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Seeking Authenticity: An Interview with Valentina Lisitsa

This is the extended online version of the interview that was printed in the March/April 2017 issue of Clavier Companion

by Vanessa Cornett

Valentina Lisitsa is a formidable pianist with dazzling technique and an ever-growing fan base. A self-made luminary, she was arguably the first classical musician to catapult herself from relative obscurity to superstardom using social media alone. At forty-three, the Ukrainian-American virtuoso now boasts 300,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel and enjoys hundreds of millions of online views. At times controversial, she can be provocative and uncompromising, both on stage and off. Her style of playing and her personality are equally charismatic and engaging, and she was eager to share her perspectives with our readers.

How did your parents support your musical talents as a child?
My case was not by any measure unique. The relatively new definition “tiger mom” could be as easily applied to many parents in ex-USSR, particularly because of cultural similarities between our family traditions. At three years of age I was taken to figure skating, ballet, competitive swimming and piano classes. Only piano survived!

I grew up in a household with just my mom and grandma; my parents were divorced. My mom worked and my grandma took care of me. She was lucky enough to get an excellent education in her youth: a few years of gymnasium, an equivalent of private school, and later on, Odessa Conservatory singing class. My mom had it much harder. Her childhood passed in World War II under German occupation, and she missed precious years of school. She dreamt of becoming an actress but she ended up working in the clothing factory as a seamstress all her life. Nevertheless, the opportunities for culture and music were aplenty. She loved music, the opera in particular. I remember being taken to opera at a very young age.

And what did you think about the opera at that age?
Sorry, it wasn’t an experience to enjoy! It was past my bedtime, and the opera was Puccini’s Tosca, the title which, amusingly, translates into Russian as “boredom.”

How did you develop your extraordinary technique as a young piano student?
I had quite a regular musical upbringing, very much along the lines of what was considered Russian piano school. My first piano teacher was herself just a student. The only school that would accept me, a three-year-old, was a music college that prepared future music teachers. These students of music pedagogy, I think that’s how the specialty was called, needed someone to practice their skill on. So, here I was, a guinea pig if you will, given on a white list of paper to a girl of maybe fourteen or fifteen as her first student. I don't even know her last name, for me she was simply Lenochka, which is diminutive from Helena. My first tasks were predictably Hanon exercises, Czerny etudes, Bach two- and three-part inventions, some children’s pieces by Glière, Schumann, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky. I remember myself thinking that once I master all sixty Hanon exercises, I will be an accomplished pianist! I guess I still have some ways to go, as I remember I quit around number forty or so.

You are definitely not alone in that regard! Please describe the structure of a typical piano lesson for you when you were young.
A typical lesson was forty-five minutes long, twice a week. It would start with some scales and exercises that were given as homework from the previous lesson. A teacher would correct anything major that went outside of the conventional wisdom: hand positions, weird fingerings, obvious mistakes. The aim was to get a relaxed but not a flappy hand. The actual term used was “composed” hand, sort of a cat’s paw, soft but ready to strike a bird or a key with murderous grace!

The lesson would proceed to playing pieces that required artistic work, in this case many pieces that appealed to child’s imagination. The task, learning how to express your feelings in music: how to express sadness and grief in Tchaikovsky’s “Sick Doll” and “Doll’s Funeral,” how to depict visual or whimsical things like a sunrise or a “March of Grasshoppers.” In classical pieces like Bach, Haydn, Mozart, the emphasis was on a structure: finding and highlighting the polyphonic voices, theme and counterpoint, the structure of the sonata form. Even for a three-year-old, the explanation of the development and the recap as getting lost in an unfamiliar key signature and happiness upon finding the way back to home key was entertaining and clear enough. This kind of the lesson structure was a routine through which millions of kids went in thousands of state-run music schools. Once I was in a special program school for talented kids, my mom quickly developed taste for the competitions. From that point forward, my childhood was miserable.

