In the early nineties, Martin T:son Engstroem (MGBH) had an ambitious idea to create a summer festival in the heart of the Swiss Alps, far from the major cities where most festivals take place. Verbier had the intimate atmosphere he felt was necessary to encourage musical excellence, and at the same time be open to the world. He imagined a festival with a resident youth orchestra and an academy where renowned artists would teach the next generation and audiences would have a wide choice of activities from early morning until late at night. In 1994, his vision became a reality.* Today, in 2017, it is much more than that – it is one of the hottest events for the who-is-who in the world of classical music.
Piano Performer Magazine (PPM): What does it take to start a festival? Martin T:son Engstroem (ME) : Starting a festival is very much learning as you go. There is no profession that prepares you for it. You have to know psychology, finances, organization, languages, music, and fund-raising – a little of bit of everything. And then you’ll need a big chunk of persistence. In addition, you have to believe in what you do. The first two years will probably go OK, but then it’s all about stamina.
PPM: Prior to organizing the Festival, you were a talent agent. Who are some of the artists who worked with? ME: I worked with Germinal Hilbert in Paris from 1975 – 1987. I also worked with such artists, pretty much from the beginning of their career, as Giuseppe Sinopoli, Han-Na Chang, Kirill Troussov, Jonathan Gilad, Ilya Gringolts, Barbara Hendricks, Neil Shicoff, Jessye Norman, and Gino Quilico, to name a few.
Talent is God-given, but succeeding in life depends on what you do with it. The one who makes it has an equal part of talent, discipline, and luck.
PPM: What is your secret formula in discovering talent? ME: Trusting my intuition. There are thousands of young talented musicians, but you look for talent PLUS personality and charisma. Talent is God-given, but succeeding in life depends on what you do with it. The one who makes it has an equal part of talent, discipline, and luck.
PPM: You used to work Deutsche Grammophon, didn’t you? ME: Yes, I did. From 1999 till 2003, I was a VP of Artists & Repertoire. Thereafter, for 3 years I was a Senior Executive Producer and Head of Artists Development. I signed Lang Lang, Yundi, Anna Netrebko, Esa-Pekka Salonen and many others to the company. I was also instrumental in the signing of Yuja Wang, Daniil Trifonov, and Gregory Sokolov. Although I am presently not on their payroll, we still work very closely together.
PPM: So, having worked in the industry did help in attracting talent to your festival? ME: Yes. Prior to starting the Festival, I already had a pretty important address book. I invited one of my best friends – Avi Shoshani (Secretary General of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra) to join me, and together we covered most of the artists we wanted to come to our first event.
PPM: Under what circumstances did you meet Evgeny Kissin, and how did you convince him to be part of the Festival? ME: It was Avi who brought Zhenya to Verbier. He loved it from the very first year and has been back 19 times (out of 24 Festivals).
PM: Who handles talent at Verbier? ME: I myself am responsible for all the artists performing at the Verbier Festival. I also work closely with the artists in putting together the programs.
The atmosphere at the Verbier Festival is very warm, and we welcome music lovers with open arms.
PPM: What types of sessions take place at the Verbier? ME: Every day we have 4 paying concerts, 3 free student concerts, plus another 20 free events including open rehearsals, Master Classes, “meet the artists” talks, etc. The atmosphere at the Verbier Festival is very warm, and we welcome music lovers with open arms.
PPM: Who are the typical attendees of the Verbier Festival? ME: Our audience is very eclectic. The sheer fact that we are in the mountains and in a tent eliminates those who just want to dress up and show off their latest jewels. Our audience is younger than that of most classical music institutions. Our festival attracts the locals who would normally never go down the valley to see a classical music concert.
PPM: How did the idea of the Academy come along? ME: Through working with my artist friends and challenging them to new collaborations. Since its inception, the academic part has grown enormously, and we now have 300 music students between the ages of 13 and 30 studying between 3-5 weeks each summer pending the course they have chosen.
PPM: How closely do you work with the Music Director of the Festival Orchestra? What decisions are you involved in? ME: I have worked extremely closely with both James Levine and Charles Dutoit. Creating the right programs for our young orchestra musicians is key to its success. You need to schedule challenging repertoire – not only technically, but stylistically and musically as well. Maestro Dutoit has given “Master-Classes” in French repertoire having conducted Pelleas, Damnation, which will stay forever with these young incredible talented musicians and give them a base of how to interpret French music.
PPM: Where do the Festival volunteers come from? ME: Lausanne Hotel School, music students, children of our public or children of our musicians.
PPM: You studied Russian at the University. Why? ME: I have always been fascinated by the Russian culture – writers, painters, composers, and musicians. That culture has accompanied me since I was a young kid. I starting traveling to the Soviet Union from the age of 16 and still go back 3-4 times a year. My spoken Russian today is not very good, although I can get around.
