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The oldest music school in Addis Ababa, Yared Music School, played host to a renowned pianist by the name of Mary Vermeulin. On Wednesday October 19th she gave a concert to an audience of foreign and local music aficionados, featuring the works of the late French Composer, Claude Debussy, one of the most prominent figures associated with impressionistic music. Born in 1983, she has been the recipient of numerous honors, including first prize in piano at the December 2004 International Music Tournament, and second prize in the May 2006 International Maria Canals Competition, in Barcelona, Spain. Mary who has been perfecting her craft since childhood, is currently on a tour in several Africa countries giving Piano Concerts. Capital’s Elias Gebreselassie caught up with the musical prodigy to discuss her life, musical career, and the challenges she and others in her profession face.
Capital: What inspired you to become a pianist?
Mary Vermeulin: It’s a long story; I began to play the piano when I was seven years old. At the same time I started practicing gymnastics, but I immediately felt a sensation when I was with the piano, plus I was lucky to have very good teachers who taught me not only how to play the piano but about the accompanying performance in public. After that I entered a conservatory and passed some international competitions, which helped me launch my career.
Capital: Do you have any particular role models you look up to? People you believe helped you launch your career?
Mary: No one in my family is a musician, but my parents are architects, so maybe there are similarities in terms of space: in music the sound goes into space not just time, when you study the colors of music it goes in space, maybe my parents subliminally taught me that, but they weren’t musicians. My Russian teacher who recently passed, Lazar Berman, also inspired me to become a dedicated pianist. Since 2004 I’ve studied with Roger Muraro a great pianist, with a big career who taught me the science of music, how to be on the scene, and on stage, and to give concerts.
Capital: When did you start your profession career? What accompanying difficulties did you undergo in reaching this stage of recognition?
Mary: It’s very difficult, it’s not easy. There are a lot of pianists studying music in France. It’s not easy to live as a pianist with a dearth of concerts, in my generation there are not a lot of pianists, maybe 15-20 professional pianists, it’s a pity. You begin with two or three concerts a year and it grows to 10 and 20, it’s a very long way, you have to be patient, the career doesn’t start immediately after graduation. Even with a diploma you can’t just give concerts, and you have to practice a lot, and participate in competitions, to give good performances. If you make mistakes concert managers will not invite you to perform, so you have to be careful at every stage of your career.
Capital: Do you contribute scores to films?
Mary: Not so far but if somebody asked me I would definitely entertain the idea. In France it’s not an interconnected network like in some other countries. There are a separate group of musicians for the film industry.
Capital: Have you tried playing other musical instruments before?
Mary: I haven’t tried other musical instruments. With piano there are so many things to learn, to do, and practice, so I didn’t feel like I need another musical instrument. I like piano, I love piano. It’s enough for me, maybe one day. Being a composer is a dream of mine, but it’s so much work and if I become a composer I would absolutely stop being a pianist, it’s difficult to do both at the same time, so I think piano will have to miss me if I become a composer.
Capital: You have been a pianist for many years, you entered the profession as a child and now you are an adult. What would you say you discovered during this period?
Mary: When you are a child you have unlimited freedom, you can play the way you want, you just enjoy your piano lessons and practice when you want, you have no obligations. When it’s your job, you have to practice every day, six hours a day, you can’t skip sessions. It’s always a pleasure of course, but there’s a sense of responsibility, since your audience will give its full attention to you. It’s not just your parents in the room listening to you; you have to be generous with the audience, and not only play what you desire, unlike childhood. Also when you are giving a performance in a big hall with 2,000 or so audience members, you’re required to sound good, so you also have to work on that.
Capital: Tell us about some of the awards and recognition you’ve received.
Mary: Yes, I received my diploma from the National Conservatory of France and after that as I told you earlier, it was not enough to have a career. I took part also in competitions, initially small competitions, but after one big competition with many rounds and a five hour programs. Competitions like these are very important for pianists, it’s not just a competition with other competitors, it’s also a way to reach a goal. You can do more than what you do at one concert, there are a lot of concerts in one competition, and in one week you’ll have maybe four rounds, each time with a different program, so it’s a very good way to learn your craft.
Capital: What advice or recommendation would you give to people who want to be professional pianists?
Mary: First, you have to love piano, because if you’re not passionate and you are not patient, you will not practice. This is the first rule. Sometimes you might need up to two months to understand an idea that you didn’t understand before, and it’s not just five minutes practice and after that you say, it’s ok, and you have to take every chance you get to play in public, as much as possible, because you learn not only when you take lessons, but also when you play in public, so the combination of the two is needed. When you get out of the conservatory you don’t really know your job; it’s only when you give concerts that you become a real pianist.
Capital: You have now seen our National Music School, Yared Music School and the students learning to play piano here. What similarities, differences or strengths and weaknesses have you seen comparing with the institution you attended and the lessons you took in your home country?
Mary: I can’t really answer comprehensively, because I didn’t get a full chance to meet and talk to students and teachers. I think the school is building a new wing on its premises which is good for the music school. I also saw a lot of pianos in the school, giving students many opportunities to practice. The only thing I think should have improvement is the piano on stage which is very old, so maybe they could change the piano, although it might cost a fortune. I say this because when you have good instruments, your execution is better, so you can add some color and also get ideas in music that you can’t get if you don’t have a good instrument, so you need at least to have one a good instrument that students can try once or twice, to know and see what a good instrument is.