Mina Perry defies expectations. Regal on stage, she’s humble in person. Soft-spoken in a crowd, she’s jocular one and one. Even her hands, long and thin, contain a surprisingly solidity and strength. She sat down with me on Tuesday to talk of her experiences studying internationally, her musical influences, and her teaching philosophy.
You have a particularly cosmopolitan background, first studying in Tokyo with both a Japanese and German teacher -
Japanese and Bulgarian teacher, actually. He spent most of his life in Russia, in Tchaikovsky Conservatory. He was teaching there, and he was assistant of Neuhaus, so my heritage is there.
So you’re most comfortable with playing Russians?
I wouldn’t say most. But that’s my background. I mean, Neuhaus had never been the kind of Russian teacher that people know nowadays. My teacher played all the repertoire, and he was particularly good with Beethoven, Debussy, stuff like that. He didn’t really teach my much Russian repertoire. I mean, I did everything but it wasn’t just Russian repertoire.
Ah, interesting. And then you moved to Germany and later to Canada for advanced studies? Which place did you gain the most from?
Well, nowadays people go after name of school, or after place. Place I can sort of understand. I mean, I was interested in Germany because I love the repertoire, poetry, so I wanted to experience life there. But name of school doesn’t mean anything to me. It’s 100% about the teacher, about who I want to study with.
You know, moving to North America was totally unexpected to me. I never thought I would be living there. But something brought me to Germany, and I met this guy in Germany. (Gestures towards the direction where her husband had just went). Laughs. Life is very interesting and wonderful!
I took his masterclass there in Germany. Then I experienced his music and I really wanted to study with him. That brought me to Canada. It seems it’s hard to find any audiences here in America nowadays.
Yea, unless you bring like, Lang Lang. You know, big names. It is not only in America.
Did you know him before?
I didn’t. I knew only the name, but I didn’t know his teaching that much.
It’s just different. For example, the very famous pianists in Germany, and Europe, were totally unknown in North America. In Asia, I think it’s kind of a mixture. Nowadays it’s probably different because of YouTube and the internet. But back then, of course we didn’t have those tools. I don’t think YouTube existed.
Yea, it’s actually a pretty recent development.
Isn’t that amazing? Now nobody can live without it.
Somebody once told me, and this is probably years ago in their experience, that students in Europe are treated more like artists, while students in America are often still considered, well, students. Did you find that to be true?
Oh yes, that was really the case. I mean, I’ve been in many countries for concerts and such, but I don’t really know. Unless you’ve lived there, you don’t really know. But Germany, at least, I felt I knew, since I moved there as a student. They have so much respect for musicians. I sat down with somebody on the bus, and an old lady, and as soon as I said I was a pianist studying at school there, was just so impressed. I mean, normal people will talk about Handel or Haydn.
Wow, so they were like household names?
Apparently! I mean, of course, not 100%. But concerts were so well attended, everywhere it was free. Any concert, even the famous symphonies. All free for students!
It seems it’s hard to find any audiences here in America nowadays.
Yea, unless you bring like, Lang Lang. You know, big names. It is not only in America.
Is it because the government prized art so much?
I think it’s because they are so into education, and of course, they respect the classical music very highly. They understood its value.
Another difference I noticed was that even the small concerts in small churches were always packed. And normal people go there, not just musicians.
You travel so much. How do you juggle the constant international schedule with practice and concertizing?
That’s tough. It’s tough. (laughs). I always have heavy jetlag, always.
So there’s no trick-you just got to power through?
Laughs. Yea, there’s no trick. But teaching gives me energy. I really love it – I really enjoy it. I mean, you give what you have, and if you see the change in the student, it’s so rewarding.
You are a strong advocate for two-piano/four hand music. Do you focus more on that at Colburn?
Mainly solo. I do the piano chamber music and the piano duo, but mostly solo teaching. But I found that the piano duo and duet repertoire is so rich, and have really beautiful pieces, but they’re not really well known.
Yeah, most people don’t really choose to-
Exactly. And most people think that piano duets are second-rate pieces. That’s so untrue.
So you’re kind of like a missionary for these pieces?
I feel that way. But I simply enjoy performing them. It’s fun.
Do you belong to a piano duo?
I did – I used to do a lot in Japan – I had a partner there. But then I moved. I did some in Germany as well. But currently I play with my wonderful husband. (laughs).
What is that like?
Oh my god, its like heaven. Piano duos are wonderful if you have the right partner – and it helps that I respect him and studied with him. But duos can be tricky - I mean, if you don’t agree musically, you can’t do chamber music together. And personality too. It’s the same for any chamber music. If your first violinist is egoistic, and doesn’t have the same musical taste, then it won’t work.
John is not at all pretentious. He is such a real human being. I personally don’t believe in pretentious people. I mean, as a musician, how can you be pretentious on the stage?