PPM: What character traits does a person have to possess for you to be comfortable to do business with him or her? ME: As a person, I am pretty open and curious. If I like someone, I will be his best friend, but I f I don’t trust someone or feel that he is not truthful – that person has lost me.
The crazier the world becomes the more we need things that speak to our senses.
PPM: In your opinion, what does classical music give to the world and where is its place in the future? ME: Classical music makes peoples lives richer. Music, Theater, and Literature are there to make us more complete and more harmonious as human beings. As parents, we owe it to ourselves to challenge our children to reach further and give “culture” a chance. They might not like it at that moment, which is OK, but they will appreciate the gesture later in their lives and, perhaps, will come back to it. The crazier the world becomes the more we need things that speak to our senses.
When I found Oleg’s (MGBH) performance videos on such shows as Ukraine’s Got Talent, The Minute of Fame, and Britain’s Got Talent, I experienced mixed feelings. The intellectual classical snob in me wanted to say, “Oh, no!”, but in my heart I truly rejoiced as I watched his performances. I also thought to myself, especially after the comment of one of the judges who criticized him so harshly at The Minute of Fame, “Here we are, whispering in dark corners about the demise of classical music and how a young generation is not so interested in it so much as the older generations used to be, and here he is – this young, brilliant, creative musician who is offering at least a partial solution to this problem, and we are throwing stones at him. A little hypocritical…” All these thoughts inspired me to learn more about this pianist.
Piano Performer Magazine (PPM): Dear Oleg, at some point, trying to do what you did you experienced criticism from the classical piano watch dogs. They just didn’t understand what motivated you. And I am sure, some people are still raising their eyebrows and wrinkling their foreheads. Is it hard to be different? Oleg Pereverzev (OP): With my performances I wanted to show that music can also transfer information that can feed your heart and soul. I didn’t just want to come out on stage and play the well-known compositions of Chopin and Bach. There are many people doing this already. I wanted to create an exciting show where the audience could feel my soul. I wanted to affect the hearts of people not only through music, but also through special effects. And I think I was able to achieve it. I receive letters from many people around the world – some of them started listening to classical music, others started improvising. The process of communicating with my audience and connecting to it is very important to me. I constantly work on it.
I didn’t just want to come out on stage and play the well-known compositions of Chopin and Bach. I wanted to create a show….
PPM: Please, tell us about your family. Who created an environment for you to study piano? OP: My mother was a doctor, and my father was in the military. I have a sister, who became a doctor just like our mother. Everyone in our family loves music, but no one, except for me has formal music education. It was my mother who instilled love for classical music in me. She would always buy music magazines and vinyl records. Thus, I would always hear the sounds of classical piano in our house as I was growing up. Once, when I was six, I attended a concert of the legendary Svyatoslav Richter (OBM). I remember the dark music hall, complete silence, and then… music…. As a child, it made an indelible impression on me.
PPM: Please, tell us about your classical piano background. OP: I went through all the stages of formal classical music training: seven years of music school, four years of music college, five years at the Kazakh National Conservatory , and two years of post graduate training. Then I had my apprenticeship at the School of Music and Theater in Hannover, Germany with a piano duo “Genova and Dimitrov.” (MGBT)
I loved going to music school. I would come up with all kinds of stories to skip classes in my regular day school to practice piano every chance I got.
PPM: What was it like for you to be a piano student in a music school of a post-Soviet space? OP: Those were still Soviet times – 1986 through 1993. I loved going to music school. I would come up with all kinds of stories to skip classes in my regular day school to practice piano every chance I got.
PPM: How did you get an idea for your first creative performance? OP: Do you mean the video where I play two pianos at the same time? Here is the story. I created a YouTube Channel, and to attract the attention of the audience, I started thinking of what I could do that no one else had done before. That’s why I had to find a cat, had to drink coffee, and, finally, to play the most technically challenging piece “The Flight of the Bumble Bee” in Rachmaninoff’s (OBM) arrangement. And the video became tremendously popular. That year – 2011- it got 460,000 views.
PPM: Please, tell us about that moment when you looked at your piano and decided – let me try to play backwards and see what happens. OP: After the “Flight of the Bumble Bee” video I had to come up with something new. And that was the video where I play piano backwards. It was very challenging. Both my arms and my back hurt. It was very uncomfortable, but I managed to accomplish it. Two weeks later I recorded the video where I played an excerpt from the 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody by Franz Liszt (OBM).
PPM: In one of your videos you play “Fur Elise” backwards – starting from the end and ending at the beginning, which turned out pretty good, by the way. How and why did you get the idea to do that? OP: There is a joke where a student brought his own composition to an exam in a conservatory. When the student was asked whose composition it was, he answered, “I just copied the composition of my teacher backwards. That’s it.” When I was thinking of my next video, I thought of this joke, and it inspired me to take Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” and play it backwards.
