Cimbalom player Matěj Číp on his journey from Moravia to Berklee College of Music

Matěj Číp, Paganini's Caprice no. 5 on Cimbalom

Matěj Číp, a musician from a small village in Moravia, has devoted his life to playing the cimbalom, a hammered dulcimer from Central-Eastern Europe. After graduating from the Ostrava conservatory, he went on to study at the Northern State University in South Dakota, becoming the first ever cimbalom student at university level in the United States. He is now heading to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in New York City for his Master’s degree. His ambition is to spread the awareness of the instrument all over the world. I met with Matěj shortly before his departure to the US and I started by asking what brought him to study the cimbalom in the first place:

“The beginnings are connected with my family, especially with my grandmother. On her 70th birthday, we had a classic celebration in our village in Moravia and my parents decided to invite a cimbalom band, a traditional folk band.

“I would say I am an introvert, but when I sit in front of the cimbalom, I don't have to use words.”

“I was seven years old and it was my first encounter with the cimbalom and I immediately fell in love with the instrument. I told my parents I really wanted to play the cimbalom. They made it happen and I have persisted to this day.”

The cimbalom is an intrinsic part of the Central European culture, but it is not that well known outside this region. Can you introduce the instrument to our listeners?

“Actually not many people know that cimbalom is one of the oldest instruments in our history. The first depiction of this instrument was found in the Syrian Empire 3,000 years ago. It looked like a small lyre, but they already used small hammers to play the strings with.

“Throughout the history, the cimbalom continued to develop, making its way into different parts of the world. In the late 19th century, the cimbalom truck attention of Franz Liszt, the famous classical music composer, who fell in love with the instrument.

“At the time, the cimbalom was open to different kinds of music, not only folk style. It was also competing with the piano in the area of classical music.”

Matěj Číp | Photo: Martin Vaniš,  Radio Prague International

It is interesting that you mention classical music, because I would say that in this country, most people associate cimbalom with Moravian folk music. But you can obviously perform all kinds of music on the instrument….

“That’s absolutely right. It makes sense, because if you go to Moravia, you can hear cimbalom being played by folk bands. Not many people know that cimbalom was officially developed for concert use to compete with the piano.”

Going back to your musical career, after graduating from the Janáček Conservatory of Music in Ostrava, you decided to pursue your dream to study cimbalom in the United States. Why would you want to study the instrument in a country where it is virtually unknown?

“That’s a very good question and the answer is really simple. Because I fell in love with the American culture, especially with their kind of thinking, with the mind-set that is open to novelties.

“So when I was studying the cimbalom at the conservatory, I felt like this instrument had a big potential. Why not to take it to a country that is hopefully open enough to accept me with a cimbalom? And eventually it worked out!”

Was it difficult to find a university that would accept you?

Matěj Číp | Photo: Martin Vaniš,  Radio Prague International

“I have to say it was a pretty complicated process. First of all I needed to find the right school that would accept me with my instrument. After that I had to go through the regular process of being accepted as a university student in the United States.

“That means passing the SAT and ACT exams, and also fulfilling the visa requirements, getting enough finances to afford studying at such expensive university, at least from our point of view. So it was a long and quite a challenging process, but because I had this big dream, I never thought of giving up.”

So in 2018, you were accepted to the Northern State University in South Dakota, becoming the first symbol and student at the university level in the United States. What did the studies look like? What department did you study at?

“At the beginning, it was a big process of finding out what will be the best for me, especially for my personal and musical growth. I started under the piano supervision of Marcela Faflak, who is a professor at Northern State University, and who is originally from the Czech Republic. She was the reason why I could come to this specific university and why I could bring my instrument.

“So I came there, I was under her department and then started cooperating with all different departments, for example percussion department and even with the orchestra conductor and we were trying to find where to place the cimbalom within the university.

“Eventually the best fit for me was under the percussion instructor. We found out that his technique and style was most similar to the cimbalom. So I would say it was a mutual cooperation of different professors from different departments, mostly percussion and piano.”

I believe you had to bring your own instrument, which was probably not an easy thing to do…

“It was extremely difficult because the cimbalom is weighs around 110 kilograms, depending on the model. It is pretty big as well. It is very fragile, so when you ship it, you need to be extremely careful.

Matěj Číp,  Paganini's Caprice no. 5 on Cimbalom | Photo: Cimbalom Guy / YouTube

“And my instrument was freshly built. It came right from the factory. So I had this week-old instrument in my home and I was already packing it to ship it to the United States.

“So we had to put it into a case. Then we had another case made for transporting the instrument on an airplane. Then we loaded the whole big package in a semi-truck that was shipped to Amsterdam, where it was loaded on a plane shipped to Minneapolis, from where I had to drive a van, pick up the cimbalom and drive it all the way to South Dakota to Northern State University.”

Apart from South Dakota, you also studied at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. How did that happen? What brought you to China?

