Pianist, educator and mentor, Professor Julia Mustonen-Dahlkvist is Artistic Director of Ingesund Piano Center in Arvika, Sweden, and founder of the IPC’s Artists-in-Residence scheme, where up to ten young pianists are rigorously selected to take a ‘deep dive’ into their artistic, career and personal development. Each residency is fully funded.
An accomplished pianist herself, Professor Mustonen-Dahlkvist’s training in Russia, Germany, France, and Spain informed what would later become her own methodology, which when combined with her nurturing and passionate nature, has resulted in a unique formula for success, mastery and excellence. Here she talks about her early influences and how she was inspired to develop the programme at IPC.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I have multiple sources of inspiration. I have been consciously searching for musicians and pedagogues from whom I can learn something valuable. Everything started with my mother. She was a piano teacher at a music school working with kids, and wanted me to become a piano teacher too, simply because in the era of the USSR, this was a very good profession and a respected job to have. I grew up in communist Siberia at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 80s. It really was a different planet. My grandparents were deported to Siberia and despite a not very pleasant time during my childhood there, I was very lucky to meet Larissa and Valery Starodubrovsky in the early stages of my life. They were actual students of the great Heinrich Neuhaus and studied together with Sviatoslav Richter, and were deported to Siberia during Soviet times to “help to develop the culture” in Siberia. Larissa was an especially important teacher for me, and I stayed connected with her until the very last moments of her life. Even when I was already living in Finland and Germany, I still travelled to Moscow to play for her (where they returned to after the dissolution of the USSR). I also kept contact during the years of my master’s degree in Berlin.
Another very important teacher for me was Vitalii Berzon. He could really tell his students that playing piano was not difficult technically; he showed us exactly how to play and gave us students all the tools for it. Erik T. Tawaststjerna in Helsinki told me how I will exactly achieve my dreams to become a pedagogue and pianist and showed me the way. After that, and essentially the most important part for me as a musician and pedagogue was meeting and studying one year with Alicia de Larrocha. To be able to see and hear so closely the sound world of such a legendary pianist was very special. If you hear this once in your life, you can’t unhear it anymore and my whole life I have been searching for all possible methods just to get closer, bit by bit, to her amazing sound world. I feel like every year I come closer and closer in understanding her heritage, which I was fortunate enough to experience in person.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I think my whole life was built on challenges. It feels like I have gone through many problems like long term injuries, deep psychological problems with stage performances, a not very easy upbringing with lots of trauma, and difficulties with finding out how to deal with piano playing and psychological balance. It took me many years to find a way to be a confident performer and it took several years to establish any kind of stability in pedagogical process – even if I was always sure that it is my true calling to be a pedagogue. In the beginning of my pedagogical career, I found it very challenging to be a young professor and also a woman in this position.
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
Everything! I tend to learn from each special or new moment of my life and compare it to music, seeing how I can use it. Very often we can find inspiration in everyday situations in life, because the emotional content in music is unlimited, the same way as the emotional content in life.
Tell us more about the Ingesund Piano Foundation. What was the motivation for establishing this Foundation, how does it support young artists, and how do you choose the students?
The Artists-in-Residence idea stemmed from the growth of our class over the past years. As the class grew into a group of pianists of vastly different cultural experiences and personalities, it became a nurturing ground for those who are striving for the same goal – excellence and depth in music-making.
Our students decided to come to Ingesund in Sweden because of the compatibility we share. To us, what matters most is how well we may understand each other, and whether our style and approach fits best for the individual’s improvement in their current state. This created an absolutely fantastic environment of trust, openness and true musical exploration.
To decide to work together with a student is a very difficult and long process, because the whole professional life of this person will largely depend on the productivity and quality of our work. Personally, I get very attracted if I hear somebody with their own unique voice in their music making. Everybody has their own voice of course, but some are more intriguing than others. In my case I have to intuitively see “hundreds of steps” forward, regarding how I may help to bring this pianist to become what he or she is dreaming to sound like. Most of it is down to hearing, and executing correctly. How realistic the process may be, and what kind of particular steps I can do to make it happen. Sometimes I absolutely love the musician, but after some trial – it may just not fit. I am intuitively always searching for pianists who possess some quality or potential to be the “real deal”. However, often these talents may not be the simplest personalities to deal with, and not the easiest musicians to teach. I guess we are indeed learning a lot from each other in the process.