PPM: You did a commercial for BeeLine, a Russian cell phone company. Is it hard playing piano in the air? What was your experience like filming it? OP: We actually shot two versions. The second one, where I am in the air, turned out to be more successful and more visually appealing. It was very scary to play piano in the air. Since I didn’t have aerial training, I kept thinking, “Oh, no. Something’s gonna happen now.” So – yes – I was very frightened.
PPM: What is your dream as a musician and an artist? OP: I wish that all people had an opportunity to be exposed to beautiful, high quality music. Today there is a lot of bad music out there, and, somehow, people allow themselves to be exposed to it. Of course, everyone has their own opinion and their own taste. However, in general, there is a lot of garbage.
Every aspect of a pianist’s work is a big job: working on your spirituality, developing business relations, giving performances.
PPM: Is it hard to earn a living as a pianist living where you are? OP: It’s hard to make money no matter which profession you choose. I doubt that all pianists lead a luxury lifestyle. Every aspect of a pianist’s work is a big job: working on your spirituality, developing business relations, giving performances. Writing your own compositions also takes an enormous amount of effort. There is a lot to accomplish. That is why it is very hard for an artist to focus on making money. A good example would be Rachmaninoff as a pianist. While he made money as a pianist, but didn’t compose anything.
PPM: Are you planning to tour some time in the future? OP: In the near future, I definitely plan to do tours. For now, I try to perform at least once a week.
PPM: Please, tell us about your CD albums. OP: My first album is called “Classics For All.” In this album, I play the most famous pieces of Bach (OBM), Mozart (OBM), Beethoven (OBM), Schumann (OBM), Schubert (OBM), Chopin (OBM), and Liszt, to name a few. There are 21 tracks in the album.
My second album called “Dudarai” is dedicated to Kazakhstan, where I was born, grew up, and received my education. Here I play Kazakh folk songs in my own arrangements as well as five of my original compositions.
My third album is still in my head. That’s what I am working on at the moment.
PPM: Besides being a pianist, you are also a composer. Please, tell us more about writing your own music. What is the process like for you? OP: When I was a student at the conservatory, I got familiar with the music of contemporary composers. They would ask me to play their music. And I was very interested in it. I started composing my own music back when I was a child, but then I stopped. At the conservatory, I felt inspired to start composing again. I would compose in the style of Chopin (OBM) and Rachmaninoff. Today I compose in a neo-classical style. One of my musical inspirations was Yiruma (MGBH), a Korean pianist and composer.
PPM: Do you have a family of your own or is music taking all of your energy right now? OP: I don’t have my own family yet, but I have my sister and my father, who both live Russia.
PPM: Who are some of your favorite composers – classical and contemporary? OP: Oh, the list is quite long. Every composer that I studied affected me in his own way. Today I can listen to Shostakovich (OBM), tomorrow – to Badalamenti (OBM), and the next day – Morricone (MGBH). I listen to a lot of music and love almost all composers. I am not talking about avante garde here – this is absolutely not for me.
PPM: What made you choose a career of a professional pianist? OP: It’s a hard question. When I was thirteen, my father asked me – what are you going to do next? I answered him, “I will continue my piano studies.” And that’s how it went.
PPM: Where do you live and how often and where do you travel? OP: I live in Alma Ati, Kazakhstan. I like it here very much out here – the nature is beautiful, the city is small. Recently, I had a chance to live in Los Angeles, CA and see what life like is out there. It was a very interesting experience. I try to travel as much as I can. In the past, I have also visited Turkey, China, Germany, and Holland.
PPM: Has a music piece ever made you cry? If so, which one? OP: Music is a reflection of feelings. One can start crying hearing Beethoven’s (OBM) Moonlight Sonata, for example. It’s about what it’s in your heart. And if the music touches your heart, it will make you cry. I enjoy music videos. If the visual component matches the music – it’s genius.
Today’s time is characterized by demise in many spheres of society – music, economy, politics … And, certainly, it is not a good thing. However, the cycles are such that there will always be a peak and demise. And it is through these cycles that humanity evolves.
PPM: Why do you think young people are not so interested in classical music as the older generations? OP: In my opinion, music was at its peak in the 19th and 20th century. Today’s time is characterized by demise in many spheres of society – music, economy, politics … And, certainly, it is not a good thing. However, the cycles are such that there will always be a peak and demise. And it is through these cycles that humanity evolves.
PPM: Where do you draw your inspiration from? OP: … from nature walks, travelling…. For a musician it is very important to travel. Sometimes it happens that a melody comes to me in my dream. I try to remember it and write it down afterwards.
PPM: Are you planning to perform in the US in the near future? OP: Once I performed in Glendale, CA where I played my music as well as the music of other composers in my original arrangements. I would definitely love to perform in many different cities and music halls. I very much enjoy doing it and am open to invitations.
