Ivan Šiller – interviews with musicians

Tomáš Boroš: „Ivan Šiller – pianist, organizer of music and its presentation, head of Enseble Ricercata and everything else, we will get to that during the interview. I would start with the piano. Pianists also tend to be characterised by the periods in which they specialise, and by many you may be categorised – because we in Slovakia like boxes – as a pianist of contemporary music, which is true, because you have made great achievements in this field. However, when I think of Ensemble Ricercata’s dramaturgy and concert series, you have also interpreted Schumann, Brahms, and more recently Johann Sebastian Bach’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in d minor, and perhaps younger – but still classics – Ravel, Milhaud, Janáček, … So how is it with you? How would you complete the characterization – Ivan Šiller is a pianist who focuses on…?

Ivan Šiller: “On good music – for me, on good and interesting music, and in every period of my life it’s a little bit different. There’s that unifying element of 20th-21st century music, but for the last four or five years I like to create bridges between early and contemporary music, and that’s the mentioned Johann Sebastian Bach’s concerto, which we’ve bridged nicely with pieces by Peter Zagar and Daniel Matej. The dramaturgy was very much appreciated by the audience, because we started with J. S. Bach, then there were two songs for female choir, cello and piano by P. Zagar and we ended with a concertante piece by D. Matej for string orchestra, cello and prepared piano. I enjoy these overlaps and the search for a theme in a concerto, no matter what the music – historically – is.”

T. B.: “You used the term dramaturgy – I think that’s a very important concept in your musical profile, because you, as a pianist, tell a story with your instrument or with the music that you perform, but always also with dramaturgy. You know very cleverly how to place a piece or even determine which one you will study next. How does your thinking about what to go into look like?”

I. Š.: “It’s a continuous process. I have notes in my computer that I systematically return to. I mark the year when a particular song or a particular programme came to my mind. The ones that come back systematically then take a precedence over ideas that come up only occasionally. I really look at these dramaturgies two or three times a month and think about what’s going to be in the next concert.”

T. B.: “So, do you have a list of potential songs you’d like to get into and one day they’ll come up?”

I. Š.: “Yes, I have two lists – one with specific songs and one with specific dramaturgies, which I then change or vary, but they are two lists side by side.”

T. B.: “That’s dramaturgy – you think about what to do, how to put together a concert and you start studying the compositions. Then, once you’ve studied them, it’s a question of how to present them to other people, and that’s actually the way of concerts or CDs. I would say it’s quite a management challenge at the same time. We often have this idea that managerial thinking and skills sort of go against artistic thinking and you can combine that very well. In that way, are you somehow split between manager and artist or is it a naturally unified thing?”

I. Š.: “For me it’s a naturally unified business. From the beginning, when I decided to study music, I enjoyed inventing and organizing projects. It’s true that it’s a very demanding activity – to organize a concert, to get money, to do good PR, but I’m very happy that for the last 10 years I have a good team of people, whether in the ISCM or InMusic organization, who know how to do these things very well and enjoy it. I don’t think one is able to do it or manage it alone. I wouldn’t even enjoy doing it myself. There are always people who believe in the recordings, the concerts and the music and help me organize, fundraise and generally take care of the whole management. Now I reach Chopin’s comments on his Preludes – like Chopin or Johann Sebastian Bach they had to take care of their music, so we can say they were active organizers. Chopin also thought about, for example, to whom he would dedicate what piece of music and, of course, against that background, who would buy it from him. Similarly, Stravinsky is a very good example. I think that’s always been a natural part of big-name composers as well – they had to look after themselves.”

T. B.: “Speaking of managing your concerts or your management skills, I think they are very well developed in non-musical contexts – for example, you have a dream in the field of education to innovate something, to bring something and change something. Maybe before we get into that, on those management skills – they sometimes have a bit of an unflattering connotation, that only “smart” people can manage something, but in your life you’ve, I think, completely purged that notion. It’s a very broad concept, and it’s important not just for art, but for our lives. “

I. Š.: “I perceive management as the ability of a leader or manager to asses the strengths of his team members very well – everyone knows what to do and when to do it. This creates a culture of an environment where people work well together. That’s how I see management, that’s what I strive for and that’s when I enjoy it – when I see that the people around me are happy and enjoying themselves. It means that it’s the result of certain processes – that I know what to do, when to do it, and at wat cost – and that we are united by a common idea, a common project. In this case it’s music-making, or making music.”

