Playing piano since the age of five, Liliya Ugay graduated from Uspensky Special Music School for Gifted Children. Throughout her 12 years of education there, she also studied composition with Polina Medyulyanova and Felix Yanov-Yanovsky. One year into her undergraduate education at the Uzbek Conservatory, Ugay realized she wanted to get a degree abroad.
Photos provided by Liliya Ugay
"My first year applying to U.S. schools I didn't get full scholarships," she explains. When trying to get into music institutions the second time, Liliya applied not as a composer, but a pianist instead. She believes that this was the reason why she was able to receive the Woodruff scholarship at Columbus State University. "If you're a good performer, you're much more likely to get a good scholarship for undergraduate studies, especially if you are an international applicant," the composer says.
After graduating from CSU, Ugay applied to music schools to get a graduate degree in composition. "I had several interviews around the country," the composer recalls. "I went to Yale, got an answer the next day, and cancelled my next interviews." Right now, the composer is currently pursuing her Doctor of Musical Arts there. "The program applies two years in residence and four more years out of [it], but at the same time I got a full-time teaching job at Florida State University as a composition professor," she notes.
Ranked as one of the top graduate composition programs in the world, YSM offers a plethora of opportunities, amazing faculty, and covers all tuition for its students, which Liliya highlights as important factors in her decision. Surrounded by musicians who, as she says, were particularly serious about their studies, she found herself in a stimulating environment with great performers. As a composer, you are given the chance to perform your music at six concerts per year, where the school provides you with the top-notch performers that you need to play and represent your music.
"If you look at Princeton graduate composition program, it offers a lot of money — I believe it is approximately $30,000 in stipend," Liliya compares. "They invest in top ensembles, but it goes in expense that they don't have such a plethora of great performers, because Princeton does not offer graduate degrees in performance [like Yale does]." She also mentions Columbia University, which she thinks is stylistically more focused, if not to say restrictive, because the composers there are more dedicated to particular trends of European contemporary music avant-garde, emphasizing how the faculty and students at her Alma-Mater offer more diverse musical styles.
Another key feature is the curriculum. "It is very flexible, and has few requirements," the composer tells me. Apart from the three required courses and composition seminars, you have the freedom to choose your own classes, whether that be in music or other fields. This allows for a more well-rounded education and shapes you as an artist.
At Yale, Ugay got the chance to explore other art forms, with the help of facilities such as the center where students get various digital media equipment, and collaborate with people who are experienced in making visual art. The composer is currently focused on "shaping her work [in a way that is] not only presentable on the concert stage, but also audibly and visually [engaging]," especially given that the pandemic left many musicians without the opportunity of performing live.
Perhaps the most crucial project Liliya has worked on doesn't involve her own music, but showing and introducing music of repressed composers from the Soviet era. Founding and directing Silenced Voices, she says "it was a way for [her] to feel grateful for the education [she] got." Working with Boris Berman, a piano professor at Yale who usually doesn't collaborate with anyone other than piano majors, Ugay led this one semester performance and research project. She later continued it with an undergraduate student Agata Sorotokin and turned the series not only into concerts, but into lecture-recitals, portraying the historical nature of those times.
When looking back at her application process, Liliya claims that it was her ability to express who she really is and originality that made her stand out. The portfolio had to have three compositions, so the composer approached them all in various styles. The first piece was written for an orchestra to show her orchestration skills; the second was a three-movement, 20-minute string quartet that Liliya dedicated over a year to create and pushed herself in terms of various techniques of textural writing and harmonic language; the third composition, Nostalgia, was written for piano and live electronics and incorporates theatrical, almost on the edge of performance art, elements.
A great advice Ugay once received was coming to maybe not the most prestigious, but still a good music program in the United States, and then taking a leap and sending an application to the top schools for graduate studies. "I went to a small but very supportive school in Georgia, and many came from places like Juilliard." Liliya concludes, saying that in the end, they all ended up making it into Yale.
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