Artist/Educator Archive Interview - Eugene Albulescu
e regularly feature the personal experiences and insights of a noteworthy artist/educator on various aspects of piano performance and education. You may not always agree with the opinions expressed, but we think you will find them interesting and informative. The opinions offered here are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent those of the West Mesa Music Teachers Association, its officers, or members. (We have attorneys, too!). At the end of the interview, you'll find hypertext links to the interviewee's e-mail and Web sites (where available), so you can learn more if you're interested. Except where otherwise noted, the interviewer is Dr. John Zeigler.
PEP: What made you go into music?
I simply loved listening to any music while I was a toddler (at least so my parents say). We were living in the old Romanian Communist society, where education was free, but very, very competitive. From very early ages, parents forcibly steered their kids' inclinations. Consequently, simply because I loved listening to music, I had to be tested for a musical ear, and by the age 6, I was shoved into a music school. Although by that time I could play some things on the piano, my eagerness to play tunes was hushed for the next 2 years, while my teacher "planted" my hand into the piano properly. (Exercises, etc.)
PEP: Who was the most influential person in your years as a student of the piano and why?
I did not really have influential persons. I had a hard time practicing while I was a kid, despite my parents' attempts to give me role models in famous composers. Finally, after 4 years, I quit, and switched over to percussion. Later, when my family defected and settled in New Zealand, I took up piano again, and it was a different story this time, because it was of my own choice, and not my parents'. I developed a passion, and found myself practicing much harder than I thought I can practice before. Overall, Beethoven's turbulent life has had the most impact on me, because I am always in awe of how someone whose most cherished sense has gone, nevertheless still manages to keep going for years, and compose music which is triumphant, sorrowful, tragic, but also joyful and hopeful. Beethoven's Heiligenstadt Testament has had a tremendous impact on me, specially because most of his best music was composed after that suicidal note.
PEP: What do you enjoy most about making music?
There is an amazing feeling of fulfillment when I give a good performance. It cannot be described in words, but it beats pretty much anything else I can think of. Overall, I would say the best thing is the fact that no two performances are the same. My most favorite instances are when I tour; I can get to play a recital program up to 20 times in a row, and that is when my focus shifts from "what is going to happen here", to "what is going to happen here TONIGHT?".
PEP: Is there a "best" way or "method" to learn to play? Any that should be avoided?
All methods have their strengths. Luckily we have not found the definitive one, and I am the most scared by the methods claiming to be just that. (Often one method takes quasi-religious proportions; it's astounding!) My aim is to keep judging music as I make it. In order to do that, we have to practice our mind much more than the fingers, to gain control of our minds. The mind can easily create subroutines that make a passage "go" on auto-pilot. However once you experience the mind being INVOLVED in that passage, it all takes a different dimension. So I am more wary of methods which preach scales and scales and scales, simply because scales only cultivate your auto-pilot, while your mind is thinking (10 minutes into it) about what you'll have for dinner, etc., etc. This, as far as practicing your mind is concerned, is a waste of time literally, because one of the most important elements (the mind) is partly switched off.
PEP: What "deficiency" in training or technique do you most often find in students of the piano?
I cannot think of a pattern. Everyone is so different, and so are our deficiencies, I suppose. I take each student one by one, and fix what seems to be a problem. I advocate being aware of every joint from the shoulder down, and being able to play, while isolating just that particular joint. Eventually you get to realize how the sound changes radically if you play from the wrist, of from the whole arm, or from the elbow, or from fingers only. Eventually, I try to instill this as an instinct, because in real life we use a combination of these joints. However, many schools advocate wrists only, and the exclusivity of it places a lot of stress on those tendons. The other thing is that you can make gravity work for you, simply dropping your arm on big chords. This saves your energy for times when you really need it. The sound is very different when you use gravity, as opposed to force. It is more round, less aggressive.
PEP: What kinds of things would you tell students of the piano and their teachers to try to avoid?
Avoid using music for an ambiance device. We have to try and help people discover the nature of classical music: it demands full attention (even as a listener), and then it can stir your insides! The potential of music is great. However, we reduce it to mere ambiance if we do not devote to it the attention that it needs. If you listen to classical music while doing something else, then I think it does not have as much of a chance to communicate. It is as trivial as using a Monet painting for wall paper.
PEP: What advice would you give to students of the piano?
Piano is a great instrument - keep grinding at it until you can tackle the works which reward you with the feeling that you are doing something which you really enjoy. That feeling is irreplaceable, and I wish that for every piano student.
