Today on 10 Questions With… we talked with Marina Surgan….
1. Can you tell readers a bit about how you got into music?
Getting into music was very easy and natural for me. Everybody in my family played an instrument and to keep the family tradition my mother sent me to a piano teacher when I was seven years old. It was a “must” in my family to have a subscription to Philharmonic concerts, to the Opera, and to Ballet Theatre. When I was nine years old I was accepted to the very famous music school for gifted children named after Professor Stolyarsky in Odessa, and I continued my education in Moscow’s Pedagogical Institute (former USSR) as a Soloist, Concertmaster and Piano Teacher. I was also composing music.
2. How did you get involved with the dance world?
When I was seven I thought that the minute I put on some pointe shoes I’d be able to spin and run across the stage as easy as those magical ballerinas. One day I persuaded my mom to buy me a pair of pointe shoes. I couldn’t wait to get home and try them on, but when I put them on the excruciating pain at once destroyed all my dreams of becoming a ballerina. I decided that it was better for me to stick with piano, as it wasn’t that painful.
When we emigrated to Toronto I met a former dancer from the Igor Moiseyev Dance Company who was looking for an accompanist. She asked me if I could play by ear – folk music. This is where I gave thanks to God for the gift of perfect pitch and improvisation. This is how I got involved with the dance world.
3. You have composed music for the Cecchetti Grade Examinations – what was that like?
It was in 1980, Carol Chadwick who was Vice Principal of ballet at Canada’s National Ballet School at that time asked me if I could compose new music for the Cecchetti Grade Examinations. I didn’t know grades music so I told her that I needed a studio with a student and teacher who could demonstrate each exercise for me – so that I could improvise on the spot and everything would be videotaped.
I should proudly say that I did quite a good job and didn’t have to edit any of my compositions. I just had to score all the music that was recorded by videotape and it was subsequently published by the Canadian Branch of the Cecchetti Society in 1983.
4. You have also held workshops for accompanists- what are those like?
I used to go every year with Betty Oliphant and NBS students and team teachers on the National Auditions tours all across Canada. We used to give a small presentation titled “From Studio to Stage” as well as master classes and it was Betty who suggested that I have a workshop with the pianists as well. I will never forget my first workshop; it happened to be in Vancouver. I absolutely did not have a clear idea of what I should talk about; everything about being an accompanist for Ballet seemed so obvious to me that I thought to myself – do these pianists really not know what to play for Plies or Tendus?
I remember that there were a few musicians and at least a couple of teachers who asked me a lot of questions. When time was up one of the musicians said to me something that was an eye opener: “We just wanted to know that you have the same problems (in Toronto) that we experience here”.
Later that night in my hotel room I put together all the most common problems I had experienced during the three years I was learning how to become a good pianist for ballet. I knew if I had personally experienced these problems – that all the musicians around the world would probably experience these very same difficulties in a Ballet class as well. Since then I’ve had great pleasure conducting musician workshops; they are a one week “crash course” full of very important details which took me 3 years of struggle and analysis to understand and conquer. Now at Canada’s National Ballet School we have a one week Musicians Mentoring Program which you can read about on their website.
5. What do you enjoy most about playing for dancers?
During the performances I enjoy the feeling that I am like the “Phantom of the Theatre”; I play and the music physically moves the dancers, makes them flip into the air, makes them turn in pirouettes, smile or cry, but at the same time I feel this unseen, incredible thread of nerves between me and the dancers on the stage. I feel any and every hesitation of the dancer, which makes me subconsciously stretch the music so that the audience never sees a dancer being late to start the step.
In a class situation I enjoy the spontaneous creation of musical composition, at the moment when the teacher demonstrates the exercise. There are no rules as to what kind of music I must play, and it gives me the freedom of expression. But at the same time, the exercises have many structural considerations.
The expressions on the dancers faces – their eyes and gentle smiles will tell you immediately if they like what you play.
6. What is the most challenging part about playing for dancers?
To take criticism and not to get offended, to be very patient and open-minded and to never lose the desire to improve is the most challenging part about playing for dancers.
I have experienced over 30 years as a ballet pianist and still every time I play for a new ballet teacher – it’s a challenge. Not all ballet teachers are clear in musicality or in presenting the length, character, and tempo of the exercise. In these situations a musician can count only on their experience, intuition, and creativity.
Playing rehearsals before the show could be another huge challenge for a musician; today the tempo I played was great, but tomorrow the same dancer can have more or less energy and the same tempo feels faster or slower. And only during the performance, when nobody can talk I will became the “Phantom of the Ballet” and all the dancer’s will totally trust me with the tempos so everything will end up working out perfectly–as usual.
7. Would you share one your career highlights with 4dancers readers ?
There are many highlights in my career. All of these are important to me and I don’t know which one to choose.
On my website www.marinasurgan.com I enumerated some of the highlights of my career, but something that I will never forget is the day I was hired at Canada’s National Ballet School, because it all happened at once. I came to the school knowing only one phrase in English ” I’m looking for a job”. I only had three months experience. The receptionist asked me to leave my resume and go home, saying, “We will call you.” How I persuaded her that I lived too far away to come back another day – without any language – still puzzles me to this day.
