Recovery from Injury: Alicja Fiderkiewicz

Following on from the recent interview with Evelina de Lain in which she talked about her recovery from a serious piano playing injury, I am delighted to talk to Alicja Fiderkiewicz, an internationally renowned  classical concert pianist who has experienced her own trauma with injury.

To provide more background before exploring Alicja’s recovery from injury, I wanted to find out more about her piano journey, starting with her lessons as a child growing up in Poland and Soviet Russia…

The Interview

Andrew: Alicja, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview for Pianodao. Can we start by talking about your background, growing up, becoming a musician?

Alicja: I was very lucky to have been born into a music loving family in Warsaw, Poland. Although there were no professional musicians in my family, both sets of my grandparents and my parents loved music. My Mother played the piano as an amateur and my Grandfather played the violin.

As a baby I showed early signs of enjoying the music, especially piano.I smiled and apparently listened to the radio all day long and cried when it was time to switch the radio off…

When I was about 3 years old, my older sister’s piano teacher decided that she could not cope with Ela’s non-existing practise and tiny progress, and decided to stop teaching her. On her way out of the house she suddenly heard a piece of music which my sister struggled with. It was played perfectly, both hands together and above all – in a totally different key! She and my Mum were intrigued and went back into the sitting room where they found me standing underneath the grand piano’s keyboard and playing above my head!!

My musical ability was then spotted and recognised. I had perfect pitch, tremendous sense of rhythm and above all – piano was the only thing which mattered to me, even then!

So you started your lessons at that very young age?

I was encouraged to continue learning on my own and with my Mum’s help. I played lots of popular tunes. I also taught myself some easy Schubert, Chopin and Bach – who became and still is my favourite composer. I also composed a lot of little pieces, most of them were about animals, cats, dogs, etc. I wrote a short suite about the animals at the ZOO following my visit there.

The teacher who “discovered” me came back when I was 6 to prepare me for an audition to Karol Szymanowski’s Music School in Warsaw, the best music school in Poland. I was successfully admitted, without realising that apparently this was the best audition they ever had in the history of the school!

I loved my new teacher prof. Krystyna Bocianowska, who encouraged me to work hard and gave me some fantastic basic training. I progressed very quickly and as a good sight reader, I was soon playing lots of more advanced music and participating in small concerts and even radio broadcasts.

But nothing prepared me for what followed later. When I was 8 my Father was appointed as a Naval Attaché and joined the Diplomatic Service at the Polish Embassy in Moscow. The whole family uprooted to Moscow and a totally new life began for me.

After some enquiries my parents decided that I should enter the famous Central School of Music attached to Moscow Conservatoire. But that was easier said than done! My audition almost finished any hopes of me ever becoming a musician, never mind a pianist. I was told that although I displayed great potential and have considerable talent, my technical ability in comparison with other children at the school was absolutely non existent, and as I also have very small hands (they also looked at my parents’ hands-also small), I really had no chance of survival at that institution.

But they gave me 6 months trial period based on my enthusiasm and I suppose talent. On top of everything else, I did not know Russian so at the age of just nine I not only had to prove that I can be as good as any of the kids who were already at that school since the age of three but also had to learn a new language and alphabet.

That sounds like a monumental challenge!

A new chapter in my life started! I practised between 6-8 hours a day, and had extra lessons helping me with the new language. I hardly had any time to see friends and even my family.

I was given a wonderful teacher, Prof. Tatjana Evgenevna Kestner, herself a former student of Goldenweiser. She was very strict and demanding but with her help, guidance and encouragement I successfully sailed through my six month trial audition and within a year I played my first ever piano concerto – Bach’s F minor keyboard concerto.

My time in Moscow was wonderful. I met some great musicians. Richter & Gilels used to adjudicate our exams. I went to lots of marvellous concerts at the Moscow Conservatoire and heard some incredible performances.

When my Father was recalled to Warsaw it was decided that I would return with the family back to Poland. I did not want to go and prof. Kestner tried to reason with my parents, but they did not want to leave me in the boarding school at the age of 15. So I returned to Warsaw and auditioned for Karol Szymanowski’s High Music School, this time with Chopin’s Piano Concerto no 2 .

I was accepted and went on to study with Prof. Wanda Losakiewicz and Prof. Zbigniew Drzewiecki. During my 4 years there I was awarded the Chopin Scholarship for 4 years in succession, which resulted in many recitals throughout Poland. I also won a number of National Competitions and graduated with Distinction.

And here I was, 18 years old and wondering where to go next…

At that point, it must have seemed the “world was your oyster”

After some discussions with my Father it was decided that I would continue my studies at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester UK with prof. Ryszard Bakst, whose playing I greatly admired. So I arrived in Manchester, and of course I did not know much English, so there was a new challenge, as well as hardship and basic fight for survival!

