Learning from the masters
5 Oct 2012

Classes, given by the most admired masters in their field, are considered one of the most direct and effective way to inspire students – and fans alike.  As a result of Yoheved Kaplinsky’s (chair of the piano faculty at Juilliard) initiative in this regard, this week the venerable pianist Murray Perahia took up a taped mini-residency. Ara Guzelimian (provost and dean) has shaped the series to consist of a lecture/presentation and three master classes, one of them open to public attendance. Other such residencies this season will include Richard Goode (public master class October 24th) and Leon Fleischer (public master class February 24, 2013) at Juilliard’s Paul Hall.

As I was approaching the newly constructed bridge that connects Juilliard to the larger Lincoln Center complex, I reflected upon Juilliard’s many efforts to reach out beyond its select community with such diverse programs as their social outreach performances, in addition to their own pre-college and evening division classes, and publication.

These master classes are a wonderful addition to their programs. Besides the opportunity to listen to the world-renowned performer up close and personal, the dream of every aspiring pianist of course is to unlock the secrets (are there any?) of each great performer.  In these master classes, the artist can demonstrate what makes his performances so unique and successful by sharing his hands-on experiences and insightful explanations of why he endorses this implementation, and not another.

The question, for any artist, is not so much which approach may be arguably valued as the best one – there are many valid ones that are based on sheer endless variables found within the performer’s facility, technique and personality.  As many discrepancies as there are in methodical pursuit of the ultimate musical result, what matters alone is that the performance is congruently convincing.

So how does then a masterful musician and generous human being, as Perahia most certainly is, convey his wisdom? What advice can he specifically give to the well-prepared musical students who play for him? 

Interestingly enough, the advice that seemed to hold up as most genuine and as the fruit of his deepest love and serious labor were the universal remarks given to the meaning of music itself, coming straight from his heart. These turned out to be more relevant than an explanation of any particular detail: “Music Is narrative. If you don’t tell a story, it’s dry. The story is not necessarily to be taken literally – it sometimes tells you less then the notes themselves- even though in some cases there is nothing wrong with a thematic idea. Some people go into great detail of concrete association, what does the music depict?… I don’t think that helps that much, even though it is possible to evoke moods. I don’t think music is about action- it’s about emotions. Expression of emotions!”

Together with his former venerable teacher at the Mannes School of Music, Karl Schechter, Perahia discussed the approach of Schenkerian Theoretical Analysis, a staple at Juilliard’s curriculum, as a valid approach for exploring the music not just from the gut, but with a concept and tool in hand:” We don’t just play our own personality; the performer has an obligation to get to the bottom of the score. Schenker is one way of approaching the organic whole of a composition.”

Being about the bigger picture, this approach of analyzing the harmonic structures underlying the music:”facilitates the recognition of the propelling elements in music.” However, as Perahia admits himself, it’s known to be quite “intricate” and even though he learned about Schenker early on in his student years, he only immersed himself deeply into it when forced by his hand injury to off and on spend more time away from the piano.

While demonstrating generously at the piano during the master classes, which was heaven for his fans, he insisted:”Don’t do what I am doing- be free!”  He also gave good, solid advice, as in: “Always think musically when you practice technically otherwise it becomes technical in performance- etude like. The musical expression always finds its way into the gesture; you need to express it at the piano.”  He supports being open-minded: “…and here you may pedal through the rests”, he tells one of his master students.” Despite my teacher, who always said:”You can never pedal through the rests” – do pedal through, here!”

The Juilliard students and alumni had some enthusiastic reactions. One of them, Alexandra Joan, impressed me particularly in her wholehearted response to the program.  A kindred spirit, the young pianist confided in me that events like this one made her stay in New York worthwhile. She said,” His teaching is incredibly inspiring. I loved the fact that he always asked the student first a question about the piece, as to inspire independent thought, almost in a father-like way…it is no coincidence that he is such a great interpreter, as he really goes so deep with his thoughts, trying to find meaningful connections within the music.”

As a performer who had studied at the Paris Conservatory before coming to New York to continue her studies at Juilliard, she is fascinated with such an inquisitive approach, but interestingly finds:”Schenker is not librarian-like dry; his writing is very romantic and idealistic. In fact he first published his book anonymously under the title:”New Musical Theories and Fantasies-by an Artist.”  When I am starting a piece, I am looking for its DNA and Schenker helps to recognize the hidden structure within those notes. Even if you do it intuitively, knowing why makes it very different, accessible yet as a unique harmonic structure. It also elevates it into something – well, I know I am an idealist – but yes, divine.”
 How wonderful to inspire such fervor! Ultimately that’s what learning from the masters is about: To transmit the insights gained through their own work and accomplishments and through that, as Perahia says, change our perspective:  ”Schenker greatly informed my own work, it stimulated me and I wanted to share that with you; it will greatly change you – by being more aware. Analyzing a score with this approach will tell you something about its performance – its inherent tempo (apart from markings) and the presupposed direction the score takes; an understanding you would not necessarily gain without it. And because it’s less arbitrary, what it is you are supposed to be doing at the piano, you gain greater confidence.”   By Ilona Oltuski (
<June 2021>

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