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Concert pianist Rae de Lisle reveals the secret to 40 years of happy marriage

A shared passion for music helped keep the couple in harmony.

By Fleur Guthrie

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 per cent 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."

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