Milana Zilnik

Award-winning pianist and composer, singer & songwriter




Milana is a multi-award winning pianist, composer and singer-songwriter, who has been a performing and recording artist since her childhood. A strong lyricist and composer in her own right, Milana’s style is reminiscent of Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, Michael Nyman, Keith Jarret and Chick Corea. Milana enjoys playing by ear, improvising and using whatever inspires her to create her own style of playing. She is known as an adept improviser, catching melodies on the fly and expanding them into her own creations.

Milana was born in Ukraine, lived in Israel for many years and moved to Canada in 2008. Having lived in different countries has enriched her musical experiences and storytelling. Her songs touch on issues of belonging, identity, the inner child, war and peace, and life and death. Soulful singing and complex piano melodies are Milana’s signature, but she embraces a variety of styles – everything from folk, blues, opera and Middle Eastern, to her soft spots for rock and jazz.

Milana has released fifteen original full-length albums (solo piano, original songs and New Age) and published three books with original scores for solo piano. Since 2012, in addition to performing live and releasing original albums, she has also taken piano and vocal performance in a commercial direction by doing session recordings, arranging, composing for films and online music libraries in her own studio located in Ottawa’s suburb. Milana provides full-service soundtrack and song production, as well as live-recorded piano on demand.



What does music mean to you personally?

Music to me is like breathing, I need it constantly, and change myself through it. As a child, I was completely absorbed inside my own world of secret life, full of stories and songs that I sang even in my sleep. I didn't feel the need to communicate with other children much, unless I could sing or play piano for them. My closest family members would always surround me by various recordings, shows we went to together or my dad's shows. So, I associated music with a close relative, some Spirit that is always guiding and guarding me through life. In short: music is my remedy and my best communication skill.

Do you agree that music is all about fantasy?

Despite of using the phrase “What is music if not a dream?” here and there myself, I am not sure if I agree with this statement. In my opinion, music is more primal and universal to human nature than, for example, Visual Arts, which are interpreted subjectively. So, I would agree that we add imagination to performing different styles and musical compositions, but musical “ingredients” are quite physical to me, especially the rhythm, vibrations of sound that move our body subconsciously.

If you were not a professional musician, what would you have been?

I was studying Visual Arts, especially photography, and really loved drawing. I also think that fashion design or home decor would really suit me too. I also hoped to study therapy through Arts, which I now apply in my piano and vocal lessons. Aesthetics in life in general are a “must” for me: I can only perform, teach or practice in very well organized spaces, I guess I am Feng Shui oriented musician.

The classical music audience is getting old, are you worried about your future?

Classical music to me is about performance legacy. I believe now, when we have a new generation of artists like Lang Lang, Yuja Wang, Emily Bear, the classical music is attracting young people again. Personally, I'm not strictly classical myself: I respect classical music but I focus on absorbing various styles and forms of music (like jazz, blues or rock) to blend and create something new.

What do you envision the role of classical music to be in the 21 century? Do you see that there is a transformation of this role?

I am guessing that some roles wouldn't change much: people will still want that special energy you may only get coming to concert halls and listening to live performances. However, nowadays, there are other fields where classical music can be used to support something else, e.g. films, games, theatrical shows and so on. There are also researches of how classical music affects studying and relaxation processes, so, there might be another role in that direction as well.

Do you think that the musician today needs to be more creative? Whats the role of creativity in the musical process for you?

I do think so. With all the broad spectrum of music that is available now, one needs to be creative to find their own style, without even thinking too much about how to classify their music. Take “The Piano Guys” as an example – among others, they take existing classical masterpieces and create their own unique versions. Classical music is quite often perceived as a set of strict rules, the creativity to me is about finding new unexpected ways of using those rules.

Do you think we musicians can do something to attract young generation to the music concerts? How would you do it?

