Celebrity Interview with Mika Väyrynen
Celebrity Interviews

Interview conducted by Kevin Friedrich, in Ikaalinen, FINLAND

This interview with Mika Väyrynen was conducted in Ikaalinen, Finland on June 30, 2004.

Mika is undboutably one of the most outstanding accordion artists of the new Millennium. He has performed all over the world both solo and in concert with other internationally acclaimed artists and orchestras. He has an impressive list of recordings and is responsible for commissioning many new works for accordion.

In addition to his busy concert and recording career, Mika also teaches the accordion at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki as well as giving masterclasses and seminars around the world.

Accordions Worldwide visitors have followed Mika's career with considerable interest, we so are very excited to have this opportunity to share this interview with our readers around the world.

My sincere thanks to Mika for taking the time out of his busy schedule to do this interview. In addition, I would also like to offer my gratitude to the following who helped make this interview possible.

Finnish Ministry of Culture - Helsinki
(for their generous support of Accordions Worldwide)

Kevin Friedrich - Accordions Worldwide, USA

You were born in Helsinki. Was your family originally from there?

I'm not exactly sure where my family was originally from. My Mother and Father were living in Helsinki when I was born, however they divorced when I was just a baby.

When I was about five or six years old, I moved away from Helsinki to Tampere to live with my Great Grandmother.

So I was born in Helsinki, grew up in Tampere, and then after my schooling I returned to Helsinki.

How did you begin your music study and why did you choose the accordion?

I was living with my Great Grandmother and her daughter, (the sister of my grandmother.) I was living with these two ladies and it was the sister of my grandmother who was playing the accordion. She had a little old Weltmeister instrument.

I have to say, I really didn't like it when I heard it, however one autumn it was raining and I had nothing to do, so I took the accordion and started to play it. Somehow I figured out how to play a waltz with both hands on the first day, and since that day I just continued you to play!

Was your family musical and did your parents play an important part in your early music education?

My family was a very musical family and has been involved in music. My mother, who I don't really know that well, was a professional musician, so there might have been some musical genetics I suppose.

However, where I grew up, there was no exposure to high perspectives of music or to classical music. It was quite old fashioned in fact, because my Great Grandmother was born in 1907, so I got the education from that time.

Who was your first accordion teacher and what other teachers have influenced you?

I started to play by ear. I didn't have any knowledge about music, but I was able to study from recordings that I had such as those of the Rhapsodies by Frosini.

Those days I recorded myself, so I have several examples of how I was playing when I was a child. I have to say when I listen to these recordings, I am quite surprised how I was playing in those days. They were really quite difficult pieces, but somehow I found almost all the correct notes, plus some extra ones as well!

In particular, one accordionist called Tauno Jack was living in Helsinki, and somehow had some connections with my family. He sent me tapes (60 minute cassettes) which I studied by just listening to.

Eventually a private accordion school was established in Tampere. It was the first school of its kind in the area. I was very fortunate that the two teachers were first generation academics, both young guys in their early twenties who had studied at the Conservatory in Jyväskylä. It was just by luck that I met the right people and the right time.

They introduced me to what might now be considered the modern way of playing the accordion. In particular I really admired the man who taught me in the beginning, Tapani Luojus. He was almost like the missing father to me. He had the perfect psychology for children and probably because of his fantastic teaching, I did as well as I did in those days.

It was just my good luck and he was the best teacher of my life. I think the first teacher is very important.

Tell us a little about your musical education that has taken you all the way to a Doctorate degree?

I was with Tapani for my younger years. When I was about 11 or 12 years old, I started to play repertoire like the Sonata No. 2 by Vladislav Zolotariew and Capriccio by Albin Repnikov. He wanted to put me forward so passed me on to another teacher called Vesa Vienola. At the same time I started to study at the Tampere Conservatory and it was at that time that I was recognized as having a special talent for music. Until that time I really didn't know that all the other accordionists were not doing the same thing.

When I was 13, I played in a local accordion concert. I played the Sonata No. 2 by Zolotariew and in the audience was the teacher from the Sibelius Academy who immediately recruited me to attend the Junior Academy. In those days it was still called The Department for Specially Gifted Children. I was 14 years old when I started the Junior Academy.

