Solo and collaborative pianist Indra Egan has been studying music for 16 years, including training as a soprano and violinist. She holds her A.R.C.T. in Piano Performance from the Royal Conservatory of Music and recently completed her first year of her Bachelor of Music at the University of Manitoba, where she studies piano with David Moroz and voice with Robert MacLaren and Monica Huisman. She has performed piano concertos by Haydn and Schumann respectively as a guest soloist with the Prince George Symphony Orchestra, where she was the Chamber Music Series pianist for the 2013-14 season and first violinist for two seasons. In her home province of BC, she organized a series of 8 concerts called Indra and Friends that raised $15 000 for 7 different Canadian charities. She also taught piano and violin for nearly 10 years; her students have been accepted to Bachelor of Music programs across Western Canada, including University of Victoria and Mount Royal University.
Indra has collaborated with a variety of artists, including lyric tenor Robert MacLaren and American violinist Elizabeth Pitcairn. Indra, who enjoys music of all styles and genres, is very passionate about contemporary music and has premiered works by multiple Canadian composers. Most recently, she won the University of Manitoba Concerto Competition, and will be performing a concerto as a guest soloist with the University of Manitoba Symphony Orchestra in their 2015-16 season.
I had a great time talking to the talented Indra Egan a couple weeks ago. I was surprised how much I learned from her from a half-an-hour conversation. This girl is wise beyond her years.
Instruments: Piano, Soprano, and Violinist
Genres: Classical solo and collaborative opera
Ashley: How long have you been playing piano and violin, and singing?
Indra: I have been playing piano since I was 4 years old. I started violin when I was 5 and didn’t actually start voice lessons until I was 18. Voice was a huge learning curve for me because the way you approach music from a vocal perspective is so different from a pianist, or really as any instrumentalist. It’s so much more linear and more organic. Instruments can be really intuitive but the voice, because you can’t see it, you need to internalize it. It’s such a different way to approach music that I started incorporated that into my playing piano.
A: How hard do you push yourself, how often do you practice?
I: I practice everyday. I try to do at least 2 to 3 hours a day; which I would consider a light day of practice. Ideally I like to practice 4 or 5 hours each day of piano but it doesn’t always workout with school and courses. The biggest struggle I’m finding with practice is balancing solo and collaborative music. I’m finding myself being drawn more and more to collaborative music and wanting to practice it more; but I do need a strong solo base. That’s why I’m here at the university to study solo piano for the next four years.
I try to spread it out [my practice sessions] through out the day though. I have experienced injuries and after coming back from that I have started taking a close look at my technique and strengthening my muscles. I stay at school for an hour or two between practice sessions in order to maintain a healthy practice regiment.
A: When you are practicing, what are you focusing on?
I: I generally use my repertoire to work on my technique, so I don’t do a lot of scales or exercises. I did a lot of that when I was younger and I had a great teacher back in BC, where I’m originally from, and I am really fortunate to have a great technical base. I rarely practice by playing my pieces over and over at the full speed. I take each piece apart and study them. I will never forget the time I took 4 hours working on 12 bars. I don’t do that very often, that is an extreme case.
For example I will take something like a difficult sixteenth note passage and play it in seven different rhythms, different volume levels and accents. Even when I have a particular sound in mind, I like to play around with other sounds and colors because I feel it’s really close-minded to have only one idea for the song.
A: I’m always interested to hear other musicians tell me they too spend a lot of time on one section. It can be discouraging coming to a university with all these extremely talent musicians and forget they need to practice just as much as I do.
I: Yeah, I think a lot of the time we worry that the rest of the piece is going to be neglected if we are only working on one part. I find that if we are nervous about a piece that we are not quite prepared for. It’s usually one or two specific spots that worry us; not every single note of the piece. Once you take that fear out, like “I don’t have to worry about this part when I get to it”, suddenly the piece isn’t about worrying that one page of the song and you can pay attention the entire piece and it keeps you stable.
We also have a tendency to start at the beginning of a piece, which gets it to be really good on its own. I’ve begun starting on the last page of the music I’m working on.
One song I’m working on right now is a Chopin Nocturne, which always tends to get more difficult as the piece goes one. I always want to start at the beginning because it’s so beautiful and there is so much to do with it musically. But the last page is not as strong as the first; and so I work backwards.
A: So who would you say inspires you musically?
I: Definitely, the teachers that I’ve had. I’ve been really fortunate to study with really high caliber teachers. Even though I lived in a relatively isolated area, I always would find myself traveling far for lessons.
When I was 4, I would have to be driven for an hour to and an hour back from lessons. I remember getting really carsick. When I was 9 I had to travel 3 and a half hours for lessons. I got to access really great musicians, I would say especially Lori Elder, and of course the wonderful faculty at the university of Manitoba. I try to, whenever I get a chance, go see the performances from the faculty. It’s really inspiring to see all of these musicians with such intention and clear artistic vision that I see on the stage.
