INTERVIEW WITH THE INTERNATIONAL PIANIST AND TALENT MARYAM RAYA
As part of the UNOFEX Talent Series we interviewed, the wonderful concert pianist Maryam Raya. Raised in Washington D.C. she gave her first recital at the age of nine and is recognized for her dynamic stage presence, and larger creative versatility through multiple art forms. In this interview we asked her about her influences, personal triumphs and how the outbreak of Covid-19 has impacted her career. Let's get started:
How did you get involved in piano music?
I began lessons at a very young age. To be honest, I can't remember any exact point at which I “decided” to become a concert pianist. The piano was always in front of me, both literally & figuratively speaking.
What kind of concerts have you performed throughout your career? Are you satisfied with them?
The majority of my engagements have been solo, both recitals & concerti with orchestra. I have been satisfied with these opportunities. In the beginning of 2020, I was increasingly more involved in collaborations with other artists, namely in the visual arts, and specifically photography & filmmaking. I hope to continue pursuing these collaborations when the world’s stages reopen.
Tell me about an area in which you would like to improve as a pianist?
There are too many areas upon which I’d like to improve as a pianist! As in all arts, the art of piano playing is a continuous process. The more I study & develop, the more I realize how much there is to learn. One particular aspect of my performing that I’d like to develop is improvisation, the ability to do so in various styles. I don’t have any experience in this regard, & I think it would greatly benefit my sense of freedom at the instrument.
Do you ever think that you could have done a bit better in any particular piece during a main concert?
Always! I often walk off stage with realizations about a piece that did not occur to me before, even given the intensive hours of work it takes to prepare for any performance. And that is why, for every pianist, performing is important. The pressure of performance elevates one’s playing & concepts to a new level of understanding, while simultaneously giving one fresh perspectives.
Which has been your favorite piece of music that you have performed?
I have absolutely no idea how I could possibly choose only one! Instead, I will mention a couple composers whose works I particularly enjoy performing: Liszt, Rachmaninoff, also Prokofiev. Each of these composers were also great pianists, and their music brings the piano to another level entirely. Speaking of great pianists, this year I discovered the works of Josef Hofmann, which are seldom performed today. I am presently studying a majority of them. They are fabulously virtuosic!
What are your strong points as a pianist?
I would say my strong point as a pianist is my ability to thrive under pressure. Last year, as in all throughout 2019, I realized that I performed to the absolute best of my capabilities when a significant audience was present. I believe this strong point is essential for any performer to develop.
What have you learned from the concert directors that you have worked with throughout your career?
That is a particularly excellent question! Every concert engagement is & feels entirely different, even if I am performing the exact same program! The variables are endless, different pianos, different acoustics, different day & time, different audiences with subsequently different vibes, etc. As to your question, every concert director has a distinct personality & a distinct “way” of presenting an event, regardless of the program I happen to be performing. Therefore, I have had to learn to become flexible & to adapt to any & all circumstances. In any artistic endeavor, there must always be a spirit of collaboration.
What have you learned from senior pianists?
Well, I continue to learn a great deal! I have been privileged to play for & take advice from many of the greatest pianists in the world. Perhaps counter-intuitively, this has proven most helpful to works I have performed on numerous occasions. They benefit from fresh perspectives, even if I’ve established & am comfortable with “my way”. Fresh perspectives tend to at once strengthen & transform the way I play. Not to mention the pressure of performing for anyone, particularly those who know practically the entire repertoire by heart. That is a great performance opportunity in and of itself.
What has been your biggest achievement in the field of music?
That is hard to say. I always feel the best is yet to come. Many of my recital programs have featured & centered upon a theme, often one which ties into my studies in literature. Most are preceded with a short speaking portion. At first, I felt this might be too ambitious to be cohesive. But I was told after the fact that it was something I did particularly well & effectively. Of course, performing at Stern Auditorium with orchestra was a great honor, as are invitations to perform in musical & artistic capitals throughout Europe. But, to be completely honest, performing in this or that “glamorous” space doesn’t mean as much to me as touching as many people as possible with my performances, most especially those that are not as familiar with “classical music” & never really thought they’d enjoy it. Those audience members, whose eyes light up at discovering something new, are the ones that really inspire me. They often ask the most interesting questions, largely due to the fact that they are approaching the medium for the first time without being locked into any preconceptions. I can say I learn just as much if not more from them.
What is the hardest part of being a pianist?
Where should I start? Only half-joking. As pianists, we are blessed with a great & expansive repertoire. I think by the end of my life, I will have only touched one percent of it! But the enormous technical demands of the instrument & the constant process of studying are not even half the battle. We must be our own artistic directors & we must forge our own paths. We have to bring our art form into the twenty-first century. It is our responsibility to make it relevant. Pianists must practice not just “to practice” but for the purpose of performing in the larger sense & contributing to society. There are many paths through which that purpose may wander. I should note that this is a general difficulty when it comes to all creatives, & not only pianists.
Who is your favorite composer and why?
Once again, I have absolutely no idea how I could possibly choose only one! Every great composer has qualities that make him or her completely recognizable & distinct from not only others in general, but others in their same “style” or “time period”. By definition, every great composer is unique. I cannot compare.
Let's discuss the current situation. How does the outbreak of Covid-19 affect your career?
Of course, live performance is temporarily on pause. From mid March, every engagement I had for 2020 was, one by one, cancelled. That being said, as much as possible, I am continuing to “stay in shape”. This does not only mean practicing. Performing is its own practice; one must keep that sense of pressure to keep going & to play to the best of one’s capabilities. In 2020, I started working on & putting out more professional videos of my playing. And unprofessional videos, too. Even putting up my iPhone next to my piano to record a snippet for my social media feels better than nothing. It’s really all about keeping active. On another note, I spoke earlier about continuing to pursue collaborations with artists in the visual realm. While the traditional paths of performance are blocked temporarily, other, more eclectic paths that focus on how piano playing relates to other arts & even other fields, possess great potential. I believe we are at a transformational point, with more opportunities & possibilities that seem immediately visible to the eye.
What are your goals and dreams as a pianist?
I have touched on this in the various points above. But, I suppose to put it quite simply, my goals & dreams relate to drawing as many audiences as possible into this art form I love so much.
What advice do you have to new coming pianists?
There is a place for you. Stay true to yourself. We all have something unique to offer & the possibilities are infinite. The best thing about believing in yourself is that it gives you a great & unshakable will to keep moving forward in any & every way, no matter what the present circumstances.
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