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An interview with Jean-Yves Thibaudet

An interview with Jean-Yves Thibaudet

French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet has had a home in the U.S. for many years, first in New York, and, since 1998, in Los Angeles. French in his accent and his Gallic enthusiasm, he is really a citizen—and a musician—of the world.

His programs and recordings incorporate the big Romantic monuments of the piano literature, but also excursions into jazz, film scores, opera transcriptions, and collaboration with such artists as Cecilia Bartoli and Joshua Bell. He is a contemporary pianist for today's eclectic musical tastes. 

I caught up with him via long-distance during a concert stop in Munich, and told him that I was particularly interested, among other things, in his ideas about piano education.

I've read that your mother was your first teacher, and that you performed your first public recital at age seven. 

It's a lovely story that I have heard about myself. I wish it were true! At about the age of three, I was attracted to the piano—it was my favorite toy. I would stay, find chords, and try to sing along, not bang like other children do. My parents thought, "Maybe we should get him lessons." So I went to the Pre-College Division of the Lyons Conservatory. My first class was called "Wake Up to Music." We sang and danced, and I loved it. I actually learned to read music before I learned the alphabet. 

At age seven, it was half-hour recitals, not three symphonies and a concerto. I was no Mozart! But I got used to being onstage before an audience, playing several short pieces, and I loved it. My mom was always present, to be sure, and she made me work at home.


What teachers influenced you the most while you were growing up? 

Lucette Descaves. She was the goddaughter of Saint-Saëns and a former assistant to Yves Nat and Marguerite Long. She gave the first French performance of Prokofiev's Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26. She had a tremendous influence on me. 

I've heard her online. She had exquisite tone and projection, and great variety of expression. She made some recordings of the virtuoso literature that are quite impressive. If I didn't know who it was, I'm not sure I would identify her as a pianist of the old-fashioned French School. 

That's true. Her playing was international, really. She was very intelligent, and, working at the center of French musical life, she met and heard many fine musicians. She learned.

Her teaching, though, was more representative of the French School. In the studio, she had the most to say about French music, since she had such close associations with those composers. 

She was a very close collaborator with Ravel and knew Fauré well. Through her you felt you were going straight to the composer. I have all the markings in her score from Ravel's hands: what to do, what not to do. She also served as Marguerite Long's assistant, in days when national schools of piano playing were very specific. I absorbed all the heritage and tradition of the French School through her. She also gave an important performance of Prokofiev's Concerto No. 3, which she coached with the composer. I have the score with those markings, as well. What a life she had, what tremendous people she knew.

I read somewhere that she spent quite a bit of time on technique. 

Yes...and no. She wanted you to play deeply into the keys, and with clarity. She had a solution for every technical challenge and clever practice devices for problem passages. It was not really the high-fingered playing that one often associates with the French School. She would rest her hand on mine and talk about arm weight and relaxation.We worked a lot on the use of the shoulder. 

But if you could do all these things, you got a lot more. She had a tremendous knowledge of the repertoire, and could always assign exactly the right piece at exactly the right time. She could change her approach to suit each student, or even the same student on different days. No matter how well you thought you knew a work, she could say something new and fresh. Everyone always felt comfortable with her, and she always had something to say, whether the student was a total beginner or an advanced pianist playing concerts. 

I later studied with Reine Gianoli.

Lucette Descaves

The distinguished French pianist and teacher Lucette Descaves (1906- 1993) played a key role in the development of French pianism. After a hand injury ended her solo career, she devoted herself to pedagogy. Beginning as an assistant at the Paris Conservatoire to Yves Nat and Marguerite Long, she later became a respected teacher of all ages in her own right—with stellar results. Besides Jean-Yves Thibaudet, she taught Katia and Marielle Labèque, Brigette Engerer, and Pascal Rogé, among many others. 

