Fast Confession - Best Czech harpist Jana Boušková: All my life I‘ve been working hard, I had my first taste of alcohol at 28!
There is most likely no such person who doesn't like music. But each of us prefers a different style. Jana Boušková has devoted her entire life to music and she was the first Czech to get into the prestigious American Harp Competition, which she also won. Today, she passes on her skills to students not only in Prague, but also in London and Brussels. Yet few people know about her. Maybe it's because athletes get more attentions than musicians, maybe because this lady is very modest and quiet. But when she sits down behind her golden harp, the listeners get carried away into a different and much better world.
You are one of the best Czech harpists. How did you get to playing?
I was born into a family of musicians, my mother was a harpist herself. Unfortunately, she passed away a month ago, which I'm still having a hard time accepting. I've had a connection with this instrument since the day I was born. And that made everything natural and easy. Actually, I don't even know how and when I started playing the instrument.
How many years has it been?
Many, several decades already. (laughs). I started playing when I was about six or seven, so it's actually been 40 years.
But being from a family of musicians is not enough, you had to work hard. What did your childhood look like? Have you been climbing trees with friends and chasing boys with other girls?
I don't think I didn't have a childhood. But then, when I see how normal children live, I have to admit that mine might have been more restricted. My entire childhood revolved around the instrument, playing and music in general. I used to accompany my parents to their own concerts and got used to this world of music and my parents' way of life early on.
At the same time, I also liked playing outdoors with other girls and boys, I had friends and later boyfriends. I lived in a normal way, but I didn't go to discos and bars, I had my first glass of alcohol when I was about twenty-eight. I really didn't drink at all, I didn't miss it. I first tasted beer at thirty-five, in Ireland. It was Guinness, with a harp symbol on the can. I lived in such a pure, childlike world. I got married already at the age of 22, but otherwise I was always surrounded solely by music. I wasn't really interested in anything else, nothing was more important for me than that quiet life.
During all that time you must have gone through some development. When did it become clear that you would be playing outside the Czech Republic, too?
I guess it has been clear since early on, because I was playing in Germany already as a little girl. I often received really beautiful criticisms, the headlines would say “Bravo, Jana!”, “Auf wiedersehen Jana!” And I was only ten years old. So since then, the door to the world has been slightly open for me. At the age of fifteen I was already a soloist of the Brighton Orchestra in England.
And how did you get to the USA?
There were little to none harp competitions in the 1990s. Only two important ones existed in the world. One was in Israel and the other in America. If you wanted to participate in a competition, these two biggest competitions were the only chances you had.
I first tried my luck at the US competition when I was 18 years old. I was selected for the competition, even though nobody knew me. I was the very first Czech to participate in such a contest, immediately place in the first year and, out of 50 competitors, win the sixth Maria Damm Rensch Award, which was a truly incredible success. Three years later I entered the Israeli competition. That one is not easy to get in either, as the jury has to first select the participants from a large number of entries on the basis of recordings. I was fortunate enough to be selected that time, too. And even though this competition had a long tradition, again, I was the very first participant from Czechoslovakia in the history of the competition. And in this competition, I ranked almost on the top among fifty participants from all over the world. I won the second place.
The one missing step to the first prize was a disappointment, but also a great motivation for me. And so I told myself: "In four months, there will be another competition held in America. I will give it one more try and hopefully finally reach the highest post." I knew it would mean learning a brand new program in four months, a task that would normally take two years. And so I spent the next four months sitting behind the harp, day after day, sometimes up to 12 hours a day, and I managed to learn the new program. In the end, the time I had spent on it really came to fruition. I won the contest and received the harp I so desired after having missed it by a single place in Israel.
How many Czechs get selected for such competitions?
Since then, no one else from the Czech Republic or Slovakia has participated in the Israeli competition, so I am still the first competitor in the history of our two countries, who has not only participated but also placed so high. As for the American competition, three other Czechs have been there besides me, one even competed with me in the year that I won. But all my colleagues have always made it only to the second round of the total of four rounds.