Could you tell us more about your early experience with competitions?
Once I was admitted into so-called special music school for talented children, the joy was taken out of music, and the competition mentality set in. Getting accepted was a feat in itself, because the competition for a coveted spot was something like 300 kids per one accepted. It was a competition to stay in. By the third grade only fourteen out of original thirty-six kids admitted remained. To stay atop of one’s class, to win music competitions small and big, the mere act of playing on stage turned from a performance to an execution, playing not to give a joy to listeners but to please the judges. And, of course, the music is even less measurable sport than, let’s say, dance competition in figure skating or artistic gymnastics disciplines. We all heard of scandals and controversies with rigged or subjective judging in those, now multiply this by a thousand to understand music contests. We don’t have stopwatches or decibel meters to objectively pick the winners. And those few who win despite unconventional interpretations or technical slips are the exceptions that further prove the futility of the competition system as a tool in finding and rewarding the best musicians. There are just as few lottery winners, and they are also paraded in glossy ads, cruising the world, making millions dream of what they would do with their jackpot, as they spend their hard earned money on lottery tickets.

I understand you also participated in chess competitions.
My fascination with chess came rather late in my youth. If in music I was a child prodigy, in chess I was a late bloomer. The kids who went into professional chess started probably at the same age I started piano. Both in music and in chess anything after an age of ten was considered impossibly late. When I joined a real chess club, I was assigned to a group of six and seven year olds! That was quite a hit for one’s self-esteem. I worked super hard just to move out of that group, and soon enough I was beating grown men. Frankly, my chess detour was a reaction to overly-competitive professional music field.

How did your “chess detour” offer a respite from piano competitions?
Chess, unlike music competitions, was uncomplicated, transparent, and fair. If you know more than your opponent, if you think better, if you study better, if you hold your nerves better, you win. If you don’t, you lose. The music competitions were about your teacher’s and school’s connections and alliances, about political decisions based on fairness enforcement, about – frankly – bribes, about all kinds of worse and unspeakable things no teenager or young adult entering a competition circuit should have ever faced, if not for a complete Omerta code which no one can break if he or she wants to remain the part of music establishment.

I lost the interest in chess when I won back the interest in music as the art, the art which is capable of making people weep and laugh, rather than a means to win gold medals. I have never played chess since. 

What do you do to warm up before a big concert? Do you have a pre-performance routine that you like to follow?
I usually reserve about an hour as a minimum to warm myself up, not even as much physically but rather emotionally. For purely physical warming up, three to five minutes is plenty. If a good amount of work has been done beforehand, then your conscience is serene and no little voice in your head starts asking questions “do you really know the chords in this or that transition?” In the last hour before coming on stage, I prefer to work on pieces which I don’t play that night. It is of a double benefit. Firstly, it takes my mind off overly obsessing over the challenges ahead. Second, it is the best moment to test drive any new repertory in progress in the conditions close to the “battlefield” because of the additional adrenaline circulating through your body. The aim of warming up is not merely a physical act of making your fingers move faster, but of getting yourself as quickly as possible to that state of mind that athletes call being in a “zone,” maximum concentration on things important and tuning out all the external stimuli, leaving behind petty annoyances and small worries. I have one video that illustrates this wondrous state of being in a zone when I am playing Beethoven Tempest in Paris and the stage projector light explodes overhead without me skipping a beat!

Editor’s note: Here is a video of this performance

I imagine Beethoven would get a kick out of such pyrotechnic drama in that sonata! Do you have any favorite warmup passages?
I know that what I will say next is a sacrilege, but I will say it nevertheless, because many young musicians ask. The very best piece ever for warming up is… Ta-da! Beethoven Emperor Concerto opening passages and beyond. It is good and healthy for your hands, unlike ubiquitous Chopin Études which, in my honest opinion, should come with a disclaimer “to be used under adult supervision only.”

I love that disclaimer! Are you speaking from experience?
I saw and heard so many times young musicians asking me how to do this or that etude so their hand doesn’t hurt like crazy or doesn’t spasm. Allow me to repeat what I said many times: playing piano is easy, it should never hurt. If it does, stop and discontinue whatever you are doing immediately, stop and think of the solution, ask a colleague, teacher or try to figure out by watching YouTube. But never ever try to play through painful feeling. It’s wrong. 

How do you use imagination and storytelling to memorize and perform your music?
The emotional memory is something equally important to the process of learning the piece as is visual, aural and muscle memory. Without it a pianist turns into a stenographer, furiously typing away the composer’s thoughts without reflecting on the content of those thoughts. It’s if as one tried to memorize a love poem just by putting his or her mouth in certain positions, by repeating particularly long phrases and difficult to spell words. A disaster in the making. The story or the plot is a must to know, whether very simplistic for children, or very complicated and perhaps indescribable by even the longest essays. Try explaining away in less than an hour Liszt B minor Sonata, even though we were given hints by Liszt as of what’s going on!

