Teacher and performer: Kinga Krupa plays recently at Thomas L. Brown Gallery near Arrowtown

Piano teacher Kinga Krupa talks to writer Neville Idour about learning piano in post-communist Poland and how she re-found her passion for performing

Polish-born classical pianist Kinga Krupa has lived in Queenstown for just two years but has already stamped her mark on the music scene as an accomplished performer and respected teacher.

Her story is an inspiring one.

She was born in Nowy Targ, a medieval town in the mountains.

“I was brought up in the post-communist system which strongly influenced my grandparents’ and parents’ generations. There was little trust, not even of friends, sometimes.

“People would even report their neighbour to the police if they thought they had too much money, or something, and be rewarded.

“My family were not like that, but were fearful. We got a fax machine when I was seven, just eight years after the end of the communist system. My parents said never to tell anyone. Fear was rife.”

Her family are all musicians.

“Most of us have music degrees,” she says. “Dad plays and repairs organs and pianos. My younger sister is a classical flautist, my younger brother a jazz saxophonist.”

Krupa, 31, began piano lessons aged six; two sessions of 45 minutes every week. She loved it, but the high expectations of the Eastern European system were draining.

“For exams in music school, you walk into a large room with five teachers watching. No ‘hello’. You play from memory for up to an hour and walk out and wait for their review, mostly focused on what you did wrong.

“The exam is stressful without the negative environment. So I started losing confidence and doubting myself.”

As a teenager, she skipped school sports or less important classes and would practise up to six hours a day and maybe eight a day on the weekends.

“It was like a full-time job. No holidays. No days off. Mum, who loves hiking in the mountains, would say ‘have a rest’, but huge pressure from school made me not listen.”

Aged 20, she started piano studies at the Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music in Katowice and gained an Honours degree in performance and teaching.

“I performed around Europe without enjoyment during this time because of the very stressful academy atmosphere.

“I gave up playing because I wanted to do it for passion, not pressure.

“My self-esteem was completely broken, so I needed to stop, think on it and rebuild myself.”

Krupa then studied world history for four years, but while enjoyable she saw no future as an historian, so joined her sister in Spain for a gap year, which was the only time she didn’t teach.

It was there she met her Irish-born partner, Ben Cullen. After a few months back in Poland to complete her history degree, they both moved to Ireland.

During their time in Dublin, she taught piano.

“It was wonderful and I realised how beneficial music is for all.

“I would get adults as well as children as pupils, whereas in Poland, adults see no point as they will never become a concert pianist. There is no idea of playing for enjoyment.

“So for about five years I had not played, just taught.”

She embraced the Western view of playing for enjoyment and, with huge support from Cullen, began rebuilding her self-confidence and trust.

After a year in Dublin, they decide to move somewhere with less of a commute, less traffic, and more outdoors.

They arrived in Queenstown in October, 2017, and then gained residency last September, which removed visa restrictions on performing and teaching.

“I have been building an all-embracing music community of people of all ages.

“My mission is to provide the very highest-quality teaching in a positive environment they can thrive in, and that will imbue them with confidence.”

She now teaches about 90 pupils a week, plus four groups for music theory, and has a waiting list of 25.

She also recently performed ‘French Impressions for Flute and Piano’ concert tour with Allen Hogan of Wanaka.

“As an artist, I want to perform solo and with others, more often, and would love to play a concert with a full orchestra.”

Having coped with and discarded an oppressive, negative environment, she’s now blossoming in Queenstown and looking forward to her future as a performer and teacher.