PPM: Tell us, please, about the piano duo “Vivat.” OP: My friend and I decided to form a piano duo. We started working and sent an application to the Taneyev (OBM) Chamber Music Competition in Moscow. We got accepted and won 3rd prize among the piano duos. This competition was very important to us – we worked very hard and, as a result, reaped the fruits of our labor. During the same competition, one of my compositions “Kazakh Rhapsody” was awarded a Tchaikovsky prize. My friend and I performed together a lot. I created many piano arrangements for our duo.
PPM: Do you have an agent or a manager? OP: I have an administrator, who helps me handle all my performances.
PPM: What is your favorite Kazakh food? OP: I love pilaf. There is a folk saying: How many kinds of pilaf are there? As many as there are towns in the Middle East.
PPM: What’s your plan for the next 5 years? OP: To find new ways in wowing my audience.
PPM: Thank you, Oleg. We are looking forward to be wowed! OP: My pleasure.
Enjoyed the interview? Please, consider donating a small amount to the author to express your appreciation.
Please, consider donating a small amount to the author to express your appreciation.
Motivation, from the Latin movere meaning to move, is the fuel that starts, stops, directs, and sustains human behavior. It creates a desire to persist beyond the boundaries of comfort, to overcome obstacles, and to achieve beyond our own, and others’, highest expectations. Motivation is the pre-cursor to music practice. Motivation gets results. It is, therefore, an overarching concern for pianists and teachers.
In general terms, motivation is categorized as either intrinsic or extrinsic. When we enjoy an activity for what it is and for the pleasure it brings, we are self-motivated, or intrinsically motivated. The reward for doing the activity comes from the activity itself. With extrinsic motivation, the reward is an external benefit from doing the activity. We observe intrinsic motivation when students engage in activities alone, when they choose to participate in activities without external pressure, and when they engage in activities in the absence of the promise of or opportunity for external reward. It is not only the choice to engage in activity that defines intrinsic motivation, but also the quality of that involvement. Does the student attend to difficult passages thoroughly or just go through the motions? Trying hard and spending extra time on a task are examples of intensity and persistence. These are hallmarks of an intrinsically motivated student.
External motivation tends to be transient in that students are likely to lose their motivation when the prospect of external reward disappears.
Extrinsic motivation is entrenched in systems of education. External rewards – including gold stars, stickers and grades – are both material and verbal and presented with the hope that students will be encouraged to learn. In his massive body of research, John Hattie (2009) found “praise, punishment and extrinsic rewards are the most ineffective forms of feedback for enhancing achievement.” External motivation tends to be transient in that students are likely to lose their motivation when the prospect of external reward disappears. Extrinsic performance goals and intrinsic learning goals are different. Getting an A in music is an extrinsically motivated performance goal, whereas becoming a better musician is a learning goal. This is one of the drawbacks of grading systems. Students are interested in achieving good grades, but become less interested in learning because of being graded. When students focus on grades they do the work that is necessary to get that grade, but rarely more. When told that work will be graded, students are less likely to enjoy the task and less likely to return to that material after the test. In comparison to learning goals, outcomes from performance goals are shallow and limited.
Intrinsic motivation is strongly linked with higher quality learning. Studies find that intrinsically motivated students are less easily distracted, take more initiative, and persist at tasks for longer.
Intrinsic interest sustains motivation. We are born curious, with a natural desire to seek out novelty and challenge, to exercise our abilities and to explore. Have you ever seen an infant who was not curious and self-directed? However, extrinsic rewards can deliver short-term boosts. They can serve as a last resort to kindle a desired behavior or as a symbol of competence and belonging, but the effect wears off and can reduce longer-term motivation. Intrinsic motivation is strongly linked with higher quality learning. Studies find that intrinsically motivated students are less easily distracted, take more initiative, and persist at tasks for longer. Therefore, a central mission for piano teachers and parents is to influence how children motivate themselves. Only then will children freely apply the effort required to reach greater heights. To foster intrinsic motivation in the music studio requires attention to three innate human needs: the need to belong, the need to feel competent, and the need to direct one’s own actions.
Autonomy refers to actions chosen and endorsed by self. The key here is choice. Increasing students’ options and choices is more likely to foster intrinsic motivation and subsequent effort. As early and as often as possible, teachers should give students some control of their learning. Choice might be as simple as involving students in selecting repertoire, but teachers must discern when allowing choice is wise. Permitting a student to decide which music fits the requirements for their technical and aesthetic progression is not prudent, but a teacher-selected assortment of several pieces that fulfill the criteria allows students to then choose a piece they like. Choice can be offered in the context of tasks and task order (“which piece would you like to start with”) as well as learning goals (“would you like to aim to improve sight-reading, playing by ear or playing from memory?”).
Positive teacher–student relationships profoundly influence student motivation and learning. School attendance, attitude, emotional engagement, and general academic achievement – all improve when students perceive acceptance, support, and encouragement from teachers.