Now, for the importance of the storytelling in the interpretation, that’s where the magic of music comes in. It’s our whole life experience, whether by directly living it or vicariously, through what we see, hear, read. It’s our unique emotional DNA combined with the audience’s that makes the performance. 

Is this emotional DNA a universal phenomenon?
It’s why there is some room for millions of music lovers to still enjoy or cry over performances of the ubiquitous “Moonlight” Sonata or a Chopin Ballade. This is the same phenomenon we can observe by walking into the museum and seeing the result of centuries’ worth of artists painting the same subject, let’s say Madonna with Child, over and over. Confined to the very rigid set of rules acceptable in a religious painting, different artists nevertheless came up with results that are as distinct and varied as anything. 

You once said that your favorite recordings of Rachmaninoff are those which the composer recorded himself. Could you say more about interpreting the music of the great composers?
With Rachmaninoff we have a unique case of an outstanding contemporary composer who also happened to arguably be the best pianist, and no mean conductor either! His recordings of his own works allow us a rare view inside that elusive thing called the composer’s intent. We can be assured that he had technical and musical means to play his own music exactly as he intended. A veritable Rosetta Stone for the interpretation! I can’t tell you how many times I heard from the conductors, fellow pianists and music critics, regarding the opening tempi in Third Concerto, “But of course he plays it too fast!” Stop right here and make a self-admission: It’s not Rachmaninoff who is too fast, it’s us who became too slow, too flaccid to follow his mercurial spirit, in changing the very soul of his music to overly sentimental, schmaltzy Hollywood parody of himself.

Editor’s note: Here is Valentina performing a solo version of the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3

Extrapolating from our mistreatment of Rachmaninoff, what right do we have to claim we know anything about the earlier composers? We project our own deficient knowledge and biased feelings onto poor composers who can’t defend themselves. It’s enough to look at the interpretive history of Bach, Mozart or Chopin performance in twentieth century to understand, well, that we don’t have a clue. But the good news is, once we admit that there is no absolute, mathematical truth in music interpretation, we are free to become ourselves, to reflect our own time and experience in music, to be contrarians, heretics if you will!

If we are free to be heretics, does that mean that music has its own sacred principles?
Music is structured a lot like another spiritual domain, the religion. Both have creators. In music’s case, the composers are the gods. Then we have our sacred Urtexts. And thirty-two [Beethoven] sonatas or Well-Tempered Clavier certainly qualifies for musical bibles. Then come the high priests of music, the interpreters, who bring the sacred texts to life and explain it to congregations of music lovers in temples of music. And isn’t Musikverein or Carnegie Hall a cathedral of music? And just like any religion’s clergy, we, the priests of music, claim to have the divine knowledge of what the creator-composer intended to say. But more often than not we have no clue! Yet we strike a solemn pose at the piano, direct our mysterious gaze into the darkest and furthest corner of the stage, and start playing, with the ultimate aim being a performance that will persuade the audience, at that day and time, of witnessing the most authentic, truest performance. And the pure magic of our art rests here. That’s why there is a place of honor in our “religion” for Bach in Glenn Gould’s hands, and in Simone Dinnerstein’s, Chopin of Cortot and of Zimerman, Beethoven of Kempff and of Backhaus.

What other pianists hold a place of honor for you?
I admire Wilhelm Backhaus first and foremost. Whereas I “studied” with Rachmaninoff his music, with Backhaus I study the music in whole: the interpretations, the sound, the technique, phrasing, you name it. Luckily, we have one superb studio video recording, Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto, that answers any questions. But anything from complete Beethoven sonatas and concerti, Schumann, Brahms Intermezzi, unmatched young recordings of virtuoso pieces.