I am hugely inspired by the human voice; ultimately, it's what all instruments do their best to imitate. So with that approach to music, I guess it's only natural that many of my biggest influences are singers. Classically, I am a crazy fan of Joyce DiDonato. I love the warm and human quality of her voice, and she is truly an artist who inspires me both on and off stage. I fell in love with Maria Callas at a very young age - she's someone who's not known for a "perfect" or "pretty" voice, but who tells a story, and I connected to that immediately. My biggest piano inspiration is undoubtedly Martha Argerich. She plays with such raw passion, as though there's always a fire under her belly. Outside of the classical genre, I would say my most influential artists have been Carole King, Billy Joel, Radiohead, and Lady Gaga.
A: What accomplishments are you most proud of?
I: I would have to say number one is getting back into music. That was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. Initially I wanted to do voice, instead of the piano; which everything thought was really strange since I never had any vocal training. I was in university and I knew that I wanted to do music. I felt at the time that voice school was what was missing, what I really wanted to do. I thought that if it was piano I would have figured it out when I was playing piano.
I did a ton of stuff that scared me when I went after voice. I assumed going in with a musical background would help me, and in a lot a ways it did, but it actually hurt me too. I kept trying to place all of the notes on a mental keyboard. Just the way you think of singing in classical sense is so different than how you see it on the piano. You have your chest voice, your mid voice and your head voice. You’ll have notes that are high in your mid voice that are low in your head voice, and so being able to conceptualize that the note is going to feel really high when they actually aren’t was so different.
I remember the first time I stood in front of a group of people; I was terrified - which was a new feeling for me because I don’t get nervous when I’m playing piano in most settings. I usually get excited.
A: How do you not get nervous?
I: I rarely get nervous. I’ll get maybe adrenaline but not nervous because I’m so focused. I remember that first vocal performance. It wasn’t a complete disaster but it wasn’t even close to what I had practiced at all. It was after two months of vocal training and I was doing a music festival with grade 10 repertoire. I just couldn’t handle how my body was no longer doing what I wanted to because I was so nervous.
A: You had only in to 2 months of training and you were doing grade 10 material?
I: Yes, I took grade 10 right from the beginning. I had been accompanying vocal music for a while and had been singing on my own time for some time. I ‘d also taken French and German in high school. It was the first time being nervous while I sang and that was a really great experience as a teacher for all my students who get nervous so I can understand better.
A: With everything you’ve learned and everything you know now, what advice would to give to beginners who maybe want to take the same steps as you to move away for school or start performing.
I: Well I would say, do things that scare you. Perform as much as you can. That doesn’t mean start off perform a million times a week; taking as many opportunities as you can. within a reasonable amount. Don’t shy away from it. I do things because I’m not sure I can do it. That’s the philosophy I use as an artist, I don’t know how well it will work for other people, but I constantly challenging myself. That constant thrill of not knowing if I can do it is what pushes me.
When I came to this university it was scary. I had never been this far across Canada. I came here all by myself and had to book my own hotel all by myself. I actually never auditioned for someone that I didn’t know before because I’m from a small town.
The one of the most important things you can do is things that scare the hell out of you. Because first of all you learn that you can actually do things that scare you and it keeps you on your toes and it gives you that drive to keep going.
Expose yourself to more genres than just the one want to to do. I listen to a ton of music that’s not classical; because I think at the end of the day, music is about communication. Classical is not the only way to communicate. It’s one of my favorite but its definitely not the only way.
I love listening to pop song and thinking to myself “Oh this is the pop equivalent of this lied” because you realize that it’s the same story just being communicated in very different ways. I get performance tips from watching people like Bruno mars because he knows how to perform. Madonna knows how to make it that no one is watching anyone but her.
I think that’s really important to be aware of and actively pay attention to other genres; to be always open-minded. If I wasn’t I would still be trying to get into a voice program. I feel so much more at home in the piano program.
I guess the last thing I would say is a musician; no everyone gets a ton of people telling him or her what he or she should or shouldn’t do with their lives. Whether it’s good-natured advice or people saying, “Man you’re making a huge a mistake” or even people saying, “yes, this is what you should do”. Every once in awhile take a step back and listen to what your gut is telling you. We get so much advice and so many people making our lives their business and we have to live with it. If you trust yourself off stage, you’re going to trust yourself on stage.
A: How do you balance your music with you other obligations?
I: It’s definitely tricky, there is no doubt about it. I don’t get as much sleep as I should. Like I mentioned before, I need to take breaks in between practice sessions so I’ll take the time to go for a run, do homework, or any kind of paperwork or emails. I think it’s really important that I make sure that I relax at the end of the day or just eat something when no one is talking to me. It’s really important to not just go to sleep. Take a little bit of a breather. It’s important that as a musician, we go out and experience other things not related to music; like going to the forks or dating that one person.
Music is about emotion. Music is about life. Music is about people; so if we don’t experience those things how are we going to communicate them? The more life experience we have to bring to our music the more we have to offer as musicians.
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