Osip Nikiforov – learning from the best to craft the art of piano playing

Not too long ago, renowned concert pianist Yefim Bronfman told me that “for time reasons, teaching, except for the occasional master class was not in his cards for the foreseeable future;” his busy international performance career just would not allow for a regular teaching schedule.

But exceptions always confirm the rule: When the young Russian pianist Osip Nikiforov, was in the process of applying to Grad programs, this is what happened: “I went on the website of the Manhattan School of Music and saw his name on the faculty list, which piqued my interest right away. I decided that I wanted to apply to the school, to be in his studio and so I did, listing him as my only choice.

After a successful audition, I was notified that I was accepted in Mr. Bronfman’s studio for the following year for my master’s program. Only later did I find out that I was his first and only student, so far,” says Nikiforov, who just graduated Manhattan School of Music under Bronfman’s tutelage.

“He is a very talented pianist with intelligence, musically gifted, good technique, and above all hard working. With a little bit of luck he will be able to be a musician for the rest of his life, I hope a long one. I wish him all the best,” says Mr. Bronfman. (photo: Carnegie Hall Back Stage, Yefim Bronfman with his student, Osip Nikiforov)

While based in New York, Bronfman’s travel time due to high demand on the concert stage had not diminished and his availability as a full time mentor, had not increased dramatically.

But with an utmost approachable disposition and personal generosity, the iconic pianist was meant to share his enormous pianistic wisdom with the next generation.

Indeed, it seems Nikiforov’s timing was perfect as Mr. Bronfman won’t be taking on any new students this year and has not yet committed to any continued teaching engagements in the future, due to his continuing, heavy concertizing schedule.

In the world of the piano that mediated to its young apprentices, thrives on its generational continuum, studying with an icon as Mr. Bronfman, is no small feat. Building on the legacy of its iconic performers and their particular “schools of practice and artistic impact,” young pianists’ capacities are often judged by the influence of their teachers’ pianistic heritage.

Sharing the piano bench with the great performers, observing their process and getting personal input, translates into the cherished “being privy” to excellence; a priceless custodial privilege, adding prestige to the potential of a young performer’s career.

Nikiforov, who just graduated from Manhattan School of Music, will continue his DMA studies at Houston’s Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, under the esteemed Canadian pianist and mentor Jon Kimura Parker, who is also renowned as a media personality and the artistic director of the Honens International Piano Competition, in search of the “complete artist.”

The young pianist is looking forward to partaking in the school’s tight knit, three years program. “With Mr. Bronfman, I learned so much during our two years together, it really changed the kind of pianist I am. Sometimes our lessons were up to two months apart, sometimes they took place regularly, on a weekly basis, depending on his schedule. It taught me to be able to work on my own, independently, which is not a bad thing as a grad student. The more you learn to practice on your own, the more confidence it gives you and the insights during the lessons were incredibly valuable. Mr. Bronfman has performed most pieces I prepared, and there is a huge difference in being able to show, not just explain different passages, from the performer’s point of view. But he never imposed his ideas, always insisted: “Your own thinking will come through, in everything you do at the piano, there is no need to rely on someone else. Don’t copy what I do,” was his motto, describes Nikiforov.

“In the beginning, it was a little bit intimidating for me,” he recalls. “I remember coming to his apartment before the official lessons started at school, playing a Bach’s Prelude and Fugue and parts of Beethoven’s Emperor concerto for him; he had asked for these pieces. My heartbeat was racing much faster, than usual. More than a lesson, this was a Rendez-Vous, as he was still assessing me, testing the waters – as did I.

Every lesson after that I brought a different Prelude and Fugue, until he asked for Chopin Etudes, Op. 10. As there was a decent amount of time until our next lesson, I had to bring the whole set.”

He explains, that during their first year together, it was pretty much about repetition, fixing spots over and over, and understanding which approach worked best, – for both student and mentor.

“For me, I think the middle ground, not too strict but also not too forgiving works best, and I appreciated his honesty – there is no sugarcoating, he tells you exactly how it is. I think he felt and valued my motivation, and in time we both felt more at ease and the lessons became more personal. There were jokes, some analogies during lessons, and he inquired more about my personal plans and well being, afterwards. I felt it was important to show a lot of effort during the lessons, to ask questions and be very actively involved; that ultimately also drove the relationship and interest. The more we felt at ease it was more about fine tuning in the music too. I guess I was a fast learner, but for the first time I became more confident in what I could project. I developed a larger sense of acoustics for big spaces, but also learned about adjusting sound projection and better sense of acoustics in a different space. One has to think of the piano sound as contained at first, then broadening it to project the sound, with body weight of the back of my arms. He has a very natural way to explain, its not very technical, he approaches everything from the sound,” explains Nikiforov.

Watch
Osip Nikiforov’s rendering of Scriabin Sonata No.1, Op.6

Ultimately, good education transmits the means to further the performer’s independence to achieve excellence, within a personally subjugated own approach and a good example that can inspire and clarify good and better choices. Less about exacting directions, at this level at least, good pedagogy initiates the will to work out details to bring about the vision; that vision must be one’s own – and of course the devil lies in the detail, or rather the enormous amount of detail to be worked out. Nikiforov credits the preparatory work with his earlier mentor, Alexander Bragnisky, the last pupil of golden age veteran Alexander Goldenweiser, at the Moscow Conservatory.

At age fourteen, Nikiforov attended a private boarding school in Minnesota, before competing in a junior competition there. He had private lessons with Braginsky, a time he describes as the turning point in his life. He recognizes that, being able to ease into American culture, in a nurturing environment and under the guidance of Russian School mentor-ship also enabled him later, to claim his independence relatively early. Aged 16, he attended High School in Minnesota and continued his studies with Braginsky, receiving a bachelor degree from the University of Minnesota. The future certainly holds a lot of perspectives for the young pianist: For his doctoral thesis he has some interesting ideas about explaining piano technique in a simple way – piano for dummies style. With his collective experiences this should be a very interesting read, indeed. It would not be surprising to hear him joining the competition circle, perhaps the next Honens, or try out his jazz chops, he has been admiring in some of his Manhattan School colleagues all along.