Is there such a thing as over practicing? | Interview with Andrei Poliakov

  • Describe your sound in 3 words

Multicolored, multidimensional, and multifaceted

If I could also mention what my sound is NOT: boring, predictable, straightforward

My strongest belief and mindset are that the world we live in is much more than just a black-and-white, yes-or-no kind of planet – and hence I am painting a picture of a multicolored universe with my music. 

I love nuance and detail (in music, but also overall in life) as I think it opens a whole microcosm of emotions, feelings, and even stories which otherwise – if a sound of music hadn’t been available – would have gone unnoticed.

My album “Four Seasons” released earlier this year is a perfect illustration of this multidimensional, multicolored sound – and it has perfectly served its purpose, looking at the seasons change through the lens of different sound dimensions and styles.

  • Who is your favourite pianist?

I could probably write a whole essay answering this question alone…

Just on a side note: there are performing pianists and composing pianists. Composers may perform a bit more frequently in neoclassics or in jazz, yet performing pianists are generally less known as composers – especially in classics.

My number one greatest pianist of the last century is, by all means, Svyatoslav Richter – an amazing performing pianist, who left us with thousands of profound, philosophical interpretations of many classical works, and who is also widely celebrated for his technique and a vast repertoire (fun fact: there is a small planet named after him!)

The three hyper-talented and equally celebrated performing pianists following suit would be Glenn Gould, Vladimir Horovitz, and Emil Gilels – all of them, sadly, passed away in the 80s, leaving us with a fantastic heritage of their recordings.

For the contemporary performers – I really appreciate what Lucas Debargue, Daniil Trifonov, and Grigory Sokolov are doing these days, representing different generations, tastes, and mindsets of pianists, offering a very exciting, diverse palette of classical interpretations. I also like Lang-Lang and Evgeny Kisin – those guys rock in classical music! 

And my favorite jazz pianist has always been Oscar Peterson!

As for the modern composers in the neoclassical area – there are plenty of them and it is much harder to single out just one. 

I deeply appreciate many compositions of Ludovico Einaudi, Olafur Arnalds, Johann Johannsson and of the other composers from the same, slightly skewed to Scandinavian minimalism, gang of musicians. 

Yet broadly speaking, I cannot help but keep being amazed by a number of really talented musicians working in neoclassics these days. 

I am curating a Spotify playlist, dedicated to the piano music and called Multicolored Piano where hundreds of beautiful tracks are submitted daily, and this sea of wonderful music written by very talented people is overwhelmingly humbling, on one hand, and slightly frightening, on another, as it makes you realize just how tough this competition is today. 

Yet this ocean of emotions is also very motivating and encouraging for any composer – myself included – as we are striving to partake in this creative musical journey.

Which is definitely a very good thing!

  • If you had to name one, what should be the biggest difference between Classical piano and Jazz piano?

If I had to name one, I would go with the harmony.

Of course, jazz is all about improvisation and jamming, but to me the defining point is the particular harmonic structure of jazz that makes it sound so specific: passive-aggressive, unpredictable, conflicting, impulsive – yet so beautiful in its pure state, so soothing and pensive when it’s mild and soft… 

This is exactly why I find it so fascinating to blend jazz harmony with the neoclassical feel and form: it gives a new, fresh and deep perspective on the melody and the arrangement of a tune, opening up this multi-dimensional language I am trying to speak in my music.

My solo piano works, such as Declaration of Love in the Moonlight illustrate this blending pretty well, fusing a Debussy inspired melodies and jazz harmonic structures to support and color the music – and the effect is mind-blowing.

  • How much time should a Pianist practice every day? Is there such a thing as over practicing?

One definite sign of over-practicing is when your neighbors show up at your doorstep with a police squad and a hammer 😉

Another one would be if your neighbor were seen queuing in a nearest music store to buy the biggest set of drums available…

When I was young, I lived in a small apartment with my parents; both are pianists and piano teachers, and my dad was (and still is) a performing pianist at the time. 

I practiced a lot each day (3 to 6 hours depending on the concert schedule) in one room, my dad was practicing in another room at the same time, for a same number of hours. Imagine the soundscape our neighbors had to endure; it is still unfathomable to me how did they not break down over those countless hours of an uninterrupted piano torture.

On a more serious note, from my personal experience, the piano requires very long hours of practice indeed (often meaning your bottom part is growing at the same rate as your musical skills!). 

I guess, 3-6 hours a day is an average and also a must for a professionally performing pianist, yet  sometimes pianists can go all the way up to 10 – 12 hours a day, especially during some hot periods (preparation for a concert, or a recording, or a competition, or learning a new program).

I do not believe in over-practicing per se except for a couple of cases: 

  • During the earlier stages (first 10-15 years) of learning the piano, when a pianist is pushed by a teacher or a parent to practice too much they become disinterested and get bored, and then they let it slide or even quit altogether. 
  • Practicing done wrongly (a poor technique or a hand stiffness or a bad posture) can lead to a pain or fatigue of hands – to which we refer sometimes as an “overplayed hand” – and this can be quite dangerous and have long lasting implications.

For the rest – the more practice the better, and it doesn’t change as we age or become more skillful. Helas!