Positive teacher–student relationships profoundly influence student motivation and learning. School attendance, attitude, emotional engagement, and general academic achievement – all improve when students perceive acceptance, support, and encouragement from teachers. Students need to think that teachers like, respect, value, and care about them. When students connect with and respect their teacher, they are more likely to subscribe to the values and practices of that teacher. If the student does not like the teacher, very often they will not do well in that subject.
“They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care, ” (Theodore Roosevelt)
An increasing level of competence, or progress, is a great motivator. One must believe in his or her capacity to accomplish a task. Even if students have healthy self-esteem, are interested in the learning content, and believe it to be important, they will not fully engage if they believe the task is beyond them. Hence the number one reason people quit music? Lack of progress and lack of competence.
“I’m not getting any better.”
“I’m no good at this.”
“I just can’t do it.”
Children use words like “boring” to protect their self-image, ego, and lack of effort.
Students need the tools for making musical progress. A practice system that incorporates repetition, chunking and slow physical movement, when done on a regular basis over time, will deliver progress.
When students quit music, they give reasons like “it was boring, I can’t be bothered”, or “it’s stupid.” The challenge to play music is not boring; if anything, there is too much for the mind to pay attention to when working through a musical challenge, not too little. Children use words like “boring” to protect their self-image, ego, and lack of effort. Devaluing an activity allows one to quit without the embarrassment of failing. Kristin Neff puts it well:
“One way to increase self-esteem is to value the things we are good at and devalue the things we are bad at. The problem here is that we may undercut the importance of learning valuable skills just because it makes us feel better about ourselves. In other words, our desire to achieve high self-esteem in the short term may harm our development in the long run.” (Neff 2011, p. 138)
The real reason for quitting is fragile competence beliefs. And this points to a lack of practice. Progress cultivates pride, enthusiasm, and perseverance.
Hattie, J. 2009. Visible Learning for Teachers. New York & London: Routledge.
Victor Borge (OBM) used to bill himself as an “unmelancholy Dane,” a description that modestly understates the laughter and joy this pianist – turned comedian has brought to millions around the world. If his father who played violin in the Royal Danish Symphony, hoped for a son to follow in his musical footsteps, this son was not one to follow the footsteps of anyone’s footsteps. Long before he fled the Nazi occupation of his homeland, Victor Borge found the magic and the fortune to be made from combining the talent for music with a facile wit and the sense of the absurd. And as if to prove that every Dane has at least two sides to his character, he found time between world tours, one man shows, command performances and television specials, to start, of all things, a highly successful business, marketing frozen cornish hens.
James Day (JD): Mr. Borge, I would like to ask you about your one-man show, which you performed before all kinds of audiences, all over the world. You performed before royalty, before heads of state. I want to ask you to imagine what you think it might be like if you performed your one-man show for a very select audience made up of Bach (OBM), Beethoven (OBM), Tchaikovsky (OBM), Brahms(OBM), Mozart (OBM), even throw Debussy (OBM) in there. How do you think they’d receive your show? Victor Borge (VB): Sitting down, I guess, first (laughing). And I think I could compare it with an audience or some people that have had an audience. For instance, when I had a luncheon performance for the New York Philharmonics some years ago when Bruno Walter (OBM) and Metropolis and all the leading musicians in the world, you name them – they were there – and sat with napkins in front of their faces, not because they wanted to hide themselves, but I think it was from laughter. I think the composers would have done the same, because when I perform, for instance, with symphony orchestras, which I do very often, I conduct the evening, and then in-between I would do some of my piano things. And of, course, they are the first to grasp the humor, the depth of humor in it, and there are often times when they’d break the instruments.
JD: They do? VB: Yes. Not deliberately, I guess. This is my best audience.
JD: Well, they were clever men of humor, were they not? VB: Of course. Some of them.
JD: Which one would you chose to perform before if you had that selection to make? Which one do you think would be the most appreciative? VB: That I don’t know. Because what I would do, I would, of course, not ridicule a particular person. And I don’t ridicule, I just have fun with. For instance, when I play with a symphony orchestra, I never use the orchestra as a scapegoat or as a gimmick. I do it with them and for them. And the same with the composer.
I have a young singer who has been now with me for a couple of years. And we do some travesty, you know, on opera singing and accompanying. And I do things that are normally being done, but I may underline then a little more.
The same when you do an opera parody. What do you do if it’s not funny to see a 250 lb primadonna who is supposed to be 17 or 18 years old?
If people knew what takes place in the minds of the musicians when they perform, I think it would enlighten them quite a lot, and I think it would justify many of the things I do.
