NEW YORK—Out of 14 talented pianists, six finalists emerged on stage at Carnegie Hall Oct. 5, 2014, during the Future Stars Recital as part of the NTD Television International Piano Competition. Russian pianist Anton Smirnoff took the bronze prize.
A prizewinner at many international piano competitions, Smirnoff began his piano studies at the age of 7 in Novosibirsk, Russia. He is currently head of the piano department at the Pascale Music Institute.
He spoke with Epoch Times about his life in music, what it takes to be successful on the world stage, teaching music to the younger generation, and his favorite composers. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Epoch Times: At what age did you start playing the piano? Did you love it straight away?
Anton Smirnoff: I didn’t quite like it in the beginning. I was seven and a half years old and my mom brought me to the school. I was in the deep north in Russia. Like many other kids I wanted to do sports, because my parents are professional cross-country skiers. Music was on the side.
Then when we moved to Siberia, there was a really good teacher there. She said, “actually you have perfect pitch.” So I started treating it more seriously. I started winning some competitions, and then my parents realized that I have talent. But I still didn’t like music that much until I was 12 or 13 years old. After that, I realized that I need to practice more and I had to quit sports.
Epoch Times: How long do you practice everyday?
Mr. Smirnoff: I used to practice much more. The best time to practice a lot is when you’re a teenager because your body is changing. Back then I practiced 5 to 6 hours a day. When I did the big competitions later on, my record is 16 hours a day.
But it wasn’t a very smart thing to do. Actually, now I’m teaching the kids to practice smart. It’s more about quality, not quantity. I’m trying to teach them discipline because my teacher was very tough.
It’s difficult to be a professional musician nowadays. It’s hard to find a job. There are a lot of competitions but they don’t give you fame after that.
Epoch Times: What made you decide to participate in the NTD competition?
Mr. Smirnoff: I thought it was interesting. I lived pretty close and was finishing my master’s in Newhaven. And I thought, “why don’t I just try?” The organization was very good. I was really surprised. There are many competitions where the organization is not very professional.
Epoch Times: At what stage is a good time to start participating in competitions?
Mr. Smirnoff: [Start] as early as possible, if your teacher is sure about you and preparing you mentally, first of all, and then technically, and of course musically, you have to be able to do that. If I see that my kids are ready at age 6 or 7, I would definitely throw them into competitions because they make you more motivated. For me, [entering a] competition was the most motivational moment to practice more. Competitions give you opportunities to play [in front of a live audience] and with so many musicians around, it’s quite difficult to find opportunities.
If I don’t perform, if I have a break for more than one month, I feel a little bit down. I think, “why am I even practicing?” I need to show my view of the music I’m playing.
Epoch Times: What is the most important thing to remember when you are playing in a competition?
Mr. Smirnoff: The most important thing when you are playing in a competition, because I did so many, is that you are not playing yourself, you have to focus on the music, you have to focus on the composer, not just showing yourself [off]: “look at me. That’s me.” It’s not about that—it’s the music first of all. I used to be different. If I had this interview five years ago, I would have said, yes, it’s all about winning, but now I’m actually changing [my mind].
Now when we’re getting the new kids, I’m trying to see if they actually love music originally. As a teacher, you have to be extremely careful with that. Most of the time it’s the parents trying to promote their child just to be proud and see them winning competitions. This approach, for me, is a little bit off.
Epoch Times: How is it possible to play without ego?
Mr. Smirnoff: Well it is healthy to have an ego when you’re performing, but self-awareness is more important. First of all, if you open the music you have to look very carefully at what is written there—what the composer wanted you to play, instead of listening to the great performers of the past and trying to copy them. That’s why my best advice when you’re starting to learn a piece is, don’t listen to recordings. Try to do everything that’s written in the score, learn the notes, learn the dynamic marks, the phrasing, try to tell the story on your own. And when you feel like “OK, now I learned the piece,” [go ahead and] listen to recordings.
Epoch Times: Favorite composers?
Mr. Smirnoff: I’m constantly changing. For now it’s Mozart, by far.
Epoch Times: Why?
Mr. Smirnoff: I think that if you’re able to play Mozart well, you’re able to play pretty much everything really well because when you play Mozart, you cannot hide your musicality with technical and flashy passages. You just play it. And that’s why so many people are afraid to play Mozart—because when you go on stage and you play Mozart, you feel naked, musically. So if you have nothing inside, you have nothing to show.
I was actually really happy when I did the NTDTV International Piano Competition, that in the first round decided to play Mozart. That was a great thing because you could see who is a musician and who is not, right away. Because [with other composers] you can learn a very difficult technical piece and play it perfectly—and people are going to love it so much—but it’s just a matter of practicing. But with Mozart, you can practice it 16 hours a day, for two years, and it’s still not going to sound right. There are different approaches to Mozart. For me, the intellectual approach doesn’t really work; [he’s] completely different from any other composer.
I would put Bach in the second, or maybe in the first [place]—together with Mozart. These are the only two composers who didn’t write any [just] OK pieces—any piece by Mozart or Bach is a masterpiece.
The 4th NTD International Piano Competition will be taking place Sept. 30 to Oct. 2, 2016. The competition will consist of one qualification round and three separate live competition rounds: Preliminary, Semifinal, and Final. Contestants from all around the world are welcome to apply. Application opens this fall.
The competition’s mission is to revive and promote the best of Eastern and Western traditional culture.