I am still practicing these days quite a lot, but my practice is often going hand in hand with composing: as new ideas are developing, I am learning, practicing, and memorizing the new music on the go as it appears – this way once the track is fully composed, I can play it and record without even needing to write it down.

This is exactly how my recently released track “Lullaby in the Moonlight” was composed: moving forward one tiny step at a time, letting the melody and arrangement develop themselves, and then finally recording it as a whole in one go – and then enjoying listening to the new music as if it hadn’t been myself composing it in the first place.

  • What would be your dream performance venue?

I am a very blessed person – I have my dream performance venue at my disposal every evening.

I sit in a very dark room, and the Moon is shining with this shimmering, vague, floating shade that only hints me where the piano keys are. I am all alone, my fingers wander the keyboard looking for inspiration and revealing new melody, and it seems the music comes down directly from the ether that surrounds us…  

I can sit like this for hours and just enjoy being myself, being directly connected to something unfathomably grand yet very personal and intimate at the same time; something that relates me to the whole universe from within that very special little room… Very introspective experience and I love it!

I remember this is how the first chords and the main theme of my piece “Autumn” were conceived: in a full moon, starry night, I was sitting alone at a keyboard thinking of an approaching fall, about the summer fading away, all the sadness and grief but also warmth and calmness seemed to settle down in the room around the piano…

When I played in the orchestra and we toured around the world, I had a fantastic chance to perform in a number of highly celebrated venues – Carnegie hall, Albert hall, ConcertGebouw, Burgtheater in Vienna, St Petersburg Philharmonic, Mariinsky theatre and many others. Those were all great as venues – but what set them apart one from another was the audience. 

I believe it is the audience that makes or breaks the performance; surprisingly influencing the aftertaste of a show much stronger vs the musicians who were playing!

Hence my dream performance venue is also where the audience is mostly receptive, sensitive, responsive, and open for the concert experience.

On a side note: I would not mind though, as an old hard-core The Beatles fan, to play in the Cavern one day… Imagine a setlist of the early-age Beatles covers for solo piano in that club – it would be just perfect…

  • If you could change anything about the music industry, what would it be?

These days, musicians just love moaning about how Spotify and other streaming services are paying peanuts thereby destroying creativity pushing on quantity vs quality, and how unsustainable this profession has become.

There is a grain of truth here, yet in my opinion there has never been a better time for a musician to flourish and prosper than now (ok, let’s just set the COVID implications aside… 2020 has been a very special year, and we all hope it won’t repeat again).

Just look at these trends:

  • A proliferation of very cheap or even free DAWs gave way to all kinds of musical talent, making it possible to produce quality recordings for a fraction of money directly in the bedroom. Online mastering and online collaboration simplify and ease the music production even further 
  • An emergence of streaming platforms like Spotify or Apple Music opened up a path to an entire worldwide audience, who are eager to hear more of good music, who are carefully segmented and targeted by preferences and styles, and who are just within a reach of your sound wave (amplified by a Spotify algorithm if you are lucky…)
  • And finally, a whole advertising market is available for an individual use nowadays, I am talking about the social media platforms: it has never been easier – and cheaper – to showcase your work to the entire world as it is today.

So, I guess as an industry, music is making a very good progress, well in line with the trends going back into centuries in the past – it has always been about a greater reach, nothing else.

One thing I wish there were less of in today’s music is the trivia and unoriginality of the commercial content (which is a flipside of the 3 trends I describe above) – because why bother, I am thinking to myself sometimes, and struggle in a notoriously hard industry to compete if there is nothing new you have to offer to this world?

If music is a language which helps us describe the world on our own terms and definitions, let it be honest, genuine, and personal, unveiling the most intimate corners of our souls and telling the stories which cannot be told in words.

  • What was the best film you have watched during the quarantine?

I was late on this one, but I watched it several times – so much I liked it.

It was “Roma” by Alfonso Cuaron, a movie celebrated by a number of international awards. 

Again, I was attracted to this film by the multi-colored-ness (is it even a word?) of the story – despite it being a black and white movie. 

I think Roma is a very touching story, and although the environment – at least to me, a European – is pretty foreign and unknown, it is very easy to relate to the story.

Another jewel here is the cameraman work that completes the story and gives it this multi-dimensional space that I value so much.

And I also really loved the blend of suspense and art-house genres in it; just like in music, a fusion of styles is apparently the way arts develop these days.

  • One last thing we should know about you?

I am working currently on the album called “Moonlight and Sunshine”. The “Moonlight & Sunshine” album has an unconventional structure for the modern classics genre: every next release features 2 different versions of one motive, coming to life as a piano solo piece, interpreting a narrative in the moonlight, and a fully arranged piece, revealing the same story under the sunshine.

The album is evolving live on the major streaming platforms as a playlist thereby gradually forming the full album as new pairs of tracks are released. The completion of the album “Moonlight and Sunshine” will take several months.

To date I have released 4 tracks this way – Declaration of Love and Lullaby, both tunes coming as a moonlight and a sunshine version. The next releases are on the way, too: “Promenade in Paris” (in the moonlight and in the sunshine) pair of tracks will see the world in November this year, followed by “Prayer” and “Farewell” – to be released early 2021.

  • Thank you Andrei!

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