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How to Prepare for a Piano Competition – an Interview with Mariam Batsashvili

Soon after the 10th International Franz Liszt Competition Utrecht, Piano Street’s guest writer Alexander Buskermolen spoke to its most recent winner: the Georgian 21 year old pianist Mariam Batsashvili. The main theme for this interview with the first female winner of this particular competition in The Netherlands: how to prepare for a competition and what happens if you win? Mariam Batsashvili should know.

Alexander Buskermolen: Thank you for making some time for us and our readers. It’s much appreciated as we understand your schedule has become very busy after winning the 10th International Franz Liszt Competition Utrecht. We would like to congratulate you with your recent success. So first of all, how are you doing? How has life been since you’ve won the competition?

Mariam Batsashvili: I’m doing well, thanks. The schedule’s become quite busy and I’m looking forward to each of the upcoming events. After winning the competition in Utrecht, I feel even more responsible for my music than before, as I simply would like to do my best and be a worthy first prize winner of the Franz Liszt Competition.

AB: Though that is indeed a responsibility, I’m sure you’ve convinced your audience. Can you describe the ways in which you prepared yourself for this specific competition? For example, how much time did you take to prepare the repertoire?  Did you play many try-outs, other competitions and concerts?

MB: The way in which I prepared for this competition was genuinely the happiest part (besides the final result, obviously). I had been practicing for one year, trying to go into the smallest details in Liszt’s repertoire. He is such a great composer, he shows us such details, so many small gestures that make his music sound incredible. Then of course I continued to work towards a larger scenery of the piece, seeing the structure, the story his music tells us. So basically it was like a camera zoomed in on something, discovering the smallest details, and then slowly moving away from the details, seeing the bigger picture. I was helped tremendously by my teacher from Georgia, Natalia Natsvlishvili and Professor Grigory Gruzman from the Liszt University in Weimar.

AB: Did you do anything in particular to prepare yourself mentally for the pressure that comes with a major competition? Especially if you proceed into the final stage?

MB: I didn’t really do any particular training or meditation if that is what you mean. It’s just that I was extremely focused on my goal. I am always looking for the real meaning, beauty and nobility of Franz Liszt’s music, whether it being spiritual or temporal. The competition itself is very difficult, one really needs to have strong nerves! The performing part is more or less on the pianist’s own shoulders. You’re definitely nervous prior to the performance, but a real sense of fear comes when the jury announces the names. I nearly died after each announcement! Especially when they announced the three finalists… Wow, now that I remember all these feelings, what a difficult moments that was.

AB: Luckily you’ve survived the stress and didn’t end up with a nervous breakdown. Now that you’ve won the Liszt Competition Utrecht, you’ll be playing many concerts in the three years to come. Will you mainly be playing the works of Franz Liszt, or are you at liberty to program other composers too?

MB: I will play other composers as well. I already have some offers to play Saint-Saëns second piano concerto, Tchaikovsky’s first concerto and Mozart’s concerto number 21 and to perform them with orchestras in different and wonderful places. Of course I will also play many more recitals with all kinds of repertoire so I can’t wait to play for new audiences!

AB: Would you say that the music of Franz Liszt has a special place in your life? If yes, why? If not, which composer would be of special interest to you?

MB: Franz Liszt definitely has a special place in my life. Firstly, he was such a noble man, even if one hasn’t read his biography. After hearing the Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, one understands and feels that Liszt’s music radiates with so much kindness, love and many more positive emotions. I can’t understand why some people only hear virtuosity and this incidental demonic (Mephisto) character in his music. Liszt’s music is so complete, so perfect, every single emotion and thought about life can be found in his music.

AB: Is there a composer that, in your experience helps you to prepare for the works by Franz Liszt? (Maybe Beethoven for structure, or Bach for certain transcendental qualities?)

MB: Personally I believe every other composer was a great help. I have played many pieces starting from the Baroque period.  Liszt died in 1886, but having studied music from composers from 20th century also helped me in performing Liszt’s music. It’s really incredible, everything is combined in Liszt, one could definitely say he was ahead of his time in many ways.

AB: Have you set yourself specific goals when it comes to the Liszt repertoire? For instance, playing specific sets of works, doing special recording projects, doing some ‘personal’ research into parts of Franz Liszt’ life and heritage?

MB: I would love to learn the more unknown pieces by Franz Liszt. My goal is to understand and to show the noble Liszt, Liszt as a philosopher, who has nothing to do with only being a virtuoso, chaotic, fast and loud pianist and composer. I have set myself a goal to learn as much as I can from Franz Liszt and to play his music in public, so that everyone will start to admire him and fall in love with his music. (I know that’s a very ambitious goal, haha! Nonetheless I’ll try my very best to do so).