How is it possible? Is it gift from God, or your hard work?
Some say that assessing music is subjective. I might be able to argue with those who say that. I have been in juries of music competitions several times. If there are only average players among the contestants and then you have to consider that one has good technique but isn't musical, while the other is a great musician, but his technique isn't perfect, then yes, the argument that the assessment is subjective is valid, because every juror must give priority to someone who they personally find more interesting. However, if you hear an artist whose performance immediately knocks you off your feet, because they manage to combine everything in their interpretation, suddenly all the contestants who played before them are overshadowed by this performance. Then it's not about subjectivity, it is clear evidence that the best one can be spotted immediately, if they appear in the large number of competitors at all.
Otherwise, I think that both the gift from God, which is something extra, talent that cannot be learned, and the diligence must be present. You could say I sacrificed my entire life to the harp. I enjoyed it very much, I don't see myself as a victim, but there is no other word for it, because I was really sitting behind the instrument from morning to evening. In fact, I have been looking forward to it since I was ten years old, I always came home from school and went for the harp instead of doing my homework, and I was delighted to learn something new. I even enjoyed playing etudes, which most people condemn. For me it was drudgery that pushed me further. And I knew that it was only thanks to my diligence that I could play even in the West sometimes, which was a really great motivation for me at that time.
Which compositions did you win in America with?
It was a four-hour program, so there were a lot of pieces. There were four rounds, each lasted an hour and it was really incredibly long. It was a long list of compositions ranging from Baroque to contemporary authors.
Traveling to Israel and America for competitions is expensive. You must have had a lot of support from your family…
We didn't have money. I remember that I had the support of the Ministry of Culture at that time, because it was really a one of a kind event. In those days it probably worked like that, the ministries used to contribute to talented people who could represent the Czech Republic. The help was much needed, because my family couldn't afford it. As for my first trip to America at 18, my godfather, who lives in Germany, bought me the plane tickets, and the accommodation was provided by the competition, so there were no other expenses.
The harp is a large instrument, very expensive, very heavy. I believe there are lightweight harps nowadays, but how was it in the 1990s?
Even nowadays, harps aren't any lighter than before. They are still made of wood and that has a certain weight. We had no harps at all here, it was impossible to get any instruments other than those from Russian and Czech production. The quality of these harps was only good for practising or school performances. And that was another huge motivation for me, because at the two big world competitions, the first prize is always an American harp, which, for harpists, is something like a Rolls-Royce among instruments. That was actually my only dream, the main goal I wanted to achieve, that harp, the first prize.
Of course I knew that winning such a competition would open the door to a concert career even wider for me, but the instrument that I could never have bought from my own financial resources was still the main reason for me to participate and win. It is so very expensive and my parents didn't have the money. So I was working extra hard, practicing all the time and my motivation has been incredibly strong ever since my student years. Sitting behind the instrument eight to twelve hours a day didn't seem strange to me at all. It was a great basis for what I've been doing all my life – playing solo concerts and drawing from this hard work that I had put in during my student years.
I am extremely grateful to my parents for their upbringing and for instilling in me the habit of working hard, because the success I was able to achieve later was the result of my regular practising.
So you won a new harp in America. What happened to your original one?
I still have it at home, I got it from my parents when I was eighteen. It was an instrument of Russian production. Until then, I had only played my mom's instruments, which were very old. The harp is not like a violin, the older the better, it's the opposite. The price decreases and the instrument is no longer perfect. My Russian harp is an instrument on which I had worked to secure my future successful career, wherefore I don't want to give it up, even though I no longer use it.
How much did it cost?
At that time, a Russian instrument cost seventy thousand, which was comparable to the price of a car.
You mentioned that the most expensive harp you own is worth a million crowns…
Actually, mine is not the most expensive kind in the world. The most valuable instruments can cost up to five million. But those really aren't for everyone. And even the competitions don't provide such expensive instruments for victory. The price of the harp I won is over a million crowns, which is no small amount of money either.