In 1985 I began my studies at the soloist department of the Academy.

In 1988, right after my military service, I spent one year at the Gustave Charpentier Conservatory in Paris, France studying with Prof. Max Bonnay.

After returning from Paris, I continued my studies at the Sibelius Academy. After I graduated from there, I decided to take the post graduate studies and finally finished my Doctorate degree in 1997.

To this day, I am still at the Sibelius Academy, where I am now a teacher.

Your concert career has been quite extraordinary. When was your first concert, and where have your concert tours taken you since then?

I gave my first official full recital in 1985 in Tampere. I was still 17 years old, but that was my first full recital. It was broadcast live on the radio, which was quite extraordinary in those days.

Since that recital, my concert career has developed slowly. Sometimes I had the feeling that it wasn't developing at all, but little by little I would do some more concerts per year. Its slow work, but now I have been playing concerts for almost 20 years.

My concerts have taken me to many countries including Austria, Belgium, Ukraine, China, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden, USA and Yugoslavia, I think in total until today, I have played in about 21 nations.

In addition to your vast international travel, your concerts have seen you appeared at some of the most famous concert halls in the world. Name some of your favorites.

Some of the best quality concert Halls have surely been in Japan. There are also some very fine halls in Finland, and I have been lucky to have played in them all.

Mika has performed at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, Musashino Hall in Tokyo, Phoenix Hall in Osaka, Kiew Philharmony, The Gnessin Academy Hall in Moscow, De Ijsbreker in Amsterdam, Finlandia Hall (pictured above), Sibelius Academy, Tampere Hall and the Sibelius Hall all in Finland.

In the course of your concert career, have you had any unusual or humorous situations?

I did a lot of small concerts when I was still younger. I was playing the Pictures of an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky. During the movement called 'Old Castle', an old lady fell asleep! It was the first time I had seen someone fall asleep in one of my concerts.

I guess this is the funniest thing that I have noticed. Many funny things have happened on tours during my days off, however nothing really humorous has happened in concert.

Now however, he laughs, most people seem to stay awake in my concerts!

An important part of your concert career has also been your appearances with Symphony Orchestras. What has led to your appearances and who selects the repertoire?

It is time that leads to these performances. Unfortunately, the young accordionists don't always understand that we cannot get everything today or even tomorrow. They don't always understand that we have to also think about what is coming in five or ten years.

I decided to work and to practice very hard in succeeding in this very difficult profession. I am always working to increase my capability and increase my repertoire. My philosophy has always been that if I'm worthy, people will find or recognize it. Its the most natural way and other musicians begin to recognize that you might be an instrumentalist of the same quality or standard as they are.

The same is true with the Conductors. One good concert might produce a new booking with the same conductor. The conductor's opinion of you is very important. They don't just see the concert, they see everything, including the rehearsal. Perhaps then there is a respect created from both sides, and so in the best cases it can create new opportunities.

To me its just the result of time, and going slow... my method is 'slow.' I don't want or expect everything today or even tomorrow. I know that if I keep to my philosophy of practicing and working, and don't go cheap, then things will come sooner or later.

As my reputation establishes, I don't have to make any telephone calls anymore. Of course there was a time that I had to make the telephone calls just to introduce myself and let the orchestras and conductors know that I existed, but now things really happen as the result of all that slow work.

Mika has performed as a soloist with several major orchestras including the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra (Okko Kamu - Conductor) the Lahti Sinfonia (John Storgårds - Conductor) and the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra (Tonu Kaljuste - Conductor.) In addition, he has performed in many important Chamber Music Festivals including the world-famous Kuhmo Chamber Music, Naantali Music Festival, Lahti International Organ Festival, The Sibelius Festival in Loviisa, Tuusula-Lake Chamber Music, Korsholm Music Festival and others.

You are now teaching the accordion at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. How many students do you have?

Each year it changes a bit. I won't know the exact enrollments for next year for a few more weeks yet, but usually it is between five and nine students.

You once told me how important it is to you to offer guidance to your students while studying with you. Tell us a little bit about this.

