Following a recent recital in New York, a woman approached me to express her appreciation. I was a little stunned by the show, but my ears perked up when she said, “You must have started when you were three!”
I paused for an eternal second and pondered whether to disillusion her. Why risk turning that look of joy into confusion? It has never been easy to explain that I first touched a violin when I was 16. Will people be impressed? Inspired? Judgement ? And who cares?
Let me back down. It’s 2002 and I’m 16 and I’m sitting in a theater (remember theaters?) Watching The pianist– it was that scene where Szpilman plays Chopin for the SS officer who finds it hidden. Like many Soviet children, I had studied the piano all my youth. In my early teens, however, my obsession shifted to the guitar after seeing Jimi Hendrix burn his instrument on stage in a directing act. I got into rock, metal, blues, jazz and classical and left the piano behind. But that day in the theater, I suddenly felt the purpose of music and how life could inform it. I fell in love with classical music and said to my parents, ‘That’s it. I want to be a pianist. I wanted to play Chopin like Szpilman!
My understanding piano teacher Alla Danichkina (who also taught violin) entertained my desire to only play what I liked. And it was she who, along with my mother, once encouraged me to try my hand at the violin for fun.
It was love at first sight, we quickly changed, and after several months of intense practice, I switched to a very famous violinist and his wife, first in high school, then in the conservatory. To me, they represented the ‘old-school’ tradition that I adore, and I adored and admired them for that.
Over time, however, I began to more confidently understand what I wanted. I didn’t know how to get there yet, but I knew what would hold me back. As a result, I started to go against their advice. Instead of celebrating my initiative and curious nature, they subjected me to psychological abuse and even tried to sabotage my career before it started. My last year of conservatory was spent without a teacher.
Oddly enough, this is the year where I have made the most progress to date. If I had started playing the violin when I was young and had been trained to follow the teacher unconditionally, I might not have trusted my instincts. Fighting conformism is easier when you realize that most people will comply to almost anything under sufficient pressure.
The next breakthrough fell on my knees after graduation. I was then a full-fledged violin nerd and I knew all the great violinists, at least I thought so. And then one night, during a typical YouTube vortex, I ran into an amazing violinist, Rudolf Koelman, who had been a pupil of Jascha Heifetz. Granted, there were more sensible options for schools, but I knew I had to go where it was: Zürich. I had learned that I thrive when I watch, listen, imitate, experiment and then synthesize, and Europe immersed me in “the source” of music. I felt like I was in an orchard full of fruit within easy reach, and I had given up on the naive wish of an omniscient, all-in-control Soviet-style teacher.
Consider a thought experiment: what if, instead of expecting musicians to have harmless intonation, mellow tone, control in all parts of the bow, tasteful rubato, score as well as the ability to play in various historical styles – in short, to be well balanced – we have embraced the freedom to be unbalanced, allowing musicians to identify the tools and mediums of expression that suit them all. by rejecting those who do not suit them? What effect would this have on the pressures young musicians face, on competition standards and protocol, and on the “ideal age” to begin studies?
I’m inclined to conclude that we would see greater individuality, happier young people, more creative competitions, more self-taught, and a more engaged audience. Very individualistic and powerful artists live on the brink of failure. They are not well balanced. And thank goodness for that.
I am very lucky to have parents who, without being professional musicians themselves, trusted my passion through its twists and turns. But for many years, I wished I had started violin earlier, imagining how “bigger” my career could have been.
Now, however, I am grateful that I came to the instrument at an age where I could think for myself. I remember how I learned things, what worked and what didn’t, and all of my experimentation. And the twists continue to illuminate my playing: the piano taught me the pure love of harmony, jazz and blues gave me the freedom to improvise, and neoclassical metal allowed me to appreciate the intensity and virtuosity. Classical guitar taught me intimacy and simplicity.
Our varied passions are born and converge in the same place. Nothing is wasted.
Daniel Kurganov and Constantine Finehouse’s new album Rhythm and borrowed past, composed of works by Lera Auerbach, Richard Beaudoin, John Cage and Messiaen, is now available on Orchid Classics
Watch: Daniel Kurganov and Constantine Finehouse perform the theme and variations of Messiaen
To read: Opinion: Dare to be different