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An interview with Nelita True


Nelita True made her debut at age seventeen with the Chicago Symphony in Orchestra Hall; her New York debut was with the Juilliard Orchestra in Avery Fisher Hall. Since then, her career has taken her to major cities throughout the world performing, presenting master classes, and serving on the juries for international piano competitions. 

The teacher of many national and international prizewinners, Dr. True was awarded the Certificate of Merit by the Alumni Association of the University of Michigan, the Eisenhart Award for Excellence in Teaching at Eastman, the 2002 Achievement Award from MTNA, the Lifetime Achievement Award in Graduate Teaching from the University of Rochester, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy.

Nelita True is lauded throughout the world for her unique combination of artistry and pedagogy at the highest level. Perhaps part of the magic is her extraordinary insight into the human spirit, and her keen perception of how that spirit helps music-making and teaching work.

In 1979, I had the distinct privilege of preparing a recital under the direction of both Nelita True and Fernando Laires. This experience gave me the rare opportunity to examine simultaneously the ideas of two major artists exploring the same repertoire in depth. Just as important, it provided the opportunity to experience how exemplary relationships directly and deeply contribute to success.

You are sure to find enriching thoughts and some entertaining surprises as we converse with one of the world's most sought-after and beloved pianist-teachers, Nelita True. 

The interview


What are your recollections about your childhood piano lessons?


My brother, Wesley, started piano lessons at age five. So of course I wanted piano lessons when I turned five, too. When I was little, I wanted to do everything my big brother had done. I was assigned to the best student of the best teacher in Bozeman, Montana, the small town where we lived. Although still a student herself, Lorraine Heeb turned out to be one of the best piano teachers in the state. I still have the notebooks from those two years of lessons and am impressed by what she wrote. She had a unique way of rewarding good work. If we did well, instead of giving us gold stars, she would stick out her tongue to let us look at her unusual "split" tongue! One's first piano teacher is so critical in forming attitudes toward music, so I am grateful for her talent, sense of humor, and encouragement. Next, I went to her teacher, Zada Sales Dickson. In those days, it was possible for women to go away for training, but they were expected to return home and marry the farmer on the next ranch. This certainly worked to my advantage. Mrs. Dickson was Juilliard trained, but came back to Bozeman and married a local insurance salesman. I would trudge over to her house for lessons through the deep snow for a 7:30 a.m. lesson. It was still dark. Can you imagine permitting a seven-year-old to walk around alone like that today?'It was such a different time--such a wonderful time.

World-renowned Metropolitan Opera soprano Kirsten Flagstad and her daughter came to a nearby dude ranch for a vacation, and her daughter fell in love with a fellow from Bozeman. She mar,ried him and settled down there. My teacher accompanied Flagstad in recitals when she came to visit her daughter. Even though we knew my teacher was terrific, we were stunned when this famous soprano asked her to accompany her on a western tour. Mrs. Dickson was eventually hired by the university, and she didn't have time for private students anymore. So I was sent to another teacher, Berenice Sacket. All of her assignments focused on the highest quality repertoire, which really set a high standard for me. 

Tell us about your college experiences. What influenced your decisions about where you studied?


I completed my bachelors and masters degrees at the University of Michigan. My father was in favor of a liberal arts education, so a conservatory was not a consideration. My parents had sought advice from the head of the music department at the college in Bozeman as to where my brother should study music. He said that the best band director in the country was at Michigan (my brother also played the trumpet). At that time, Michigan had the preeminent School of Music within a university. After all those years of wanting to do everything Wes had done, I resolved I would not do the same thing as my brother. But I did.

When I graduated, Michigan asked if I would stay and teach class piano, which I had done as a graduate student. I adored teaching class piano. But I had won the now defunct Grinnell Competition, which required that the prize money be used for further study. At the suggestion of one of my teachers at Michigan, I decided to go to Juilliard. I was expecting to stay a year, but received a teaching fellowship, so I was able to remain for three.

I did hundreds of hours of accompanying while an undergraduate. When I was at Juilliard, I did a lot of accompanying as well. I found out that dance class accompanists were paid the most, so I auditioned for that. It was a lovely experience.

