Is it possible to balance classics with jazz?
Existing in two worlds at the same time is like being a bat — you are neither a bird nor a mouse, and you are and aren’t accepted at the same time
There’s a question that from time to time arises when talking to the «youngsters» in jazz music, and with youngsters, I don’t mean age, but rather changing specialty or direction. Speaking of pianists, it’s quite often when a classical musician decides to play some jazz, and then the problems begin because it isn’t that easy to change your previous way of thinking. We have already talked to a pianist, Marika Šaripo, for this magazine. This time, the conversation will be with a beautiful piano player who already knew since her childhood that she was going to exist in two worlds at once. So! Jelizaveta Terentjeva plays classical music, and Betty Terens plays jazz: this is a story about a simple girl from Latvia who tried to balance two musical worlds in Moscow.
Liza, please tell me who you are.
My name is Jelizaveta Terentjeva, and my stage name is Betty Terens! Betty is a short form of Elisabeth, and Terens is a short form of my surname. I wasn’t the one who invented it, this stage name is what my jazz colleagues gave me during a jam session very long ago when I was maybe fifteen years old. I’m a pianist, composer, and improviser. I graduated from Chaikovsky Conservatory and have a classical education. I have three ways to choose from in my life — they agreed to admit me to Moscow, the jazz department at Igor Bril n Gnesin Conservatory, and the Chaikovsky Conservatory, so I could choose between classical composition and piano. So I had these three choices. I thought through it all and decided I needed that classical basis. At that time, I saw myself as a classical pianist, although jazz music was always there. My father loved music a lot, he privately studied to play the piano and guitar. He often played jazz records for me, let’s say it was Gershwin, and then I thought — wow, what a gem! This is so cool! I think my love for music began with the composition «Summertime». I was eight, and my father offered to play it as a duo, so it began.
You mentioned a jam session you attended at the age of sixteen. What was it?
It was a part of the «Saulkrasti Jazz» festival, I found it on the internet myself — I found out there will be different workshops, and I decided I needed it. Afterward, I participated in it three times or so. The first time was, if I’m not mistaken, in 2011. It was very interesting. I’m overall quite an ambitious person, and it helps me in my life — I was always searching for a free classroom with a piano during the workshops in order to play there, I was usually joined by someone to jam together, and these people were the ones who named me Betty Terens.
Where did you study before the Chaikovsky Conservatory?
I graduated from Emīls Dārziņš music high school.
But it doesn’t have a jazz department there, so how did you learn to play? On your own?
Yes! My father shared his records, and I was listening to them. He loved jazz a lot, and he had that great friend of his, Edmunds Ramoško, a Lithuanian jazz pianist and improviser, with whom they played in a band together, he had his own concerts in the Great Guild. At some point, Edmunds formed a famous band, «Tukums-3», where Raimonds Kalņiņs played drums. Later on, Raimonds became one of the co-founders of the «Saulkrasti Jazz» festival!
Edmunds has three nephews, and I studied with the oldest of them, a pianist, Matiejus Bazaras — I consulted him about whether I play something well enough, and his advice greatly influenced my musical development; he gave me lots of great advice, very solid.
How did you decide to go to Moscow to study?
While studying at the Dārziņš school, I participated in the Vladimir Gorowitz international young pianist contest in Kyiv — that’s quite a famous contest where during the third part, you had to play two concerts with an orchestra in a row. I reached the second part, and there was one student from the Chaikovsky Conservatory. I came to him and asked what is what, and he told me he is studying at Natalia Trull, who is just a goddess in the academic world — one of the best professors, even better than Dmitry Bashkirov. So we talked for a couple of minutes, and that was it — everyone went in his own direction. A couple of years passed, and I was still studying in Dārziņi and decided to take part in Andrejs Petrovs composer contest and got the award… So I went to the Gala to receive the prize, and the jury suddenly invited me to enroll in the Chaikovsky Conservatory for the composer’s course! It’s pretty clear I was in awe, and while I was in Moscow, I decided to go see this conservatory. So I remembered that guy I’d talked to for just two minutes and thought — well, maybe he remembers me if I call him. So I called him, and he remembered! So we decided to meet near a fermata — that’s a place near the Chaikovsky monument, and it’s called that because if you look from the bird’s flight perspective, it also looks like it — a monument in the center and a fence around it in a half-circle. I came, he showed me the school and asked me to wait a bit. A couple of minutes passed, and he returned saying — let’s go; my professor is waiting for you right now! Can you imagine — it’s December, minus fifteen degrees or something like it, it’s snowing, hands are freezing, and he leads me to Natalia Trull… I absolutely wasn’t ready to play anything to her, I was scared as hell because she’s one of the most demanding professors ever! People get kicked off her course so quickly… but… I played something and can you imagine, she told me she’d accept me! That’s a story. And a bonus to that — it appeared that the Latvian students have a quota from the embassy of sorts, and the studies in Russia could be paid for. The contest was very complicated — you had to gather all of your diplomas and marks, even in Chemistry and Physics… but somehow I got that place, that quota. It was really hard, but I graduated from the conservatory.