A short, barely scratching-the-surface list of the interpreters and interpretations I admire and learn from would include Kempff, Hofmann, Ignaz Friedman, Gieseking, Annie Fischer, Clara Haskil, Cortot. A few unfairly less-familiar names would include Daniël Wayenberg, a Dutch pianist residing in Paris. I discovered his unmatched Schumann Kreisleriana on Napster by accident and have been marveling at his art since. Ray Lev was a fantastic American pianist; listen to her Schubert or own Bach transcriptions. Hers is a tragic story altogether; she was the only pianist proscribed on the “Red Channels” blacklist of alleged Soviet sympathizers, along with other musicians like Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland. Blacklisted, she lost her career and, tragically, died in obscurity. 

Rumor has it that you practice twelve to fourteen hours a day when possible! What is it that you practice?
If I have free time, yes, absolutely! And twelve to fourteen hours is too little but I have to respect the neighbors. I have so much repertory that even this time a day is not nearly enough. If I am preparing for an ordinary month of touring ahead it means five to six hours of music, counting a couple of different recital programs, three or four concerti plus new pieces that I work ahead for future season. But at the same time, because it is something I truly love and cherish, hours alone with a piano and favorite pieces go very quickly, too quickly in fact. It is as if you were left on a tropical island, to swing all day long in a hammock, reading books. Would you call it “oh, I am practicing my reading skills?” Of course not! The same with practicing piano. I am a lucky person indeed.

And the rest of us are lucky to enjoy the results of your hard work. But what do you do for fun when you are not practicing?
Most of my other time, unfortunately, is spent on travel. And here the common perception, which goes something like, “ain't you lucky to do globetrotting and play in all those amazing places?” is very opposite of the reality. I travel to play. I have no time for sightseeing, even for a quiet meal. I go by with snacks and instant meals, I read books downloaded on my phone while on a plane, same goes for the movies. I shop online and never for fun, but only for necessities. I don’t ever go to the restaurant “for fun” because having a meal after the concert with patrons and sponsors is a part of a job description, but not necessarily “fun.” Riding in a car or flying with my family are sometimes our only moments together in months and months. If we do travel together, they go sightseeing, I go to rehearsals. That’s why I prefer to have my home place in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in a countryside, with no people, no noise and no distractions. Silence is what I miss the most. 

What can you tell us about your latest CD recording, Love Story: Piano Themes from Cinema’s Golden Age?
It was quite a spontaneous idea by Decca, as they tried to fill in their quite extensive recording catalogue with missing pieces. They probably have more than enough Beethoven sonatas but none of this music. The CD came as an afterthought to the recording project that contained three times as much music. For me it’s an interesting challenge, not something I would imagine myself doing, jolting out of classical routine. I always painfully remember hearing some years ago a radio broadcast, I think it was BBC, where the radio host was making fun of “Russians playing West Side Story,” and I must admit the ensemble, I don't remember the name, did play it laughably bad. I had a flashback to that program when, for the first time in my life, I was facing not an orchestra, but a big band! The green recording light went off, the shivers ran along my back, and I proceeded like I had always done this kind of music since I was born, no big deal. There is a beautiful word for it, chutzpah. And yes, it helps with Chopin too!

Editor’s note: Here are some excerpts of this CD

What is the next new piece you are eager to learn?
I am delving into Bach right now. Randomly, hungrily. It will be a while until I figure my own way there but it is such an immense universe in itself! 

So very true! Anything else?
I am still very much into the complete Beethoven thirty-two sonatas project. I am happy to approach it slowly with many detours which luckily only benefit the final result. I always remember the story of my favorite historian, writer and philosopher Will Durant. He said that he wanted to write a book on Napoleonic Europe, but in order to explain the cataclysmic changes of those times he had to go further and further back. What started as one volume book on a small period in the nineteenth century evolved into a lifetime project and thirteen volumes of The Story of Civilization. 

Speaking of lifetime projects, could you tell us a little bit about your young son? Is he musically inclined, and if so, do you teach him piano?
Benjamin has been exposed to great deal of music since, oh well, since before he was born! I have not stopped performing while pregnant, and was back on stage, with my son backstage, less than a week after he was born. I jokingly attribute the quirks in his character to the kind of music he was exposed to; not the repertory from Baby Einstein, but such pieces as Brahms’ Second Concerto or Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Some serious stuff!

