Nikka Gershman has been described as “without question one of the finest and most dedicated young flute soloists and composers” by Mike Green, the President of the Grammy Foundation. Haynes Flutes has invited her to represent the company as a Young Artist. At age 15, Nikka made history as the youngest ever recipient of a Kovner Fellowship at The Juilliard School.
Can you give us your top career highlights?
From the moment I picked up the flute, it felt like remembering rather than learning. Since then, it has been my dream to perform in the World Capital of Music: Vienna. I can definitely say that playing my favorite piece, Sibelius’ Violin Concerto (transcribed for flute), as a soloist with the Vienna Opera Ball Orchestra in the iconic Wiener Konzerthaus, was one of my top highlights. This concert will be showcased on PBS.
I feel very fortunate that I was invited to perform for the Salon de Virtuosi in New York. It’s a remarkable organization that focuses on helping launch the careers of young artists. As a winner of their Career Grant, generously sponsored by the Kashper Family Foundation, I had my debut at Merkin Hall, accompanied on piano by the magnificent Vivian Fan. It was a night to remember.
Looking back to when I was a child, my grandfather, George Gershman, introduced me to the radio show From the Top. Years later, it was truly a milestone to be featured on this program, which was broadcast on National Public Radio.
However, when I was an 8-year-old musician, earning a free gelato while busking on the streets of a tiny Italian village was the ultimate career highlight!
How about 3 pivotal moments that were essential to creating the artist that you've become?
When I was 5 years old, I was visiting the Getty Villa Museum with my mother, Zhenya Gershman. I asked her, “Do you hear that beautiful music?” To my surprise, she had no idea what I was talking about, and for a brief moment, she was actually concerned for me. All of a sudden, we realized it was coming from inside my head! That’s how we both learned that I was a composer.
Fast-forward nine years to Professor Raffaele Trevisani’s beautiful Milanese apartment, where I had a technical breakthrough: I asked the Maestro if he could teach me how to breathe better. Unexpectedly, he requested me to lay down on his floor, commenting “Don’t worry, it’s not dirty.” The next event was even more startling, as he went around collecting the heaviest books and stacked what felt like a hundred pounds of volumes on my stomach. As if this was not enough, he then leaned into the stack with all his might, saying, “Now breathe!” This day was pivotal as he has completely changed my technique and taught me how to use my diaphragm for breathing support.
Finally, I remember my first ever concerto competition, where the panel thought my mother was competing instead of me, because it turned out to be a competition for college students, and I was only 11! They politely asked me to return in a few years, but my accompanist insisted that I should be heard. Later that day, we received a phone call, and learned that I ended up winning first prize. As part of the award, I played for the very first time as a soloist with the Whittier Regional Symphony – an unforgettable event. Since then, I always knew I wanted to be a soloist.
What do you like best about performing?
An audience can seem daunting as a sea of unknown faces. Yet to me, it is a very intimate experience. I strive to connect with every single person in the audience, making eye contact with all present. Tapping into our joined energy makes me feel really at home on stage.
I use various techniques to deliver the best possible performance. One of my rituals is getting an acupuncture session by my brilliant grandmother, Irina Gershman, who travels everywhere with me to help relax and relieve tension and nerves. Another technique I apply is from Professor Severus Snape! He teaches Harry Potter how to block off his mind from magical intrusions with a barrier called “Occlumency”. I like to say that when I perform, I put up my own Occlumency shields, because nothing can stop me when I’m in the moment: not even when a cellphone once rang during my cadenza!
Deutsche Grammophon exclusive release: “Gershman plays Gershman”. Check back in 10 years.
What does your schedule look like for the next 6 months?
I can hardly believe that this August, I’m going to be moving across the country to begin my studies at the Juilliard School. I’m very excited to migrate to the East Coast, where I’ll be concertizing as a soloist and with the Juilliard Orchestra. Looking ahead, I’m preparing a unique program (featuring my original compositions and transcriptions) for a solo recital in Venice, Italy, entitled Omaggio all'Italia. This concert is a result of winning the Absolute First Prize at the Concorso Internazionale A Tutto Flauto.
