Holding the door wide open, I vividly remember the first glimpse of my first piano being carried up the steps to our apartment by the removalists. Getting scared of the size of the piano, compared to my tiny self, I remember running straight to my mother who was wiping the floor space and getting it ready for the piano.
I was only four then and I don’t remember a day after that when music wasn’t a part of my life.
I was born in Beirut, Lebanon, a city where war, conflict and political instability were and are still a major component of day-to-day reality. Like many other families, it wasn’t easy for my family to navigate through the harsh circumstances inflicted on us, but people moved forward with resilience and a will to survive, and made the best they could out of their lives and for the sake of their children.
This is just what my parents did. Noticing my love towards music and detecting my persistence to learn piano from a very young age, my mother made sure my journey to develop this passion as a pianist was uninterrupted, even during the horrible years of the Lebanese civil war.
Having earned my diploma from the Parsegh Ganatchian music college in Beirut and my Bachelor’s Degree in English and American literature from Haigazian University, I made a decision in 2002 to move to Armenia to further my studies in Piano Performance at the Komitas State Conservatorium in Yerevan. Having been brought up with a strong sense of Armenian identity in Beirut, I was certain that my desire towards wanting to experience more of my culture and heritage was only going to be realised by living and studying in the motherland.
During my years living in Armenia, not only was I nurtured in music at the State Conservatorium, but also in many other aspects of my life. Living independently in a place full of music, art and culture, discovering the land and its people was transformative and led me down a road to self-discovery on many levels.
Having not been exposed to much jazz music while growing up in Beirut, hearing it in the local venues in Yerevan introduced me to the amazing world of improvisation, drawing me especially into the fusion of Armenian folk music with jazz. I was struck by an unknown longing for this genre that I’d never discovered before. Moreover, witnessing the energy exchanged between the band members during the live gigs was something I realised I too wanted to experience while performing music.
In reality, it would be many years before I satisfied this longing, learning that this was not an easy task. Mentally and emotionally, it took me a while to figure out my way towards that goal and throughout the process, I learnt a few important lessons, which I humbly want to share with you.
1) Give yourself the permission to change your life: Blank Canvas
While at the conservatorium in Armenia, I had to continue focusing on mastering my yearly repertoires for exams and performances throughout the academic years. Even though I really wanted to discover more about jazz music and improvisation, I couldn’t allow myself to delve into that world as I was afraid that dedicating some of my time to learning jazz would compromise my performance level in classical music. That is, that it would take away “precious hours” from my strict practice regimen. After all, the urge to impress (as it had always been) my mentors and my peers was on top of my priority list and perfectionism was a haunting presence in my life as a performer.
After five years of studying in Armenia and earning a Master’s degree in Piano Performance, circumstances led me to move to beautiful Sydney Australia. During the first four years of my time in Sydney, I was mainly involved with teaching which gave me time to adapt to my new environment, discover new things and have new experiences. At the same time however, as a musician it was the most confusing time in my life as I was a stuck in a limbo: knowing deep inside that pursuing a career in classical performance was not what I wanted to do in my life but on the other hand, being afraid of that fact. I felt sad and helpless, knowing that I had dedicated my life to work hard and perfect a skill with hours and hours of daily practice and strict approach towards concert preparations, only to realise that it may not be the right direction for me.
Finally, one day, the following words spoken by one of my favourite artists, pierced right through me: “You have to be honest with yourself. You have to look at the picture you have created, the canvas you have created, and say: Is this the canvas I want? Is this my canvas? Have I created this canvas or life has splashed some paint on my canvas and I had no control over it? If you’re honest with yourself and if you think this isn’t what represents you, I think you should simply erase it or paint over it. I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s actually the hardest thing because there are so many attachments to the canvas, but you know you can do it.” – From Vahe Berberian’s Tedx Yerevan Talk titled “Rock the Boat”.
For weeks, I kept thinking about Vahe’s talk as it had felt like he was talking straight to me and about me through my computer screen. Finally, after some encouragement from a dear friend, I went to my first jazz harmony lesson. I felt like a baby taking her first steps but after the first lesson, when I stepped out to go home, the birds seemed to be more cheerful, the trees greener and the sky brighter. I’ve now realised that the hardest decision for me in my life was to give myself the permission to start over again. That said, if given the chance to redo my formative years, I wouldn’t change a thing.
2) Accept the fact that despite your best efforts, you will face failure during a transitional phase.
