By Emma Baird
Violinist Alina Pogostkina has already had an international solo career spanning over three decades. A child prodigy who began to perform on stage from the age of five, Alina subsequently won first prize at the 1997 International Louis Spohr Competition and the 2005 International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition, establishing herself at the top of her profession from a very young age. In 2018 she founded a business called Mindful Music Making, which she describes as her ‘heart project’: ‘everything I do, including the concerts I perform, it all circles around MMM. The message I want to bring to the musical world is that we can create a different reality. We can be more in connection with ourselves and others, and create a more benevolent environment. This is what I wish to contribute, through whatever I do.’ Alina spoke to me with honesty and sincerity about how this idea came to fruition, and the lessons she has learned from her turbulent personal journey.
Emma: How, and why, did Mindful Music Making begin? What are the main problems that you would like to address through MMM?
Alina: It was a long personal journey which led to the creation of Mindful Music Making. I was invited to teach at a conservatory, but I realised that the normal way of teaching in music schools feels like there is something lacking. When thinking about going back into a university to teach, I could feel a contraction in my system, and had a flashback to the competition and pressure that I experienced while studying myself. I realised that maybe my job should not be to teach in a university, but to do something about this: to create something of my own which feels more holistic, and takes care of those needs that were neglected when I was a student. All of my life had been filled with huge pressure. I studied first with my father, who was very strict and completely focused on the violin. This was followed by entering into a university system and also not feeling like I had the space to be a human being. It made more sense for me to address that, rather than teach a normal violin class.
I started looking for people to work with. I wanted to create a holistic approach which dealt with the whole musician, addressing the technical and musical aspects, of course, but also the emotions, mindset and physicality. By chance, I met two amazing women – Leonie Von Arnim and Susanne Feld (pictured below). Both are therapists, but Susanne is also a musician and teaches Alexander Technique. We came together and started our project in 2018.
Emma: Do you have any advice about finding more flow, enjoyment and freedom whilst playing an instrument?
Alina: This is huge topic, and not a quick fix. When people say to me ‘I want to find more joy’, or ‘access more flow’, we usually start by checking out what is getting in the way of them experiencing that. You cannot just press a button and suddenly be in flow state. We must ask what is keeping you from being in complete connection with yourself; your body; the music; the audience. These blockages are usually linked to the past: to fears and coping mechanisms in our system designed to keep us safe. This is actually a very contracted state to be in, where we can’t access flow, creativity or expansion. It is a deep exploration of that person, to find out how they can develop into a state where they feel safer with themselves.
Emma: To what extent are those blockages created by the education system? If we are always thinking critically and analysing what we do, surely – at some point – that becomes counterproductive because it disrupts a natural state of flow.
Alina: Absolutely, it is 99% of the problem. We are born completely unique and perfect the way we are. We don’t question ourselves as babies, and then we are taught by caregivers, teachers or parents and put into a system where people can compare us. That is where we start to contract. We learn, subconsciously as children, ‘I’m not good enough’, and ‘I need to work hard to reach the goals that others have for me because that’s what I’m supposed to do’. This is a dangerous path that we walk, as a society in general, and I now see it happening to my own daughter at school.
As an artist, surely the most important thing is to be as free as possible to express our hearts and our souls. The whole point of art is expression. Connecting with emotion, intuition and creativity…none of that can happen if we try to squeeze ourselves into a certain way of being, doing, achieving, and competing. This closes down all of the sensitive receptivity and emotional intelligence that we have. It is very damaging.
The question is how else do you learn an instrument? It is such a demanding thing, which cannot just be fun. It is a real art to find the middle way. I like to think of a seed that turns into a beautiful flower. You cannot force a tulip to become a rose. It will be a damaged flower that you end up with. The same thing happens to human beings. Instead of being curious about who this unique being standing in front of us is, we (as parents and teachers) oftentimes have an expectation that it should be, perform, or develop in a certain way.
Rather than considering how we can support it to unfold, we try to force it into a particular shape, or idea which we think is ‘right’. This pressure prevents it from turning into the most authentic and fully expressed version of itself.
Emma: How has your approach to playing changed over the years?
Alina: I grew up as a child prodigy, performing from the age of five, and playing solos with orchestra from the age of seven. I had to function like this from such a young age, so I learned very early on to suppress my emotions. I was terrified as a child. It was really unnatural and unhealthy, but I had to because my parents chose that path for me. I learned to play well technically, and even musically, and to just park a huge part of myself somewhere else so that I didn’t have to feel the fear, pressure and loneliness. I grew up being very disassociated. There was a split in my personality: the good girl on stage, and then all of the pain that I chose to disassociate from because it didn’t serve the functioning part of me.
My process, since being a teenager, has been bringing all parts of myself to the music and onto the stage. I’m not just playing the role of a pretty girl with a pretty dress who can perform the Paganini Caprices very well. I could do that, but I now bring the depth of my heart onto the stage, resulting in a completely different musical experience for both me and the audience. It is more honest and more human.
Emma: Do you have a morning routine, or perhaps a pre-concert ritual?
Alina: I try to move every morning through yoga or running. Playing is physically demanding! Taking care of the primary instrument that is our body, is essential. Meditation has also been a very big part of my life, for about two decades now. It can be used to deal with anxiety, stage fright, turmoil, and challenging situations such as the war happening right now. Tool number one to deal with all of that, is to anchor ourselves in ourselves. Otherwise, we go crazy. Before going on stage, I try to connect to myself…whatever is there. Sometimes I can sense fear or resistance: I experienced it a lot as a child, so it still shows up sometimes. The main difference is how I deal with it now. I allow the child part of me (which is still experiencing these feelings) to know that it is welcome as it is. It does not have to function perfectly or prove anything to anyone any more. When you hold space for these feelings to be there, they start to soften.
Emma: What advice would you like to give to current music students? What would you say to your younger self?
Alina: Become your best friend. Really learn to be kind to yourself and fall in love with the uniqueness that you are. Do not get caught up or lost in this attempt to prove something to teachers and compete with colleagues. Just focus on the beauty within, and really anchor in that. This is something that most young people need to know.
Emma: Are there any upcoming MMM projects that you would like to tell us about?
Alina: There is a big live retreat happening this summer, in a beautiful place just outside the city of Berlin, which lasts for 8 days: a 5 day retreat followed by a 3 day workshop with the fascinating French violinist, Gilles Apap. We will work in depth on the topic of purpose and how to find your unique voice. Our annual summer retreats are very special, and at the heart of MMM. In May, we are also starting something new called the ‘community experience’, which is an ongoing online program that people can subscribe to. It involves weekly meditations, embodiment practices, live calls and continuous support. Also in May, we are offering a 2 day workshop on nonviolent communication. I did a year of training in non-violent communication, which is a method of conflict resolution. It is a beautiful approach to finding a deeper understanding of ourselves and others.