In Bulgarian, we have a specific word to describe “playing a musical instrument.” We don’t “play” an instrument; we make it sound. The word is Свиря (Svirja.) The only other language I can think of, which has а similar word, is Italian. They say “suonare,” which is the same as the Bulgarian svirene. Other languages, like English, use the word “play” for making music and a particular word for the daily work we do — practicing.
I like having a word for what we do and wish all languages had one. The Russians use “играть” (play) or “заниматься” (engage in). The French say “jouer” (play) and “practique” (practice). So do the Spanish, the Swedish … and so on.
These small differences in various languages have always fascinated me. As an amateur translator, I often ponder the meaning of certain words in different languages and contexts. To me, “свирене” is something much more spiritual than “practicing.” The first one is rooted in making sounds, while the second is more suited to what athletes do.
I don’t remember myself without “свирене.” My very first memory is walking up the stairs in the community center in Sofia where I met my first piano teacher who told me that from then on I would be someone who has to “свири” every day. And indeed, I have been playing, practicing, or whatever you want to call it ever since. These days performing is only one part of my professional life. When I am not at the piano, I am consciously or subconsciously thinking about it, often feeling guilty and dissatisfied. No matter what I do, there is always a little voice in the back of my head, telling me that “I really should be practicing.”
It so happens that this last sentence is the title of Gary Graffman’s autobiography. I can’t think of a better title for a book by a pianist. Mr. Graffman was one of the most prominent US pianists in the 1960s, but his performance career was cut short by a severe hand injury. He commissioned many works for the left hand. Eventually, he became one of the most influential teachers in this country, having mentored hundreds of pianists, including stars like Lang Lang and Yuja Wang. He was also the director and president of Curtis for many years. An outstanding career. Still, regardless of his achievements as a pedagogue and administrator, I am sure that his book’s title is what he wakes up to every morning and goes to bed at night to this very day. Every musician knows what I mean. We all really should be practicing.
When the pandemic hit us a year ago, I was in the middle of a hectic period — working on several projects, preparing students for juries and competitions, planning summer programs, and of course, practicing for upcoming concerts. My first reaction when it became clear that the whole world would shut down for the foreseeable future was to relax on the couch and do nothing but binge-watch all the episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Luckily my husband got me out of that mood and put me on the piano. We started practicing together and streaming concerts every Monday. We did it for six weeks, naively thinking that the lockdown would end by then, and the virus would have gone away.
Of course, when the six weeks passed, the pandemic was only getting started. Every day we would hear the ambulances on Tenth Avenue; sometimes, they would stop at our building. Every day we would read the news and watch what was happening around the world and here in New York City. We lived in horror and disbelief. Colleagues, friends, acquaintances were getting sick, and some had severe symptoms, ended up in the ICU or with severe damage and long-lasting effects on their lungs and other organs. The death count was hard to fathom. Still, we continued to try to engage our minds in our instruments. We went back to our practice routines, making music for music’s sake, trying to find a place of solace, healing, and peace. During these times, I felt the words of my beloved piano teacher Lydia Kuteva, who often told me that if I devote myself to music, one day, music would be my salvation.
When I was her student, I did all kinds of things to avoid practicing. I would often lie, find all sorts of ways to cheat. I would sightread in lessons, pretending that I knew what I was doing. At home, I read books at the piano while playing my pieces repeatedly from memory, on an automatic pilot, like a little robot. I hated practicing but loved reading and writing. If nobody thought of sending me to a music school, I would probably have become a writer. I would often read next to the window while keeping an eye on the street to see if my parents or grandparents were coming home from work, and as soon as I saw them, I would jump up and pretend that I was practicing.
I got in trouble a lot — all the time. The soviet-style music school I went to in Sofia was rigorous. They had no tolerance for lazy kids. We had lessons twice a week and very grueling exams at the end of the school year. Every four years, we had to reapply to the school with an entrance exam. The school posted all the exam results on the walls of the school for everyone to see. We were numbered. The best pianist was number one. I got in first grade as number one, but things went downhill in fourth grade when I placed third and even worse in seventh grade when I became number seven. I remember the shame, seeing my name so low on the list to this very day. Absolute humiliation.
My parents were not musicians, but they had friends who were. The friends would sometimes come over to visit and ask me to play for them. I was not too fond of that moment. I dreaded hearing the dinner guest invite me to open the piano and do some “свирене.” It always ended with a lecture, which we call “конско.” It means “a horse sermon.” No idea why.
One of the sermons was about simple math. Talent equals 1. Practicing equals 0. If you have no talent, no matter how much you practice, you will remain a 0. I was a 1. 1 is a small number, but if I start adding zeros behind it by practicing, I will go to 10, 100, 1000, etc. The more practicing, the bigger the number. I don’t know if this makes sense to you, but it made no sense to me.