Learning at the same time while teaching and developing together with the students is something very important to me. I have striking realizations from time to time and they often change the whole direction of my teaching and music making. In this particular moment, I am actually finding myself in such a revelation. It feels like I have never understood what piano playing was about earlier, compared to what I know now.
You were inspired by the Netflix programme ‘Playbook’. Tell us how this has influenced your approach and your role at IPF?
Patrick Mouratoglou, the coach of Serena Williams, is a genius who is capable not only of understanding but also working with human nature, understanding the psychology of highest-level performance under tremendous pressure. His ability to see the talent and foresee the steps of creating world-class players is very inspiring. The connection was immediate when Patrick, in the very beginning of the episode, started by comparing the practicing process of difficult details and passages at the piano, to the polishing of moves in tennis. He says, “Piano can be beautiful, if you listen to the piece from the start to the end. But if you repeat the same thing all the time…it drives people crazy. Of course it’s tough, and that’s why not many people can be Number One”. He is a huge inspiration for me, and in the same way, the work that we do is an inspiration for him. He talks about how the greatest weaknesses can become the greatest strengths, how emotions are your worst advisers, and how mistakes should not define you. I could suddenly relate to every word he is saying and recognize every situation he described in the preparation for the big stages. How can it be so similar? The psychology of the elite sport and the art of the piano performance, especially in competitions.
It does not matter what we do professionally, we are all humans, and our conditions in top-level performances are strikingly similar. Patrick said that his goal in coaching is very simple: we are there to help people to achieve their dreams. This is exactly the whole purpose of my piano teaching too.
What are the challenges facing young classical artists today and what are you doing to support and encourage them in their professional careers?
The challenges have been and will be always the same. First of all, it’s generally very difficult to get to the point where young artists are able to be ready professionally for all challenges for the future, and afterwards, once you are ready, it’s very difficult to get on the stage and be heard.
I personally hope that I am the pedagogue who is able to help professional development in a rather distinct manner. But lately I started to feel that it was not enough – because the professional world out there is not easy to enter for a young soloist and it’s not easy to get the right exposure. At Ingesund Piano Center we are trying to establish a useful platform and trying to think and work differently – curating an education which does not only take care of exams and degrees, but an education which would help to make a difference in the pianists’ careers and success on stage.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?
I think we just need to find, recognize, support and educate young musicians, who can play their instruments at the highest possible level, have an ability to captivate audiences and make a difference with their performances on stage.
Many musicians are nowadays very well-promoted, but not really giving this experience to the audience which would make them go back to the concert hall. It’s like going to a very well-designed restaurant, where the food is not good. You will not go back there.
But I have also experienced many times people becoming the biggest lovers of classical music when they get a revelation provoked by some very good performances, which could open up this whole world to the people. Good musicians and talented performers are our best ambassadors.
As a musician and pedagogue, what is your definition of “success” in the world of classical music?
The biggest success is the inner success in finding who you actually are and what you can contribute to this music world. And after you find the purpose, you also find the balance between the professional and personal lives. I guess success is something very personal, for some, they really need a completely full schedule to feel successful, for others, it is enough to have a few small events to feel this way. Generally, I think it’s very difficult to define success because it’s something very personal. The biggest success is if you can contribute exactly what you have dreamed about and that you know yourself well enough to place yourself rightfully with regards to your inner talent in the music world.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Never stop searching, evolving and developing. Never think that you have any limitations, try always to search for ways how to go above them. Do not be arrogant, but be aware of who you are. Be always clear in your mind, about your current situation, your possibilities and problems, and always have very clear goals and paths to go, search for help that exactly pinpoints and solves problems in the playing for example, and drop all delusions as soon as possible, do not try to give yourself too much international display and attention too early, before you are really ready, but never stop dreaming!
Led by Julia Mustonen-Dahlkvist, Ingesund Piano Center in Arvika, Sweden, offers young world-class pianists the support to cultivate international, sustainable and high-profile performing careers. The final concert in Ingesund Piano Center’s inaugural NORDIC STAGE Gala Concerts takes place online 10 June. The earlier concerts are to view via the IPC’s website
Read interviews with the participating pianists here