Right – how can one communicate?
Exactly. If you’re not talking from your guts, you’re never going to talk to people. I think we musicians have to be careful to be true to yourself because you can never fake yourself on the stage. Performance shows scarily exactly who you are and what you have in your heart. I don't like superficiality at all.
I mean, who does? It’s horrible.
Yeah, but there’s so much going on!
Speaking of superficiality and music becoming a big business, what do you think is the biggest challenge for students now? Things seem to be getting more and more competitive. I know. It’s really tough and actually quite sad. But I believe it’s can snap back at some point. Actually, I believe it’s snapping back now. I wish the wonderful old time will come back that individuals support individuals just because he or she likes the performer's art. Not because he or she has glamorous career or because of what others say.
It’s this pressure to follow the crowd.
I hope people realize the individuality and appreciate it. You don't need to be one of many.
And I really think it’s the wrong approach that young pianists think that winning competitions is the goal. It’s just a passing point! Music is much deeper, beyond that. But in reality, unless you win, you don’t get concert opportunities. It’s really tough.
What do you tell your students when they’re so fixated on winning?
I just tell them what I believe. If you don’t love what you do, you’re not going to make it. Even if you win a competition, if you don’t love it…
You’re going to burn out.
Exactly. But it’s very difficult to change their minds. Especially mothers.
Hah! Do you think it’s because there’s this pressure to be perfect? I was talking to your husband about that New York Times article (“Virtuosos Becoming a Dime a Dozen”-Tommasini, August 12, 2011), which makes it seem like pianists are becoming like athletes in seeking perfection. But because of that, they’re becoming homogenous in sound. What do you think?
Yeah, yeah. And everyone wants to be rated, because it’s easier to understand. That’s what’s going on the concerts too. If the New York Times says good, and critics say its good, then it should be good. I should say it’s good, rather than say I like it.
That’s so true. Our culture’s problem is that we have the fear of making our own opinions about art – we need someone to tell us what we like.
Exactly. And that’s the problem with rating. If you have a number, like he won first, I won second, then he should be better than me.
Doesn’t work that way. Often 3rd or 2nd is more interesting.
Often the people who don’t even make the first round are much more interesting musicians.
Also, juries are getting more like – “oh, he made less wrong notes, so he should be better”. People don’t seem to have their own taste anymore. Everyone feels insecure. If you listen to old recordings, like Horowitz, or Cortot, they’re so eccentric. Everyone has their own taste, their own style. We shouldn't be thinking if it will be accepted or not!
At least he has a point of view.
Right. Everyone is so individual. That’s why it’s great. I really hope that’s what’s going to happen now. I try to teach like that too – that you have to be a personality. Like, we’re different, and that’s what makes it great. It’s not like sports, it’s not like running a hundred meters. But it’s difficult.
Well, you have to find a good point of compromise. I mean, you have to still keep trying to do competitions, but not to take the result as your final statement. But it’s tough. Especially when you’re young and vulnerable and a sensitive musician. If you feel that denial? (shakes head) All the sensitive ones suffer.
But as a teacher, I think I can help that way too. To offer that sort of psychological support. That’s what I got from my husband. That was what very different about him. He loves individuality. He never teaches students in a format. He sees through your personality right on, and lets you bloom. It’s so amazing. When I heard his lesson the first time that’s what really got me and made me really want to study with him.
I mean, I’m lucky that I had very good teachers in Tokyo, but my husband was very different. I had this feeling that I could be myself, that I was important. I’m trying to do it that way in my teaching, rather than “you should do this, you should do that.”
Do you find yourself so invested in your students that you don’t have time to think of or take care of yourself?
Very much! (Laughs). Very. I have this tendency of really getting into my students.
Kind of mothering?
Yeah. I mean, I try to detach myself after hours, but its tough you know? Because I’m thinking about repertoire, thinking about what I can do with them, etc. But I enjoy it.
They say that’s the problem with being a psychiatrist, that it’s so hard to distance themselves from their patients at the end of the day.
Oh I’m sure! Listening to problems all day long. But my husband – (laughs self-consciously) – I guess I must be in love, huh? But he’s great at knowing when to close the shutters at the end of the day.
I mean, a lot of my students come to me with their own personal problems, and I try to help because I think that’s part of it too. I mean, you have to be mentally healthy in order to produce in music, and I want to take care of that part too, but it’s the same thing. I get too influenced –
It often seems that the most talented people are the most troubled. I mean, if you had to choose between a troubled talent or an untroubled one, which would you choose?
I don’t know – I tend to go towards people who need care. I mean, if I have someone that I can give to, and they need it, then I will choose them over someone who doesn’t need me. Probably I would be the person who goes into the puppy adoption place and picks the most sickly one.
That’s such a great human quality!
Unfortunately, I have to stop now, but thank you so much! I really enjoying talking to you!