You have to take a mortgage for that, right?
If I were to buy it, yes ... Fortunately, I won this one.
And do you have any other?
I have one more, one I actually bought. I had so many concerts after winning in those competitions that I was able to earn enough for a new instrument on my own after a couple of years.
You must have special insurance for it…
That's a necessity.
So how heavy is the harp? How can such a tiny woman like you even handle it?
It weighs about 45 pounds, but I don't carry it. I have such a trolley that I load it on.
But when you're playing for four hours at a time...
The instrument is balanced in a certain place, so it stands on its own. That's the trick of a good harpist, to figure it out. If they don't, then they have back problems, the weight is falling on them. But when you support the instrument slightly with your knees at that certain balanced point, you don't really feel the weight and you can play with the harp as though it were a light inflatable ball.
Where do you play?
My work is very varied. The work that fulfills me the most, although everything I do fulfills me, is when I myself can convey the music. When I play solo, it's me who shares the music and my momentary emotions with the audience. That fulfills me the most.
Otherwise, I am a solo harpist of the Czech Philharmonic, which is a great honor for me, because it is a completely different approach to work, different kind of cooperation with people. Of course, I have the opportunity to play songs other than those for solo harp and it truly is immensely fulfilling and enriching, as well as the opportunities to play chamber concerts in a duo or trio with other instruments.
In addition to that, I am also engaged in teaching and I teach at three universities. One of them is in Prague, namely the Academy of Performing Arts, the other in Brussels, the Royal Conservatory, where I have been teaching since 2005, and the third is the Royal College of Music in London. I have been newly appointed professor there since this September. This university is one of the largest and best music colleges in the world. My happiness and joy at winning in the audition, which was held at the end of November last year, need not be expressed. It is simply a tremendous success, which is also confirmed by the fact that I am the first Czech ever to receive this honor.
You‘ve also played in Japan...
I often give solo concerts there. This time I introduced my recital with the theme "Má vlast" ("My Homeland"). The name comes from Bedřich Smetana's symphonic cycle, of which I have modified two parts, namely Vyšehrad and Šárka, for the harp. And since Vltava already exists in a harp arrangement, my mother had been spreading its fame around the world before me, and I'd also had it in my repertoire for some time, I added it to the other two parts. And half the "Má vlast" cycle for solo harp was born.
I completed this program with other compositions by Czech classics, such as Antonín Dvořák and Josef Suk, and the program was met with great success. Japan is one of the places where I give solo concerts regularly. But I also play in other countries and continents, so these distant lands don't seem so extraordinary to me anymore.
How is it possible to manage all that?
Everybody asks me that, but my motto is, "Everything is possible if you try hard enough." I always have my regime planned out a loooooong time in advance. By which I mean a year and a half to two years in advance. I probably owe it to the discipline I have learned already in my childhood, without which I most likely wouldn't be able to handle it.
A year in advance, I have to make a firm teaching plan in all three universities, buy plane tickets to Brussels and London, and combine it all with planning preparations for my solo concerts and the dates of the concerts themselves, as well as synchronize everything with the schedule of rehearsals, concerts and tours with the Czech Philharmonic. And I also have to make time for my children. So yes, everything is possible, but I admit that I have little to no free time. And if I happen to have some, then I have to take care of the small things, just like anybody else. Go to the post office, pay my bills, do the washing and cleaning. And most importantly, be with my children and family.
When did you manage to have children? You were traveling a lot, always out of the country…
I always knew that the main reason why I was put in this world was to have children. I really longed to have some, but of course there were duties that I had to do first. I had more than 100 concerts a year back then and at the same time I was organizing the World Harp Congress in Prague for four years. It was a lot.