PEP: How do you motivate yourself to do the long hours of practice necessary to be a successful performer?
I do not. I am often not motivated, and I simply practice because I have something coming up. However other times I am taken with a work that I am practicing, and hours fly by. It is like the internet. I often ask people just that: How DO you motivate to surf for hours on end? It's the same thing. I surf the net and practice piano because they are things I love doing, and one consequence is that time can fly by fast if you develop a passion for it.
PEP: Can you give us your reflections upon music as a career? Specifically, what do you like most about performing and what do you dislike most?
It is the worst time in history to contemplate music performance as a career. The situation is that there are thousands and thousands of very talented, top notch musicians world-wide, and the field of classical music is decreasing rapidly in popularity. Simple supply and demand formula gives you the reality: it is really hard to make any dent being a performer, and if you do, it is hard to maintain your musical integrity. Then you have to be able to cope with politics, with marketing techniques of large companies you may have to work with (such as recording companies, or managers), and all this leaves you the artist, in want of actually being free to do your art. Overall, I think it is great to learn music and play music, because it is positively fulfilling and it truly affects in major positive ways, everything you do (including your learning skills, your sense of aesthetics, emotional health, sense of perseverance, the list goes on). However, music for a career is not something I would ever want my children to do, unless it is something that they simply crave at any cost. The cost of having a music career is dire, and is often not stressed by those who instill the dream of stardom on young minds.
PEP: What are your views on competitions and what should teachers and students expect from that experience?
This is a tough question, because I have critical attitudes on competitions. Of course I always try to offer the best comments when judging. However the whole idea of comparing musicians is warped. Competitions have emerged in the post-World War II era when there was a world-wide shortage of good artists. These competitions identified outstanding performers and also acted as a catalyst, fueling students to attain a high level of performance. However, this reality is not true today. There are too many good musicians, and having won a competition is no longer a guarantee of anything (not even Van Cliburn! - I did not hear of any winners aside from Lupu, who are currently MAJOR pianists today). There are too many competitions, and not enough truly outstanding winners. (People like Lupu and Ashkenazy don't come about every year...) Add to this the fact that competitions go against the musical creative process: When I think about playing in a competition, the emphasis is to not offend the most judges, and this focus is bad for the music!! It also means that the winners are generally the people who offended the least judges. They win because they are not bad, not because they are truly outstanding. It is impossible to be outstanding without offending people who disagree with you musically. My favorite quote about competitions is this: "Competitions are intended for horses, not for artists" (Bela Bartok). However, small junior competitions can be helpful, because they help young people with an interest in music find each other. They get a sense that there is a group of people to whom music is important music, not just themselves. However, the down sides of competitions still remain, even in junior competitions. If this makes sense, or makes no sense to you, try reading "The Ivory Trade" - a book specifically about piano competitions.
PEP: What do you do to prepare a work new to you for performance and how long does it take?
It depends on the work in question. For example something like Brahms' Op 119 would take me a few weeks to get under my belt, whereas the ""Hammerklavier"" took a few months out of my life (of total dedication). While at Indiana, one exam we did entailed a "48 hour piece" - which in my case was "The Maiden's Wish" by Chopin, arranged by Liszt. - This was a piece which I had to memorize and perform at an audition in 48 hours, and although I failed to see at the time how this can be of any use, I actually had to learn things in a flash from time to time, so it is a skill which I appreciate having.
PEP: How do you deal with pre-performance "jitters" and what is your pre-concert routine?
I do not have a pre-concert routine. It is always different, and organizers never know how to deal with me. People expect me to know what time I will feel like going to the hall on the day of the concert, and to let them know that 2 months in advance! How am I supposed to know how I will feel that morning? No, it is always different, and every concert has it's own adventurous story, which makes it more exciting. Finding the concert hall is one thing I am brilliant at not doing, despite clear instructions and maps. As for jitters, - I simply get in an intense mood, and need nothing but to be left alone, and lots of water. I also have to eat well before a concert, meaning a hefty helping of junk food. A concert is always an excuse for junk food for some reason, possibly because when traveling, I need the familiarity of chain restaurants, where you can pretty much expect things to taste like you have tasted them before.
PEP: What was your most memorable performing experience and why?
I can't remember... Seriously, I cannot think of any outstanding memorable experience. Right now, I would think the most memorable was a concert I did recently in New York at Bargemusic. Bargemusic is ON a floating barge, and I got to play Liszt's Legend No. 2 (which is also on a CD I recorded), portraying the legend of St. Francis De Paul walking on the waters. Needless to say the piece is VERY depictive, with sweeps and almost sea-sickening passages, and I loved playing it on a barge, because the swell of East River made it even more of a sensation. To top it off, snow mixed with lightening, and New York Downtown's magnificent lights, made the night very memorable to me.
