Sholpan Sharbakova, the classical pianist, graduate of the Royal Academy of Music in London and Gnessins Academy of Music in Moscow and a soloist with the Astana State Philarmonia talks about music as an Olympic sport, the influence of the Kazakhstan upbringing and the importance of teaching music to kids.
"I started to learn piano at the age of four, I would pretend to be a pianist by sitting in front of the china-closet, pulling out the wooden plank, designed as support for handling the china, and move my fingers imitating the pianists I saw on TV. My dad's newspaper would act as musical notes".
This is how virtuoso piano playing starts. A natural gift, a stubborn perseverance and a schedule that leaves no time to unassigned leisurely hours. In every sense, music is a lifelong dedication, something, which once enters, inspires and then becomes second nature. In Sholpan's words music lives inside her, it's something that became one of the senses that guides her creativity and living.
After her solo concert in London, Sholpan agreed to talk over tea at the Russian place Mari Vanna. I distract myself for a split second to take note of the symbolic Soviet era tea glasses. Their clinking sounds to the rhythm of the train wheels is forever reminiscent of the long distance trains heading South - the melodic journey towards a life blessed by the sun. The sudden memory and the musical reference are bound to have been inspired by Sholpan and her special way to talk about music.
KZ: What is music in numbers?
"Music is like an Olympic sport. There is tough discipline, incredible will power, physical pressure and daily practice. I used to play 8-10 hours every day. My day starts early, a quick coffee and getting straight to the instrument to make full use of the early hours. Music requires unspoilt attention and being able to concentrate so much as to completely shut your mind off anything else - early hours are perfect for this."
KZ: You play your concerts with closed eyes and by heart. How can you play 2 hours of difficult music in this way?
"I would say it's a meditative state of full concentration where you feel every musical note. Actually classical pianists can lose up to 2kg of weight during a performance, as such concentration is exhausting, even if it looks easy, but it's a positive exhaustion as music feels you with energy and meaning. I find it's also true when I close my eyes my ears are more tuned to the music. You are forced to feel the music by touch and sound and follow the red line of the melody.
But apart from constant practice and focus, there are exercises to train memory. I tell my students to learn poetry. It's incredible at expanding memory. I remember everyone's phone numbers, poetry that I learnt years ago. My Professor Hamish Milne, who is nearly 75 years old, still plays 2-hour concerts by heart".
KZ: Are you a classical pianist? How did your musical career develop?
I started music when I was four, in Kazakhstan. There were no other musicians in our family, but my parents have always encouraged me. We moved from Aktyubinsk to Almaty and then I continued my studies in Moscow at the Gnessins Academy of Music, followed by my Masters at the Royal Academy of Music in London.
I'm a classical pianist in every sense and was taught by amazing professors of piano performance, chamber music and piano accompaniment class. No wonder that the Russian Piano School counts as one the best schools in the world. Enormous amount of effort has gone into the studies and developing of my own performance style. I do not feel like improvising a lot (in the jazz or composing sense of this word) though I love to listen to nice jazz bands).
KZ: Medtner's music has been a big influence on you?
I dare to say I have a special relationship with Medtner's music. I have discovered this wonderful Russian composer many years ago, while studying in Moscow with my professor Grigory Gordon. That was a love from the first sound. The more I studied his music, the more I felt myself in it. I do believe in signs and I think it was one of them when I came to London to the class of the professor Hamish Milne, who happened to be a great expert of Medtner's music. He recorded many CD's with his Skazki (Fairytales), Piano Concertos and other works. I am lucky to have a chance to study with great musicians and amazing teachers who became a part of my family.
KZ: Apart from music, you have started painting and had your first exhibition in London in 2011?