AB: In terms of winning a prestigious international piano competition, can you describe the impact it has on your life? What did your life look like (in general) before the competition? Do you like this change?

MB: I keep on doing what I was doing: learning new pieces, going deeper into music, trying to understand the moral meaning of the compositions at hand. After winning the competition, I was given a chance to do many more concerts compared to the time before the competition in Utrecht. I’m getting three years of career development program and I already feel and experience the benefits, it’s so wonderful to work with The Liszt Competition staff, I feel so fortunate! I embrace this change very much.

AB: Are there certain aspects of this Franz Liszt Competition that you find very appealing?

MB: The whole Liszt competition made an extremely positive impression on me. First of all it’s organized perfectly, it makes a participant feel as comfortable as one can be, considering the constant pressure we face. What the competition offers to its prizewinners is very appealing. Also for me personally, I love the fact that we had to study the b minor Sonata. Besides the Sonata, all those other wonderful and rarely played Liszt pieces on the pre-selected repertoire, it made me feel so incredibly happy, lucky…

AB: Looking at the typical life of an ambitious young musician like yourself, who is determined to have a career as a soloist (amongst other activities as well), what is the influence of a competition these days? And do you feel that entering many competitions during and shortly after graduation is a sustainable way of starting a career? In other words, will you benefit from competitions for the entire duration of your artistic career? Or is the impact temporarily?

MB: I think nowadays competitions are very important for pianists. We learn pieces, we try to reach the ‘core’ of the piece, but then it’s time to perform in front of the public. If we keep playing in our homes, we can never tell the composer’s story to the public. For me, competitions are the perfect opportunity to perform and a way to introduce ourselves, no matter if you win or not.

AB: How do you see yourself in five years from now? What will you be doing? What would you like to have accomplished?

MB: Again, I would like to learn as many new compositions as possible, to play concerts all around the world, to make people hear the music of Franz Liszt with pleasure and to fill people’s lives with joy and happiness and remind them that life itself should be enjoyed.

AB: We’d like to thank you for this interview in which you’ve clearly expressed your love for the music of Franz Liszt and your personal mission as an artist. We wish you well and hope we’ll be seeing you soon in one of the concert halls near our readers.

Alexander Buskermolen
Lexo Music Productions

Mariam Batsashvili’s solo recital in the final of the Liszt Competition 2014

Die Lorelei, S532
Sonata in B minor, S178


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Practicing Piano Helps Much More Than Just Musicianship

Many parents have told nearly innumerable children that “practicing builds character.” Even though those children scoffed at their parents, their mothers and fathers had more on their side than just an old platitude. Recent research from the University of Vermont College of Medicine has shown substantial correlative evidence that studying piano, and, by extension, practicing, not only produces boosts in organizational and spatial reasoning skills but also reduces overall anxiety, aggression and other emotional problems.

Because such musical instruction helps build executive reasoning and helps focus children with cognitive disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, one would think that it would be front in center in almost every curriculum. Sadly, this is not the case. Many times, it is music, or other arts curriulca, that are cut first. Additionally, the United States Department of Education reports that fully 75 percent of American high-school students either do not study music at all or experience it rarely. All of these facts contribute even more to the sadness of the situation than otherwise because students who study music are also more socially adept than their peers who do not.

Ever since the controversy surrounding the “Mozart effect” study by Rauscher et al., in 1993, scientists have sought correlation between music, its instruction and intelligence. The University of Vermont study, performed by 56-year-old psychiatrist James Hudziak, doesn’t show proof of number increases, such as, “Johnny’s IQ just went up 10 points because he played a Clementi sonatina.” Instead, it uses hard science to show actual physical changes in the brains of children who have studied music and then applied the children’s actual performances on spatial and organizational tests as bolstering data to the hypothesis that music instruction has beneficial intellectual and social effects. Hudziak said that the lack of formal music education in the lives of so many children in the U.S., juxtaposed with the data of his study, indicate the “… vital importance of finding new and innovative ways to make music training more widely available to youths, beginning in childhood.”

Report abstract


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Medical Professionals See Irregular Heartbeat in Beethoven’s Music

Music is said to speak to the heart of both composers and listeners alike. Our tickers race along with the bracing strains of Mendelssohn’s “Italian Symphony,” while they throb slowly and reverently during the “Lachrymosa” from Mozart’s Requiem, K.626. A combined group of researchers from the University of Washington and the University of Michigan recently studied the music of Beethoven to see if the reverse were true.