JD: It’s almost the way of looking at it. Something that we all see, but we blind ourselves to the humor sometimes, because we are expected to take it quite seriously. VB: Of course. If people only knew what’s been said by, for instance, singers during an opera, during the most dramatic scene, what they whisper to each. If people knew what takes place in the minds of the musicians when they perform, I think it would enlighten them quite a lot, and I think it would justify many of the things I do.
JD: I talked with one distinguished musician, and I asked him what was on his mind when he played. He told me it was sheer concentration upon the music, which it required. There are some musicians, where, apparently, this is not always the case. VB: Well, there are certainly musicians who concentrate on it get frightened…
One of the things that ruined my career as a concert pianist, so to speak, was fright.
JD: Frightened? VB: Yes, they get frightened. One of the things that ruined my career as a concert pianist, so to speak, was fright. Because if I would concentrate on what comes next or does that cadenza begin with the C# or with something else, it would drive me out of my mind. And I couldn’t go through with these things. I did it for a while, but I thought, “If this is going to be in my future…” And I know, you know very well also, that some of the great pianists of our time like Horowitz have gone through hell sometimes before a concert. And they don’t want to perform. And I think that it’s terrible that people have to perform, and nervousness or circumstances takes away maybe 30 or 40 percent of their ability. I think it doesn’t make much sense.
JD: What do you do about nervousness or are you without nervousness? VB: No, I am terribly nervous, of course.
JD: Before you go on to one of your own performances? VB: Depending, of course, on what kind of performance I do. If I play, for instance, when I play with an orchestra, which I often do when I conduct it from the piano, when we do Gershwin, maybe, the concerto in F or when we do some special arrangement, I am terribly nervous.
JD: … and nothing I can do about it. VB: …and there is nothing you can do about it. Well, there is nothing I can do about it. May there there is something you can do about it (laughing)?
JD: You began to play piano at the age of 4 or 5 in Copenhagen. VB: Yes, whenever I could reach the keyboard (smiling).
JD: Were you ever encouraged or forced to play the piano? You father was a musician. VB: No, I was forced not to. By the neighbors.
JD: Your father was in the Royal Symphony, was he not? VB: Yes, he was there for 33 years.
JD: As a violinist… VB: Yes. I think he played viola.
JD: Oh, did he? VB: Yes.
JD: Why did you take up the piano? VB: Because my father used the violin all the time (laughing).
JD: I guess it’s a good enough reason. VB: I told you, he was there for 33 years. As the matter of fact, we never recognized him when he came home.
JD: You did become a concert pianist, as you’ve said. And played for how many years? VB: Until now (laughing)… Oh, concert? Oh, I don’t know.
JD: You were a child prodigy… VB: I was a child prodigy. Yes. I am not that any longer.
JD: I see. It must be something of a handicap to be a child prodigy. VB: Yes, particularly when you aren’t any more. It has its advantages, of course. But it also has its disadvantages. The advantages are that you are featured, but you do not accept it while that happens, because you don’t know the difference. It’s only afterwards, when you are not featured any more, it becomes more difficult. But I changed from… in other words, when I was going to make my own life and support myself, I had pupils, I was supposed to be a very good teacher.
If somebody does something terribly serious, then it is hilariously funny.
JD: Absolutely straight, too (smiling). VB: Oh, yes. You see, the funny thing about humor is that it is very serious. The only thing that is funny is when it’s not humorous, because then it becomes funny, you see. Humor itself is not funny. It is the seriousness that makes humor. I mean, a very serious situation: one of the standard things – a person falls on the banana peel, for instance. That is darn serious, isn’t it? But you can’t help laughing if you see it on the stage if somebody does it. If somebody does something terribly serious, then it is hilariously funny. In order words, if I come in on the stage, and I am going to play the beginning of Tchaikovsky piano concerto, and I am sitting on a bench – a piano bench. Normally a pianist sits on a porcelain bench or a stool that can elevate him. Now, I ‘ve seen this happen, and I am doing it myself. I don’t do it any more, because I hurt my arm doing it, but I used to do it. Now, this pianist came in and sat on a polished wooden bench. He was used to the leather bench that would not make him scoot. And he did the first chords of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto – boom, boom, boom – and he slid right off the bench. Now, this is serious! But when I do it – ha, ha, ha – it’s hilariously funny. But it was done, actually.
JD: Well, I doubt the people laughed when he did it. VB: Oh, no, they were shocked, of course. But when I do it, I don’t think they are shocked.
… there is not situation that can be serious enough not to have a glimpse of humor in it.
JD: It’s partly what you expect, isn’t it? VB: … But you see, you have to do it …. Don’t we have a lot of things with people with silk hats and funerals and in vaudeville… the funeral attendance, you know? The sketches… The more serious it is, the more humor there is to be found in it. Death in itself is, of course, not particularly funny, but there is not situation that can be serious enough not to have a glimpse of humor in it. Because I consider humor to be between the… I am not prepared to say these things, so I am stuttering a little bit, but it’s quite an interesting subject – a man’s inefficiency. No man is perfect. Can we agree with that?