Planning for a student's future is done on a very individual basis. Some of the students don't need so much planning as they will automatically find their own way. However, some students might need some honest advice and discussion about their true possibilities. It could be so, that a student is truly looking in the wrong direction. For example, maybe a student wants to be a concert artist, but it might be obvious that this is not a possibility. However, that particular student might seem to have an exceptional pedagogical ability, so my work is to go slowly and gently to that direction.

Teaching itself is half teaching and the other half being a psychologist. I do think a lot about it, but on the other hand teaching is work, and so it has to be.

I don't always take these things everyday to my home. When I am at work, I work very hard and think about everything. I even think about it to and from work, but once at home, I have to focus on other things, I have to cut it off.

I still consider that I am teaching as a sideline. I consider myself a performing artist and so my first job is to practice, my second job is to perform and then teaching and the other things fall into place after that.

You are undoubtedly the most recorded accordion artists of today. When did you record you first CD?

It was quite soon after winning the 1989 CIA Coupe Mondiale in Luzerne, Switzerland. It was the next year I got my first opportunity to record my first CD. which was great luck.

Someone actually came to ask me to do it. I was very fortunate. After that it has happened like almost everything in my life - slowly.

I have to consult with the recording companies to see if they want to record a project, but so far I have been able to record every project I was interest in.

Since then you have recorded 13 CD's on such labels as Finlandia Records/Warner Classics, JVC Victor Japan, ALBA, Naxos and CPO. How is the process initiated in terms of getting the CD Label to commit to the project?

Each Label seems to have a certain kind of philosophy of what they are doing. One Label is more traditional whereas another Label can be a little more avant-garde. The projects I have done so far, seem to have fit in quite naturally with each Label's catalog.

Nowadays I am quite familiar with the various Labels and what kind of profile that Label has. I understand what they are interested in and what they are not interested in, so its quite easy.

I have not been met with any resistance to any of my projects, but again, it has been developing as has everything in my life... slowly!

For a complete list of works recorded and
ordering information, please visit

To give readers an idea of what goes into a CD, could you tell us about the series of events relating to preparing and recording the Goldberg Variations, the most recent of your recordings.

The Goldberg Variations is a once in a lifetime project. A musician probably cannot do a bigger or more demanding project. It was on my mind for years. One day this piece sort of just knocked at my door and I just had to open it.

The problem was to find the time to do it. It takes a lot of time to study it. I was in Italy about one and a half - almost two years ago and while at the hotel, I started to practice it. As I practiced it, I realized that I was somehow able to play it. The recording was made the next year in August.

What can I say... it is a huge project, and maybe one can never be satisfied with it, it is just so big for us. Can you imagine that Bach was actually able to compose it and to play it! That is something! Its enough of a project to just play it!

I recorded it in four evenings. It was the longest recording session until today. Normally I have done my CD's in a couple of evenings, but this was so big, almost 76 minutes in duration (with all the repeats) that I recorded the first half in two evenings, and then the second half also in two evenings.

It was for me, the minimum time to do this. I couldn't do it faster and still achieve this result, with which I'm almost satisfied. Now I would already play it differently, but as with every CD, it is already old the day after its made.

It has received some very favorable reviews. In June 2004 the Goldberg Variations CD was chosen as "CD of the Month" by the Finnish Classical Music Magazine "Rondo Classica". To the general music society, the idea of Goldberg Variations on accordion might sound a little strange, or even very weird, but somehow the reviews so far have all been very positive.

You have done so much with the accordion, but do you have any memorable highlights such as TV appearances or Premiere Performances etc.. that you would like to share with us?

I don't really like to think that way.. I'm not really interested in highlights, Diplomas and such. It is all about myself inside. Performing is my private work and I'm looking for something on the inside.

I suffer before every concert and I sometimes I swear I will never do it again and these days it gets even worse!

When I was younger, I was much more egotistic about these type of things when there were nice celebrations and accolades after a successful concert or premiere, but now that has all gone.

If I look into the mirror both before a concert and after a concert, it is the same person. I know better than anyone how human or non perfect I am, so I cannot be totally satisfied with what this 'non perfect' person is doing or has done. As I always say, I think slowly and I am always looking towards the future.