Life for me on my own was very difficult. I had very little money. Fortunately RNCM paid for my tuition for the next 5 years and for a post graduate year. I was and still am most grateful for that.

During my studies in Manchester I participated in many competitions, and represented RNCM on many occasions in different concert halls throughout the UK. I became winner of Dudley Competition, prizewinner in Premio Dino Ciani in La Scala Milan, semifinalist in Clara Haskell in Switzerland to name a few. I also received the Calouste Gulbenkian Fellowship. I made my Wigmore Hall début in London and performed with a number of orchestras. I graduated with Distinction both in Teaching and in Performance.

While at the RNCM I began teaching privately and at Chethams School of Music where I taught for 28 years. I am a frequent member of the Piano Faculty during Chethams’ International Summer School.

What about performing?

Since leaving RNCM, I have had a pretty busy career until I made a decision to stop performing. It was a choice I made myself. I wanted a break from the piano, which was taking over my life. I took a very long sabbatical – over 10 years!

But in 2001 I made a decision to go back to performing. It was not an easy task, but slowly I have built up a reputation. I have since been performing not just in the UK but in Japan, the USA, and many countries in Europe. I have recorded four CD’s, receiving very good reviews.

I sometimes wish that I never took those years off stage but I think I got to a point that I needed a break and rest from the piano in order to appreciate it again.

Since returning to the concert platform, you have battled with injury – and you took a brave step in talking about it to The Telegraph, and now to me. How unusual is this?

In this most competitive music industry the subject of hand and body injuries does not often get a mention. Why? The answer is very simple. We are all aware that disclosure of physical weakness and prolonged treatment time can affect our future concert bookings. Managers, promoters and sponsors do not take kindly to engagement cancellations and are reluctant to arrange anymore for an artist in the future just in case the injury occurs again.

And yet, there are so many instrumentalists who have been affected by varied injuries related to spending endless hours practising.

How do pianists typically suffer, and what advice can you give to help prevent others becoming injured?

Pianists suffer from back, neck and shoulder pains, so the posture at the piano is very important. The correct height of the piano stool and the distance between the pianist and the keyboard play a major role in avoiding tension in the shoulders and lower back.

It is also most important to warm up before every practise session. I think each one of us has special warm up exercises, be it Hanon, Beringer, scales, etc. My personal favourite are Beringer exercises. Failure to do so can lead to hand injury. Starting your practice session by playing straight through a Chopin Étude up to speed with cold hands is asking for trouble!

Having lived in Russia and Poland for many years, I have also learned to make sure that I always wear gloves when I go out in cold weather, so my hands are protected. As I suffer from rather cold hands anyway, I need to have special hand warmers before a performance. I take them on the stage with me and wrap them inside a handkerchief.

Having had some hand injuries in the past, I now know that balancing recital repertoire is another important aspect of preventing problems. I know that it is very tempting to arrange a recital around some massive works, but take care and think how many hours of technical practise it will involve. And how much pressure on fingers, wrists and elbows it might create – leading to tendinitis, the most common pianists injury.

I now arrange my recital programmes in a much more sensible and injury free way – balancing the big works with smaller ones, so my hands can rest in between. After all, we can work on improving sound production and depth without endless technical work!!

From my own experience I now know that there are few pieces which caused me a considerable discomfort in the past. As much as I love playing those pieces – I have decided that it is not worth risking another injury so I will not perform them again …

And this all worked out well – you are free of injury now, correct?

My last hand injury has been published in an article in The Daily Telegraph. It was most stressful time as I did not know if I ever play again but the surgery was very successful and I had no problems since. Perhaps it is due to my newly balanced recital programming, or just more sensible practice…

And you have taken steps to avoid further problems…

When I was in Moscow, my teacher prof.T.E .Kestner advised me to bathe my hands in very hot water with salt crystals in. Also cold/ hot treatment creams and sprays are very useful to apply after a particularly strenuous practise session.

I also have a physio ice pack permanently in my freezer, ready for any early signs of possible injury. It is very important to spot those right at the beginning and react immediately. And resting the hand which feels tired is also very crucial. We can always work away from the piano, listen to music and study a score without actually playing.

I think I tried to cover some problems connected with injuries, but I think using ones common sense is the best way of staying clear of them!

I am sure that is truly the best advice of all!
Thank you so much for taking the time to share with Pianodao readers – I am sure that your experience and advice will be highly valued by all.

For information about Alicja’s recordings, concert dates and other news, please visit :  Alicja’s Website

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is the author of HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC, published worldwide by Hal Leonard. He is a widely respected piano educator and published composer based on Milton Keynes UK.