What an adventure… And where’s jazz in this story?
I was really lucky! I realized that if I spent all five years without improvising, these skills would disappear, and getting them back would be complicated. So I came out with a plan and decided on an aim, just as the New Year’s promise to myself — every day or at least once every two days, for at least a couple of hours, I had to practice improvising, investigate modes, chords, and such things. My aim was to find concerts and teachers, as well. I was lucky because I met Gregory Fine — he’s a famous jazz pianist and composer, and what a wonderful coincidence — he was teaching jazz improvisation at the very conservatory I was studying at! The first of September, and where am I? Running across the academy in search of Professor Fine! I had to talk him into this because he had mainly worked with orchestra musicians instead of solo pianists; however, he appreciated my passion. He began to slowly teach me things. Of course, the lessons weren’t exactly the same as for specialty students and not as regular as they had, once every two weeks or a month, but when he was in Moscow, he always informed me, and we tried to find the time to meet up. I tried to get as much information from him as I could, and it was amazing. He gave me his compositions to play and sometimes invited me to participate in school concerts. School concerts were considered major events, and people from the whole city attended, so it was very important for me, and it was a great honor to participate.
And then I was lucky enough to see a note in the school cafeteria — it was handwritten with a blue marker: «Searching for a pianist-improviser for a cafe in Patriarch Ponds» — that’s the richest district in Moscow. There’s a restaurant called «Margarita», a quote from Bulgakov’s book «Master and Margarita», and jazz evenings were organized in that restaurant. And that was the true school of improvising! Other musicians were joining all the time — singers, violinists, saxophonists, sometimes even the listeners ordered a song, and you couldn’t say no; it was a law of sorts. There were situations when someone ordered a song I didn’t know at all. Then I lied that the program was already full with orders; I’ll play your composition after a break, then during the break, I ran to the toilet to listen to it and then tried to play it by ear. Once, they even asked to play Scarlatti in jazz! It was something like this, and it went quite well because I was later offered to host jams on Tuesday nights. They had an offer — if you joined the jam, you could have a free drink, and of course, people were keen on coming. So these jazz nights gave me an opportunity to become better at jazz. And at the same time, I realized that it’s very difficult to balance between these two worlds — classical and jazz. So I decided to clearly divide them — Jelizaveta Terentjeva plays classical, and Betty Terens plays jazz.
How can you balance jazz with classical music?
It’s quite difficult. Usually, these two worlds are absolutely different — in terms of thinking, music perception, and time perception, there can be discussions about rhythm and phrasing. I’m not even talking about sound creation techniques. It’s difficult to balance it all, but I had the goal to try! When I just began taking these two paths at the same time, I was still thinking that maybe at some point, I would choose one and I’ll reach either one destination or another. And at one point, I met one amazing pianist you also know — Péter Sárik!
Peter, yes! He balances jazz and classical in an amazing way!
It was in Saulkrasti; I booked a room, took Peter, and asked him to help me! He once told me he sees himself in me. He gave me a couple of private lessons and some great advice, and I try to follow them to this day. We talked a lot about the options to unite the jazz and classical music worlds and how they are different. While talking to him, I realized I learned right about sound creation in both music genres. Classical musicians «test» the keys; they play with their spine, but the whole body is involved in the process: your hand is a dome, your fist is between the instrument and you, etc. While using these techniques, you can make the keyboard create a sound of your choice, influencing its tone and timbre. We had quite a lot of transcendental lessons at the conservatory, lots of music psychology and other things. In jazz, as the jazz people told me, it was totally different — the sound has to be very precise. At the same time, jazzmen and classics perceive time in different ways. In classical music, time is flexible, and time leads the music. In jazz, you play with the time, and you lead time. And despite the syncope existing only in the context of a strong beat, you can actually move this strong beat! And even though it seems that if you move the strong beat back or forth, the syncope might disappear, jazzmen somehow manage to keep it and even more — rule over it!
What are you doing now? Studies in Moscow are finished, and you’re back home in Latvia. What’s next?
Yes, I finished my studies and have been back home for over a year. I had a pedagogical practice during my studies where I could work on my own method for improvisation studies, and right now, I’m trying to develop and tidy it. I’m touring European countries. For three years in a row, I’m being invited to participate in a very interesting festival where both classical and jazz music is performed because the organizers like both a lot. I’m usually invited to play solo concerts where I play classical music in the first part and my own jazz compositions in the second, then a jam session follows. I’m very happy that there’s word-of-mouth working, people keep talking about me to their friends, other festivals, and concert venues, and it appears the audience likes my music! I get invited to play concerts and do workshops. I’ve played in Riga a couple of times too — there was a concert in the «Biedrība» club, I played in «Galerija73», and attended jam sessions at «M/Darbnīca». I still struggle with balancing, though. Both music genres are very important and dear to me, but… For me, being a part of both classical and jazz music worlds is like being a bat — you’re neither a mouse nor a bird; you get accepted everywhere and also don’t. It’s difficult for me sometimes because the more I play classical music, the more I lack improvisation and creativity. And the more I do jazz, the more I lack classics. So now I play my original music on stage! [laughs]