He has more of a scientific, analyzing rather than artistic, imaginative, mind. Also, being a perfectionist, it’s next to impossible to make him do something he knows he is bad at. My husband tried a few times to teach him the piano, but quit, only to wake up at night and hear Benjamin playing piano in my studio, when nobody’s around. By ear he has mastered few random bits of pieces, like, to my astonishment, first page of Chopin’s Étude Op. 25 No. 11. But then his interest switched to another instrument altogether, the bells. He has become fascinated with church bells when we moved to Paris and the neighboring cathedral rang few times a day. He has beyond perfect pitch and an astonishing memory. He can recognize most of Europe’s famous bells by sound. Once I was allowed to practice for a day in an orchestra storage room. He treated us to a real concert of tubular bells. He played them so well, like he has studied for years. Our jaws were literally on the floor! Now he has moved on to chemistry, something he can feel superior to me, totally lost in organic acids! I am satisfied to know that he has become a great music listener, something that he will keep for life, even if he has no intent of making a career in music. He is my fairest and unbiased critic who can tell without being circumspect whether the performance or a piece of music is good or bad or something in between. It even led to some awkward or funny situations, when after a concert some conductor would ask him, “So, Benjamin, how did you like the concert?” with Benjamin promptly replying something like, “It was just ok. I would rate it around 6 or 7 on a scale of 10 with 10 being such-and-such...”

Most of our readers are piano teachers. Do you have any thoughts to offer to teachers of children?
There is no better gift for the children than teaching them music! Not only teaching them to play it, but to love it and appreciate it. This is the gift that will stay with them all their lives. It’s not necessarily that all the kids who start the piano will proceed to any significant level of mastery, but even a few precious lessons are enough to make the impact in their lives, and the lives of their children later on. 

The first and foremost task of the teachers for beginners is to develop and preserve this love for music, to make children hungry for more. As you might surmise, I am no fan of music competitions on any level, [because] they take a joy from pure music making and substitute for it a sports-like desire to win at all costs. I honestly think that a much better way is to let all children perform for others, to share their gift. By the way, the practice of showcases–where all kids in class would get to play at least a small piece on stage in a festive concert setting for the audience of parents, friends and teachers, with applause, cameras, etc.–is by far superior to making them compete against each other. 

Do you have any advice for the teachers of very advanced pre-professional pianists?
At some point in the development of a budding professional musician, the teacher isn’t a teacher anymore, but a coach, a colleague, a mentor, a friend, a judge, and a guinea pig all in one. This is the most rewarding but at the same time the most critical moment in the life of both the teacher and the student. How to direct the development, to nourish individuality? How to recognize if the student’s experiments lead him or her down the wrong path? How to be self-critical enough to distinguish between giving students the freedom to be themselves, or letting them be self-indulgent and narcissistic under a guise of originality? How to walk a thin line between providing the students with a good solid technical and musical base, or forcing them all into the same mold? God bless the teachers! It’s an incredibly difficult job. If we look at the best-known teachers to the stars, one thing that unites them is that they don’t produce lookalike copies of the same. Take Liszt and his pupils. Take the great Neuhaus who has developed such contrasting individualities as Richter and Gilels, among constellations of others!

I think the approach to handling students on the verge of becoming professionals is about good and unbiased analysis of strengths and weaknesses. Addressing the weaknesses, teaching the students to recognize and correct them, taking the best advantage of the strengths – particularly in terms of selecting the right repertory. This is a good time to discuss specialization. Very few young professionals can afford to be omnivores in today’s marketplace. It is much easier to make your name known in a narrower field. For example, a student who shows great promise in performance of pre-Romantic music: excellent small rhythm, good finger technique, precise touch, even if missing on some prerequisites of virtuoso playing, like big hands or powerful sound, can be led further down the path looking into Baroque repertory which is in great demand, relatively unexplored and something of an open field. This is just one small example, but there are openings for any talent as long as there is a talent, defined by an ability to do something particularly well. The teacher’s task is to uncover this gemstone of a talent, even if covered with layers of dust and sand, and make it sparkle. p

Editor’s note: Readers may wish to check out Valentina Lisitsa’s website at http://www.valentinalisitsa.com/. Her YouTube channel may be accessed at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC6UbiyGEGkF5iuqKRsShCOg.

CornettVanessaVanessa Cornett is Clavier Companion’s new Senior Editor. She is also the Director of Keyboard Studies and Associate Professor of Piano and Piano Pedagogy at the University of St. Thomas in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis–St. Paul.