Depending on the age, there might be different approaches. For the youngest ones I'd focus on the playful experience: let them learn instruments by touching and improvising with their families. For teenagers I'd focus on helping them to compose their own pieces and make attending the concerts a part of the learning process. Also, there is a lot of modern classical music used in popular movies and it might be very attractive to the young generation to see how this music is performed live. E.g. many of my students were introduced to Debussy's Clair De Lune through Twilight Saga and that made them want to play it. Or, coming from a different direction, my own children were all tears when we took them to an open rehearsal of an orchestra, playing John Williams's famous soundtracks. Not strictly classical but inspired by Richard Strauss and Antonin Dvorak.

Tell us about your creative process. What is your favourite piece (written by you) How did you start working on it?

Most of my pieces start as improvisations on simple motifs. Quite often these motifs are given to me by my husband, who is not a musician himself. However, this might be exactly what helps him to think “out-of-the-box” without bothering if his motifs are musical at all. So, he hits some keys and then challenges me with his usual request: “What can you make of it?” and I take it from there, instantly turning it into a full composition. Many of my albums happened that way, especially the one called “Accidental Etudes”, which name reflects the essence of this creative process: “Etudes” because the main motifs are pretty simple to be like a practicing exercise, “Accidental” because they happen spontaneously. Oh, and another reason for “Accidental” is because we both have the tendency to love black keys. So, it's kind of playing with double meaning of words. Even when we work on multi-instrumental pieces, our creative process is similar – start with the motif and gradually build on it.

Speaking of the favorite piece, it's hard to choose one – together with my husband we composed very eclectic pieces in various genres. However, among the very recent ones my definite favorite is “Time” - the opening track from the “Abracadabra!” album that we released last year. It sounds like a blend of two of my favorite composers: Sergei Rachmaninoff and Hans Zimmer. While it may sound like two completely different names and styles, “Time” fused together the hypnotic vibes of Zimmer's pieces with the dramatic stirring Rachmaninoff-esque piano solo.

Can you give some advice for young people who want to discover classical music for themselves?

I'd recommend to start from... YouTube! It's a terrific source for discovering everything, Classical music is not an exception. There are numerous channels that are extremely friendly and less formal, explaining styles, giving names of famous and less famous composers, teaching basic theory and helping with daily routine for any level of musicianship. E.g. “pianoTV”, “Classical Nerd”, Rick Beato. And, most certainly, do attend live concerts whenever they are back to our life – once you get into the energy of it, it won't be a “dry discipline” to you anymore.

Do you think about the audience when composing?

It definitely depends on what I am composing. E.g. when we're scoring a film, we definitely put ourselves in the spectator's shoes – what emotions do they expect from a particular scene? How music should underscore it? What impact should it make? All those questions are asked before even starting to compose.

However, when I am composing music that is not attached to anything else – there it's more about my own feelings that I am putting into. I can't think about the audience in such moments, the music kind of writes itself.

What projects are coming up? Do you experiment in your projects?

We do experiment a lot – not only in the music itself but also in some bigger projects where besides music there are other art forms. Few years back we filmed a theatrical video for my original song and it was a big experiment and a learning experience for us: writing the orchestral arrangement for the song, taking vocal lessons to learn about operatic singing, writing a script for the video, finding a location for the video shoot, designing the decorations, working with a choreographer and a group of dancers, theatrical makeup artists, finding the right costumes and so on. The following year we filmed another music video that involved building a giant piano and putting it in the woods. Our latest musical project (the “Abracadabra!” album that I mentioned earlier) was even more special since it was based on a new and rather unique musical instrument – the Hang drum. I've always considered myself as a pianist and a vocalist, so learning to play a completely different instrument was an experiment by itself. Then we went ahead and hired a few musicians to record their parts – something that we haven't done before. And yet again, we filmed a music video that involved designing decorations and costumes, learning all kinds of special effects and many other things. So, yes, we do experiment a lot – it's fun to get out of the comfort zone.

Speaking of the upcoming projects, we plan to release few piano solo albums based on motifs from the famous compositions of Tchaikovsky and Vivaldi. Also, being inspired by all the awards and nominations that “Abracadabra!” is receiving, we started working on the “sequel”.