Celebrated for her energy, precision, and technique, pianist Xenia Pestova is an unforgettable performer of contemporary music. She is committed to promoting music by living composers such as Arlene Sierra and Ed Bennett, and her acclaimed recordings for the Naxos and Innova labels have helped gain recognition for innovative composers. On stage she shakes up audience expectations on instruments like the toy piano. A dual citizen of New Zealand and Canada, she earned a Doctorate in Music from McGill University in Montreal and is now the Director of Performance at the University of Nottingham. We spoke with Xenia to find out how she has integrated the Seaboard GRAND into her performances and teaching.
What are you working on today?
I’m preparing for some really cool concerts, each involving several different keyboard instruments. I have a show at Cafe Oto in London, two concerts with Canadian tabla player Shawn Mativetsky, a short cameo for BBC Radio 3 and the Non-Piano project at Iklectik Art Lab, where I will be exploring a range of expressive devices involving non-standard keyboard instruments.
You are a pianist who’s known for playing “non-pianos” such as toy pianos. What draws you to look beyond the traditional piano?
As pianists we are in a very sad situation. We can’t carry our instruments on our backs, and we’re very dependent on whatever we can get in the venues where we perform. What happens if there is no piano? Do we strike a potentially interesting performance space off our list? I think that it can be incredibly useful for pianists to play other keyboard instruments. I’ve always been curious about sound production and how sound is perceived, and we can learn so much about different ways of working with sound and technique from playing different instruments. The toy piano is also a way to escape conventional expectations. It allows me to break the ice with the audience and establish a lighter, more humorous atmosphere when I perform.
You’ve performed in some unusual settings. Is there a particular concert experience that sticks out for you?
One of my favorite (and strangest) experiences to date is playing in a beautiful underground cave system in rural Ontario, Canada. There were a few sleeping bats hanging around, but they were not disturbed by the music: they just slept on. It was a very peaceful environment with beautiful acoustics and unusual shapes and surfaces.
How has the Seaboard influenced your performances and collaborations?
The Seaboard has challenged me! It would be more intuitive for a string player to learn to play the Seaboard than for a pianist: the way it feels is just so, so different. I look forward to getting to know the instrument better, and there is an exciting potential collaboration looming for 2018 with a composer based in Dublin.
How do you like to collaborate with composers on new pieces?
Collaboration is very important. Composers and performers need to be in constant dialogue on the creation of new pieces in order to have a sustainable body of work. It feels amazing to be able to take part in something new that will live on and eventually be performed by other musicians.
Watch Xenia perform "Gothic" by Ed Bennett on piano:
Which skills do you think musicians need to develop to take advantage of new technologies?
There is a wonderful concept by Alex Pang, who coined the term “contemplative computing.” Pang encourages us to develop mindful connections with technology so that it can extend our bodies and our capabilities instead of creating more work and distraction. This applies perfectly to music-making with technology, too: moving beyond technological gimmickry and searching for the music.
What can you say about how technology has affected the way you teach and how students learn?
We are living in a time of constant digital distraction. Everyone is on their smartphone. Taking the London Overground is like being on a train full of the living dead. Sorry guys, but that’s what you look like — I used to be one of you! My partner and I recently switched to “dumb” phones and paper diaries in an effort to control our interactions with technology: we try to engage with social media and email when we choose to, and have a conversation, read a book or just relax during our commutes and in our free time.
The way people learn has also changed enormously in the last decade because of exposure to instant gratification that comes with certain technologies. We have no way to comprehend the full impact of the rapid changes just yet. In music, new technologies can be very useful. Students can absorb this new information very quickly. But there is still a disconnect between the readiness to embrace new approaches — this includes contemporary music, not just new music technology — and a resistance that comes from the more traditional, older generation of educators.
Introducing the Seaboard to the classroom helps students think about working with new interfaces and new technologies. It encourages creative thinking. I’ve brought the Seaboard into a course I teach called “Creativity and Collaboration for Professional Musicians.” It introduces students to the ideas of flexibility and versatility that are so important for working musicians today — and so different from how classical musicians were trained in the past.
I ask my students to interact with the Seaboard. The questions we discuss include the range of sounds and the physical experience of the instrument. The students are very surprised by the look and feel of the keys. I think this experience is very important to young musicians. It encourages them to think about how they can make music even on instruments that they are not familiar with.
A few Seaboard teaching tips:
1) Don’t assume it’s a piano. The continuous surface and raised keys mean very different hand movements and fingerings. It also requires a new “geography” of hand movements. There is no playing “between” black keys as on the piano, which means some clever solutions are required for legato playing and wider intervals — for example in arpeggio configurations.
2) Ergonomics and relaxation are important. Prolonged periods of work with the instrument can be tiring for the arms, so make sure the keyboard height is properly adjusted to the individual and take regular breaks!
3) If working with pitched material, tuning can be difficult at first and requires special exercises. Try very slow scales.