JD: Absolutely. VB: The difference between where we stop imperfection is where humor sets in. In other words, if some man, some person is 70% perfect, 90-92% perfect, the gap in-between is where hilarity begins.
JD: I wanted to take you back to Copenhagen. I wonder when the hilarity set with you. VB: When I was born.
JD: Of course, but there was some point in your career, and different stories are written. You winked at some ladies in the front row at the audience doing a serious concert or something. Now, I suspect these stories were apocryphal, but there was a point when you switched from serious music to serious music with humor, there wasn’t? What was the gap? VB: No, I didn’t switch. It happened very slowly. You know just like you build a road or you build a highway. Anything we do, nothing is suddenly.
JD: It didn’t happen in one day. VB: It couldn’t. Of course, it couldn’t. But I think it is a matter of chemistry. I think I was created like anybody else but with a musical ability and a sense of humor, which is a chemistry of which I consist, partly.
JD: That came with the equipment. VB: That came with the equipment, yes. (smiling). That’s what happened. And these two things are finally got together you know and become…
JD: … and you became the leading comedian in Denmark. VB: Well, when you ask me “Who is your favorite composer?” I will not do that. Or if you ask me “Who is your favorite actor?” I will never tell you that. Because I might hurt somebody who is just as favorite, therefore, I cannot answer that question.
JD: I am sorry, I didn’t put it as a question. VB: I know. But I could give you an answer to it even if it wasn’t a question.
JD: I see. But in your comedy in Denmark, I am told, I read that you did make fun of the Nazis, which were a threat at that point to Denmark, to all of Europe. VB: What may I refer to what I have said before – the more serious the situation, the more it calls for humor and the more it hits. The more there is to it. Humor is a medium. You cannot create humor. Humor is a medium, with which you can create situations. Humor is to the humorist what a brush is to the painter, and what a pen is to the poet or the composer. You create with humor. Now, depending, of course, upon the degree of artistry there is in the humor as it depends upon the degree of artistry there is in a composer or in a painter, they can be better or they can be less good… but humor can devastate. I think it’s been used many times in politics – Winston Churchill (OBM), Roosevelt (OBM). You can avoid wars, you can create wars, all depending how it’s being used and with what strength and with what intention, you see…
I remember, for instance, my father was being buried. My father was 62 when I was born. He actually jumped a generation. He should have waited, but I guess he couldn’t (smiling). He lived to be 85, and my mother was very much in love with him. And at the funeral I stood and held my mother’s arm. Some colleagues from the Royal Orchestra were carrying the casket. They had played some quartets of Tchaikovsky. And my mother was, of course, completely gone. Some of the colleagues of my father were standing next to the casket. And some of them looked terribly funny. There was a little fellow – an oboist – who had his silk hat on that was much too small – a little fat man. There was a terribly tall man who played the bassoon who had a hat that was much too big for him; and it went way down on his head. And that sight was so hilarious. And I said to my mother, “If father could open his eyes and see this, he would have died laughing anyway.” And my mother started laughing.
JD: Was your father a man who really enjoyed humor? VB: Oh, yes. He was very witty. And you talked about the Nazis. You cannot fight a situation like that with words. You must have more than just words, because you can’t do it scientifically. You have to have something that goes deeper than words. And that is, I think, humor. Humor is one of the things that can create things in a man or in a woman, in a person, like nothing else. It’s like tickling somebody. I remember once in Denmark we had a problem – we had a tax issue… They wouldn’t accept a regular 10% tax for my performances when I finally went to the stage and did theatrical performances, because they said it was variety or something like that. Concerts were 10%. If I played concerts, they were 10%, but if it were theatrical things like I do now, it would be 20%. And I went to court with it, and I insisted that all I did was exactly the same thing: when I played piano, I would touch some muscles in you or some feelings in you that would make you either cry or feel good or feel bad or resent it. And when I talked, I would do the same thing, but probably activate other muscles or other things in your body. And why should one be 20% and the other should be only 10%, which I thought was unfair? And I won the case. I had to pay 20% for both (laughing). No, I won the case, of course.
JD: The Nazi invasion of Denmark was what brought you to America, drove you to America, I suppose. But you did make your choice to come to New York. You’ve referred to it as the day you were born. VB: The day I was re-born. Yes.
JD: Why did you choose America? VB: I didn’t, but the ship went here, and I didn’t have influence (laughing). As a matter of fact, if I did have influence, I would still come to America for two reasons. Where else could you go at that time? And that was the country, to which I had my tickets. And I was fortunate, of course.
JD: I see. But earning a living here was a bit difficult at the beginning, wasn’t it? VB: It is always a difficult thing. It was impossible because I couldn’t speak the language, and nobody knew me.
And he said, “What do you do?” I said, as well as I could say, “Well, I play the piano.”
