Trained to become a concert pianist - introducing Naufal Mukumi

Did you ever wonder what it takes to become an acclaimed classical pianist? 

The path to playing solo recitals and piano concertos with a full orchestra is unique for every musician. Still, there is one thing they all have in common - they all had to undergo rigorous training from an early age and dedicated long hours to practising the piano. 

Our specialist tutor Naufal Mukumi was one of the highly talented wunderkinder and received a thorough music education focused on training young children to become renowned musicians. Here is his story, just read on, you won't regret it… 

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Naufal Mukumi was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, to a musical family. He began his piano studies at the Uspenskij Music School for Highly Gifted Children when he was seven years old. Naufal began performing annual concerts with the Symphonic Orchestra of Uzbekistan at the age of nine. 

During his time in Uzbekistan, he won several prizes from international piano competitions and festivals around Russia, Italy, France, Germany, Lithuania and the USA.

At the age of sixteen, Naufal left Uzbekistan to study in the UK at the Purcell School of Music with Tessa Nicholson. Two years later, he entered Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in Greenwich where he completed his undergraduate Degree and Postgraduate Artistic Diploma, in the class of Deniz Gelenbe.

Today he lives in Charlton, South East London, with his wife Natalia, who is also a pianist. As specialist tutors at Piano Maestros, they both teach piano to pupils in Greenwich and surrounding areas. 

Our director Andrea met Naufal for a chat about his music education in Uzbekistan, and he revealed some fascinating stories. 

  • Naufal, please tell us a little bit about your piano beginnings? 

I started when I was seven. My mother is a violinist, and she didn't really plan for me to become a musician. I ended up going to a specialist music school almost by accident, simply because there was a space at the school where my mother studied, so it was convenient. 

  • Can you tell us more about the school? 

It was a specialist music school for musically gifted children, a similar type of school to the Yehudi Menuhin School in the UK. When I first started, we didn't even have a piano at home, and I actually had to learn my first pieces on a table! 

But later, when I was nine, I got into the class of Prof. Tamara Popovich, one of the best teachers in Uzbekistan. I was really lucky because getting into her class basically meant that you are going to do well. From that moment everything changed. 

  • What did you have to do to get into Prof. Popovich's class? 

Well, I just had to practise a lot and work hard for every exam to prove that I am worthy of being her student. The school followed a typical soviet education system where you had to pass an exam every six months. This was to play in front of all teachers, about thirty or forty of them. They would all listen to every single student, and then discuss their performance and agree on a mark together. 

  • So how much did things change for you when you entered the class of one of the most celebrated piano professors in Tashkent? 

Everyone in the class had to perform all the time. Each year we had to prepare and perform a piano concerto with an orchestra, plus a solo recital. We were travelling a lot to enter international competitions, which would be usually followed by a masterclass. From a young age, I had the opportunity to meet lots of different professors, and learn about other music schools and opportunities abroad. 

  • And what would your lessons with Prof. Popovich look like? 

I had three piano lessons a week on weekdays, each lasting at least two hours. And then, on Sundays, I would probably have more if my teacher felt like teaching more, and these lessons would be even longer. 

I would always, always play some Bach, and for a couple of years, I had to bring one new etude by Czerny to every lesson - that was three etudes per week, all memorised. We all had to play tons of Czerny, and it had to be done fast. I think I finished learning all of the Czerny studies by the age of ten. 

  • Wow. So, each week you had a minimum of six hours of one-to-one time with your professor, plus more on a Sunday, and how about practising? 

I had to practise four hours a day on top of my lesson time. I had a notebook where I had to write my hours, which my mother had to sign to approve that I have really done my practice. I had to practise; if I didn't keep up with homework for two lessons in a row, I would get kicked out of my teacher's class. I remember students who got kicked out, they then had to beg Prof. Popovich and often even cried to be accepted back. 

  • This must have been so much pressure, how did you manage to keep going, did you really want to do it? 

First of all, being in Prof. Popovich's class was already considered to be a great honour and success, which was a huge driving point. And being kicked out would be the worst thing that could possibly happen to anyone. I was terrified of her, but I loved her at the same time. She was quite old, in her eighties, and she was like a grandmother to us. She was always super kind to us after we played a concert, no matter how we played... and also on our birthday! 

