The Agony and the Ecstasy: My Musical Training in Soviet Russia

Charlotte Smith
Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Russian concert pianist Rustem Hayroudinoff graduated from the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied with Lev Naumov, and received his postgraduate degree at the Royal Academy of Music in London. He was one of the first students (if not the first) from the Soviet Union to study at the Royal Academy, where he is now a professor of piano. He has recorded for various labels including Chandos and Decca, and will give a recital of works by JS Bach, CPE Bach, Liszt and Rachmaninov at St John's Smith Square in London on Saturday, April 13. He writes about his experiences studying in Soviet Russia below:

The Russian music education system has always been shrouded in myth. The more persistent theories are that Russian training is very mechanical - almost robotic, focusing mostly on developing the greatest possible technical ability at the expense of musicianship; and that there is some powerful method in place at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, which is why so many great musicians graduated from that particular school. As a graduate of that education system I would like to try to shed some light on it.

In fact, Russian music students still enjoy the same education system that was used to teach the likes of Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Prokofiev and other great Russian musicians. When the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917 they were very keen to demolish the established order of things in Russia, but luckily the one field they didn’t touch was the education system for ballet and music.

The foundation of music education is laid down long before an aspiring student sets foot in a conservatoire. At its core is a network of specialist music schools all over the territory of the former Soviet Union. The syllabus at these schools is uniform whether you are studying in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Kiev, or Yerevan. One normally enters such a school around the age of seven and, if the young musician is lucky to survive the tough competition, remains there for 11 years. Out of the 27 pupils enrolled in my first year, only four original pupils reached the final semester. Alongside normal academic subjects, there are obligatory subjects such as music theory, analysis, harmony, solfeggio (sol-fa), rhythm and music literature, as well as regular instrumental classes. That in itself is not so unique – children study these subjects in the West as well – it’s the rigour with which we were made to study these disciplines that is different.

I still remember a rhythm class when I was eight years old. One of the exercises was to listen to a tune in 3/4 time played by the accompanist, sing the melodic line in unison, while tapping the rhythm with your feet and conducting in 3/4 time with one hand and in 4/4 time twice as slowly with the other.

In the solfeggio class, amongst other tasks, we were made to write down quite complex dictations in one, two, three and four parts within 10-15 minutes, listen to and recognise chains of intervals played at high speed, analyse and recognise after one hearing long harmonic progressions, and conduct and sing at sight and in real tempo Bach’s and Shostakovich’s fugues. The class was divided into several groups according to our vocal range. I still vividly remember singing at a rather vigorous pace Shostakovich’s Fugue No 3 in G major in this manner. Swingle Singers, move over!

The actual piano lessons took place twice a week and as well as working on individual pieces, we also followed a strict syllabus as far as our technical development was concerned. Each year we were introduced to some new matters of technique: all sorts of scales, arpeggios, double notes, etc, which were not optional and were included in the technical exam at the end of the year. You couldn’t progress to the next year if you failed that exam.

By my last year at school I had become one of the more advanced pianists and felt I was good enough to audition for the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory. Many people in my home town Kazan, including my own parents, thought this was too audacious, but I persisted and was very fortunate to be accepted on my first attempt, even though many brilliant Moscow-educated students took years to get in.

I remember feeling quite comfortable in my entrance aural harmony exam, when I was asked to sit at the piano and modulate in perfect four parts from a given key to another remote key. If you did not score high enough in any of these exams, you would simply not be accepted into the conservatoire, no matter how brilliantly you did in your instrumental audition. To this day I believe that this knowledge serves me well – when I play a piece, my brain automatically perceives it as a harmonic and contrapuntal structure rather than a bunch of beautiful notes.

When I was graduating from the Kazan school the jury panel had to come up with a special mark to show that the level of my performance was above the rest of the pupils in my year and gave me a 5+ mark (the top mark usually being 5). However, when I came to Moscow for the entry exams and was walking through the hostel corridors, I heard other students practising, and the realisation quickly sank in that I really didn’t know how to play the piano. If I wanted to measure up, I now had to start working even harder.

This was a wake-up call and the beginning of the second period of intensive work, fuelled by listening to great performances at the Bolshoi Hall and the general competitive atmosphere at the conservatory. There were some great teachers, and I was particularly lucky to be accepted into the class of Lev Naumov, one of the most sought after piano pedagogues in the Soviet Union at the time, whose former students include Alexei Lubimov, Andrei Gavrilov, Vladimir Viardo, Alexei Sultanov and many other talented musicians, and who had himself been a student of the great Heinrich Neuhaus. My Russian musical lineage thus goes back all the way to the legendary Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein, who taught Joseph Hoffman and Felix Blumenfeld, who taught Horowitz and Neuhaus, who in turn taught Naumov.