In her teaching, she stressed, first of all, sound. "I had to memorize all the orchestral versions of the Ravel works I studied with her," says Thibaudet. "She wanted me to think always in terms of an orchestral concept, to the point of imitating specific instruments." Some of her ideas on Ravel might strike American teachers as unconventional. "Ravel didn't like the pedal," she told Thibaudet, "especially when it's held down for bar after bar. Ravel is not a Romantic!" And she had Ravel's own scores, with markings in Ravel's handwriting ("I remember the blue ink," says Thibaudet) to prove it. 

Her method book, Novelle Méthode Le Couppey, which she co-wrote with the French educational composer Marie Claude (revised edition, Billaudot, 1981), is a contemporary reworking of Le Couppey's ABC du piano and Alphabet combined. The songs by Mme. Claude are charming, but especially useful are Descaves's technical exercises. She begins with just two fingers, gradually expanding to the use of all five before introducing crossing. Each exercise stresses multiple repetitions of short patterns at both slow and fast tempi. Her ability to create clever drills was apparently endless. A slightly later method, L'Approche du Clavier par Lucette Descaves (Editions Combre, 1989), written with Nicole Moutard, has a whole different set of exercises from the same point of view. 

Her practice and performance directions are consistently interesting— "sit with the elbows slightly below the black keys," she counsels beginners. Always the focus is on fundamentals, especially proper use of relaxation; "without stiffness," "very supple," and "absolute flexibility" are directions found frequently. 

Descaves had a special interest in contemporary music. She performed the premieres of many works by French composers, with a special affinity for the works of André Jolivet. She played his Piano Concerto more than 100 times, a performance still available on YouTube. Her anthology Les Contemporains in four volumes (Billaudot, 1950-1952) contains a wellchosen and leveled selection of works by European composers, most unfamiliar to American teachers; some, perhaps, forgotten even by the French. They deserve to be revived—the fingering and interpretive markings are invaluable.

I heard an appealing recording Gianoli made of the Bach French Suite in D minor, recorded in 1951, I think. The tone was very beautiful and she made some interesting choices on repeats.This is not music one usually associates with French pianists, especially in the 1950s. 

Yes. Although her early studies were with Alfred Cortot and Yves Nat, she later studied with Edwin Fischer. With me, she focused mainly on the German school. I discovered a different way to understand Bach, Mendelssohn, and Brahms. She made some beautiful recordings, all of German composers. It's a shame most are out-of-print—she was really good. 

And then you worked with Aldo Ciccolini. 

He is a tremendous pianist, person, and teacher—just an amazing human being! He comes from Naples, but his pianistic heritage is from the Argentinian school, with Vincente Scaramuzzo (the teacher of Daniel Barenboim's father, Enrique), Martha Argerich, and Bruno Leonardo Gelber, among others. All of them are technically phenomenal. Ciccolini traveled a lot—he would disappear for a couple of months. During those times, he would send me to other teachers. So I studied with every major piano teacher at the Paris Conservatory when I was there. Ciccolini never saw it as a threat. He gave students many opportunities. 

I was lucky, because in the beginning, you need one really good, solid teacher. The foundation must be carefully assembled—it's hard work and needs to go step-by-step. But once you can put your hands on the piano, you need to gather more information. I had enormous respect for Mme. Descaves and went to see and play for her to the end of her life. She always had something interesting to say. My playing for other teachers is not saying anything bad about her. 

But I believe that a growing young artist needs a lot of different influences; you shouldn't stay with only one teacher. It is important to have many viewpoints—you need to have that, it opens your mind. At the Paris Conservatory we had lots of masterclasses, with other musicians than just pianists. I loved those! Faculty violinists taught us and played chamber music with us. In those days it was amazing, just amazing.

You perform a remarkably wide range of repertoire. Besides the traditional piano repertoire, you've made recordings of jazz works and movie soundtracks. You collaborate with singers and a wide range of string players. How do you select new projects? 

