Zulfat Fakhraziev was born into a musical family, and he moved from Naberezhnye Chelny to Kazan at the age of 14 to continue his musical education. Graduating from the Kazan Conservatory, he set off to study in Germany at the Lübeck Academy of Music. Then he returned to Kazan to work with students at the conservatory.
Zulfat Fakhraziev was born into a musical family, and he moved from Naberezhnye Chelny to Kazan at the age of 14 to continue his musical education. Graduating from the Kazan Conservatory, he set off to study in Germany at the Lübeck Academy of Music. Then he returned to Kazan to work with students at the conservatory.

I was born in Buinsk, two hours from Kazan, and I spent my childhood in Naberezhnye Chelny. My parents are musicians, and they worked at the children's Tatar Art School no. 13. So, from our childhood in that environment, music and creativity were in our blood.

My dad was a button accordion player, so we always had guests and a warm, family atmosphere. When we got together, my aunt sang songs and dad accompanied her. My mom plays the guitar, the domra, the balalaika, and the button accordion. She was the conductor of the school's folk orchestra, and a very a versatile person.
When did you first pick up an instrument?

I remember when my parents gave me a small toy synthesizer, just two or one and a half octaves. It had some colored stickers, probably the names of the notes. Somehow, I began picking out songs, melodies; my parents, without hesitation, could tell that I liked it, so they figured that since they're musicians themselves and since I like it, they could put me into music school. I was five or six years old.
I found some success in music school, and I was sent to compete in a few music competitions. There weren't very many of them back then, but they were more important, I think. I always won something. At one of the Zhiganov republic-wide competitions, I think in 2003, Flora Khasanova, a music professor, noticed me. After that, I studied with her for a long time.

How did you combine music with your general education? Was it reflected in how you related with your peers? Did you make music while the others were playing soccer?

Of course it was reflected in how I related to them, but I wasn't resentful; I took it for granted.

Studying in two schools at the same time is difficult in terms of combining them physically. I mean, the music school was very far away. My dad would drive me, or my mom drove me, and when I got old enough, I started going by bus myself. I had to go, rain or snow, twice a week, or more, if I had an important performance coming up.

I did well at first in both schools. Over time, my parents and the environment began to influence me: "If you're successful at music, you need to devote more time to it." And then small problems began to arise in secondary school. But they knew about my music lessons and tried to meet me halfway.

Let's talk about moving to Kazan. How old were you?

I was in 8th grade. I didn't even realize back then how difficult it was. First off, I didn't know where I was going. We went for a short walk around Kazan before the trip, and my dad showed me the conservatory. At that time, I still didn't realize that I was being torn away from parental care and other adults would be looking after me; I would be on my own in terms of creativity. There wouldn't be anyone to tell me: "Go study!"
That period was very important. When I moved to Germany it helped me a lot.

The conditions there were crazy at that time too: it was a dilapidated building, plaster on the floor, a nightmare; at least that's how it seemed to me at the time, after my parent's cozy three-room apartment. But over the last ten years they've bought a lot of new furniture, remodeled, bought washing machines, built a rehearsal space with instruments in the basement, all to the great credit of Alexander Mikhailov, the school's principal. And the creative atmosphere at the school also grew and developed thanks to him. He still works at the conservatory.

All these everyday problems were compensated for by its great creative atmosphere and the influence of the environment of talented musicians who came from all over Russia. This atmosphere consumed my depression little by little for two months and I began getting used to my new way of life.

The Fuksovskiy Sad garden is near the specialized music school where I studied, and that's probably where I hung out the most. The embankments hadn't been built yet and construction was just starting on the Millennium Bridge. We played football in that garden after music school.

You mentioned a teacher who noticed you at your competition and with whom you studied. Can you tell us about her?

Ms. Khasanova gave me a lot. I studied with her for 12 years and, if not for her, you and I probably wouldn't be sitting across from each other right now. She's such an altruist, ready to help anyone and everyone, a person of great energy, and a wonderful pianist. She took me to a different level, performance-wise.

So you were her favorite?

I can't really say that. I don't feel comfortable saying it like that.

But in regards to your level of talent, you stood out, even then?

She repeatedly said, no matter how pompous it may sound, that she had never had such a talented student. But I'm pretty self-critical; I don't really want to talk about it.

Okay, so we won't.