What are your goals personally? Professionally?
In the near future, I want to explore period instruments, such as the recorder and traverso, and I hope to be a part of the Juilliard415 baroque orchestra. My biggest dream is to perform as a soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic, and to conduct and play my own compositions around the world.
What inspires you the most in life?
I draw a lot of inspiration from my family. I’m so lucky to know and love all of my grandparents. For my musical family, I like to say that I am nourished by the Four Great S’: Sibelius, Shostakovich, Schnittke, and Schubert. Unfortunately, Bach, Verdi, and Doppler don’t have surnames starting with an S, so they are the honorary members of this club.
What has been your professional greatest challenge?
As long as I can remember, I’ve looked older than my years since I’m very tall, but upon learning my biological age, many organizations used to consider me “too young” to apply. My greatest challenge was to break through the age barrier. My tennis coach always told me, “Don’t let anything intimidate you, and let the racquet do the talking.” I think this definitely applies to the flute! I am so grateful to Juilliard for allowing me to start my Bachelor of Music degree at 15 years old.
Who are your music mentors? And what did you learn from them?
In the past, I’ve been blessed with a chain of amazing mentors: Mandy Fey (my first ever band teacher in second grade), Diana Morgan, Jim Walker, and my beloved flute-godmother, Julia Bogorad. I learned so much from each of them.
I am particularly grateful to Raffaele Trevisani for all his knowledge, musicality, tradition, virtuosity, and logic. I visit him every summer for intensive study, and I am already looking forward to the next adventure.
Most recently, I was blessed to meet Sir James and Lady Jeanne Galway. Their wisdom was life-changing. I’ve been attending the Galway Flute Festival online for the past few years, but learning from Sir James in person was like a whole new world. His presence is larger than life, and he elevated my sound to a higher level.
One of my greatest inspirations is Marcel Moyse. I’ve created a shrine in my room with posters of le Maître. I am so thankful to my dear friend Trevor Wye, who gifted me rare Moyse photographs, letters, and other memorabilia which I cherish. I am looking forward to studying with the incredible Carol Wincenc, one of Moyse’s beloved students, for the next four years at Juilliard.
None of my musical career would be possible without my two greatest coaches: my mother, Zhenya Gershman, and my father, Evan Pepper. I lost count of just how many elementary school rehearsals my father sat through, clapping the rhythms, and writing in the note names. As an artist herself, my mother continues to advise me with all of my repertoire and musical expression.
Can you give us 5 quirky, secret, fun, (don't think too much about this) hobbies or passions?
- I consider myself a romantic and enjoy writing rhymed poetry. I feel the rhythm in my blood, since my great-grandfather, Mikhail Matusovsky, was a renowned poet.
- One can never learn enough languages. I speak fluent French and Russian, and I’m working on my Italian, Latin, Polish, and German. My dream is to master Greek and Georgian one day.
- Following in the footsteps of my great-great-grandfather, Lev Matusovsky, who was one of the first photographers of Lugansk, Ukraine, I love using my lens for taking creative photographs.
- My favorite way to release pent-up emotions is by smashing some tennis balls.
- I am on a never-ending quest to find the perfect guilt-free recipe for a decadent chocolate fudge from protein powder and stevia!
What things would you offer as advice for a young flutist?
- Participate in as many competitions as you can: not only to win, but to have an opportunity to perform.
- Supplement your daily practice with a healthy lifestyle. Working out will improve your stage presence, posture, and even make the flute feel lighter.
- The world is much smaller than we think: find your flute idol and reach out to them. Chances are, they’ll answer and you can study with them!
- I recommend combining the two following quotes from my favorite magicians:
“Don’t blow the flute, play the flute!” –Sir James Galway
“Music is a magic beyond all we do.” –Albus Dumbledore