Another sermon I often heard was about the number of hours kids in Russia practiced. Four was nothing in Moscow. Seven was average.
When I came to the United States, I watched a film about the most famous Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz. In the documentary, he says that people who practiced for more than four hours a day end up practicing on the stage. His wife was sitting beside him for the entire film, and she too was giving him а “horse sermon” on camera about not practicing enough. I am sure that he also lived with the thought that he should really be practicing.
Now that I teach young people, I often think about those early days of struggling at the piano. I had to be pushed. Uphill with a tank sometimes. My parents, grandparents, teachers, and friends. The neighbors, too, were all involved. They reported to my parents how much I practiced each day. It is hard, and I try to focus on the fun parts of practicing. On making music. On the real magic of свирене. Practicing is not something artificial; it is not “work” or a chore. It is the entrance to a world of endless possibilities. It is more important than anything else in this world.
Luckily when I was in middle school, there came a moment when I realized that what I was doing at the piano was art. I was around 12 or 13 and started working with a new teacher, who was very young, no more than 30. Her name was Vessela Marinova, and she had just returned to Bulgaria, a graduate of the famous Moscow Conservatory. By the way, if we were still living behind the Iron Curtain, that was where I would have gone to conservatory most likely. Or at least I would have tried. I even had some teachers in mind. Well, Vessela Marinova had gone to the Moscow Conservatory, and she was a real artist. She adored music and knew everything about the composers, even their horoscopes — her favorite was Schumann, a Gemini. I fell in love with Chopin and, for a while, played only his music. All the etudes, all the nocturnes, the ballades, the preludes, the scherzos, the concertos. I played them poorly, but at least I had a chance to touch them.
One of the things I was struggling with was my lack of confidence and slow technique. I was already labeled as “lazy” at my school. Vessela was pretty strict with me at first. I remember trying to learn the Grieg concerto, but my playing lacked focus and attention to detail. I disregarded her comments and played sloppily. I remember once she threw the score at me and sent me home.
But my most fond memories of those years are from the time when she invited me to live with her for a few weeks so that she could teach me how to practice effectively. I moved in and had my own bedroom in her gorgeous apartment, which was in a unique building where all the famous musicians of the Communist era lived. Mincho Minchev, Ivan Drenikov, Dimo Dimov, they were all there. Vessela and I would wake up between 6 and 7 a.m., have breakfast, then be at the piano at 8 for at least 4 hours. We would then have lunch, take a walk, and return to read books, listen to music, or nap. At 4. p.m., we would have afternoon tea (coffee for her) and then would practice for another 3 hours before dinner. I must have been 14 or 15 then and couldn’t believe what great life musicians had. This was the first time I realized that music is more important than anything else and can completely heal me and free me of my pain. My life had a purpose, discipline, and beauty. Around this time, I also found my first role models — women pianists. Alicia de Larrocha, Marta Deyanova, Martha Argerich. I wanted to be like them: firm, independent, hardworking, and a badass. I started to love свирене more than anything.
From about age 14 until I came to the US at age 17, I was finally on board with the свирене. Nothing else mattered to me. I lived music. When I moved back home, I established a strict routine and stayed with it. To this very day, there is nothing more fulfilling to me than the end of a day of practicing. It is magic. I can do a million other things. Give birth, climb Everest … I still would instead be practicing.
When I was at Juilliard, I got in trouble for practicing after midnight in the dorms and staying at the school after 11. I got in trouble for sneaking into the school to practice in the summer when the school didn’t allow us to go in unless we worked there. I got a job in the mornings and then stayed to practice in the afternoons. In fact, at some point, I think I might have spent several months without leaving the campus. I lived between the dorms and the main building. I lived in little practice cubicles with no air, no windows, and ugly surroundings. But that didn’t matter because I had the magic of the scores in front of me. I fell in love with Brahms, then Schubert and obsessively played everything they wrote over and over. I remember escaping to the old Steinway Hall on 57th Street, surrounded by portraits of Rachmaninov, Liszt, and Horowitz, and thinking that if I were the President of Juilliard, I would move the school to a beautiful old building like the Steinway building, where the surroundings complimented the music. Little did I know that only a few years later, Steinway would become a lobby of an ugly high-rise, and the new Steinway Hall would look just like a car dealership.
Now that I am older and doing so many things, I rarely have the time to practice countless hours anymore. And that’s okay. For me, two to four hours is good enough. Excellent really. These days, my goal is to get to the piano every day, no matter for how long. And so, this week, I am committing to a schedule of 100 days of practicing in a row, following Hillary Hahn as an inspiration. It should put me back on track for life after the pandemic.
Thanks for spending this time with me, dear reader. I really should be practicing.