopin, really difficult piano pieces. And I’d have to work out what piece she was playing with her tiny, four-year-old’s hands, and then I’d have to make sure that I knew the piece, so I could play it for her. We worked out a method where she had to put her hands on top of my hands, so she knew what my fingers were doing. And then she remembered – her memory is very, very good.

And then gradually the pieces began to take more shape – partly because of the training, and partly because she was getting older. And then she began to get that sense of achievement – that she could finally make her fingers do that thing that was in her head. And the more she appreciated that, the more she wanted to learn new stuff. And nowadays she asks me to play pieces for her, because she knows I can teach her how to play them, and she’s desperate to learn more. As a teacher, it’s what you want from a pupil.

As you say, Lucy has this extraordinary musical ability. Do you think there is something about being visually impaired that contributes to musical ability, because the other senses are heightened?
I’ve probably got a bit of a skewed vision about that, because most of the blind people I know are very good musicians. That’s why I know them. But I think there is something in that. If you can’t see, then sounds are a much more important part of how you navigate the world around you. So you remember sounds and acoustics. It’s very common for blind children to have perfect pitch. It’s just a very, very accurate memory for sound frequencies. I think almost all of the blind children I’ve taught have had perfect pitch.

How often do you have lessons with Lucy, and how much practice does she do on her own?
If you sit her at a piano, she will start playing it, and if you go away and come back six hours later, she’ll still be playing it. That’s her comfortable world, where she knows what’s what, and she can express herself very readily. She just loves it. So in that sense, she plays the piano loads – any opportunity. She’s got a piano at home now – the TV show [The Piano] gave her one. And at school, I teach her for an hour three times a week. Which is far more than I’d normally do, normally it would be an hour a week. But because of her level of understanding, she can’t do the disciplined technical work, and structure her practice, so the sessions she has with me are what stands in for that.

It’s quite intensive. But she’s getting better at the technical side. Today we were practising Clair de Lune, by Debussy – it’s always been a favourite of hers, but it’s only now that her hands are big enough to play it. And there’s a few difficult passages in that for the left hand, and she knows there are fingering patterns in that that she can’t quite manage. But when she plays it, she will stop and correct it, so she’s learning now to do that herself, which is really good. And it shows that she’s really growing up, her understanding is more mature, and she’s got that self-discipline.

Did you have any misgivings about Lucy taking part in The Piano?
I’m inherently sceptical about anything to do with showbusiness, or anything that has a certain sense of capitalists taking advantage of artists. So I was quite cautious about that. But it wasn’t my decision. My duty is to support Lucy’s musical development, so wherever she goes, I’ve got to follow. If there was something I thought was completely inappropriate, I would say something. But I was quite pleasantly surprised – it was very supportive. The people who worked with us bent over backwards to listen and to understand Lucy’s needs, which is vitally important. They were good at that. A lot of people don’t understand how much you have to adapt to her complex needs. And they looked after her family, and me, really well. So it was a great experience. And obviously it was great getting to know Lang Lang [world renowned pianist and judge on the show] – he’s a nice bloke. It was fascinating seeing how he really made that journey to get inside Lucy’s world. He didn’t have to do that, but you could tell he was really fascinated by that, because he’s a musician.

The show was a really nice endorsement of the work that everyone’s done with Lucy. Her family and her school. People say “Oh, you’re a wonderful piano teacher, you work miracles.” It’s not me, I do the easy bit. It’s the people that teach her to do all the life skills and to read braille, that’s the really hard bit. But it was a good experience – it was such a friendly show, they didn’t ham up the competition element too much.

The moment when she played at Leeds station was heart-stopping TV. What was it like to be there?
It’s funny, actually, because I have to admit that some of the time she was playing I was chatting with Claudia [Winkleman – host of The Piano]. For me, what she did was just the sort of thing she does all the time. Her going and playing Chopin on the piano in the station was the kind of thing I see every time we have a lesson.

