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Adele Marcus: Master teacher

"They don't make them like they used to," my grandmother often said, shaking her head. She was referring, of course, to some deed—or misdeed—of mine, compared to her own generation, who were much too busy and exhausted from getting up at dawn to plow the fields and walk barefoot to school to ever get into any kind of trouble. I listened silently. I didn't buy it. How could human nature be that different from one generation to another? 

As the weight of many years falls heavily on my own shoulders, I have come to realize, of course, that she was right. Case in point, the legendary artist-teacher who is the subject of this issue's Technique column: Adele Marcus, a woman whom I had the honor of studying with off and on for several years in the 1970s. 

Miss Marcus (I never heard anyone call her anything else, except her sister) was, like my grandmother, from a different generation. It would not have occurred to her to measure her words: sarcasm, innuendo, and plain old-fashioned insults were only a breath away from a moment of inattentive projection or blurry pedal on my part. "Who told you that you have any talent?" she asked me more than once. It could get worse. "Have you had analysis?" she asked one classmate of mine during a summer at Aspen. "You mean music analysis?" he hesitantly responded. "No!" she sneered. "Psychoanalysis." 

Harsh words, to be sure. But she always had a point, and it had nothing to do with the sensibilities of tender flower children, as many of us were then. It was all about the task—the long line, the big tone, complete energy and projection, and a total commitment to a great art bigger than oneself and one's petty feelings and needs. If she felt you were not reaching these lofty standards, you heard about it, in plain English. Sometimes her actions spoke louder than words. When I wasn't playing well during a lesson, she would turn away, take out her compact and powder her face, sometimes at length. 

But it wasn't all invective. Like all great teachers, she had an intuitive understanding of learning and human nature, ideas that in later years have been confirmed by educational research. "Talent is, in the final analysis, the desire to express yourself," I remember her saying at a master class at the University of Southern California in the late 70s. "And if you have that will to achieve at the piano, you can learn all the other specific 'talents' that you need to make it happen. Nothing else substitutes for that desire, because that is what will motivate you to do all the hours of hard work necessary to reach your goal." 

Many of her students remember her quoting the Roman philosopher Cicero. According to her, Cicero said that in order to know something, you have to know it three different ways.1  In teaching children, she said, it's 133 different ways. That's why teachers must be patient. In my case her patience must have worn thin, because to me, she always said 1,333 different ways. Apparently I wasn't getting the idea after a mere 133. She, like Cicero, was the mistress of the apothegm. She could encapsulate a performance, a composer, even an era in one or two sentences. "The music isn't great," she told me once, after my performance of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. "But the feeling is great." This comment sums up a whole subgenre of piano music, in my view.

In terms of practical pianism, my impression is she thought mainly in terms of sound—sound as an expression of energy and projection, and also as a delineator of form. She stressed the absence of pedal as much as the presence of it and taught all types of quarter, half, pre-, and post-pedal techniques. I spent a fair amount of time, in my early lessons, studying her use of the pencil. "I could play that melody more beautifully with an upside-down pencil," she would scoff. The annoying thing was, she could. She knew something I didn't then understand: a reversed pencil is a great substitute for a finger—firm and with a cushioned end. I learned a lot about finger position and speed of attack watching that pencil. I saw it frequently.

Perhaps it is her unstinting commitment to communication that has stuck with me the most. She was always interested in your emotional response to the printed page. She taught me to reach out into the hall with my sound, to draw my audience to me with my own love of the music. "You have to be motivated toward communication," I heard her say many times.