“That happened because of my decision of going to America, because once I entered the school in the United States, I realized that there were amazing people from all over the world. There was one amazing student who was a Chinese guitar pipa player and I had a chance to cooperate with her at the university. It was my first encounter with Chinese music, and I thought: Wow, this is so interesting.

“And then a year after that, before the Covid started, one of the groups of international students from China arrived and I found my best friend among them.

Matěj Číp,  Paganini's Caprice no. 5 on Cimbalom | Photo: Cimbalom Guy / YouTube

“And during the Covid pandemic, the university was shut down, and all the international students were forced to spend time together in one dormitory and we had lots of time to talk.

“I told him about Czechia and he told me about China and when the semester ended, he said: You were interested in China, why don't we try to find a way for you to go there and study? So I started learning Chinese and I started looking for opportunities.

“I created a video where I described my instrument in Chinese and explained why I would like to go to China. And it led me all the way to the Central Conservatory of Music, where I could study for one semester.”

And is there a Chinese version of the cimbalom in China?

“Yes. That was the connecting point with the cimbalom. Because in China they have their own dulcimer which is called the yangqin, which has its own culture and its own history. At the same time, it is similar when it comes to the technique.

“It just has different sticks that are made of bamboo, which make a very different sound from the cimbalom. I would say the sound of the cimbalom is closer to the piano, while the sound of the yangqin is more percussive.”

So how would you compare the teaching style in the United States and in China?

“Not many people know that the cimbalom was officially developed for concert use, to compete with the piano.”

“I would say in the United States education is about critical thinking, about having various projects to do, about tasks that are based on pretty much everyday basis. In China it was based on repetition, or drill and students really practiced from morning to night.

“In America it was more playful. The students didn't practice that much, but they were trying to think what they are doing, about the process of practicing and about developing more efficient technique.

“I think that when you are a musician, it’s important to do both, because you really need to spend lots of time building up your skills, understanding the music and listening to new pieces.

“At the same time, you should also spend some time analysing why you do it and what's happening inside the music, so it's not only performed, but it's also lived through, because art is a living thing.”

You are about to travel overseas again in a matter of days, really because you received a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in New York for your master’s degree. What motivated you to continue your studies in the United States?

Matěj Číp | Photo: Martin Vaniš,  Radio Prague International

“It was this big dream that I had since the very beginning. When I wanted to go to study to America, I was already quite ambitious and I was trying to aim very high.

“Already in 2018, for my bachelor’s degree, I tried to contact the best universities for music. But because I didn’t have enough experience with the American educational system, it was mostly based on trial and error.

“But over the years I spent in America, I gained much more confidence and experience that helped me to continue all the way to this prestigious music school.

“I spent last year making a plan how I can get accepted. I created lots of videos that I had been sending to the faculty to show them I was really interested and trying to introduce my instrument. Eventually, it worked out and now I am getting ready to start this new chapter.”

You managed to raise more than CZK 600,000 through a crowdfunding campaign to help finance your studies. Were you surprised by the reaction of people, many of whom you probably don't know?

“Of course I was surprised. But I also have to say that I tried my best to share my story and asked all of my friends that I met throughout my studies if they knew about anyone who might be interested in my story.

“So I was surprised by the support of all the people that I have never met. But I was also extremely grateful to have all these people around me who would have supported me anyways, which was a great feeling and it gave me a lot of strength.”

You spoke about how much you have learned in the United States and here in the Czech Republic and in China throughout the years of your studies. But you also call yourself a symbol and pioneer. Would you have succeeded in spreading awareness about this particular instrument?

Matěj Číp,  Paganini's Caprice no. 5 on Cimbalom | Photo: Cimbalom Guy / YouTube

“I think that would be a bold statement, but it is one of my ultimate goals for the future, to keep doing what I am doing. But I think I'm still at the beginning of my journey. I was lucky to perform at interesting concerts and meet many interesting, inspiring people, but I also understood through this experience that the world is full of many different opportunities. So I hope if I persevere with what I am doing, it will get better and better.”

What kind of music do you most like to perform on the cimbalom?

“I like to perform a selection of genres to show the variety of the instrument. But because of my educational background, I usually base my repertoire around classical music.

“I am always trying to choose original pieces composed for the cimbalom so I can show its full range and colour. But I am also trying to present the folk aspect of the music, so I often perform Czech folk songs.

“And because of my international experience, I also try to always involve some modern pieces, let's say jazz music, even funk. So I always try to put the cimbalom in different settings so people can see that the instrument has a really lot of potential.”

You spoke about how you fell in love for the instrument. Does this fascination continue?

“I think it does. Over the years of my studies, especially when I was younger, there were moments when I felt that the cimbalom wasn’t the best choice and that maybe I should do something more practical and stable.

“It isn’t easy to be an independent musician. But every time I didn't practice that much or didn't perform that much, I always missed it and eventually I had to come back. I would say I am an introvert, but when I sit in front of the cimbalom, I don't have to use words. I feel I am myself and I am open to everyone.”

Author: Ruth Fraňková
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