Updated: Feb 21, 2021
A QSCM interview with pianist, Petya Stavreva.
Pianist Petya Stavreva is currently completing the final requirements towards her doctorate degree in Piano Performance (Doctor of Musical Arts) at the University of Western Ontario under the direction of Leslie Kinton. This demanding program culminates in the presentation of the final recital, for which Petya is currently preparing.
This recital will be recorded. Petya has kindly agreed to present this recital as the second of our "Virtual Concerts", available at www.qscmusic.com. Tentative date is in April, however COVID conditions may compel a postponement. We'll keep you posted on that. Meanwhile Petya took some time from her rigorous practice and study schedule to tell us a bit about the experience of preparing for this signal event in her career.
Bonnie: Petya you entered this degree program already an accomplished concert performer and highly respected collaborative artist. Do you feel this culminating performance for your DMA is different from any other performance project?
Petya: Not really. I have always treated credit recitals as any other performances because that's what they're meant to be. They feel no different than other concerts, and the preparation is the same. Whether it's a concert out in the world or a DMA recital, the process is identical.
Bonnie: What does that preparation look like?
Petya: Today (Feb. 13) is two months to the day before the recital. As of yesterday, I wanted to make sure every piece is now memorized, which gives me a peace of mind. Now I will work on everything to solidify the memory, and continue working on details, of course. Then a month from now I will start doing run-throughs of the program. I find the more run-throughs you can do, the better. In the first few there will be mistakes, probably some memory slips, but worst of all, it will feel really draining. But it's the only way to get through these obstacles and most importantly, build some energy. Performing uses up a lot of energy and you have to make sure you have lots. It's like training for a marathon - it's not something to cram, that's for sure.
Bonnie: So, do you just play through the program a million times hoping it will get better each time?
Petya: There is a tendency, especially among young students, to play things through over and over again until they're memorized. In fact, I love asking this question after adjudicating a class at a festival. During workshops at festivals, I'll often ask something like, "How do you guys work on memorizing a piece? Do you play it over and over until it's memorized?" And I'll always see big smiles and enthusiastic nods. Then we have a discussion on why that's not effective. There are so many good ways to work on memory - breaking up pieces into smaller chunks and working on that, making sure you can play your left hand separately (it's usually the one that will get you in trouble), making sure you can start from random spots, making sure you know every single harmony everywhere, knowing all the patterns, etc. You really have to know every single note - which is why again, it's not a good idea to cram. Ever. Muscle memory is important, but it is only one component of memorizing well. If something happens and your hands slip somewhere, playing unexpected wrong notes, you will likely be lost if you aren't fully aware of the score. Whereas, if for example you know the harmonic progression of that passage, and know each hand separately well enough, you will recover from a memory slip. And everyone experiences memory slips once in a while - it's nothing unusual. It's all about how you react and recover from it. Or say there are two spots in a piece that are the same but lead to different parts of the piece. If you haven't studied enough, it's easy to get them mixed up in a high-pressure situation like a performance, and you can end up playing in circles. You have to know where the material is going at all times. A former teacher of mine said once, "know that you know". There is nothing worse than going on stage and second guessing yourself or your preparation, but this can be avoided if all the groundwork is there. That way you can be in the moment and enjoy the performance.
Bonnie: Do you rehearse in the recital hall?
Petya: I would love to be able to practice in the performance hall, but that is usually impossible. I will be able to book 1 hour in there some day, to go and try the piano, but that's about it. I'm someone who likes to have as much time in the hall as possible, because it takes me a while to get used to the space itself: the lighting, the piano, the piano bench. Some people don't really care about lighting or even notice it, but for some reason I don't deal well with lights that are too bright. And if that's what the hall has, it's important to get used to it. Maybe I have sensitive eyes! In non-school performance situations, this aspect is a little more flexible. Often the hall will be free for practice the day before, which is great. There is a famous pianist, Sokolov, who has been described to spend as many as 8 hours in a hall before a concert in order to feel fully comfortable. I completely understand that! Other people don't need nearly as much time - everyone is different.
Bonnie: Can you tell us what your practice regimen involves?
Petya: My daily practice at the moment looks like this: I try to practice 4 hours every day, except on Saturdays. On Saturdays, because I teach for about 7-8 hours, I either don't practice at all, or just do 45 mins to an hour. It's not ideal, and I will have to change some things closer to the date. For now I practice at a church nearby Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, which is great because it's a big space and I can play out more. The rest of the days I play at home but can't really play too loud for too long out of courtesy for my neighbors. The biggest difference with preparing for a concert during Covid is that you can't have the social aspect of it. Previously, colleagues and I would play our repertoire for each other to test our memory or to see what it's like to play through something while feeling nervous, and it's a great way to build on your preparation and get some feedback. Sadly, this isn't possible right now, which is a bit of an obstacle. Sometimes I open the screen door of our apartment, which enables people walking on the street outside to hear the piano. It creates the feeling of having an audience, so I like to run some pieces this way.