I'd like to add something about the transition from my ten-year school [specialized music school] to the conservatory. In the ten-year school, everything was out in the open; we were under the creative, warm tutelage of each teacher.
In the conservatory I felt exposed: the space had increased, both visual and societal. In addition to the people with whom you studied before, you're thrown in with a bunch of others: folk musicians, conductors, people from different cities. The feeling of a family and the creative atmosphere seemed to disappear, and there was disunity. The masses can enter the conservatory; the selection wasn't as tough as we had at school. We had been so well-prepared in our music school that we didn't really have to try, we just passed our exams like this [snaps fingers]. Things relaxed a little, and I felt it. In those years I took part in competitions, some quite successfully.

Did the competitions influence your move to Germany? How did that happen?

I should mention that my first trip to Germany was at the age of 17. My teacher, Ms. Khasanova, had a student, Tanzilya Rakhimkulova, the daughter of the famous singer Gabdulla Rakhimkulov. She moved to Germany in the early 2000s and married a German. They kept in touch, so Ms. Khasanova showed me off to her and she invited us to her place to stay for two weeks and prepare for the competition. I played badly at the competition, because I wasn't really prepared enough. But my first trip abroad made an enormous impression on me. The concise lines of the streets, the tiled roofs, the people: those are some of the things that really hit me, and this desire to return played a role later. Tanzilya and her husband Gerhard always helped me with housing.
In regards to my move, I had studied for five years at the conservatory by that time, and I hadn't put much effort into the move myself; I was just testing the ground. Gifted and talented students were recommended for admission to an assistant internship, which is an analogue of graduate school. The head of the department proposed that rector Rubin Abdullin be my creative director. I was delighted of course. He's an organist and had been a great pianist. I studied with him for six months, and a rather serious competition was coming up in Bremen. There were four rounds. I went to participate. While at the competition in Bremen, I met a professor from the Lübeck Academy of Music who was very nice and said that they could give me opportunities to grow further, so I applied there, although I hadn't planned on it.

There's a very big difference in the assessment systems in Russia and Germany.

Grades and exams in Russia are like forced labor; you don't feel like a creative person: you give your report, and three or four professors evaluate you. In Germany, the exam takes place in the form of concerts and the audience is free to come. And you perform not like for an exam, but for a concert; it's two completely different experiences. And this is also very important for creative professions. You share your feelings and vision of music, and they will listen to you not judgingly, but inspired. In Russia, exams in the form of concerts exist only in an assistant internship.

Here, you announce what you're going to play, perform the whole program, and the commission evaluates it. There, you go on stage and have a conversation. At that time, I knew only guten Tag in German. They begin to pick something from your program and ask you to play it: "Let's hear the fourth movement of Chopin's sonata." You play that piece for about two minutes, then another, then the next, jumping around abruptly. For me, that was a shock.

In addition to my major, I had to pass German, and they only had you take that exam if they liked the way you played the piano. I was very happy when they told me to wait for the German exam. Of course, I had prepared for like two weeks, but it didn't really help, because I needed to be at level B2. I had the Internet, so I entered the beginning of the test under the table and copied the words, and I think now that this played a biggest role; everything else was definitely wrong. I mean, it was kind of luck. I returned to Russia and a month later I received a letter: "You got in."

It was hard for me to go to the rector and tell him that I got in. It may seem silly, but it's a matter of respect. He took me under his wing for two years, and then I had to go and say: "Excuse me, Mr. Abdullin, but I'm leaving." It was the worst part about moving to Germany. But he had also left at one point to study in Moscow for graduate school, so maybe that's why it didn't seem to bother him.
Let's talk about your time in Germany. Not just studying, but life in general. How were your first impressions of the country different from you second impressions?

By that time I had already been to Poland, Norway, Turkey, France, and Denmark, so this time it wasn't such a shock. Long-term life in a country is very different from short-term life, though, so living there for two years allows one to delve deeper into the culture of another people and discover new facets of their culture. I had acquaintances who had moved there before me, and I lived with a friend at first. The first two to three months were very expensive and there were all sorts of bureaucratic issues. Plus, not knowing German caused a lot of stress.

What about English?
The stress is enormous and you want to get some basic level of the language as fast as possible in order to communicate with your teachers in class, go to the bank and pharmacy, and talk with your peers. My peers spoke English though, so we could talk. And German is such a sore topic for me: I really wanted to learn it, but I got no further than a basic understanding. I had a kind of internal resistance that wouldn't let me go any further. Maybe I already knew that I wasn't going to stay there.

Tell us about the educational process.

My teacher was wonderful. Very humane, open, kind, and ready to help. There were about ten or fifteen people in the class, most from Asia.
It wasn't manifested in any real way; I just experienced it emotionally at first. Nobody cared about it really. Everyone was busy with their music.