I had very little money. There was a very lean period between the end of school, when I no longer had accompanying work, and when I went to teach summer sessions at Interlochen. So I did temporary office work. Now, that was an experience. I'm a self-taught typist. I knew nothing about the way that an office worked. I can't remember ever being so nervous! A nice man at the temp agency gave me a typewriter and told me just to try it out. I didn't know that was the test for the job–he was just putting me at ease. I was hired. 

It was a very good learning experience. I was treated in a way that I had never been treated before. It was very revealing to me to get a feel for the life of workers who hold what we tend to call menial jobs. I was considered to be on the lowest rung and was treated rather dismissively. I learned another valuable lesson: I was hired for a five-day job, but I finished the work in four. I then Was informed that I would not be paid for the fifth day and that no other job was available for that Friday.

While living in New York, I was surprised when people often stopped on the street and stared at me; because, I was told, I looked like Carol Burnett. When I had a temporary job at her home network, CBS, I decided to eat lunch in the company commissary. It is difficult to describe the reaction when I walked in. Almost everyone stopped talking, turned, and gaped. I seriously doubt that they were recognizing Nelita True! 

Tell us about your major musical influences.

I studied with Helen Titus at the University of Michigan. She changed my life. Because of Helen Titus, I believe I benefitted more from Leon Fleisher's teaching than I would have otherwise. Like him, she had studied with Artur Schnabel. She was a small woman and very soft spoken. She wasn't one to raise the energy level in a lesson. But she made me so excited about the music that I couldn't wait to get to a piano after every lesson. And it happened week after week. She taught me how to take apart a piece of music and put it back together again. She was a woman of extremely high principles--a terrific role model.

I inherited a silver dish is inscribed, "To Helen from Artur." I know that she felt very close to both Schnabel and his wife. Helen Titus took copious notes in her music during her own and her classmates' lessons with Schnabel I inherited all of that music, and it's a real treasure trove. Donald Manildi at the University of Maryland Piano Archives and I have spoken about eventually having it in the Archives. She had the Beethoven Sonatas bound, so unfortunately some of the comments were cut off. It's tantalizing to see only part of the comment in some places.

I was with Sascha Gorodnitzky for three years at Juilliard. Gorodnitzky had studied with Josef Lhevinne and had a strong upbringing in the Russian tradition. He expanded my understanding of tonal resources. Working with him was an ear-opening experience, which I value greatly.

When I was a student at Juilliard, I heard Leon Fleisher play the Rachmaninoff Paganini Variations at Carnegie Hall. I was sitting in the last row because they were the least expensive seats. As I was sitting there listening, I was thinking, "I just don't understand why people are so excited about Fleisher." Shortly after that, I had a ticket for the same place in the hall to hear Van Cliburn and had a similar experience. But I already knew his sound, so I realized that where I was sitting made a big difference--something I hadn't expected in Carnegie Hall. 

A few weeks later, a friend from Bozeman, who was living in ew York, invited me to a Leon Fleisher all-Schubert program at Hunter College. I still had Fleisher filed in the "dismiss" category, but I wanted to see my friend, so I decided to join her. It was one of those life-changing recitals--absolutely beyond belief. I had never heard playing like that. I was completely drawn in. It wasn't just the captivating spontaneity of his playing, but also the profound intellect backing it up.

A few years later, my brother asked where I was going to get a doctorate. I said, "Oh, I'm not interested in a doctorate. The only way that I would consider it would be if Leon Fleisher were teaching some place where the doctorate is offered." He said, "Well, as a matter of fact, Peabody offers a DMA, and that's where Fleisher teaches." The clarinetist Sidney Forrest, whom I had gotten to know when teaching at Interlochen, heard that I was interested in going to Peabody (he was on the faculty), so he arranged a private audition with Fleisher. I didn't fully realize until years later how lucky I was. I was going off to Europe on a Fulbright, but I wanted to have plans in place for the following year. I played Mozart K. 332 for him, among other things, and was startled when he allowed me to play the whole piece. Fleisher accepted me that day, and said that we could begin when I returned from Europe. 

When I arrived in Paris, the teacher with whom I was scheduled to work, Jeanne-Marie announced that she was going to concertize in the United States for four months. That was just fine with me, because, most of all, I just wanted to soak up Paris and to practice. But the Fulbright Commission didn't like that idea, so I had to find another teacher. A friend from Juilliard was happy with the teacher he had worked with there, so I went to him. Then when I found out about a class given by Nadia Boulanger, I signed up right away.