I want to check my situation when I am 40. I want to ask myself if I learnt what I promised myself I would do, and then decide what I will be going to do in the following years. If I cannot do it today I will work on it in the future... again, just slowly.. but this process produces the long lasting results.

So, no highlights really.

Is there any teacher or artist to whom you would like to pay particular tribute, for their inspirational effect on your musical career?

To be honest.. not really.

As I mentioned I had a very good teacher Tapani Luojus. In addition in my later years some accordionists have had a positive influence on me. I didn't have a teacher in the traditional sense of the word, meaning someone that was guiding me for a long period of my life, or someone that would take into consideration more things than just my playing. For me, such a teacher didn't exist.

I learned mostly through listening and reading which were two of my main interests. I also became interested in other instruments very early. I played Organ as my second instrument which was incredibly productive to me. It was beneficial to study organ music, esthetics and cultural things from different periods.

I still love to read. I have children now too, so its not always that easy, but I usually read one book per week.

Friedrich Lips influence was important for me at certain points in my career during master classes, but it was not on a long term basis. Similarly Max Bonnay was also very important, but again, it was also just for a short time.

In Finland I had a few teachers here and there, but again, nothing long term. There are some people who claim to have been my teachers, but to be honest our cooperation wasn't very productive.

However, if I'm proud about anything, its that it has been possible to learn much about music by oneself if there is really a sincere interest to learn it. So in this respect, I'm not really missing having a teacher.

You were the winner of the 1989 Coupe Mondiale in addition to other international competitions. What are your thoughts regarding competitions and their importance to the up and coming artists?

I'm not really for competitions. I don't really understand what the competitions can produce, that one couldn't achieve without them.

Perhaps for the motivation of the student it is a useful tool to prepare a big program to study the psychology of this demanding process, to see how the psyche will function. Competitions might prove to be a tool to do this if there are not other possibilities. Also, to be honest I've seen juries in action and it is very difficult for them to work objectively. The accordion world is very small and everyone knows each other. Many things could and have happened. So far the so called 'fair play' has never really existed in any music competition even in the great great piano or violin competitions. This 'fair play' just doesn't exist.

Its very wild time for the candidates as well. After I received prizes in the various international competitions, I didn't get any bookings because of it. After winning the Coupe Mondiale I did get the possibility to make my first CD which was like the jackpot, but since that time, nothing.

The world is full of competition winners. Any artist performing on any instrument in any festival has won this and that competition, but what good has it done? It seems like we have a competition winner on every block. I don't know, I'm not totally opposed to competitions, but on the other hand, I'm not really for them.

It has been talked about making a competition offering concert tours and launching a career, but in a way it is just a dream, the real life is the real life and that is the way it has been for a long time, and so far nothing really comes of a competition. So unfortunately the situation seems to be that each person has to find their own way.

We can look at the late Mogens Ellegaard. He was not known as a great competition winner, but became a legendary figure in the accordion and music society because of his outstanding work in other areas. Some of the other leading figures of the accordion world have never participated in accordion competitions either, but they are still very well known and respected in the areas of avant-garde music, chamber music, composition and so on. So there are many possibilities, but of course it is difficult.

Perhaps someone does receive something for a competition, if there happens to be the right person in the he audience, but until now, I have never seen a music agent at an accordion competition. I don't know if anyone has ever invited them there in any nation, but in all other instrumental competitions there are agents listening and checking out if there is anything or anyone interesting, but we are a bit primitive in this sense I guess.

Your repertoire is extremely vast, including many transcriptions which are featured on your recent CD of the same title as well as on previous CD's. Tell us about your process of selecting and working transcriptions into their finished product.

Its a very selfish process I think... its question of what one likes and what one wants to play, then you have to find a way to do it. To me music is a practical thing. It has always been a practical thing.

During the last 50 years, there has been some kind of direction among some reviewers, musicologists and such who are looking for some ideals. They are thinking of a very pure sound with old instruments and so on, but in reality the history of music is practical.

Bach was a transcriber, and then it went on until it ended up that Horowitz was maybe the last big transcriber, but now its coming back again. Transcriptions can be made badly or they can be made well, that is the issue.