It was only actually when it came out on the telly, and the reaction to that, that made me realise how much that captured the imagination of people. It was really good to see that impact. One of the great things about the TV programme is it’s an opportunity for Lucy to serve people. If you have such complex needs, you spend all your time being looked after and having people running around after you. It’s really important, and really nice, to be able to do something where you can just give something to people, and that’s what she did. It was all her, no-one else, doing that. It was a really special thing.

In the documentary, she’s asked to perform at the Coronation, which we all saw on TV. What we didn’t see was what was going on behind the scenes. You weren’t able to attend, were you?
No, because I’m a dangerous insurrectionist! It was really irritating. We’d done the security checks a fortnight beforehand, and it was all fine. We got our security passes, and then we got a call from the BBC production staff, saying that the royal household security wouldn’t give me clearance, so I had to give my security pass back. It was all really annoying, and no-one would give me a reason, which I thought was very rude. I think it was because I’ve been involved a lot in environmental activism, especially Extinction Rebellion. It was so horrible, it made me feel really sad.

Does Lucy get nervous before a big performance? How aware is she of the magnitude of these things?
No, she doesn’t get nervous at all. It doesn’t bother her. She doesn’t understand that that’s something you need to worry about. Everyone else around her gets nervous – I get terribly nervous when I’m walking onstage with her. She can tell that, and sometimes winds me up! Because she’s done loads of concerts, she’s got a concept of there being a big number of people in the venue, from the noise that they’re making. And she really likes the fact that, when she finishes playing the piece, there’s a little pause, and then there’s going to be cheers and applause from thousands of people, which is obviously a nice thing. She likes that. But what she really cares about is the music. It’s really refreshing, working her in that sense. But I’m terrible, when I do gigs I get really stressed.

Does all the work you do with Lucy add to your stress, or take it away?
The work I do with Lucy is really time-consuming, and difficult to fit in, and I have a really, really busy work schedule. Three times a week I have to travel up to her school to work with her, and that’s an awkward and stressful thing to do. But when I sit down at the piano with Lucy, you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. It’s so exciting. It can be difficult, if she’s messing about and not wanting to learn a piece. As you see in the film, you get the odd couple of weeks where she’s not on good form. But you sit down with her at the piano and it’s just brilliant. You’re just communicating through music. And we like the same music. I mean, that may be because I’m her teacher, so I’ve influenced some of her taste. But there’s a lot of stuff she’s introduced me to as well. I never used to play any Chopin before I met Lucy, but now I like it. And we play a lot of jazz. As a performer, that’s mostly what I do.

How else has working with her affected your life?
Lucy was an inspiration for me starting up Music for the Many, a few years later. It was that thought, if Lucy can do it, with all the barriers she has… she’s an example of what can happen if you make musical opportunities available to children. There’s probably thousands of Lucys that we don’t know about in our communities, because they’re not given the opportunities. So Lucy’s been a big inspiration for me. As have the amazing people that work with her in her school.

I get the impression you’re not someone who particularly relishes being in the spotlight. How did you find being followed around by cameras for the documentary?
It was alright, actually. They were lovely people, Poppy [Goodheart, director] and Glenn [Dance, producer]. Also, we knew Glenn because he did The Piano as well, which was also really helpful for Candice [Lucy’s mother] and Lucy, because they knew him and he knew them. We spent so much time with Glenn and Poppy, we just got to know each other, and we became mates. I’ve met up with Poppy a couple of times since. I think my wife was quite glad that she knew there weren’t going to be TV cameras in the house anymore. But on balance it was a very positive experience.

In the film, one of the things you talk about is your sense of the enormous responsibility of nurturing Lucy’s talent. What do you mean by that?
I think it’s because, certainly at the moment, I’m the only person who really understands what she’s doing in the world. Because I’ve done it with her all these years, and we’ve learned together. She’s learned how to play the piano, and I’ve learned how to teach her. So we’ve got a very, very good understanding of each other’s musical language, and ways of doing things. We have a very, very close relationship, and understand each other. And it’s that responsibility, and really, at some point I’ve got to pass that on to someone else. In four or five years’ time, she should be going to music college, a conservatoire kind of setting, where she can get coaching from top concert pianists.