Mademoiselle Boulanger's famous Wednesday afternoon class was a staple of musical life in Paris for a very long time. Phillip Glass was in the class at the same time as I. Nadia Boulanger was very demanding; some called her authoritarian, but I think every student loved her as much as I did. 

Working with Mademoiselle Boulanger was a rich experience. We started by singing all of the Bach Cello Suites in solfege. We worked on chamber music, too. When I told her that I would like to play in the class, she assigned me the Beethoven C minor Violin Sonata for the following week. I had never played it, didn't have the music, and I didn't get to rehearse with the violinist. I worked very hard and pulled the sonata together. And, fortunately, she assigned an excellent violinist to play with me. She started out with,

"First, I'd like to talk about the piece."
"How does Beethoven effect the first modulation in the development of the first movement? Mademoiselle True." So I looked at the music, and Mademoiselle Boulanger said incredulously, "You have to look at the music? You've had it a week!" Just before I started playing she turned to the class and said, "It takes the control of a Sviatoslav Richter to play this piece!" She surely deserved to be designated THE teacher of the 20th century - but maybe not quite so good as a psychologist. But what an extraordinary experience just to be in her presence. And then to be able to play for her.

When teaching, she alternated between French and English, depending on who was performing. Most of the English-speaking students knew enough French to understand what was going on. She taught every instrument and, of course, composition, too.

Although she was in her eighties at the time, she taught every day from dawn until well into the evening, with her assistant bringing her lunch in her studio. 

The year I was there, she had a funeral mass commemorating the anniversary of the death of her sister and mother. We all received engraved invitations bordered in black. Of course, I attended. At the end of the mass, she was standing at the back of the cathedral. I thought, "What do I say?" She was so upset; it was as if they had just died, but it had been about fifty years.

I did not hear this directly from her, but she had apparently felt that her sister Lili was the real talent in the family, and she was devastated about the world's loss when Lili died. Her dedication to her sister's work was likely a force in her teaching. 

Helen Titus, 1958.
Nelita True, age 3 months, on Christmas mormng.

And as often happens, she perhaps felt guilty on some level for being the one to survive?


Yes, I would guess so. 

Tell us more about your experiences in Paris. While you were there did you think much about the days of Debussy, Ravel, Liszt, Chopin, and the many great artists and authors with whom they associated? Did the environment of this rich cultural history impact your work?


That year in Paris affected everything I've done since. A woman who came to look at the furniture I was selling before I left my first job at the University of Kansas asked about my plans. When I told her, she said, "I have a friend who's been studying in Paris this past year. She's been living with a family, and they are looking for someone to fill her spot." So I got in touch with them. Their place was a block from the Louvre; it couldn't have been better. I went to the Louvre every week and still didn't manage to get through the entire collection. And, yes, I did think about the composers you mention, especially in terms of the environment. I often walked by Chopin's home just to breathe the same air. 

I usually attended five concerts on the weekends in addition to concerts during the week. Another "Fulbrighter" was a musicologist. He was given a couple of free tickets to the opera every week because of his research. Being a frustrated opera singer, I was delighted when he often shared the second ticket with me. I went to every museum and spent a great deal of time in each. I took every single walking tour in the Michelin Guide. My time in Paris was truly a profound experience.

And then you began your next profound experience as soon as you returned to the U.S.


Yes, I began studying with Fleisher when I returned from Paris in 1966, right after he had quit playing because of the focal dystonia. All that Fleisher had in his musical life at that time was teaching. He didn't have the Theater Chamber Players, he wasn't yet conducting, and he wasn't playing the left hand repertoire. I theorized that the reason he didn't do the left hand repertoire until later was because that would be a tacit admission that he wasn't going to play with his right hand again. I've subsequently learned that's exactly what he was thinking.

How he managed to get through those lessons without ever giving an indication of the agony he was going though, I cannot imagine. It is impossible for me to admire a human being more than I do Leon. It must have been the worst kind of hell, but he never let that show in his teaching. My admiration for him as a musician, as an intellectual genius, and as a human being knows no bounds. 