A brilliant woman, she only went to high school for one year. That concluded her formal education. Living in Los Angeles at that point, she decided she wanted to become a concert pianist and moved, on her own, to New York to study with Josef Lhévinne. She liked to reminisce about staying in a woman's hotel and her adventures in the city. Not all of her adventures could be described as completely wholesome. "Oh, yes, she was very proud of her feet and legs," her girlhood friend, Dorothy van Waynen told me. "I think we went to every shoe store in the city, and bought something at each." Always elegant and, in her youth, beautiful, she liked men and they liked her. "I've almost been married fifteen times," she said in an interview. But "most of the men I knew expected me to give up three-quarters of what I was doing and it would have been like cutting off both my arms."2

Not everything she did, or said, could be described as positive. This was all a part of who she was, intense and passionate in her criticisms as well as in her love. There was a larger-than-life quality and a generosity of the spirit that touched everyone who came in contact with her. To me, it seems like we do not have so many characters like this in piano teaching anymore—and our world is the poorer for it.

So enjoy Samuel Viviano's reflections. You'll pick up a lot of good ideas, I know. For me, it will bring back memories of one of the most remarkable human beings I have known. They don't make them like that anymore. 

Reflections on Adele Marcus's prescription for performance                          by Samuel Viviano

What a joy to walk happily on stage, filled with the music we are eager to share. Music, like the nine Muses hovering nearby, contains the whole spectrum of human expression: lyrical, dramatic, epic, tragic, comic, sacred. We have love songs, dreamscapes, dance rhythms, storms, elegies, celebrations, and inward meditations. A musician carries a many-faceted message; it pours from his fingers. If we could experience playing the piano, both in performance and our practice hours, with an expanded view, we could feel ourselves a part of the great flow of music which animates the whole of mankind. 

In preparation for my Carnegie Recital Hall debut in 1979, I returned to my former Juilliard teacher, Adele Marcus, for several sessions at her Manhattan apartment. Hers was an abundantly musical temperament, and I wanted to soak up that atmosphere during this special time for me. At the end of my last session with her, we both sat down in her dining room. On the inside cover of one of my scores she spontaneously wrote out five points for performance. Big and sweeping, her hand- writing covered the page. Underlining words and splashing four exclamation points after number three, she exuded her hallmarks of conviction and projection even as she wrote. 

1. Listen to yourself

The touchstone for all musicians: listening. We ask a student at his first lesson to listen to a tone in the bass, a tone in the treble, to open his ears to the various sounds of the piano. In time, he listens for beauty of tone, the shaping and timing of a sequence of tones, the layering of different qualities of sound to make a musical luminosity. We become highly sensitized to the sounds we are making and their musical value. We listen with our whole attention, our whole receptivity. I am reminded of Evelyn Glennie, the deaf musician who plays her marimba creating miracles of music through sensing the vibrations with her entire body, especially her feet against the floor. A deep listening is required to bring out the full spectrum of musical colors. This includes listening to the music inside ourselves, and to our feelings and intuitions which are often unheard, undeveloped, and unchanneled. On stage, listening to ourselves provides a strong focus. With music, a living, flowing process, not a frozen museum artifact, we can listen as if for the first time. In this way, we can be refreshed, charmed, and absorbed by our own performance.

2. Sing inside

Singing is instinctual and basic. Yet, how often we forget the basics: drop into the here-and-now, and sing inside. The here- and-now: the music inside us, the sound in the piano—and the merging of the two. Singing inside, we don't make time to dwell on distracting thoughts during performance. We are aware of a deep well of singing coming from inside. We sing a Mozart melody inside and our pianistic projection begins to glow, no longer stilted, calculated, or doll-like. Fast passages, also, need to be conceived melodically. We don't stop singing because of tempo. The conductor Bruno Walter called it "latent lyricism." A kind of song or melodic insinuation is hiding everywhere in music. We find it in a slow-moving bass line as well as cascading torrents of notes. For example, in the first Chopin etude, both hands are singing. We can allow the right hand to emanate from the bass line. The left hand sings in slow, striding, deep sonorities, the right hand in waves of sparkling resonance. A different kind of example would be the opening of "Golliwog's Cakewalk." We have a variety of lively touches: slurred, crisp, accented, and held, all inspired by dance and humor. Nevertheless, we sing inside to have a sense of contour, direction, and an integrity which holds it all together. We sing inside to start a piece and to begin again after a silent pause. Through this inaudible, inward singing, we give a grounding to our playing and at the same time enter the spiritual dimension of our music. On stage, we can always have the companion of our inner song.