For Lucy this is the one thing that she’s got. The rest of us can apply for a job at Tesco if things don’t work out. We’ll always find something. But for her, that’s what she does, she plays piano. That’s her one chance of having a career, and a very successful career, as a professional musician. She’s starting to do that already. Because she’s so different from any other pupil, the way she learns, and the way the lessons are structured, is also different. Even physically, the way she plays is different from anyone else. She’s got hypermobile joints, they bend in both directions. It sometimes makes me wince when I see the fingering patterns she’s doing. Everything is so idiosyncratic.

There’s a bit in the film, backstage when we’ve performed at a jazz gig, and we’re backstage, and I’m talking about the danger of doing my musical career through Lucy. It’s a huge responsibility, and it’s a very fine balance. A lot of music teachers have been guilty of that. It’s difficult, because you invest so much in it, so every now and again you have to remind yourself of your responsibilities. I’ve got to get this right.

You also mention at one point that you want her to be seen as a serious musician, as opposed to “an exhibit in the royal menagerie.” Are you worried that she’ll be seen as a novelty act, or some kind of ‘miracle’, rather than appreciated for her actual musical ability?
Yeah. That’s what the media came out with when she was on the telly [in The Piano]. Their thing was ‘the miracle child’, and I find that really insulting and dismissive to Lucy herself, and also to all the people that work with her. It’s not a miracle. It’s just hard work. It’s the same with any musician, to get to that level you just have to put in hours and hours of really hard work. My aim is that at 18 we’ll get her to a place where she can go to music college, and work with people like Martin Roscoe and really top piano tutors. But the whole ‘miracle’ thing is just a way of dismissing people who have disabilities. It’s really unhelpful, and it’s lazy.

When you look back at all of Lucy’s performances, what’s been your high point?
To be honest, I think the best performance she’s ever done was in the final of the TV series [The Piano]. Everything came together – which was partly down to the production team providing exactly the right environment and what she needed to prepare for it. The piece she played, Debussy’s Arabesque, has always been one of her favourites, since she was really little. And she played it really, really well, the best she’s ever played it. The expression and the fluency of it! I was dead pleased. But I was absolutely terrified walking onto the stage with her. She’s much better now, but she used to have this habit of going “Sod this, I’m going to play something else.” I was worried she might start playing Elvis songs. But she just played really, really well. Her posture at the piano was great, she took a bow at the end – everything about it was just spot on. It was good timing, really, as it was a pretty high stakes performance.

You’ve talked about how Lucy could go to music college and have a career in music – how far do you think her talent can take her?
I’ve got to plan years ahead in the way that I work with her, because a lot depends on it. I see her being a recital pianist. She has a gift for remembering loads of repertoire, which is a challenge in recitals. That’s what I imagine. So we’re gradually building up to it. In the past she might have done a performance where she’d play for a couple of minutes. Now she’ll play for fifteen minutes, do two or three pieces, or a whole Mozart sonata. We’re gradually building up. So I see her being a pianist, maybe recording stuff, and doing recitals. I don’t have any visions of any Britain’s Got Talent type escapades. She’s a serious musician.

I remember before the final of The Piano, the production company rang up and asked what piece she’d like to play. Ted, the runner, asked what she was playing at the moment, At the time she was learning Bartók’s Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm. Bartók’s music is really rhythmical and discordant, 20th Century Hungarian piano music. And I mentioned that piece, and I was listing a few others, and I think he was quite relieved when I mentioned the Debussy. So there is definitely a Classic FM, smooth classics pigeon hole that she could drop into, but she’s much more than that. She loves all music.