He is such an intense teacher; I was drained after the lessons. I sat in on as many lessons with other students as I could, so I saw the interaction with others as well. Despite his enormous problems, he had this singular gift for assessing a student's psychological state the moment he or she walked through the door. It was uncanny, and I'm sure that's the way it still is. And the fact that he was so sensitive to other people's feelings when he was suffering so much is, of course, extraordinary. Andre Watts was there at the time, and I sat in on a lot of his lessons. I remember once saying to Fleisher, "Even you have to be impressed by a talent like that!"

The intensity of the lessons made me uncomfortable at first. Like other performers, when I play I feel as though I'm revealing a lot of myself. He got it. He got everything. I was thinking, "Do I really want him to know me that well?" And then I realized, "What a privilege to play for someone who hears everything you want to do!" It completely changed my attitude.

Fleisher's sense of humor is fabulous. At my first lesson he said, "'Nelita.' That's such a long name. Don't they call you something else?" I shook my head and said, "Nothing." He responded, "Ok, 'Nothing,' let's start with the first movement!" I thought, "Well, away we go!" 

Nelita True teaches a masterclass in Christchurch, New Zealand, 1995.

Has anyone else been a major influence on your development as a musician?


My husband Fernando is the one who immediately comes to mind. He is such a totally different pianist from me, and his repertoire is so vast. Of course, he has influenced my playing. What I admire, particularly when he plays Chopin and Liszt, is that it sounds as though he is improvising, so naturally free-what I consider the ideal. In contrast to that, I'm more inclined to strive for a clear conception of a work well ahead of time, but then allow the inspiration of the moment to suggest variation in terms of sound and timing. This is not to imply that he doesn't study scores carefully, which he does of course; but his performances sound as though he is composing on the spot. I admire this enormously. 

Gorodnitzky advised us to try many different ways to play.a phrase, but then to choose well ahead of time one version for the performance. Fleisher, however, suggested the opposite: experiment with many different ways and then, at the point of performance, decide which one you're going to do. However, less experienced pianists are generally not equipped to accommodate those last-minute changes in the following phrase, and then risk undermining the structure of the section, or even the whole movement if they've gotten way off the track. Having said all of this, I think that there may not actually be a big difference between these seemingly disparate points of view: since there are infinite possibilities in the realms of sound and time, one can presumably make different on- the-spot choices within those realms, but without compromising one's conception of the musical structure. 

Nelita True and Fernando Laires in Graz., Austria, 1989.
Score of Brahms-Handel Variations from Nelita True's teacher Helen Titus. The written notes are from Titus's lessons with Artur Schnabel.

What differences do you notice about your teaching now? What are some of the challenges that remain?


I have always said, strongly influenced by Helen Titus, that my chief goal is to teach myself out of a job, so that students have the equipment and knowledge to look at a piece of music and be able to make some sense of it without the guidance of a teacher. But it took me a while before I realized that close to ninety-nine times out of a hundred, when I ask students questions about some musical value, they give me a very good answer after they had just played a phrase with very little expression or energy. It took me a little longer to realize that it's not the answers students are lacking; they just don't know the questions. When they practice they don't ask questions of the music that would lead them to their own interpretations. So I try to provide and encourage students to develop as many questions as possible.

My foreign students have also affected my teaching. The majority of my students these days come from Asia, a few from South America, some from Eastern and Western Europe. It has been enriching for me and for all the students to learn about their earlier training. Also, gaining some insight into other cultures can yield surprising interpretations. An example arose with Prokofiev's Third Concerto in our performance class. There is one section that has always reminded me of chickens pecking. But then a Russian girl talked about a Russian fable that may have inspired the passage. A student from Bulgaria chimed in with a similar story from her country. I hope that this exchange affected the other students as much as it did me.

Teaching students about the natural elasticity in music is critical: getting students to move beyond the belief that every quarter note, for example, has the same value, that there really is a lot of fluidity in the inner motion between beats, That's the miracle in music. I do my best to help students take the initiative in determining how notes are grouped, which of course affects the timing. After all, what distinguishes an artist from an aspiring artist is what is done. with timing and sound. That's all we have! But there is so much we can do within those parameters.

I find so often that students hear what they feel, but not what they are actually producing. Sometimes I can see the intensity on .the face, and the stomach muscles tighten at the climax, but nothing is happening on the keyboard. An honest ear is the most challenging skill to achieve - and to teach. 

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