The beginning of my transitional journey to jazz wasn’t easy at all. Coming from a background in classical performance where the goal is perfect delivery of repertoire, it was very hard for me to listen to my improvisation without cringing, not being satisfied with my chord voicings or feeling like I was not quick enough in my thought process. Whilst I am still critical of myself and have a lot to learn, it is to a much lesser degree since I have learnt to be gentler towards myself. That said, I have found the learning process was and is still enjoyable for me, forcing me to be patient and accept the fact that it would take me some time to shift to the new mode of “thinking” in jazz and acquire the new needed skills.
One of the best decisions I made throughout this transitional phase was participating in Sydney Improvised Music Association’s Women’s Jazz Workshops. I had such a wonderful experience during my first time at the workshops that I decided to join it again two years after. By this time, I still wasn’t satisfied with my performance level in jazz, but I decided to push forward in auditioning at the Sydney Con. This, I felt would be a great goal to have as I always had this niggling feeling that time was running fast and I had to learn as much as I could, as fast as I could, to catch up on what I had missed in the past years.
Not getting accepted into the jazz course after my first audition at the Con was a big test for my will power. I was devastated when I received the news but wasn’t surprised either. I was told that I had amazing piano skills but was not quite there yet in jazz. I couldn’t help but focus on this as a setback, thinking that I’d lost another year as I was getting older. However, over the coming months, I decided to audition again and whilst I didn’t get into the jazz course, I was accepted in the Music Education Course with Jazz as Principal Study. Only one year into the course, my persistence paid off as I was transferred to the Jazz Course. It was during my time at the Con where I met wonderful musicians and mentors, who set the foundations of the jazz knowledge I have learnt thus far. I consider I am still at the beginning of my journey and look forward to absorbing as much information as I can from my wonderful mentors and fellow musicians, who inspire me on a daily basis.
3) It’s important to be honest to yourself and talk openly about your insecurities
Throughout this shift in my life, I learnt valuable lessons, with one being especially important. Back when I used to play classical repertoire, I remember it was so hard for me to expose my insecurities and talk about my concerns. Over time however, I learnt how to be honest with myself and talk about my insecurities as a musician. For example, a slip of a finger on stage or an “average” performance would manifest into persistent negative thoughts in my head. The thought of a mistake occurring again would make me feel quite apprehensive and discussing it with anyone would mean putting my guard down, which I thought would change people’s perception of me. I certainly didn’t want that to happen. However, the risk that I took in my life to change my career path, in a way, taught me to be resilient and open up. Learning more about jazz gradually gave me the freedom I had always looked for as a musician in my life – to express myself and be creative. Through jazz, I learnt that once you find your individual voice, you can discover your strengths and discern the weaknesses. While enjoying your strengths and using them to drive you forward, the fluidity of approach towards the music allows for time to work on the weaknesses and improve them at one’s own pace. For this reason, I think, it has been possible for me to find a space where I feel comfortable and where the perfectionist in me isn’t a constant intruder.
Whilst I am yet to achieve further successes in my career, I am happy that I have succeeded in silencing the inner critic (the negative one) and having the courage to change the course of my creative life. This gave my life a kind of significance; a significance in the sense that I get to love the process of creating music, to make it come alive together with my band members and most importantly to share it with audiences. As musicians, this is the ultimate goal and my hope is that my experience shared will be an encouragement to others who are on the verge of making that big shift to doing what they love most.
VIEW AND LISTEN
Zela is currently active performing her original compositions with her band, Zela Margossian Quintet, which she founded in early 2017. Zela Margossian Quintet’s music is a fusion of folk, jazz and classical, carrying influences from traditional Armenian music.
Zela Margossian Quintet releases their debut album, Transition in November 2018. In October 2019, Transition receives an ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Association) for Best World Music Album category.
Performance highlights include the Quintet’s participation in the Sydney International Jazz Women’s Festival (2017,2019,2020), a tour to Beirut, Lebanon to take part in the Beirut International Jazz Day Festival (April 2018), and a couple of key performances in the SIMA (Sydney Improvised Music Association) Jazz Programs (June 2018, Aug. 2019), a debut performance for the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues (Nov. 2020), a debut performance at the Sydney Opera House (Dec. 2020) and a performance at Sydney Town Hall for Sydney Festival programme.
“Transitioning among seemingly impossible musical and rhythmic puzzles and into an effortless harmonious whole, Margossian’s strong compositional themes and organic, intuitive sense for sophisticated meters only is enhanced. Embracing her background and a shift over to jazz following classical music studies, the bandleader has carved out an entrancing and dazzlingly unique kaleidoscopic niche.” – DownBeat Magazine
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