T. B.: “The result of your artistic-managerial thinking is also your dream of a teacher’s college. What did you think of – what was missing or what provoked you to do it?”

I. Š.: “I was provoked to do this by a personal experience we had together at the Faculty of Education, where we taught together for seven years. It is a positive motivation to try it in a different way. We know from our own experience and from the data we have available that students want to be teachers and that it’s not entirely true that most people go to the Faculty of Education because it’s an easy school or that they don’t want to teach. No, most of them want to teach but they lose that interest in teaching in the second or third year because the curriculum is of poor quality, it is out of date. They have little teaching experience and few accompanying teachers – people to show them how to teach, what is the right methodology to choose for the subject. That’s why in 2018, when we left the Faculty of Education, we decided that we would try to start our own school or our own faculty that would respond to the current need of teachers.” 

T. B.: “As I introduced you with those adjectives like pianist, organizer, manager, I should add innovator. You have also received such an award – social innovator, but I would say that this is also true in music and in artistic fields. Do you agree that we can add the adjective innovator to your name?”

I. Š.: “I was very pleased to find myself on the Pontis Foundation’s map of social innovators, but not because of the award itself but because of how many people from different areas I met there It is my conviction that there are a lot of very capable people in Slovakia from fields that I didn’t even know existed – for example, science, computers, medicine and, of course, social work and so on. There is such enormous potential in our country, but what we suffer from is a lack of management or a lack of culture. We need to change that environment – to set a culture of functioning, particularly in government organisations and in universities, which are the things I am in. If we can change that, I think we can be very positively surprised at the kind of capable people we have. For me, the meeting meant a lot precisely because I met a lot of active people who mean well in their field – who are trying, who are working. I feel comfortable in that kind of environment.”

T. B.: “Why a teachers’ college in connection with a pianist? It has to be said that an important part of your thinking, feeling and personality is the pedagogical dimension. You’ve taught – from young children to college students – and even though you don’t teach directly now, you still pay attention to that dimension. For example, you do workshops for teachers or open classes, you work with students and so on. As we’ve gone through various topics – piano, dramaturgy, teacher’s college – pedagogy is also an important value in your life.”

I. Š.: “Definitely. I myself had excellent teachers, I was lucky, and that is my main motivation why we would like to establish a teachers’ college. Teachers are a key element in our country and the fate of our children and young people really depends on their work. I am currently working in an organisation called Superar which, apart from pursuing quality music education in schools, tries to build bridges between children from minority and majority backgrounds. We are in Bratislava, but we also have teachers in Lozorno, Veľký Krtíš and Detva, where there is a Roma minority and it is strongly represented in primary schools. I can see first-hand – when music education is taught well – what miracles happen in the classrooms and what relationships the children build with each other because they have to work together. They make music together – whether they are singing in a choir or playing musical instruments. That’s a strong motivation for me to pursue pedagogy. Another element we are working on at Superar is the development of new music methodologies – with Tomáš Boroš. I don’t’ know if you’ve ever heard of him. I’m very happy that we can work together just in Superar to develop new music methodologies, whether for teachers or for children. It’s an organisation where I feel very comfortable and where the teacher and manager in me are just coming together.”

T. B.: “Let me ask you about your direct experience as a music teacher and pianist – maybe we’ll get to a more general topic – what is important to you when studying music? Let’s put it this way – not in the study of piano, because that’s a means of music, but in general – what is and what has always been important for you in your teaching to pass on to another person?”