I am very grateful to her, she taught us to work very hard, which, after some time, felt completely normal. We just had to do our four-hours-a-day practice, and then it was OK, we got used to it. 

  • And why would you also have lessons on Sundays? 

Sunday lessons took place in our teacher's house, and she would listen to lots of music. She had massive speakers on the wall above the piano. After playing for her, we listened to a recording of the piece we just worked on, played by famous pianists. Often we had to play along with the record - not to copy, but to get the feel. It was an excellent way for us to listen to lots of different artists, as during that time, we didn't have Western musicians visiting Uzbekistan. Recordings were the only way to hear them play. In fact, my teacher's house was like a library. Every piece of furniture was filled with either music books or vinyl records of classical music, all alphabetically organised in a booklet. 

  • You mentioned that you entered lots of competitions. Can you remember the first time you won a prize? 

I think my first competition was the Nikolai Rubinstein Competition in Paris, where I won the Grand Prize. After this competition, I was invited by a member of the jury to take part in an International Balys Dvarionas Competition for Young Pianists in Vilnius, Lithuania. That was a big competition, I remember feeling very nervous about it, there I became the Laureate.

  • You have also mentioned earlier that you had to learn and perform a piano concerto every year. How old were you when you first played with an orchestra, and which piano concertos do you have in your repertoire?

I was nine when I first performed a piano concerto - it was Mozart's (piano concerto) No.15. This was followed by Beethoven's No.1 a year later (age of ten), Liszt's Totentanz (Dance Macabre) when I was eleven, then it was Beethoven's No. 3 (age of twelve), Grieg's piano concerto (age of thirteen), then Rachmaninov no.2 (age of fourteen), Liszt no.1 (age of fifteen), Rachmaninov no.1 (age of sixteen) and Liszt no.2 when I was seventeen. And then, I kind of stopped learning new repertoire, it was enough.. {laugh}. 

  • This is all so fascinating and almost unbelievable.. it sounds like you were doing very well at home, so why did you come to England? 

Initially, I didn't want to leave, but later I changed my mind. It was also my mother, again, who wanted me, and my brother, also a concert pianist, to study abroad. It was going to be either Germany or the UK. We auditioned in a few places, and the final decision was that we will both study at the Purcell School, where I studied with Tessa Nicholson. Two years later, I went to Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in Greenwich, where I studied with Deniz Gelenbe. 

  • I know that you played lots of concerts since you arrived in London, including performing at Wigmore Hall and broadcasting on Classic FM. Do you have any upcoming recitals where we can hear you play?  

I was supposed to perform at the Blackheath Halls, but due to coronavirus, this got postponed, and I am not sure whether we will manage to reschedule. There were also some private soireés planned by a few close people around me, which I hope will happen at a later stage. One of them will be organised by a sponsor who supported my studies at Trinity Laban, and we are still in close contact. Hopefully, the lockdown will be over soon, and I will able to go back to performing. 

  • I really hope so too. Perhaps then, if you have time, maybe we can get you to perform a recital for our students followed by a masterclass?! 

I would be delighted to play for Piano Maestros students, and I hope that they will enjoy it as much as I used to enjoy listening to others when I was young. 

  • Last but not least, what are your plans for the next few months?

I am taking it easy these days and enjoying the freedom. I used to live with constant pressure from performing and endless practising since I was seven years old. So, it's nice to be able to slow down and to have time to reflect. 

I also enjoy having more time for teaching, and I find that I am learning a lot from being a teacher. There is so much to think about when you are on "the other side" of the process. It's essential to listen to what your pupils have to say, and support them on their musical journey, whether they want to play just for fun or take it more seriously. 

Music is healing, especially in difficult times like we are experiencing right now. I feel very grateful for the opportunity to share my skill with others, and to pass on the knowledge that I was given so generously by my teachers. Helping others to discover music and developing their talent is a great privilege and honour. 

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Naufal told us a bit more about his career in the UK at Piano Maestros' Coffee Morning, an online event for adult learners with we held on the 4th of July 2020. He promised that when things return back to "normal" he will perform a concert especially for Piano Maestros students followed by a masterclass. We can wait!

Andrea Vargas Kmecova, Founder & Director


Listen to Naufal as he performs Piano Concerto No.1 by Sergei Rachmaninoff with Trinity Laban Symphonic Orchestra.