The system there is very interesting: there's no such thing as a prepared schedule. There is a mandatory part, and the rest you decide for yourself: you can choose a language, choir, ancient German music, and so on. It gives you a greater sense of freedom. Each teacher takes attendance, passes out an attendance sheet for the class, and you need to attend a certain number of lessons. They might hold class four times a week and you choose the two times you want to go.

What about truancy? I mean, did you ever ask your classmates to mark you in the attendance sheet, for example?

I only did that once. When you're in a new country, especially Germany, you feel like there're cops all around with machine guns and you can be shot for any wrong move [laughs]. I was very careful for the first two months. It seemed like everything in Germany is very strict. For example, I was riding a bike on the section of the road lined with stones and it was difficult to ride there, so I switched to the pedestrian sidewalk. I was suddenly stopped by a woman in uniform, almost like civilian clothes, ticketing everyone with expired parking meters. She stepped in front of me and I stopped sharply; she said to me in German: "This is a pedestrian sidewalk. You can't ride here." I'm like, "Okay, okay." I went around it, down the stone road. She shouted after me that next time I would be fined. I understood that only because the word fine in German sounds is same as in Russian. After that, I always rode along the stone road.

I had a similar thing happen in Berlin with an electric scooter, because in Russia we usually ride on the sidewalk alongside pedestrians. But the policeman didn't threaten me with a fine, he just showed me the path where I needed to ride on. What did you like and dislike about Germany?

I liked that there are a lot of concert halls with good pianos and you can practice until midnight. There are enough for everyone. With us, you need to book one ahead of time for a specific time you want to play. You might end up in a room with a piano that's halfway falling apart. And in Germany they have an online booking system: you have a key card to the class you booked. It's super convenient. I couldn't even imagine that was possible.
I LIKED THE PEOPLE's ATTITUDE. They SAY people's SMILEs are fake there, BUT YOU can't tell. IT'S nice THAT everybody's OPEN, SMILING, READY TO HELP.
It's polar opposite here: As soon as I got to the Sheremetyevo airport, everyone is sad and dejected.

I was standing in line once during a break between classes to buy some yogurt and an elderly woman of about eighty was in front of me. She turned around, saw me, and asked if I was getting lunch. I said "yes." She took her groceries: "Go ahead, you're in a hurry, but I'm in no rush. I don't have a job." I was so shocked. It was such a vivid and characteristic memory of German society that really made an impression on me.

People plan ahead a lot in Germany. I'm a pretty disorganized person myself in general, but people there live like they have everything planned three months in advance.

This may be a purely subjective opinion, but it seemed to me that many teachers there saw it as just a job. The attitude of teachers towards their students is much more distant, and this really contrasts the warm attitude they have in Kazan. The Germans have a certain stinginess with their emotions. They keep a distance, and they don't allow strangers to get close, because if you let them close, then you begin to empathize with them. In this sense, we are much more emotional and open.
I finished my master's degree, and I wanted to try the highest form of music education in Germany, like their version of a graduate school here. I should also say that, throughout my studies in Germany, I received a good scholarship: 500 euros. To get a scholarship a like that, you need to compete in an audition, which allows you to receive financial assistance, regardless of citizenship. I worked part-time, of course, but the scholarship helped. I would've had to pay for graduate school though, and I didn't have that kind of money. At that time, I was already married; we managed to get married before I left for Germany.

How did your wife react? Or did she go with you?

She motivates me to develop myself. She reacted well. No, she didn't move, but I tried to come to Russia once every six months and she visited for about a month in the summer.

So my wife would have to move there or I would have to return. I still took the exam. There was a lot of competition, about forty people per seat. And a pianist could be competing, for example, with a cellist.

I could've stayed for private lessons from my teacher, but that wasn't really an option because I no longer had a scholarship and my part-time job wasn't enough to allow me to live there like a normal person.

How do you see Kazan now, after two years in Germany?

I work at the conservatory, and I was in touch with them the entire time; we had an understanding that would hire me. I combined my studies in Germany and Kazan. When I studied my first year in Germany, I came here to take exams too; then took an academic leave, finished my studies in Germany, and returned and finished my second year here. Two birds with one stone, as it were.
Like the new public areas in our country; they didn't really have them there. They still live in their history; there are more historical places. Especially small towns in Germany: they're the same as they were 200 years ago, and everything is in very good condition. That's where we have problems; we don't know how to preserve our history, unfortunately. Like many of the buildings that were there in 2005, which I personally associated with that time—school and student years—it's very sad. But at the same time, now there are very cool, creative spaces; parks; some new youth movements; and projects.

In Germany, they're all about tradition. Kazan looks more towards its youth.