I started painting 5 years ago but it would always conflict with the professional music career, as I had no time to attend art lessons. Despite that I applied to MARHI, the prestigious Moscow Architectural Institution, whilst studying at Gnessins. I got accepted and started studying but was hiding it from my Music Professor as he would have stopped it. Two years in and I was physically exhausted by the pressure but inspired by the lessons. One day I was in the underground running to my art lessons with the big portfolio and the heavy art easel and somebody brushed passed me harshly which dislocated my shoulder. It was terrible, I couldn't play, had to cancel concerts and of course had to confess to my Music Professor. So that was the end of the art lessons, but I had too much energy to stop it forever.
KZ: How do you combine music and art? Are your painting influenced by the music you play?
In painting unlike music I am in essence an amateur, perhaps for this reason, I feel much freer in painting and enjoy experimenting a lot.
I like imagining music in colours and thinking in colours. I struggle to attach a concrete meaning to a colour or image. These are just feelings. For example, I see Medtner's music in light blue and brown. There is no a specific meaning or even a geometric form, just colours in various combinations. Quoting Oscar Wilde: 'Mere colour, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways'.
KZ: What are the things that make you create and keep you going?
No doubt, my home, my family, to a significant degree, formed the way I see the world now. The themes of lots of my paintings probably have deep roots in my childhood. I certainly do not paint horses or eagle hunters and cannot play any of the folk musical instruments, yet, Kazakhstan is my homeland and I am a daughter of steppes, if you will.
My inspirations mainly come from the interesting people I meet and also from the everyday feelings. But at times the inspiration is so sudden that I have to put it 'on paper' immediately and cannot do anything until I am done. I have once spent 2 days by the easel. It's such a primary, elemental feeling. Yes, it happens. (Sholpan smiles).
Of course, I draw inspiration from music as well as from the art of my favourite painters Marc Chagall and Alexander Tikhomirov.
KZ: How do you teach young kids, do they struggle, what does music give to them?
When I was starting, I remember my teacher Olga Aleksandrovna, in order to show me how to play correctly, tying the shoelaces on my fingers and moving them like marionettes. It might sound extreme but she was a great teacher.
I like teaching and I get inspired by kids. Childhood is the most important time in a person's life. Children are so free, they have no self-imposed limits, fears, they are close to nature and its wild elements. Children are incredible, they believe in magic and in you and in what you are telling them. It's a responsibility, but at the same time I believe that music makes us better as people and passing it on to our children means giving them a powerful way to channel their energy and inspiration, to give them an internal freedom to create, teach kindness and self discipline.
I teach kids as young as 3 and 5 years old. We dance, we listen to music, they like when I sing to them, sometimes we just sit by the instrument. It's important to inspire them and encourage their natural curiosity to want to know more, but if I can see that children are really resisting and it's just their parents who are pushing them, I would talk to parents. I had one girl who just didn't want to play but she liked singing and she was great at it, I could feel the energy that singing gave to her. The lessons have inspired her to pursue singing as her passion, not piano.
KZ: You are very proud of your Kazakhstan origin. What has inspired you and what do you want to pass on?
I am the proud daughter of the Kazakh steppes and the incredible freedom that its nature evokes. That influence, I believe, flows through everything from folklore, to the traditional national colours, but it is also that we have a very established tradition of classical arts: musical conservatory, theatres, academies. Many foreigners are surprised when they hear this, there is a prejudice that this country is only the steppes and horses. I would like to change that and believe the new generation has to chime about the country, its heritage, cultural background and achievements as these are our roots and our inspirations.
Some of my earliest memories are of my granddad reading poems in Kazakh language. He used to write himself. Actually he had 12 grand daughters and not a single grand son. After the war, where he fought in a tank, he was awarded with old hotel because our family was so big . It was a beautiful setting, with an old traditional courtyard where we roamed around free and staged theatre plays, played hide and seek. Granddad playfully spoke to us in the army language, I remember on the day when we were walking to get a family photograph, he proclaimed "Division, get in line!". Everyone wearing dresses, I'm in shorts. I was a tomboy in my family. He asked me Why I am not wearing a dress? so I replied that I will wear dresses only for my concerts! My granddad said then "You'll definitely be an artist!" and I am.