PEP: When you teach a master class, what do you hope to accomplish and what general messages, if any, do you offer to all those in attendance?
I listen to what is unique about every student, and try to steer them in that direction, because eventually that is what will make me buy a CD of theirs, if they make it as great pianists. I try to help whatever needs helping, while keeping the rest of the audience from falling asleep. I try to gear my comments so that they are entertaining, of use to many people present, and are respectful to the performer. Remember that the performer is still the artist in the master class. I found that too many teachers focus on themselves, and thus the student is simply the guinea-pig, who invariably has to be "defective". This is a negativist approach that does not help the student.
PEP: Do you have a favorite pianist(s) and, if so, what attracts you to that person's performances?
Sviatoslav Richter, without a doubt. I also love the playing of Gary Grafman and Charles Rosen; Charles Rosen because of his ideas, and how eloquently he applies them to the practical nature of piano playing. Grafman is a wonderful artist whom I have had the honor of meeting and playing for, and I think highly of his integrity as a musician. Richter is a phenomenon, in that he is able to play simply even the most intricate works. Simplicity is not simple to attain, and often we try too much to make a phrase elaborate. Richter never draws attention to technique, although everything just happens to be there. He never shows off, but his technique clicks into his persuasive mind, and makes for music that engulfs you as a listener.
PEP: We understand you have an interesting story about Richter and the Internet. Could you tell us?
This story is about the Internet, and how amazing it can be, in helping people find each other, despite all odds. Last year, I was reading some of the posts from the newsgroup rec.music.classical. I stumbled upon a discussion thread about Sviatoslav Richter. I e-mailed one of the people contributing to the discussion, and told him that not only was I a pianist whose favourite musician is Richter, but there is a story about Richter and my date of birth. The night I was born, my father, who was in the Romanian George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra, had a concert, with Richter as soloist, playing Strauss' Burlesque. This work has a huge timpani part (because one of Strauss' best friends was a timpanist). As Richter has always been a bit eccentric, he requested that the timpani be brought to the front of the orchestra, on the other side of the piano. So here's this neat situation - the day I was born, my dad playing side by side with my (now) favourite pianist.
And so it turns out the gentleman I was writing to is a software engineer in Silicon Valley, formerly from Romania, an avid classical lover who, would you believe it, was present at the concert in question (back in 1970!!!), and he just happened to have an extra copy of the CD of that concert, newly released by the Romanian label Electrecord.
Small world isn't it?
PEP: What can we do as musicians to interest more people, children in particular, in classical music?
Well, we all do what we can. I have taken it into schools, with a campaign to play in as many schools as I can, nationwide in the USA - a 5 year project. I try to portray a classical music void of the associations we often think of: high-brow, sophistication, elite. No! Most of this great music has been written by people who tore the status quo, and it is sad to see music being degenerated into an art played by wise-looking old men in suits. Beethoven's fire and passion and "smart ass" contempt, as well as sublime lyricism, cannot be toned down. I think we should play classical music and present it in a way that makes all audiences react in an emotional way! A lot has changed. CD technology has made us all sound perfect and the same, and nothing more. We have stripped music of its ability to touch our deepest feelings, and we simply get moved on the surface. I try to play in a way that makes the listener connect with the music and composer directly, and at the same time evoke feelings that I interpret as the composer's intentions. I think that we need to do something, if classical music is to survive, and the trends are not looking good.
PEP: Pretend this is your personal soapbox. What would you like to say to students, parents, and teachers of the piano?
I thought teaching piano was focused on teaching "how to play". In fact, "how to play" is not teachable, because how everyone can play a piece is so different, and simply copying a teacher's playing makes you a clone. We should try to develop ideas, without the need that students copy what we do, but encouraging their different ways of enacting a composer's intention. In this respect, some methods, though popular, are very detrimental, because they create clones and musicians who rely on listening to recordings and copying them. Then we wonder why the public stays away from the concert halls. I would say that the greatest gift I had from my teacher - Edward Auer, was learning how to learn, how to discover, how to aesthetically grasp forms, harmony, technique, tone colors. It is my hope to share some of these aspects through what I do, because it is THAT which is my love of music.
You can learn more or ask questions of Mr. Albulescu by visiting his web site at http://www.mostlypiano.com
Last updated: 01/30/15