What I Learned from the Russians
As a child, I somehow got it into my head that all great composers started out as prodigies. From the age of 3, he (male of course) would create effortlessly, taking dictation from the Muse who lived on his shoulder and whispered into his ear. And so, although I knew by age 14 that I wanted to be a composer, I was convinced that it was far too late for me. Not to mention that music was too much of a struggle: if I needed to discipline myself to do something, I reasoned, it couldn't possibly be my vocation.
I spent the next decade trying to be happy in other fields. Pharmacology research, Russian literature, English teaching, translation. In retrospect, what made me happiest at these jobs were all things that I loved about music and composition: the problem-solving of laboratory work, the complexities of language, the creativity of teaching. I kept one foot in the music world by working as an accompanist, yet this mere partial involvement brought me as much longing as solace.
I lived in Moscow for a few years after college, teaching English and translating. After marveling at Russian Olympic victories on television and poring over scores by Stravinsky and Prokofiev, this was a chance to live among these exceptional athletes and performers. A child of the 80s, I remembered, too, suspicions of what went on behind the Iron Curtain. To accomplish those feats, to do all this with so few resources…they must be cheating somehow, right?
My first teaching assignment was in Zelenograd, a suburb of Moscow. I arrived in January, so cold you could feel your eyeballs ice over if you went too long without blinking.
(Vegetarianism, I learned, freezes at -35C, the temperature at which I broke down and bought myself a used fur coat.)
Weather aside, I was pleasantly surprised to love my new circumstances and my new job. In the fall I moved to an apartment in Moscow proper, in the north center of the city. Every day my commute took me past gleaming onion-domed churches and little stalls selling vegetables or hot baked potatoes. One block would have Italian luxury clothing stores, and on the next corner would be an elderly babushka in a headscarf selling hand-knit woolen goods. There were more BMWs than I had ever seen in my life, though the smell of diesel fuel hung over every road. “Moscow is not Russia,” said friends, though I was determined to find the real Russia anyway.
My apartment was down the street from a church, and I volunteered to sing in the choir and do a bit of accompanying. By happy accident, one of the tenors was a harp student at the nearby Tchaikovsky Conservatory. He was impressed by my sight-reading and asked me to accompany him for a few upcoming performances. It’s a pleasure to work with any accomplished musician, but I was especially excited to get an inside look at one of Russia’s top conservatories.
In many ways, it was just as I had imagined as a child: the music that issued from the practice rooms was astounding. Pianists and violinists tore through fiendishly difficult concertos; sopranos and basses sang arias that would rival any performance on a commercial recording. The recital halls had a kind of worn nobility: grand architecture and gilt mirrors with threadbare carpets and peeling paint. The students lived in tiny squalid dormitories yet devoted themselves to their instruments with fervor. Naturally they were supported by coaches of vast experience and deep musicality, but most surprising to me was the actual coaching process.
I was dumbfounded to watch students give stellar recitals, then immediately afterward be pounced upon by teachers. This was too slow, that was sloppy. The brilliant parts were only briefly acknowledged—there was no time to bask. Students and teachers embodied the Russian concept of tseleustremlyonnost, which literally translates as “goal-striving-ness.” (Note that in English we are merely “goal-oriented.”)
A bit farther from the city center lies the Luzhniki Olympic Complex, where I took recreational skating classes, though not recreational in the American sense. After an hour-long group lesson, we would take off our skates and go down the hall to a mirrored room where a ballet-mistress would see to our “general physical preparedness.” Floor exercises, then ballet work at the barre, followed by skating jumps, ballet jumps, and jumping across the length of the room on one leg. And this was just for fun!
On weekdays, I would see five- and six-year-olds doing the real training: crossovers to the beat of a metronome that gradually accelerated as the children tired and the trainer yelled at them to keep up. The ceiling over the ice rink leaked, so on warmer days the skaters swerved around a series of small icicles growing up from the surface. Straighten that free leg! Head up! Push! Careful of that rough patch!
My most intimate knowledge of Russian performers came from actually living with them.
I spent several months with a family of extraordinary jugglers in Penza, a large city 12-hours east of Moscow by train. Juggling had been a hobby of mine for years, and through a friend of a friend in the States I was introduced via email to a teenaged brother-and-sister team of professional jugglers. After some shorter visits over the course of a year, they invited me to stay with them for a few months. They would help me with my juggling, and I with their English.
Penza was far closer to the geographical heart of the country: no McDonalds, no Starbucks, and certainly no foreigners (I received stares whenever I opened my mouth).
The jugglers lived in a tiny, low-ceilinged apartment, and so when they practiced at home they often practiced on their knees. The rest of the time, they practiced in the school gymnasium. The school was so poor that it had pit toilets, and perhaps because there was nothing much to steal, the administration let the jugglers use the building even on weekends. The siblings were already celebrities for breaking several world records in club passing.
One day I said something about talent and one of the jugglers said that there is no such thing. The more I got accustomed to the daily schedule, the more I believed him. Wake up early, boil some milk (it came unpasteurized from a man selling it out of a tank), have oatmeal, stretch, do some handstands, practice some simple 5- or 6- ball patterns, hit the gym to work on clubs (those things that look like bowling pins), perhaps while on unicycle, come home for lunch, more practice at the gym, then wind down for the day by running a few miles. After dinner, more light juggling, and perhaps study a few juggling videos before bed.
“You have to practice even when you don’t feel like it,” they explained.
I watched the jugglers get frustrated, throw their balls or clubs across the gym in disgust. But the “not feeling like it,” would always eventually lift and be replaced by a sense of accomplishment and renewed enthusiasm. Even for me, slaving away at my modest 4-club goal…yes, it could be dull, but I was proud of my progress. Although I could never imagine devoting myself to the art of object manipulation, I was deeply inspired by the picture of devoting myself to something in that way.
After Penza, I moved back to Moscow, eager to maintain the strength and flexibility I'd gained trying to keep up with the jugglers’ training regimen. Through a friend, I learned of a gymnastics center that allowed the occasional adult student. It was hardly state-of-the-art, though it was kept hot even in winter. Olga took me to a small room with mats and mirrors and little kids with six-pack abs flinging themselves through the air. It was all presided over by two grizzled guys who had each student practicing independently at his or her own pace, or rather, the pace they had decreed for that student.
For me, first on the agenda was flexibility training. How was this accomplished? They sat on me. The trainers actually sat on me. You have soft ligaments, they would say. In other words: you can take this. Did it hurt? Yes. Was I injured? No. After a few months I became more limber than I had been as a child, despite years of ballet classes. My American instructors had never pushed me that hard—doubtless they believed that flexibility, like musical talent, was largely a matter of inheritance.
The Russian coaches knew exactly what my limits were and made me go just the slightest bit beyond them. And it was just so for the musicians, skaters, and jugglers: there was no secret method, they simply worked harder than anyone else. I’ve been back in the States for about seven years now. Sometimes I’ll be in a practice room with a brass player next door and an out-of-tune piano and I’ll think, “how could anyone work like this?” and then I remember icicle lumps and low ceilings, and the fact that yes, theoretically, anyone can work like this. And then I turn back to my music and play a little louder.
Eleanor Aversa, Excerpt from Piano Trio #2