Philosophy & Approach
Drawing by Esther Peretz Arad of my teaching Elena Abend as a child — now on the piano faculty of University of Wisconsin's Peck School of the Arts.
My approach to attaining high-level musicianship and piano performance artistry is to guide students to enhance their emotional and aesthetic awareness, and physical range, to develop greater ability to artistically express themselves. Several years ago, I wrote the essay (below) titled: To Teach and Inspire. It reflects many of my convictions and beliefs about teaching and learning, as well as how they have been developed and inspired through my own background.
TO TEACH AND TO INSPIRE
When I was 6 years old I told my mother that I was getting married to Schumann’s piano piece “The Happy Farmer”. Some years later I opted for a more conventional marital relationship, but that intense connection I had made with music became the drive of my life. To inspire my students to a similar commitment is my greatest desire as a teacher.
The choice of music as one’s intended profession is highly risky, almost unreasonable. Only those who feel that music is their raison d’etre should make that choice. The road of learning is hard to travel but I do believe the process should be a fascinating activity. The joy and passion of it must not be limited to some remote musical goal; rather it has to be felt during every practice session or rehearsal, and in every note, phrase, movement, and, eventually every performance.
As a child, strange as it may seem now, I was determined not to become a professor like my father and sister, both brilliant scholars in classic languages. Practicing hard was part of my escape plan (obviously, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and here I am…) and when I was eleven I decided to be a pianist. From that time until today the piano was the center of my life, my “alter ego”. I was and still am, a “workaholic”. I never however, associated work with sweat and pain. Practicing music was a way to avoid gravity of an ordinary life. Making music for many hours every day took me, I felt, into transcendental spheres. To experience again and again that feeling, to share it for a moment with an audience, for a lifetime with some of my students and colleagues, are my ultimate motivation as a performer and my greatest pleasure as a teacher.
Eduardo del Pueyo, the late great Spanish pianist, was my most important teacher. He was a disciple of Marie Jael, herself a student of Liszt, whose elaborate pianistic method he passed on almost religiously to his students. He taught me everything he knew and believed — including both his wisdom and fears-with the clear understanding that one day I would become, in his words, “my own master”. From his teaching I acquired an ability to practice in an extremely efficient, sure –handed and purposeful way, resulting in a technique that appears effortless but is in fact the result of detailed work.
I went on to study with Maria Curcio (a noted pupil of revered pianist Schnabel) and later on took lessons from Leon Fleisher and Menahem Pressler. Practicing, listening, thinking: it took time, a lot of work and patience to process all these ideas and integrate new concepts into my playing. It was around the same period that I was offered my first official position in an American University as a Professor of Piano and a member of a piano trio. I discovered very quickly that the assiduous passion I had for performing now had a twin. As I relived and reflected on all the teaching I had received, reassessing the positives and the negatives of it, I found myself immersed in chamber music and piano repertoire — sound, timing, style — this time in order to pass it on to my students.
Even though art is such a subjective matter, I try as much as possible to teach facts and listen with an objective frame of mind. As a teacher, my goal is to serve the students: feeding their minds, ears, eyes, senses; giving them the tools to build up their musicianship and technique as well as their self esteem; hoping that when the time comes they will be strong enough to make their own artistic choices and musical decisions. As a performer, and to keep myself balanced, I still want to feel how special, how human, how scary, how exciting it is still out there on stage! I find that the process of listening intensely and clarifying things for others make me a sharper performer. These two sides make up the lesson: one’s own ego (performance) and the cultivation of one’s other ego (teaching).
Chamber music is a very important part of my life and chamber music education cannot be stressed enough. A true musician, whether being a performer or an educator, is a listener. Whenever I play chamber music, I aim at listening to the conglomerate sound of the ensemble without prioritizing my own. A chamber ensemble is perhaps the only social entity that has, ideally no leader and no followers. It is based on common initiative and total involvement. In a chamber music situation students learn to articulate, then negotiate their own ideas while being open to others as well.
I rarely classify my students as gifted or ungifted. Jonathan Biss — who studied with me for 6 years when he was 10 years old and is now one of the most in demand pianists- was “gifted” but one should know that comprehensively gifted students are extremely rare. Some may have considerable technical gift but little ability to communicate while others may have talent for an easy and expressive communication but not much content to offer. Some may be strong players but lack artistic “flair”; others may deeply love music but lack the technical tools to express it. Some students experience excessive stage fright, memory slips…the list goes on and on. I consider my students young adults in search of direction, tools and ideas. Some of them are anxious about their choices, some are impatient to learn, some are arrogant, and some have low self-esteem. I care for them; I have sympathy and respect for them. As a believer of balance I try to guide their exploration of their own equilibrium into the 5 sides of a human being (physical, intellectual, psychological, spiritual and emotional).
I consider it a privilege to be a teacher and mentor, to have direct access to young minds, to hopefully be able to influence their lives in a positive way, and to have some impact in creating a new generation of musicians, performers, teachers and music lovers.