3. I have something to say!!!!

Without conviction, we are musically lost. We can imitate singing and have nothing to say. We can study the score forever and wield barren phrase shapes and designs. We can work on tone diligently and merely make nice sounds. A child playing "The Happy Farmer," a teenager playing "The Cat and the Mouse," or a college student playing a Chopin ballade, each must infuse his playing with a message, "something to say." In the end, the conviction we find beyond notes, phrasing, dynamics, and style carries through the performance like a force of nature. Furthermore, our practice must be undertaken as a way to enable us to share our message in performance. In this way, every aspect of practice, every step of the way—from beginning a piece to bringing it to the stage is somehow united with our message. From the beginning we ask, "What kind of music is this? What is the character and how does it develop, change, shift?" We notice what moves us. We feel the necessity of this music, how it is a part of our lives, our humanity. A "message," which we can't put into words, is forming inside us. Practicing becomes a nurturing process. We walk on stage with "something to say"! We won't find it in the score, in schools, in books, or in the best advice. Yet, this search is necessary. Ultimately, we find it in our own hearts.

4. I want to share the music I play....I just want to give and give and give

The notion of sharing our music in performance produces a profound internal shift. We have a gift for our audience: our love and dedication for this music. There is a graciousness in that hour of continual giving. In order to give on stage, we also need to train in projection, and in this area Adele Marcus was a specialist. Part of her genius was in the rich and vital way she asked us to give. This was no neutral arena for her. I learned that while projection has to do with sound, timing, and musical character, the essence of projection is having something to say. We hone a colorful, prismatic pianism as a result of our unshakeable belief in our musical feeling and understanding. When we hear a pianist with a well-schooled pianism unrelated to musical convictions, projection remains a mere technique serving no higher purpose. For every pianist, whether playing a Bach minuet or the Liszt Sonata, the music that permeates this kind of giving is letting the soul speak, sing, cry out, whisper, play.

5. Don't dismiss a performance. Experience it.

We pianists can be merciless with ourselves. If we are not "clinically perfect"—clean playing in the "correct" style—we dismiss our performance, and even ourselves. We will point to one flaw in a significantly beautiful performance. How refreshing and expansive, and kind to ourselves, to drop this pointless, torturous, arid perfectionism! Can we welcome ourselves, our performance, and our audience? Can we stay with the experience of playing, feeling the texture of our music and our lives inextricably interwoven? Can we continue to sing inside, being reminded of how every culture on this planet sings as a way of connecting with themselves and their feelings? We can begin by experiencing our daily practice sessions, not dismissing or trivializing them. Alone at the piano, we can develop the habit of reliability, staying with ourselves and our play- ing, nonjudgmentally. Practicing, fully present, we are preparing to carry this clarity of focus together with a welcoming quality onto the stage. Why miss the experience?!

Today, long after my important 1979 New York concert, I remember with gratitude my many years with Adele Marcus. She was an acute inspiration. She gave me that vital push to discover what was deep inside me as a musician. Her playing at lessons gave glimpses of the magic possible from the piano. In her fiery moods, her presence was a "musical vortex"! It was electrifying! In her quieter moods, she delighted in what we both found in the music. I remember the lesson at her apartment when she disappeared into the kitchen and returned with cookies to celebrate how I had just played. With all her students, she deeply appreciated conviction, beauty of tone, and depth of musicality. Most of all, playing that was rich with life! Adele Marcus poured out this kind of appreciation. I can still feel it today! 

To hear original recordings of Adele Marcus, please visit

1 I've never been able to locate this quote in any account of Cicero's writings. I sometimes wonder if Miss Marcus made it up. It is nonetheless true.

2 Novick, Ylda, (1976). On being a musician and a woman: a conversation with Adele Marcus, Claudette Sorel, and Anne Koscielny. Clavier, 15 (2), p. 11. 

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