They published an article in the magazine Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, and their hypothesis was that an arrhythmia in Beethoven’s heart inspired the jagged, and sometimes jarring, rhythms in his late compositions. They point to his Opus 130 string quartet as a quintessential case in point, specifically the last movement. The piece changes key abruptly to an extremely distant C-flat major and incorporates a dark, brooding and unbalanced theme that’s even marked “beklemmt,” which, in German, means “heavy of heart.” Although this phrase can also be interpreted as “with great sadness,” the authors of both the study and the article maintain that the movement’s arrhythmic qualities are unmistakable. Further, they highlight portions of two late sonatas, Opus 81a and Opus 110, that have similar sections with angular, offbeat rhythms.

Beethoven was no paragon of health. He suffered from syphilis and had kidney disease. He also had liver disease, which was probably brought on by his penchant for strong drink. He may even have had irritable bowel syndrome or diseases of the bones. On top of all that, he was profoundly deaf from about the time he wrote the “Eroica” in 1803. The researchers believe that all the conditions he suffered would have contributed to the arrhythmia, and his deafness, which would have heightened his other four senses, would have made him acutely aware of his irregularly beating heart. The researchers point out that arrhythmias, despite their irregularities, tend to form recognizable patterns of beats, which is what led them to the supposition that Beethoven derived inspiration from his heart. The researchers involved in this project include Drs. Zachary D. Goldberger and Joel Howell, and Steven Whiting, PhD.


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New Piano Design for the Future

If Han Solo were going to sit in on keyboards with Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes in the Mos Eisley cantina, he might just prefer his 88 keys to be designed by this galaxy’s newest, and most forward-thinking, piano constructor, Gergely Bogányi. The Hungarian’s creation is constructed completely of carbon fiber and sits upon two sinuous legs designed to catch, amplify and redirect the sound out into the hall. A million pounds and 8,000 man-hours later, and Bogányi has stepped into the footsteps of Liszt.

The 19th-century virtuoso famously left a trail of broken piano parts behind him as he pushed the limits of what was pianistically possible. His technique and expressiveness were more powerful than anyone else’s that had come before, and this explosiveness led to the improvements of iron frames, tougher sounding boards and ruggeder construction of both the body and key works.

Since the days of Liszt, the piano has undergone many changes. Even before Bogányi’s futuristic piece of musical art hit the stage, modern pianos were comprised of thousands of parts requiring exquisite craftsmanship. During his painstaking work, Bogányi redesigned each of his creation’s 18,000 parts. His goal was to combine the smoothness of older instruments with the unbridled power of modern ones. By using only carbon fiber, he also sought to reduce the effects of temperature, dust, humidity and other environmental factors on both intonation and tone production.

Bogányi adds a performer’s perspective to the realm of piano design and construction; the improvements he created were intended not only to improve the sound of the piano but also the pianist’s experience. The CEO of the prominent New York piano store, Klavierhaus, said he was mesmerized by the sound Bogányi was able to produce with his piano. A Dezeen Magazine commenter remarked that he wanted, metaphorically, to take the Bogányi piano for a ride on Germany’s fabled Autobahn.

Music historian János Mácsai points out, however, that Bogányi must not think his new piano is intrinsically better than previous instruments. Mácsai maintains that the Hungarian pianist wanted, instead, to explore new sonorities and do things differently.


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Minimalist Philip Glass sought to maximize his piano-playing potential

By the time Philip Glass had decided to better himself as a pianist, he had already been a successful composer for almost 30 years. His music had been used in the Olympic Games and movies, and he had been a worthy successor to such seminal minimalist composers as Reich and Riley. The journey he began in 1994 covered the following 19 years, and, during that time, he composed each of the chronologically numbered etudes he intended to use to make himself better at the keyboard. During that time, he kept them mostly to himself; in fact, he had never even published the first 10. There was only one recording, which he did himself.

Philip Glass discusses The Etudes:

Video Playlist:
1. Interview with Philip Glass
2. Maki Namekawa plays Etude no. 13
3. Maki Namekawa plays Etude no. 16

The new recording

Pianist Maki Namekawa has now become the second artist to record these remarkably disparate works. The styles inherent in the individual etudes run from “movie soundtrack,” such as No. 2, to “big and sprawling,” such as No. 16. The longest and most ambitious of these etudes, No. 20, is an exercise in give and take and is missing the intense technical structure of No. 1.

Etude no. 1, sample score:

Read more:
Philip Glass’s Etudes: the sound of a lifetime


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