Fortunately, I was not a member of the orchestra yet, nor was I teaching abroad. I was just a soloist, so I was the master of my time. I wanted to have children before thirty, and heaven probably granted me that wish. Both of my children managed to fit into the only time off that I had. I knew that my international tour would end in nine months and that I‘d have a month off, so I suggested that we try. And just like that, it worked out immediately with both of my sons.
And your former husband tolerated your frequent trips abroad?
He was also a musician, he plays in the Czech Philharmonic. I came into this ensemble only later, during my solo career, due to which many people were wondering why I'd even go to an orchestra when I'd already managed to build a position for myself that everyone dreams of. Usually, it's the other way round in the music world. First people become members of an orchestra and only then they start pursuing a solo career.
I had a solo career at the world's highest level. And I joined the orchestra when I was 35 years old and there was a vacancy in the Czech Philharmonic. However, I didn't sideline my solo career, I had children already and wanted to be as close as possible to my husband, who became my colleague. If I hadn't had a partner who was also a musician, it would have certainly been harder. Like this, I had the tolerance I needed at home, I could do my work and give concerts in peace, and there was mutual trust - and I took all of that for granted. And so the various pitfalls of timing were always met with understanding.
Your children are musicians as well, I pressume…
Yes, they are.
Going back to your childhood, how did you combine it with school attendance, when you were away all the time?
Naturally, I had to go to school just like any other child. At that time, the borders were still closed, so getting abroad was a great achievement, if it worked out at all. I was able to attend quite normally, and at the age of twelve I passed exams for the conservatory prep. Since twelve, I was attending two schools at the same time, an ordinary elementary school and a conservatory, where I became a regular student at the age of fifteen. The conservatory provides students with free time, so that they could fully pursue their profession. There is more flexibility for trips abroad.
How did you feel as a young girl, winning all these prestigious competitions?
I was so pumped up on work that it made me extremely confident. I was very sure of myself, because when it came to playing, nothing seemed difficult for me. Many foreign harpists kept asking me how I was able to play some of the technical elements at paces that were several times faster than those of other players. I became an inspiration for foreign harpists, and that gives you confidence and the certainty that people look up to you. So you have a great chance to climb up to the highest place in the world. It was a really beautiful time for me, because at such a young age I already didn't find any composition difficult. I felt great, but I knew I hadn't gotten there for free, I'd put a huge effort into it.
When you first came to America, what were your impressions?
It was a different world, it was fantastic, everything was completely different. They even put me on the front page of a newspaper. It was just after the revolution and they wrote about me eating sausages in the morning. We thought it was funny. In the Czech Republic, it was completely normal to have sausages for breakfast back then, I didn't consider it odd at all, but they were totally blown away by hearing I eat sausages with mustard. People's attitude seemed completely different to me, everyone was so friendly. At the time, the meeting of an American with a European coming from the Eastern Bloc was probably an interesting experience not only for us, but obviously also for them.
I must admit I was a little sorry that we were treated as though as we'd fallen out of a tree. In the family I lived with, the lady gave me a tour of the kitchen equipment, saying "this is a fridge, a stove, a microwave oven". I was almost offended. But otherwise America was a wonderful world for us, the freedom and the abundance of everything... Today, everything is so globalized that there's nothing that could surprise us anymore, but back then it was a really beautiful new world for us.
You've also played for Havel, the Prince of Denmark and many famous people. And you received honors from the state…
I was presented the Talent of the Year 97 Award, the Music Fund Award for promoting Czech music and representing Czech performing arts abroad in 2002. And from the President of the Czech Republic Václav Klaus, I received the Lady Pro Award in 2004, which placed me in the top ten most important women in the Czech Republic. That was probably the highest honor from the state.
What always bothers me and strikes me as unfair to exceptional musicians is that we represent the country, have worked hard all our lives, but the general public barely knows about us. It's not like we are doing our work for media coverage, we are doing it to bring art and the really good classical music closer to people, to introduce them to the wonderful and irreplaceable beauty of art that is the foundation of a healthy society. To educate people culturally and bring them intellectual enrichment. We represent our country all over the world, similarly to athletes, but those who have achieved their fame in a completely different way than by honest, lifelong work and demonstrable, unquestionable international successes, often yield much more interest.