I. Š.: “I would answer in the words of the conductor Celibidache – who, when he was rehearsing, said to the orchestra: “You all know very well that I rehearse a lot…” He was known to have ten rehearsals for one concert. “…it’s not that I like to rehearse a lot, it’s that I don’t like it when musicians play what’s not in the notes.” When you asked about that studying, it’s the sheet music that is the key information for me. I try to understand the composer’s intent directly through the sheet music. I put quite a lot of emphasis on the rhythmic aspect of the compositions. I like to practice with a metronome because I find the rhythm very important, but of course not only the rhythm, but all the information that comes from the notes. But the other information, which often changes, is the acoustic environment in which the music takes place – whether it’s a concert hall, a church or a classroom in an elementary art school. All the parameters have to be adapted to that acoustic environment, so that’s the second challenge that I face very often as a performer and I have to be able to adapt very quickly. It’s such an adventurous journey.” 

T. B.: “It’s when you’re a pedagogue to yourself. And when you are trying to convey that to another person, do you then remain with those statements that these are the important things?”

I. Š.: “Yes.”

T. B.: “What about maybe some universal message that you adhered to in your contact with the person you were teaching, for example, piano. What’s important to convey to him?” 

I. Š.: “I have always tried, when I was teaching either children or students at college, to interest them in the music I like. I feel that as a pedagogue I can only be able to convey information to the student in the music that I am passionate about. Of course, as a pedagogue I have to be able to say something about music, but I wanted to get them excited – that was my first attitude. “Look – music is a great thing – let’s listen to it together, let’s ply it together, let’s create it together.” When I was 17 and the moment of realization came that I wanted to be a pianist, it was just because I was fascinated by music. I was fascinated by how varied it is, how we can understand something about ourselves and this world through the sounds we hear. It is through pedagogy, whether piano or workshops, that I try to pass on this enthusiasm to other people. Music is a very important element, and to be able to listen to it actively, to try to understand it, and with someone to create it actively – to play an instrument or improvise – I think that’s an important value. I’ve learned something about myself just by being involved in music, and I think both an adult and a child can do that to some extent.”

T. B.: “I will just add that Ivan Šiller knows what he is talking about, because he is an associate professor – that is a pedagogical title. We can laugh about it, but I think it also belongs to your profile that you recently got an associate professorship. In addition to saying congratulations, let me ask you maybe about the process or the value of that title for yourself.”

I. Š.: “Thank you. I appreciate the title because it was awarded by an independent commission – I only knew one or two people by sight. I got it at the Janáček Academy of Musical Arts in Brno. In my habilitation lecture I tried to justify what is the contribution of contemporary music – that is, specifically the music of John Cage and Charles Ives in music pedagogy – what makes it interesting and what makes it useful. It is the music of John Cage, which requires cooperation with a performer and where the performer becomes a composer – that is the first important thing, and the second is that it motivates the performer to read a non-traditional mode of notation – that is the music that allows the teacher and the pupil to become partners. That music is not exactly notated – rather, there are certain instructions on how the performer should grasp it. This makes this particular literature exceptional in the historical richness of the world’s piano literature. Of course, this is also true to some extent of Beethoven or Mozart, but those people who have encountered John Cage’s music, or his notation, know that this notation is quite a bit different and more open-ended. So, it allows for a greater dialogue and partnership of inquiry, and I think that’s an important element in pedagogy, because pedagogy suffers a little bit from frontal teaching. That is, I go to somebody to study with the expectation that they’re going to tell me how it is or how to play it – that they’re the person who knows. That has its place in pedagogy, of course, but I see in my own children today, as well as having been in pedagogy for over 20 years, that the nice time that we have now is just finding that partnership between the student and the teacher. That’s what I also enjoy when I do workshops for children, when we improvise with them. We also talk to pedagogues about being partners and looking together. That’s why I enjoy pedagogy – it’s a collaborative search, whether it’s with the kids, the students or the pedagogues, of how it could be, and what could be the solution to a given musical situation.”

T. B.: “Thank you for the interesting story. I was going to ask you for a strong message at the end, but I think this final statement about pedagogy, the teacher-student relationship, freedom and opening up new possibilities was very powerful. We really don’t need to be afraid of music – music may not be an easy thing but it is also very beautiful and interesting. Maybe that is the message?”

I. Š.: “Yes, definitely. Being active in music, whether as a listener, performer or reading about music, is a value that cannot be replaced by any other value.”

Relevant Insights

Recent Case Studies