In an hour I was auditioned by the Margaret Gibs, principal pianist. Then she asked me if I could play for a ballet class – and I did. During the class Betty Olephant, Artistic Director and Principal dancer, and Carol Chadwick, Vice-Principal of Ballet came to the studio to watch me. At the end of the class Lucy Potts, Principal of Francais, asked me to follow her to the Artistic Directors office, where she translated for me in perfect Russian that miss Olephant would like me to accept the position of Ballet accompanist at the NBS. The feeling of happiness was overwhelming! On my way home I bought flowers for the babysitter who was taking care of my two little children.
Recording and producing my first CD for ballet class was another milestone. I always knew that I would record my music on a real grand piano. I booked a recording studio, and only when I started to play did I realize that for me to compose or improvise music for the exercises I need the inspiration that came from the energy of the the dancer’s moving body. Otherwise it’s boring and not exiting to play. Any slight change of the head or hands can inspire a new improvisation.
8. How is playing music for dance different than playing other type of music ?
Playing for dance demands from the musician constant awareness of the quantity of the beats. It restricts the musician in the speeding up and slowing down of the music because of emotions, limits the use of dynamics, and demands a very high standard of performance. While a teacher can make changes to exercises and correct mistakes, the musician has to be ready to play perfectly on demand – no second chances! You can’t make mistakes or play wrong notes and you must be ready to play every exercise right after the teacher says- ” and “…
When you play for dance you are not the soloist anymore. You can’t let your emotion take over your playing, you don’t have the freedom of Rubato or freedom to change the tempo at any given moment. You can’t play music exactly as it is written without adaptation – because it won’t always fit the structure of the exercise. Because of that, musicians have to learn all of the ballet terminology and understand the phrasing of the ballet exercises. It takes years, much the same as it takes years to learn how to play the piano.
The slightest change in an exercise creates a different image, a different quality, and requires a different improvisation. Since it’s too difficult and unrealistic to search through every book just to find a small piece of music which will fit a particular exercise, improvisation is a mandatory skill if you want to survive in a school as demanding as Canada’s National Ballet School.
I also have to mention the possibility of injury that comes with playing for dance. If the piano in a studio is at the wrong angle, the musician might have to watch the teacher through the mirror and that can easily injure the neck. In addition, playing repetitive notes with the left or right hand in a fast tempo can injure your muscles. Simplicity of theme, harmonic intensity and long phrasing will determine the success of the piece you play.
All I can say is that you can be the greatest concert pianist in the world – and still be a lousy ballet accompanist!
9. Do you have a favorite piece of music and if so, why is it your favorite?
My favorite composers are Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. I am fascinated by the beautiful melodies, saturated harmonies and internal intensity in almost every piece they wrote.
If you mean ballet music then I can tell you that anything I work on becomes my favorite piece at that moment. Even if at the beginning the music seems very simple or not that interesting, the more I rehearse and learn the choreography, the more it becomes a story with characters and emotions – and I will try to use all my knowledge to make it sound interesting.
I love to play the second act from Swan Lake or Giselle- great love stories. La Sylphide by Lovenskiold makes me feel like I’m accompanying an old black-and-white silent movie. Or Les Sylphides – which provides me with a rare chance to feel like a real “Performer Pianist”. Also, all piano pieces by Chopin.
10. what is next for you?
Recording more CD’s, making more ballet class sheet music – which is so helpful and needed by so many ballet accompanists around the world. More dance accompanist seminars – to recruit and give guidance to all pianists who are interested in this unique profession or would like to enhance their skills.
I also know that there are always more interesting projects coming up for me at the NBS.
BIO: Marina Surgan has been the Principal Pianist and Manager of Musicians for Canada’s National Ballet School since 1986. She was classically trained in the former Soviet Union first at the renown Music School for gifted children named after Professor Stolyarsky in Odessa and continued in her education in Moscow’s famed Gnessin’s Pedagogical Institute as a Soloist, ConcertMaster and Piano Teacher.
In 1975 she emigrated to Canada and in 1978 she joined the National Ballet School in Toronto.
Highlights of her creative career include:
Composing music for the Cecchetti Grade Examinations in 1983
Accompanist for the NBS competing in Jackso, Mississippi in 1986
Accompanist for the NBS participants First International Congress of Classical and Contemporary Ballet in Monterey, Mexico,
Prix de Lausanne used Marina’s piano recordings for the 10 Classical Variations in edition 2001/2002
Touring with NBS across Canada, US, Mexico, Germany, France, Japan, Finland, and Sweden.
Conducting Ballet accompanists workshops and playing master classes.
Marina has given numerous Concert Performances and in December of 2006 recorded her first CD titled ‘Marina Surgan-Live”
In June 2007 she recorded her second CD “20 Greatest Classical Variations”
In 2008 she published the Piano Sheet Music trranscribed from her first CD.
In September 2010 Marina’s original compositions were used for an episode’s of the reality TV show “Battle of the Blades”
In January 2011 Marina published her second Piano Sheet Music transcribed from her Ballet Class CD ‘Marina Surgan-Live 2″