As a young girl in Moscow, Elena Mashkovtseva studied violin and always scored high on her musical exams. But one day, Elena’s violin teacher suggested to her mother that she switch instruments. “Her pinkies are very short,” the violin teacher explained. “She won’t be able to go far with the violin. She should switch instruments while she’s young and still has a chance.”
Soon after, Elena’s mother passed by a harp studio. A professional artist, she’d always appreciated the form and beauty of a harp, and she asked the harp teacher if she had any openings for her daughter. She did. Elena’s mother told her about her daughter’s short pinkie problem, and asked if that would also be a problem with the harp. “Not a problem!” the harp teacher said. “The pinkie isn’t used to play the harp, only the other four fingers.” Elena’s mother was overjoyed, and thus began Elena’s harp education.
Elena excelled at the harp and went on to attend the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, where she studied with Vera Dulova, a famous virtuosa. While a student, Elena won first prize at an international harp competition held in Moscow. After graduation, she won the position of principal harp with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. Now based in San Diego, Elena is a much sought-after performer who has served as the principal harpist for Orchestra Nova, Baja California Orchestra, and acting principal harp with the San Diego Symphony.
Elena’s musical range is versatile—she can be as powerful in a Mahler symphony as she is delicate in a Debussey sonata. Her most recent CD, Song of a Bird, recorded at Studio West, shows off the delicate side, and the CD title is reflective of the lovely bird-like trills in the high notes on many of the pieces. Song of a Bird includes pieces by Handel, Liszt, Prokofiev, and Tchaikovsky. “I’m Russian,” Elena says, “of course I’ve got to include Tchaikovsky.”
Elena’s skills as a teacher match her excellence as a performer. She’s the harp professor at San Diego State University, and also has her own private teaching studio near the university. Studio West owners Peter and Amy Dyson chose Elena as a harp teacher for their daughter, Emma, after attending the annual harp recital for all San Diego harp students. “Emma was just starting on the pedal harp when we attended the annual recital for the first time,” says Amy Dyson. “There were many beautiful performances, but we noticed that the majority of the most advanced performers had the same teacher’s name written in the program—Elena Mashkovtseva.”
Emma (who now attends the University of Southern California) was pretty nervous when she started studying with Elena, who maintains a certain formality during lesson time. But as a serious student, Emma appreciated the rigor Elena brought. “I once was playing a piece without much spirit, and Elena shouted, ‘No fish no meat!’” says Emma, laughing. “I loved that Russian phrase and I still think of it when I realize I’m not playing a piece passionately enough.”
Elena’s pedagogy shows results for dedicated students, who have been accepted to many elite conservatories and universities over the years. One of Elena’s current students, Maho Morikawa, a senior at Del Norte High School, has just been accepted to a long list of the most prestigious music schools in the U.S.: Carnegie Mellon, the University of Southern California, Juilliard, Eastman, and even Curtis Institute, which has the lowest acceptance rate of any higher education institute in the country (only 4.9%, lower than Stanford, Harvard and Yale). Maho will attend Curtis, which is located in Philadelphia and is tuition-free for all students. Typically only one harpist is chosen every year out of all international candidates. This year, Maho is that harpist— a stunning achievement for Maho, and more evidence of Elena’s remarkable abilities as a teacher and harpist.