My father insisted that I have a well-rounded general education, in addition to my music studies. So I have a lot of interests besides just piano. I'm a good sight-reader, so I play through things quite quickly and well. I do listen to CDs and get ideas for programming there. And I have some key friends around the world who tell me about new works—they send scores and CDs. There are a few people who know everything about the musty corners of the piano repertoire. I'm quite lucky that they share their knowledge with me!

The Internet has changed everything, of course. You can find things with ease that used to be inaccessible. In special cases, I play detective—I try to go to the source. I went to the Satie Foundation and visited the lady in charge there. She gave a lot of fantastic ideas and shared scores. No one had ever asked her before. 

The repertoire I choose mostly comes from my heart. They are works that excite me, they give joy, they are what I like. In the early stages of a career, you should play what your teacher says, even if you don't totally enjoy it. It builds your basic knowledge. Later, you have to bring something special to each piece, something that you love about it.

What projects are you tackling next? 

There are many, but I don't know which one will go first. They are making far fewer recordings than we used to do. So each has to be even more unique. There is no room for just another CD! My last big one was all Gershwin. I played the jazz band arrangements of Rhapsody in Blue, Concerto in F and the I've Got Rhythm Variations with the Baltimore Symphony. I was very happy with it. 

Nothing is definite, but my dream is to record the Khachaturian Piano Concerto. It must happen. It's a remarkable piece. Kapell was the last big pianist to play it, and it's due for a new recording. This year, of course, I have a big Liszt project for his bicentennial. Liszt pieces were favorites since I was a kid. I'm playing a solo recital, doing the Liszt songs with Angelika Kirchschlager, and the concerti. 

What's your practice routine? I

warm up every morning, just like an athlete. Even the greatest sportsmen have to do this! The muscles are alive—you cannot just torture them. I do 10-15 minutes of Hanon by memory, scales in thirds, sixths, tenths and octaves, and arpeggios and octave exercises. One full scale takes ten minutes—I start slowly, and then get faster. It's fun, really. 

The rest of my routine varies with the work I have to do. It depends on what is coming up—some days I practice enormously (6-7 hours rarely), others less. It depends on what I feel like. What is important is concentration. Two hours is better than ten hours thinking of something else. Take breaks—not every five minutes, but maybe once an hour. Be into what you are doing. Otherwise, forget it! 

Your sense of style and elegance often draws comment. How does this fit into your artistry? 

I'm happy that they like what I am wearing! To me, this is an important part of the playing. I've been attracted to fashion since I was a kid—I liked interesting and unusual clothes. Over twentyfive years ago, I started wearing different kinds of clothes onstage. It was rare in those days. I was criticized at the beginning. But lots of younger colleagues are doing it now. 

Classical music needs a little help to make it more modern and appealing to young people. It shouldn't feel like music from another age! Dressing like an eighteenth-century gentleman does not help. Current, fashionable clothing makes an audience feel closer to you. More young people are coming to concerts, but we have to keep building—it's a lot of work. 

I know you give frequent master classes

It's always easy to be a master class teacher. It's like being a guest conductor. Everyone thinks you're the greatest, you make a big splash and then go home. But one always has to remember that someone else is doing the hard daily work. 

In the short time I am given, I try to plant seeds. I remember my own experience—some classes I have remembered for the rest of my life. That's what I hope to do for students who play for me. I guide, suggest, give direction, and share the love I have for the instrument. Sometimes I can help with technical things. I often see and hear a difference—that's fantastic! It makes me feel that it was worth doing, that I made a difference and didn't waste their time. It's an enormous reward. Just for that, teaching is very special. 

Renée Fleming said you have a knack of always getting the best hotel rooms. What's your secret? 

[Laughs] Experience. And organization. I keep files on what I really like—menus, notes for favorite clubs, great shops. I'm interested and I enjoy unique things. Including nice hotel rooms! When I come back to a favorite hotel, I ask for the special room. I also make a point to have good relations with hoteliers. They are wonderful people who have become friends. They let their colleagues around the world know and I get good treatment.

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