Willa Darias: Understanding the value of the moment


May 2014


This spring I heard the young Cuban pianist Willa Darias at the Manhattan School of Music in New York. Even though she was wearing a gorgeous red dress, she looked like an innocent little girl at the piano. However, there was nothing childish about her music. Sensual is the first word that comes to my mind, a very sane sensuality. She’s got this precious natural sense that Cubans have for rhythm and rubato. She gave a dimension to the music that isolated you and brought you into a scented and warm world, full of color and relief.


The story of how everything began for her is quite colorful in itself. Nobody in her family was a musician but an uncle who used to live in her house had a small electric piano on which he would play by ear. When Willa was 3, he taught her how to play Happy Birthday and she would play it for everybody who came to her house. Later on, her uncle taught her the name of the notes and soon she could tell which notes he was playing on the piano. Her parents were very surprised; they had no idea what was happening.


Then one day while carpooling, her dad met a woman who told him that Willa had perfect pitch and that she should start piano lessons. The woman actually happened to be a conductor at the Superior Institute for the Arts (the only university for arts in Cuba). She gave Willa’s father the phone number of her best friend’s mom: the chair of the piano department who ended-up being Willa’s teacher for the next 13 years. Willa is very grateful to her former teacher: “she taught me from the beginning that playing the piano is a profession, not some kind of game.” It gave the piano a very important perspective right from the beginning.


Back in Cuba, Willa didn’t have much access to music. She heard one or two recordings of Horowitz she says, but was unaware of any tradition of interpretation. Therefore, for the young woman, classical music is still a complete discovery. “Four years ago I never had heard any of this music”, she marvels. “All the great symphonies and operas, I am hearing them for the first time and I am just so amazed all the time. I embrace whatever excites and inspires me. I don’t hide my enthusiasm for music. I am just in love – you know…with the classical music world!”


Willa is at a point in her life when she just can’t get enough of music and piano. There are so many things that she still wants to achieve technically and so much repertoire that she wants to work on. She feels like she still has a long way to go before she finds her own voice. But yet she is very excited about it: “I am thrilled to see what pianist I will be, to see what will make me “me.” The interesting thing is that we can actually hear that in the young Cuban’s playing: the factor of time, the art in progress.


When I asked the young pianist what being Cuban means to her, she answered that she thinks it’s certain energy and attitude towards life: enjoying and appreciating the things that are good. Cubans are warm and genuine. Willa doesn’t try to blend in and strongly believes in sincerity. For her, the whole point of music – and of life in general – is to actively change the situation by being yourself. “No one has been me, no one has been you. If you can’t bring something different to the whole then you are just imitating. Of course a big part of music making is imitation. That is because someone else has already written the music you are playing and traditions, standards and styles have been established. But once you feel the music your way, it’s all yours. I feel the emotions when I play. I don’t think about how the emotion would feel, I put myself into the emotion and then I play from this emotion in the language of the composer. You can express the same emotion in different composers.”


These days, every time Willa plays, she feels like she is improving. “My freedom is increasing”, she noticed poetically. Somehow she always plays better when performing than in her practice room. Performing just feels really good to her. During performances she feels her brain going faster. It’s a fact adrenalin makes your brain go faster and you process every idea faster. “I feel that in between notes there is like a world, I feel that in between notes I can think so many thoughts and that the possibilities are infinite. I am not just waiting on a note – I have to keep a certain pulse – but I feel myself becoming so creative at the moment when I am playing.” She bounces in the general pulse but in between does whatever she feels like. That’s what playing music is about: understanding the value of the moment, this moment in the music, in life that is so unique.