Needless to say, no professor of the conservatory spent time teaching students technical rudiments – it was taken for granted that you were good enough to deal with the technical side on your own or otherwise would not have been accepted in the first place. Only interpretation was discussed in the lessons. However, every professor had two assistants, so apart from having two lessons a week with your actual teacher, you also played at least once a week to one of the assistants - to get help with more practical matters of interpretation and perhaps get some advice on pianistic issues.

There were certain unspoken rules, such as, for example, never bringing a piece to the first lesson unless it had been thoroughly memorised and performed up to tempo.

I believe that the most crucial factor in students’ artistic growth and development, even more than studying with a particular professor, was the sheer number of very talented young people coming together from all the republics. The education was free, so we were accepted purely on the strength of our talent. Somehow the very idea of centralisation that was so detrimental to the Soviet economy worked quite well in this case - all the aspiring young musicians around the country knew that if they wanted to make something of their lives, they had to try to get into the Moscow Conservatory. Imagine so much talent under the same roof – practising, exchanging ideas, sharing the latest recordings that they could get hold of! I believe that, more than anything else, this was the real secret of the Moscow Conservatory’s success.

Although there was a timetable in place, one wouldn’t expect to have a lesson exactly at the scheduled hour. When I turned up each time, at least half a dozen other students would normally be sitting there, listening to each other. Some would already have played, others would be waiting for their turn. At first I found it difficult, as every lesson felt like a performance class. Soon, though, I learnt to appreciate this opportunity to learn not only from my own lessons, but also by observing other students working on different repertoire.

I often hear my students complain about the problems with the availability of practice rooms. While certainly sympathising, I have to say that in comparison with us, they have it easy. Practice rooms at the conservatory hostel were in the basement and were very cold, especially during the winter, when the temperature outside could drop to minus 30 degrees Celcius or even lower. There were also very few decent pianos. This forced us to start queuing up for pianos as early as 5 or 6am, and the practice-rooms reception would only open at 8am. Much dark Russian humour was exercised in that queue.

Talking of queues, one of the most exciting things about studying in Moscow was the opportunity to hear many interesting concerts. But if it was an appearance by a well-known foreign artist or an orchestra, or our own artists like Richter, it was extremely hard to get a ticket. On many occasions we would queue up outside the box office throughout the night. Every so often the number of people would be counted and each of us would be given a number in the queue and told to re-assemble in two or three hours. Those who couldn’t wake to show up would lose their place. Those who heroically made it through the night and were still there when the box office opened in the morning were still not guaranteed a ticket and often helplessly watched as the last ticket was snapped away by someone more fortunate.

Those were tough times economically and most of us needed to earn some extra cash to survive. One of the jobs I considered was to play some light music at a Moscow restaurant on Friday nights. After I auditioned with some pop songs in front of the existing band, I was accepted and the other band members started filling me in on the requirements of the job: ‘The best gigs are on Fridays because these are the favourite hangout for prisoners who have just been released’, they said. ‘They have quite a lot of money to burn and they are usually in a generous mood, so if someone shouts, “Hey, play my favourite one,” (from the special selection of songs glorifying criminal life), you better do a good job and you’ll be generously rewarded. But if you mess up, you’ll be in big trouble. By the way, when people start shooting and stabbing each other, no matter what you do, do not leave the synthesizer behind.’ At that time those electronic instruments were few and far between in the Soviet Union and had to be purchased on the black market for hard currency. They enabled two or three musicians to do the job and share the profits of a band of five or six. ‘When trouble starts, just grab it and run through the kitchen,’ I was told. I needed cash badly, but after some serious consideration, decided not to take the job.

Russia was still behind the Iron Curtain and the biggest joke among my fellow students was: ‘Guys, in ten years time, let’s all meet up under the Eiffel Tower in Paris.’ This would inevitably provoke laughter to the point of tears, because the idea seemed so absurd. Soon, though, Gorbachev’s Perestroika gave me an opportunity, upon graduating from the Moscow Conservatory 100 years after Rachmaninov, to earn my postgraduate degree in London. I believe I was the first student to come straight out of Soviet Russia and into the Royal Academy of Music. 

The difference in the buying power of the Russian rouble and English pound sterling was so great that to enable myself to survive for the first few months I had to smuggle out of the airport ten jars of prized Russian caviar, which I managed to sell to a restaurant in Soho. I have recently heard in a Horowitz interview that he also had to hide some hard currency in his socks when he was exiting Russia. I am very happy to be linked to Horowitz, even if by way of mild criminal activity!

It was not an easy time to be a student in the USSR – but even my friends, who were foreign students in Moscow then, look back at their conservatory years as some of the most exciting formative experiences of their lives. I feel fortunate to have had such a fine musical education, and to have, I hope, the opportunity to pass on some of that knowledge to a new generation of young musicians in the UK.

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