Postcard from St. Petersburg

Postcard from St. Petersburg

British pianist Alexandra Tchernakova shares her story of moving to Russia to study. 

Alexandra Tchernakova
St Petersburg, Russia

Postcard from St. Petersburg

British pianist Alexandra Tchernakova shares her story of moving to Russia to study. 

All countries have their stereotypes. People say it is wrong to stereotype, but stereotypes don’t come from nowhere and they are often somewhat close to the truth. Taking lessons at St. Petersburg Conservatory is no different. Expect a blunt and direct teaching style and lots of unnecessary paperwork. And expect a rich, traditional musical culture with Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev taking centre stage. And expect to be inspired - the Conservatory is opposite the infamous Mariinsky Theatre. The musicians and composers who have studied at this conservatory and gone on to the theatre and then further afield is inspiration enough to get you through a tough day of lessons. 

The city is absolutely stunning and you will never run out of new places to explore.

Deciding to move to St. Petersburg came from my Russian roots and wanting to learn the language that my mother’s side of the family all spoke. With a population of around six million people, the step up from Bristol in the UK (around half a million) didn’t go unnoticed but I was excited and ready for the ‘big city life’. This city is amazing. Everything is 24/7 - you can find a shop or restaurant at any time of day. Every night of the week you have a choice of concerts, operas and plays to go to. (You can often wangle a free or hugely discounted ticket by flashing your Conservatory badge.) For a foreigner, living here is cheap and people are generally very helpful and friendly towards foreigners. The city is absolutely stunning and you will never run out of new places to explore. Furthermore, post-Soviet Union Russia is fairly young and opportunities for young people are numerous and exciting. Young people here (in general) are creative, independent and original, which creates a vibrant, dynamic energy for the city. I was lucky enough to find a great apartment on Air BnB with five other twenty-somethings, who introduced me to lots of their friends and helped with making connections in the city. 

Moving to any new place is never easy, and the best piece of advice I can give is to be open-minded without being stupid. Luckily, I already had some exposure to Russian culture which cushioned the blow slightly; however, there is a big cultural difference and it does take time to adjust. To the native-English speaker, Russians might initially come across as brusque and rude at times but this is completely unintentional and should be taken with a pinch of salt. The food also takes getting used to, and my father is lovely enough to keep me topped up with care packages of English tea, marmite, balsamic vinegar, and parmesan amongst other essentials.  

My professors at the Conservatory are all varying degrees of crazy - but which musician isn’t - and they are all hugely talented musicians who really know their stuff: classical music. I have three different teachers for Solo Piano, Vocal Accompanying and Chamber Music and they are all wonderful and very supportive if you work hard and show commitment. 

(This was after spending my first semester with a piano teacher whose teaching style was miles from what I needed or was used to, meaning I lost all direction and purpose in my playing. Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask for other options if you are not happy. I stayed quiet for the first couple of months, thinking that I just needed time to adjust to the teaching style before realising that adjustment or not, I wasn’t improving and had lost lots of my passion for the art. Speaking to my chamber music teacher was the start of a complete turnaround and my new teacher is one of the best.)

There are often concert opportunities around the city and it is easy to find a space if you want to organise your own concert. Practise rooms are, of course, a problem. (I am yet to hear of a music conservatory or school where this isn’t a problem.) I ended up joining the group of early-risers who go at 7am in order to guarantee a good three or four hours of practise time before all the rooms are taken up with lessons or lectures. However, the rouble is low and buying a piano here is not completely out of the question - I found an upright piano for free and it will cost me around $50 for delivery and $200 to get it into a good working state. 

Unfortunately, having come straight from four years of studying at the University of Bristol in the UK (where music is constantly developing and electronic music and jazz are both at the forefront of the music scene), I have been slightly disappointed by the fixation on classical music and lack of interest in contemporary or modern music. The Russian public is generally still quite close-minded when it comes to new music - acoustic or electronic. I am certain this will change in the next ten to twenty years - St. Petersburg and Moscow are currently changing and evolving at an overwhelming pace, though it does mean I sometimes pine for the forward, outside-of-the-box thinkers I was surrounded by in Bristol. However, if anything I look at this as a positive as I feel that I can take my experience from the UK and make a change to the music scene here, having been exposed to musical ideas there that are still foreign to many in the city. In this sense, I feel that foreign musicians can and will have a very positive impact in this city. The future looks promising and exciting and I want to be a part of it.