Is today's generation interested in harp? Is it a sought after field?
Currently, there is a lot of interest, I have nine pupils at AMU, eleven in Brussels. I'm not sure how many there will be in London, school year hasn‘t started over there yet. Overall, however, there were about sixteen students at the university. Us three harp professors will probably share them.
That seems to me like a little compared to the economy you‘ve mentioned.
Yes, but as professors of instrumental music, we can have a maximum of fourteen students, it's not possible to teach more.
Do they all find work later?
It's a bit complicated with the harp, even in the orchestra, where there are two harps at maximum. And I won't even mention the possibility of a solo career. Those who are truly world soloists could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Fortunately, at least harp began to be taught at music schools, which generated slightly more job opportunities for students.
Is there a place where you haven't played yet and would like to?
I was lucky enough to play, you could say, everywhere. I played as a soloist at the Lincoln Center in New York, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Cologne Philharmonic, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the Theater de la Ville in Paris, the Santory Hall in Tokyo, the Prague Rudolfinum and the Smetana Hall, the Spanish Hall at Prague Castle and many others.
But there are still concert halls in which I wish to play. As a member of the Philharmonic, I had the opportunity, but not yet solo. It is, for instance, Royal Albert Hall or Wigmore Hall in London or Carnegie Hall in New York. But the older you are, the more modest you get, and I think I've achieved so much already that I am extremely grateful for it all. Of course if an opportunity arises, I will always be honored and glad. With age, one reassesses one‘s priorities, and I know I've been granted more already than most people in their entire life. I think I've already lived at least ten human lives in the course of one.
You wear beautiful dresses and shoes for your concerts. Is someone helping you or do you choose everything yourself?
I choose everything myself, it's a big hobby of mine. As soon as I see a shop with evening dresses, I have to enter. The saleswomen are always amazed because I have twice as many dresses at home as they do in the store.You could say it's a collector's passion for me.
You must have special storage space for that!
I have a special dressing room where I keep all my dresses. Some people collect handbags and shoes, which I actually collect as well, but in addition to that, I have a collection of evening dresses. I'm slowly running out of space, though… (laughs)
And do you have hair and make-up professionals or do you do your own styling?
I do my own make up and hair. When you've been in music since childhood, you pick up a few things. I always wanted to be self-sufficient, so as not to bother anyone. Life has taught me things that I wouldn't have dreamed of before, I can fix small home appliances, assemble furniture, etc. At one time, I was playing the role of a hairdresser for my whole family. I can do my own make up and hairstyle before a concert, too.
Of course, if an extraordinary event, filming or photo shoot is approaching, I'll invite a professional. I honestly admit that I like being pampered. Because my marital relationship collapsed, and my other hopes have been failing so far, I don't have a life partner at the moment. And my desire to be self-sufficient is a great help to me now.
Where can those interested see and hear you? Is it also for regular mortals, or just for royal families?
(laughs) I like to make people happy, music should be shared and it pleases me when I can bring people happiness with my music, which reflects on them after the concert. Apart from playing in the big halls around the world, naturally I also like to offer concerts in smaller towns and villages. And the acceptance is always very warm and often unforgettably beautiful. All information about my concerts can be found on my website www.janabouskova.com.
Thank you very much for the interview.
Explain what a harp means to you in one sentence.
What did the harp give you and what did it take from you?
Who was the most prominent person you‘ve played for?
Who would you refuse to play for?
The most difficult song you've ever played?
How much is the most expensive harp you own?
How many dresses do you own?
Remedy for healing calluses?
What special exercises do you do to keep fit?
Can you count how many competitions you have won in your life?
The difference between Czech and Belgian students?
The greatest honor you've received in your life?
A harpist‘s worst nightmare?
Worst injury that a harpist can sustain in their line of work?
How many pedals does a harp have?