My preparation is also a little different right now from previous years, because I recently recovered from an injury. Three years ago, I was in a minor car accident, which caused certain issues, on and off, with the nerves in my right hand. It took a long time to go back to normal, and now I have to be 100%, fully aware of almost every physical movement on the piano (and off the piano as well!), so that I am able to play with ease and without any tingling in my fingers. I have to watch how I sit on the bench, where the balance point is in my hands at all times, what my alignment is, and whether any muscles are tense. If all of these things are in check, everything is good and the sound is effortless. But it's constant attention to that, all the time. I am very happy to have recovered, though.
Bonnie: How do you choose your repertoire? Are there specific program requirements?
Petya: There are some guidelines, but it's pretty free. We need to have 50-60 mins of music of our own choice. Of course, the department has to of course "approve" the program, which is usually fine because by this point we all know what the standards are.
Bonnie: Could you could tell us a bit about what is behind your choices?
Petya: I chose to mark the end of my educational journey by jumping back into my roots and play some Bulgarian repertoire, along with two sets of Brahms that I love and never played before - op. 117 and op. 119 intermezzi. These are two lovely collections of short pieces that are quite beautiful. The Bulgarian repertoire consist of a piece called "Autumn Elegie" by Vladiguerov and a set called "Miniatures" by Nenov. To be quite frank, choosing solo repertoire is always difficult for some reason. But one night during the fall I remembered the Autumn Elegie and thought it would be nice to play through it. Well, it was fitting to the atmosphere outside - we had a beautiful fall. Something just clicked and I added it onto my repertoire. The Nenov I chose because I randomly stumbled upon a recording my friend did on Spotify. It inspired me greatly, so I decided to pursue it. And the Brahms, something clicked there too while I was listening to a recording as well. Sometimes these repertoire choices can be a little bit accidental, but they usually end up being the ones I've found the most rewarding. Bonnie: Under COVID there probably won't be an audience for this recital. Would that be the case in normal times?
Petya: No, it is definitely not normal. Under normal times, anyone can attend the event for free. The audiences for student recitals are often small, but it is still nice to have people in the audience, regardless of size. There is something about the human spirit that happens in a concert hall - people give each other energy. Without them, it can be a little harder and you have to almost treat it like a recording session. Which is also a good skill to have, so either way it is a project of its own merits. The jury, usually made up of 3 people, are faculty members who are there to evaluate the level of playing and whether it is high enough to pass. Most people treat this recital event very seriously, so it is rare that someone would fail and have to redo the recital at a later date.
Bonnie: You're working very hard towards this goal. What do you get out of doing this?
Petya: With each recital, concert or any performance, the artist learns something and grows. Like in any field, in music there is always something to learn. It is the most exciting and important element of the journey. That's the key aspect of importance with this recital too. As well, we usually end up playing these pieces again later, and having performed them even once is a good and beneficial experience. As for the degree, it is something that will enable me to one day look into a teaching career in academics. Teaching is such a huge part of who I am, and it is something I will always focus on. Being in this degree has taught me a lot, and often it is the degree in which musicians will tend to mature the most. That's certainly the case for me. The biggest lesson I learned wasn't even a music one - it is to implement rest on a consistent basis. I used to pack my schedule so tightly, often without any days off, which is very counterproductive for any kind of work. I don't do that anymore, and I am much happier because of it. Balance is everything, always. Of course I will also always remember finishing the most stressful part of the degree (the last recital and my thesis) during a pandemic. Honestly, I feel like nothing will ever feel too difficult compared to this! I am looking forward to the finish line within the next few months and hope all of our lives will have improved by that point!
Bonnie: I think we all join you in this Petya. We add the hope that by the time you are a Doctor of the Musical Arts, conditions will have improved such that QSCM will be able to welcome a full audience to hear your program live and in person. We will be sure to set that up as soon as it is safe to gather and it will be a most appropriate and glorious celebration! Meanwhile, we wish you all the best in your work going forward. Thank you for taking time from your preparation to give us an inside look at what is involved. We look forward to hearing the performance once the recordings are completed and, as soon as possible, hearing you live and in person.
To learn more about Petya's musicianship and her career, visit www.petya-stavreva.com