JD: As a performer this would be difficult unless you would play the piano, of course. VB: Yes, but where? You don’t go around just playing the piano. You have to know somebody. I remember somebody told me to go down to Florida to Palm Beach maybe to get involved with some of the big balls and parties there, you know, I could entertain and play, but, of course, I wouldn’t talk – I couldn’t say a word. And they sent me to a local agent. And he said, “What do you do?” I said, as well as I could say, “Well, I play the piano.” And he was going to get me a job at one of the big festivals. He said, “What do you play? I said, “I play the piano.” He said, “If somebody said, for instance, “Play the Blue Danube, what would you do?” I said, “I would play the Blue Danube, of course.” And he said, “Ok, let me hear it.” And I said, “Ok, do you have some music?” And he brought me some music, and I played it upside down. And then I turned the page around and I said, “I am sorry,” and I did it the regular way. He threw me out of the office.
JD: He did? Didn’t appreciate it. VB: No. He said, “You can’t even read music.” (laughing)
JD: Your first break came at Bing Crosby, I gather. VB: Yes.
JD: Did you really chauffer a family out West to get out West? VB: Yes. It was some friends of mine who had a daughter who was going to get married in San Francisco and would like to have a car out there. And that was my chance to come to the West Coast, where Hollywood, of course, loomed. And having made movies, I thought, when I get out there… just wait till I get out there. I am still waiting.
JD: You only made one movie, as the matter of fact. VB: Yes, that wasn’t a movie. That was a catastrophe.
JD: It was. VB: That was called “Higher and Higher.” I played Sir Victor Fitzroy Victor, an English nobleman. I could hardly speak English.
JD: How did you learn to speak English? VB: I didn’t (laughing).
JD: It’s been a real asset, hasn’t it? VB: Yes. I am still trying.
JD: I asked that as I am sure you know because the research material on you indicates that when you went to movies when you first landed in New York. Is that so? VB: Yes, I went to 42nd street where, I think, for 50 cents one could see three movies, and you could sit there for 24 hours if you wanted to. And I sat sometimes for almost 24 hours, because it repeated, and I could see the action with the words, and I would memorize the words and say them with the actors. And nobody would be disturbed, because there would be hardly anybody else in the theater. And that was… I don’t think I learned to actually speak English, but it helped a lot.
JD: You must have learned a lot of other things as well. VB: I sure did.
JD: Were they useful? VB: Well, I tried some. For instance, once I would pass a pretty girl on the street, and I said, “Hi, Babe!” She must have seen the same movie, because she said, “Scram bum!” or something like that.
It’s a great satisfaction to know that somebody wants more of whatever you have to offer.
JD: I’ve heard that you are a perfectionist. That you really only feel well when you know that you’ve done extremely well, and you get depressed when you don’t feel that you’ve done your best. Is that so? VB: No, it is not exactly so. I don’t see it’s a matter of feeling that you have done your best because, once you do that then there is nothing left over. There should be something left over. That doesn’t mean that you would try to do what the situation calls for, but I think that if one has done one’s best, one has finished somehow, you know. It might be a little deep. I have never been completely satisfied with anything I have done, in spite of the fact that I have been encouraged. For instance, I have never improvised to the extent where I have said to myself, “This was marvelous.” But I have said, “This was nice, but had I only done such and such, it would have been…” You know, I always have that little thing left over. And I also have a feeling, for instance, a very gratifying feeling, when I finish the performance, and some of the people come afterwards or later they say, “I wish you had played some more…” or “I wish it had lasted longer.” It’s a great satisfaction to know that somebody wants more of whatever you have to offer. And granted that some people would probably say, “We didn’t want any of it,” but that’s their own fault – you shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
But it is like driving an automobile. I can drive 140 miles. Good to know, but you don’t drive 140 miles. You have that excess, you have a little extra. And it’s good to know that you could possibly do a little better next time. Or there is something that could always be improved. I am very sensitive with letters, for instance. I often take much too much time to write a good letter. I am very fond of good letters. Because I think that the way we express ourselves in a letter mirrors ourselves, many things that, otherwise, don’t come to the fore. But in a letter, many people contradict themselves, actually. You know what they mean. For instance, like the letter from a lady who said to me she had such a marvelous time at the show and that she hadn’t laughed so hard since her husband died. Now, of course, we know….
I am very critical, particularly with myself, but I forgive easily.
JD: But you know what she meant… VB: Of course, I know what she meant. And that was very sweet…
JD: But saying precisely what you do means a great satisfaction. VB: Exactly. And when I read the letter all over again, and I finally sign it, I say, “This I could have said a little better.” In other words, I am very critical, particularly with myself, but I forgive easily.
JD: Thank you very much, Mr. Borge.
Interview Transcribed and Adapted for Publication by Alex Davydovich (MGBH)