Mostly I select to do transcriptions of transcriptions. I often find pieces that have already been transcribed once. The Vivaldi concertos have been transcribed by Bach, the Chaconne by Bach has been transcribed by Busoni and the Vocalise by Rachmaninoff has been transcribed dozens of times.

I was thinking at a certain point that it was fine to follow those ideas of transcriptions and then make my own transcriptions with the same spirit. I would even add things sometimes, so it ended up somewhere between an arrangement and a transcription.

It is very important to understand what sounds good and what doesn't. For example in the case of the Bach Chaconne, I played it for 20 years before I finally recorded it. During these 20 years, I have changed my transcription several times. Now I'm planning to put it back into my program, but not as the same transcription! I have some ideas to change it again!

Music is practical and ... slow. Its always the practical old traditional hard working culture of learning by doing. Very simple!

You have been instrumental in the recruitment of several new works for the accordion. Tell us about the importance of working with these composers in commissioning new works.

That is a duty! Even though I am thinking of myself, my own repertoire and career, I realize that each one of us must do our duty for the next generation of accordionists. If during one accordionist's lifetime one can commission lets say 25 pieces, then in the big international picture it produces a huge amount of repertoire in different styles, and that is very important.

I'm just trying to do what everyone should do. Secondarily, to be associated with people that are smarter than I am - the best composers, is a way to study... it is a way to learn. Its a very important thing.

From one composer for example, you might learn very complicated rhythmical things because that composer may specialize in it. Or there is a composer like Kaipainen who was very interested in removing the technical barriers. He wanted to do something so extraordinary difficult, that t was like a project to study it and learn it. After that piece I felt I had developed myself a little more technically.

So its a duty and also an educational question. Of course it also brings the accordion to a positive light when famous composers write for it. Listeners in the musical society and others realize that these famous composers don't just write for anyone, so there must be something in this instrument. It ends up raising the respect of our instrument as well. These are the important things.

For an artist of your stature, your instrument is of utmost importance. You are the owner of a rather new Jupiter Bayan from the Jupiter factory in Moscow. Can you tell us a little bit about this beautiful instrument and the craftsman involved.

I have been very lucky with my instruments. During my adult life I have had three very fine instruments.

This is the latest of the three and probably one of the best bayan instruments that has ever been produced in the history of the modern accordion world.

This bayan is made for me. It is not an ordinary instrument. All the things such as the intonation, the dynamic capability and such things are designed for the way I play. The makers are the best of the best. It is a team effort.

My previous instrument which was from Italy was also very fine I have to say. However, I'm always looking for something a bit better I don't really care what brand it is. If I find an instrument with features which are closer to what I am looking for, I wouldn't hesitate to change it.

I move also quite slowly in that area too. I don't want to necessarily be tied to an instrument for ever. If there will be development in manufacturing over the next 20 years that will produce something better than this instrument. So then I'll change to that.

You have performed the works of Astor Piazzolla many times with various orchestras and ensembles. This month, you made your premiere performing Piazzolla on Bandoneon. Tell about your transition to include Bandoneon?

It was a long process. For me to finally own one and actually play on bandoneon was the result of 10 years.

Initially I was a bit against it, because in some ways I have always thought that the accordion can produce the same, or even a better sound. But I was also quite curious. There was also the question of the audience and the organizers. Sometimes people told me that if you play Piazzolla on accordion it is not very acceptable, so I decided to play on Bandoneon and then see what they can find to say.

Since I got this very fine bandoneon, it has almost taken one year before performing on it. I play a chromatic instrument so it is a bit easier but still the whole ergonomics is different, so I needed some time to adapt.

The instrument is made by Victoria. Its a fascinating modern Bandoneon with an incredible dynamic range. Its quite unique having such a broad range from incredible pianissimos to dynamic fortissimos almost as big as my bayan. Its the concept of how they use the wood that allows such an incredible sound.

At festivals abroad and here in Finland, including this one here in Ikaalinen, you give lectures on various subjects. What are your favorite topics to lecture on?

I always like to speak about technical aspects of playing. The accordion is so young still, that we cannot compare our methods and understanding of the dynamics of the body with the piano and violin, where the techniques have been tested for hundreds of years. With those instruments, there is a lot of tradition and to each question there is an answer as to why its done that way.

