Masai stories

Elisabeth Nielsen

November 2022

Danish/Ukrainian pianist

(trained at the Royal Danish Academy of Music)

The Danish/Ukrainian pianist Elisabeth Nielsen began her musical journey and her love affair with the piano when she was just 5 years old. For her, music is a language that gets its energy from the audience. It was her Ukrainian upbringing and her mother who always encouraged her to play with her heart and to never play 'empty' notes.

First encounter with a piano...

I remember that one of the first times I came across a piano I was fascinated by its sheer size. I must have been a little girl of around 4-5 years old, so I was drawn to the fact that I couldn't grasp the instrument as a whole because it was so much bigger than me. 

When I was a teenager, I changed my focus from the physical and technical aspects of learning to the music itself. I became fascinated by the music itself, and how music can communicate feelings and stories. When I was 14-15 years old, I knew I wanted to be a musician. It's a period in your life when you develop rapidly, ask a lot of questions and are insecure about yourself as a teenager - but there was one thing I was always certain about and that was the effect of music. 

Being born with two cultures...

I am half Danish and half Ukrainian. I was born in Denmark, but my mother came to Denmark from the Ukraine when the Soviet Union broke down. She has a theatre background so ever since I was little I've a lot of input from her theatre world. If I had to play a piece of music, it didn't matter what the music was or who the composer was, she would always say something like "What's the piece about?" What's the message of the piece? What story are you telling?”. This meant the music wasn't abstract, it was music with a mission. I think this was a healthy approach to learn from an early age. It has meant that throughout my entire career, I have never felt like I'm just playing empty notes. The Ukrainian influence was stronger in my younger years and has only helped turn me into the musician I am today.

Being a child from different cultures can feel quite strange, because on the one hand you feel like you have two identities, but on the other hand, you feel like you don't belong to either. Growing up and seeing the contrasts and also the similarities is quite interesting. Being half-Ukrainian in the current climate is particularly challenging of course, and this fighting spirit and morale that we see in Ukraine currently, well it's also in me.
Music - a language without words...

I've always been a performer, ever since I was little. I've done ballet ever since I was 3-4 years old, and I have always loved performing in front of people. Fundamentally, I think that's because performing and especially playing music, is a two-way communication. Music is a language and being able to play for someone isn't just about playing a piece for that person, but also about getting some energy back. I think that's the wonderful thing about music, that you can convey an emotion or a story without words, which can be understood by people from all over the world. In a time of uncertainty and war in Europe, music is a particularly powerful force. It unites us, and shows us what we actually have in common. The great strength of music is that it is languageless.

Music is a language understood by people all over the world.
Inspiration and immersion…

The interesting thing about classical music is also the word 'classical' - what does 'classical music' mean? The reality is that classical music is a bigger concept, because classical continues to be written today. If you switch on the radio and listen to your typical pop song, it lasts 3 minutes, which is quite short compared to a classical symphony, which can last 30, 40, 50 minutes and which gives you time to immerse yourself, to lose yourself in another world, to find peace and go on a journey. That's what I think is magical about the classical world.

When I'm on my own, I play differently. It's like I'm playing for myself and my own audience. And it can really move me. It might sound strange, but I feel like the piano is listening to what I have to say and then responds. A piece that I played one way yesterday, I might play completely differently today.

Every time it's magic....

Playing a concert is in many ways like running a marathon - you go through multiple stages. 

What I wear on stage has always been a big challenge for me. Because it's not just about what I like, it's also about what suits both me and the music. The aesthetic combination of both must be in place, because going to a concert should be a complete experience. 

All musicians have their rituals before they go on stage. It might be drinking a cup of tea with a slice of lemon, or applying your makeup a specific way. Or something else entirely. For me, it's going on stage before the audience arrives, focusing on the empty chairs and imagining how the energy will change when the concert hall is full. That's my ritual. It's about the audience and the energy they generate, and which is clearly felt. It's a form of communication between them and me, who is listening. That's why it's so important to play for people and not just for yourself. 

Just before you go on stage - those 10-20 minutes - when you're completely on your own and you don't have your instrument and you start thinking, will I remember to keep that time, that chord, that tone and rhythm? Noooo, I've forgotten it…! But then you get on stage and see all those people ... you walk over to your instrument, sit down, place your hands on the keys and the music just comes by itself. And every time it's a magical experience. The peace that settles when you start playing and have the keys below your fingers. It's so amazing, and I hope that it always will be for the rest of my life.

A musician is a musician regardless of gender...

The music industry has historically been very male-dominated, and the world of pianists has also been very male-dominated. And it's still a male-dominated world, as seen in the number of male composers, conductors and opera managers. But changes are gradually happening. I think the more we move forward, the more we will view musicians as musicians, regardless of gender.

The music industry is a tough world, and as a female pianist, you need a thick skin to survive.
Masai stories

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