By KAITLYN HALL ’17
The side-by-side grand pianos, weathered by fingers weaving melodies of love and passion, anger and sorrow, stand still and resolute until she begins to play.
She sits down, pulls in the piano bench and begins to tell a story. Her fingers glide gracefully across the keys. Her experience is evident. Notes seamlessly join into a cascade of chords.
Her phrases finish with a flourish, her individual touch fighting her predominant need to conform to the music.
Oksana Ezhokina, Pacific Lutheran University chair of piano studies, smiles as she lifts her fingers from the keys.
As no piano would be complete without both black and white keys, Ezhokina lives and teaches two fundamentally conflicting ideas in her instruction: each pianist must strive to fit a form, yet individuality is key.
“As musicians, we work with the text, the given, the blueprint that’s communicated to us through complex notation on paper,” Ezhokina said. “Our job, first and foremost, is to take that information and interpret it as completely as we can, without imposing ourselves into the music.”
The beautiful part, though, is that no two musicians look at the music identically, Ezhokina said, because all musicians are distinct individuals whose individuality should be fostered and brought out.
Keeping students on-key
Ezhokina said developing each student’s ability to interpret music and craft a unique performance is one of her greatest goals.
“Ultimately, I think, I want my students to start finding their own voice and their own individuality in the work that they do,” Ezhokina said.
Sophomore vocal performance major Miya Higashiyama takes lessons with Ezhokina to develop her skills as a pianist and vocalist. Higashiyama said she believes helping students discover their artistic individuality is one of Ezhokina’s most important lessons.
“Musically, she is absolutely fantastic at helping you learn to express yourself (as a musician),” Higashiyama said. “Though, technically, each person creates similar sound, she helps you discover who you are as a pianist by helping you identify your sound and your definition of the piece you are working on.”
Junior piano performance major Alexa Bayouk agrees.
“There is a difference between going up on stage in survival mode—just trying to get through a piece without playing any wrong notes—and making the piece your own by giving it life and expression,” Bayouk said. “That’s one of the more abstract but powerfully essential things I’ve learned since studying with Oksana.”
Coming together for collaboration
To stand out in their careers, Ezhokina said she tells her students to see seek every opportunity they can to collaborate with other musicians, because it’s an important part of musicians’ lives and incomes.
The greatest number of employment opportunities for musicians and singers are in performing arts companies and religious organizations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
This can take the form of performing chamber music, accompanying soloists and groups, working with choirs and playing at churches, Ezhokina said.
The Volta Piano Trio, formerly known as the Icicle Creek Piano Trio, is a significant collaboration for Ezhokina. Ezhokina puts her lesson into practice, performing several concerts yearly, including “The Songful Cello” Friday, Oct. 31.
The life of a 21st century pianist
Dreaming of a career as a solo pianist is much like dreaming of the life of a princess: it’s simply not the life music majors live anymore, Ezhokina said.
“Long-gone are the days when music majors dreamt of solo careers,” Ezhokina said. “Strictly speaking, playing the piano well, or excellently, is just not enough anymore in my mind.”
Recordings have taken the place of recitals, and the great crescendo of music introduced after the fortepiano evolved into the modern piano has quieted to a pianissimo.
Ezhokina said the students she’s working with now need to understand a modern piano career requires students have a breadth of knowledge, work collaboratively and build their individuality through a variety of repertoire and experiences.
Ezhokina’s life in music began at 6, living in Ryazan, USSR, with a music teacher in an intensive after-school music program.
In the USSR, according to the Music Educators Journal, part-time special music schools, located in each urban school district, educated students accepted to the program in vocal and instrumental skills for free.
In her eight years in the program, Ezhokina was trained in basic musicianship, including theory and history, received piano lessons and sang in the chorus.
Through serious thought and commitment and encouragement from her teacher, Ezhokina decided piano was her forte.
At 15, Ezhokina decided to enter a college-preparatory program for musicians, the next step in her music studies. She moved to the United States at 19 to continue studying piano performance.
Ezhokina said she hopes to build the piano performance program within the music department to turn PLU into a destination school for pianists. To that end, Ezhokina said, she is committed to teaching here and bringing students to PLU to bolster the program.
She said she wants to share the lifestyle and lifelong development of a unique voice with as many pianists and musicians as possible.
“It’s a lifelong thing, really, because being a musician is more of a lifestyle than a profession,” Ezhokina said. “You can’t turn off your brain when you go back home, when you’re done teaching, when you’re done playing. You live with that music. It becomes a part of you, so you can’t just switch it off and call it a night.”
Even as Ezhokina plays the last, quiet notes of the movement, as the wisps of sound fade away, her song, her life in music, continues, written for only her fingers to play.