With the accordion its not quite the same. Because of the amount of playing I have done, I think I have some knowledge that cannot be read from books. It's the knowledge of the 'how and why' about certain concepts of playing.

I do teach these things a lot. I try to at least open some eyes to the idea that the fingers don't play the accordion. The finger is the most unimportant thing. It's the last touch with the accordion. All the techniques are created before going out from the fingers. Bad fingers doesn't exist, but bad joints, bad elbows, bad shoulders, bad stomach, bad legs and bad backs do exist! It has been my own experience with my students that it's possible to learnmuch by researching such things.

I have spent a lot of time researching how pianists really play in the different schools and the key point is that the playing always comes from the body not the fingers. There is much to learn and a long way to go before we have reached the level of virtuoso. Virtuoso means 'limitless possibilities'.. limitless! Somebody once said 'to know what is above virtuosity, first one must master virtuosity.' So, that is what we have to do right now and then let's see.

Tell us about your family and do they share your interest in music and the accordion?

My wife has a musical education. My oldest son is now 8 years old and he is just starting his 4th year of violin study while my second son who is just 5 years old has just been accepted to the Institute to study violin. In addition, my oldest son is playing in the student orchestra. My daughter is just one and a half years old, so let's see...

What non-accordion music do you most like to listen to?

The old cliché goes that "I only listen to good music." But I don't know what good hip-hop or punk music is, or how to measure what is good punk.

I change my interest all the time. A couple of months ago, I was fortunate enough to be in one of the greatest concerts I have ever heard by the Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov. Since then, I started to listen to lots of Scriabin. Until this time, I hadn't listened to a lot of that.

It depends a bit. I concentrate on one subject at a time . I can have a period of Bach or I can have a period of Rachmaninoff where I listen to just that music and nothing else.

Probably it has something to do with my own way of working because I also concentrate on playing one thing only. I don't spread my energy to several things. I find focusing on one thing at a time is the fastest way to learn, and I also like to learn by listening.

What other interests and hobbies besides music do you have?

These days not many.

There was a time when I was very active in sports, but now I can basically only do two things, music and my family. Music is my hobby and my profession at the same time, so it takes 24 hours a day. I live that way. I seem to practice even when I sleep, always trying to solve problems.

Then, I have three little children, so they are my private life. Other than that, my social time is quite minimal.

What do you regard as your greatest achievement?

It hasn't come yet.

I cant really name my goal. Of course it would be nice to have this and that, but in the days when I was a child I couldn't imagine how life could change.

I already achieved more than I was expecting in general. In addition, the development of our instrument has got much more to go if we want to see it progress, and people always want more and more now. They don't realize that life is here and now and that the situation of our instrument is already much better than it was years back, so its important to be comfortable with our instrument.

I'm not ashamed of playing the instrument like maybe 20 years ago. Now I can say it quite proudly and quite professionally that I am an accordionist. So, maybe my achievement is being a musician among musicians but I don't think it is so unique, and I hope other people have the same experience as well.

What musical advice do you have for aspiring accordionists?

They must go at a comfortable speed and pace. It is much more important to become a great musician that to get a great career for two years. Really, I have seen so many people who want everything right now, but everything needs time and they just have to try and realize that.

Working... practice.. slowness... patience.. these are the things I would suggest.

I should add that I didn't have any of those qualities myself in the early days, but I learned their importance relatively soon. I guess I was like anyone was in their early 20's, but I learned quickly enough luckily.

What goals or plans do you have for the future?

My concert tomorrow! (in this case, the performance of the complete Goldberg Variations).

Some interesting things always come up. Sometimes other things get pushed aside. I'm working on some new programs and now I try to play a program for one year before performing the concert.

There will be some premieres, like an upcoming premiere of a concerto with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, my recordings will come about one per year and the next two will include a chamber music CD and then a Concerto CD.

For the next solo CD I'm not really sure yet. I have several programs that I could do, so I have some ideas. After the Goldberg Variations CD it's difficult to say. Normally people play the Goldberg Variations towards the end of their careers, but I played it early and now I have to go on!

But these things are nothing so extremely special.. this is normal work for me... just my normal work of practice and going .... SLOW!
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