Musician Matěj Číp : It Is Essential To Keep Asking "Why"

Matěj Číp, foto: archiv Northern State University

At a time when concert halls have fallen silent, and society is struggling to deal with the coronavirus crisis, music is becoming even more important and many singers and artists are going online to give the public new strength, faith and hope. In the fourth part of a series of interviews with Czech artists living in the United States, titled Artists That Never Give Up in the City That Never Sleeps, the Czech Centre in New York features Czech musicians in the Big Apple. Marek Milde spoke to music student Matěj Číp about his work, his life in New York and the impact of the coronavirus crisis.

Matěj Číp, photo: Archive of the Northern State University
You are currently studying the cimbalom at Northern University, South Dakota. How did the current coronavirus situation affect your life? Although South Dakota is not at the heart of the epidemic, the university is closed. What does stopping your studies mean to you?

“I am firmly convinced that everything bad is good for something, so I try to look at the positive side of the situation. The university officially closed and all lessons are now online. Fortunately, thanks to our great program for international students, we still have the opportunity to stay on campus and focus on studying, including instrumental exercises. I had a very busy first half of this semester, so I perceive this period as an ideal time for more rest and a kind of self-reflection, for which there is often no time here during the year. The biggest challenge comes with my musical courses. All ensemble lessons have been cancelled as well as many concerts and cultural events. Individual instrumental lessons can take place thanks to the Internet, but it does not replace personal contact with professors during regular lessons. Our university, always full of students and life, suddenly turned into a "ghost town," so I often use this tranquillity to meditate, read, and plan other cimbalom lectures and concerts.“

Daniel Skála, photo: ČT24
Studying the cimbalom in America is quite unusual; you are currently the only student of this instrument on this continent. How did you get the idea of going overseas and what motivated you to do so?

“ I was always attracted by the American environment. I anticipated the Americans were open to new things, so even studying an instrument that had no tradition here didn't seem unfeasible to me. When completing the last two years of my studies at the Janáček Conservatory in Ostrava, I often wondered exactly where I would see myself in a few years. I have always wanted to try new possibilities, and at that time it seemed foolish not to try something I could regret later in my life. I was driven by a strong vision, which, together with the huge support of my parents and my professor and mentor Daniel Skála, gave me the courage at a time when my dream seemed even more distant from its implementation. I believe it is essential to keep asking "why" in almost everything we do in our lives. My dream would probably never come true if I had not regularly reassured myself with this question. Thanks to this gradual awareness, I have gained a very strong motivation to turn my thoughts into action.“

Cimbalom, photo: FastilyBot, Wikimedia Commons, CC0
The journey of study to the New World from Moravia is not easy, how did you manage it? What do those who dream of something like this have to undergo?

“Maybe not easy, but definitely adventurous! The first challenge was to find and persuade a university to study the cimbalom, a field that is not officially taught anywhere in the US. The second question was about finance, and then there was "perhaps" only 110 kg of instruments to transport to the new continent. After a lengthy internet search and a tip from the J. W. Fulbright Commission in Prague, I found a university in South Dakota where Professor Marcela Faflak, who also comes from the Czech Republic, teaches piano playing. She was very excited about my idea and helped me to negotiate great cimbalom and study conditions at school. My family could not afford to cover very expensive studies, so I decided to apply for various scholarships and contributions from Czech study foundations. My story captivated a lot of people. With their help, and also with the support of several of these foundations and the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic, I could pack my bags, my cimbalom and embark on an unbelievable adventure. It was definitely a more complicated journey than I had dreamed of being naive in the beginning, but when I first brought the cimbalom to the university, I could hardly describe the feeling of happiness and gratitude that overwhelmed me at that moment.“

What is the difference in teaching and the approach to studying music between the USA and the Czech Republic? Can you name the differences and tell us where does playing the cimbalom lead you? What has your experience of staying in America given you?

"From my point of view, I find a fundamental American degree of professionalism and free-thinking. Overall, I find the American style of teaching based on frequent interactivity between professors and students. Also, a strong sense for community offers you as a student tremendous opportunities. You feel that everyone is here and foremost for you and your success, and then it's only up to you how you make the most of it. In my cimbalom case, it brings me unlimited possibilities for musical experimentation. I can try almost anything with the cimbalom. For example, I can be a part of various ensembles (jazz, percussion ensembles, etc.), or I work with students and professors of other fields. The cimbalom here is not firmly set in the folklore context, which brings me much more musical freedom. For the last time I worked with my friend Aldous, who is an excellent jazz pianist and improviser. Together we work on new compositions for piano and cimbalom based on the context of classical, jazz, folklore and funk music. The American experience gives me a lot. Currently I greatly appreciate their ability to present themselves and believe in what they do. A healthy level of self-confidence at the right time clearly helps your career here. At home in schools, I used to listen to teachers and memorize curriculum, which I often forgot afterwards. Here they are constantly asking you for your opinion, which helps greatly to build a sense of critical thinking.“

Curriculum and public performances are currently suspended, does it affect your playing as such? What are your plans for the future?

Anthony Plog, photo: YouTube
“It affected the planned concerts and lectures I had until the end of the semester. Fortunately, nothing has been cancelled, just postponed, so at least I have a scope to focus on more detailed work. It also gives me more time for exercise and contact with my family and friends, for which I am very happy.

“In the future, I want to complete my Bachelor degree at Northern State University. During that I will continue to focus on cimbalom concerts and lectures. I am very interested in spreading awareness about this instrument across America and it makes sense to me. Often every show brings me a lot of other and interesting contacts, thanks to which I can play with the cimbalom more often. I recently started working with the great American composer Anthony Plog, who is already working on a new concert piece for the cimbalom and symphony ensemble. There is definitely something to look forward to.“

Many people currently find solace and encouragement in music. What do you listen to as a musician?

Tigran Hamasyan, photo: Vahan Stepanyan, Panarmenian.net, CC BY 3.0
“These days I enjoy listening to music from Armenian pianist Tigran Hamasyan, who also studied music in the United States and found a beautiful balance between Armenian musical traditions, classical music and jazz. His music helps me with mental balance and contemplation. Otherwise, I also make extensive use of the generous offers of world-class orchestras and musicians. For example, the Berlin Philharmonic provided free internet access to recordings of the best concerts ever. Being almost always surrounded by music, I also like to listen to podcasts that at least help me to keep abreast of events of our complex world.“

What helps you find balance in addition to music? Would you like to tell people something encouraging?

“During my first semester of music studies in the United States, I discovered the magic of mindfulness. On the American continent, it is a common tool for raising awareness. Through concentrated work with breath, people help to find inner balance and peace in their busy and rapid lives. Now I can meditate more intensively, and this helps me very much in concentration and some kind of calming down. This is also ideally linked to reading. I got books that were recommended by the people who inspired me the most. Reading has also become a kind of meditation for me and there is definitely a lot to choose from in American libraries. I wish that this situation will help us realize our connection with nature and the people we really care about. I believe that our responsibility and human collectiveness can stop this precarious period, and we as humans can learn from this situation.“

Matěj Číp (1996) has been playing the cimbalom since he was 8 years old. Through the beginnings of music studies at elementary art schools, the successful graduation from the Janáček Conservatory in Ostrava, Číp got from a small village Hodslavice in the Moravian-Silesian Region to study music at the university in the USA. In 2018, he officially became the first cimbalom student in the United States. He is expanding his musical knowledge at Northern State University, South Dakota, and through regular appearances and lectures, he also spreads awareness of this musical instrument to American and world audiences.