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An Interview with Leon Fleisher, Part Two


In the Autumn issue of Keyboard Companion, Leon Fleisher discussed his childhood years, his studies with Artur Schnabel and Karl Ulrich Schnabel, and the early years of his career. He also discussed the onset of focal dystonia, the diagnosis and management of the condition, and his advice to other pianists for avoiding dystonia. 

"The older I become the more my eyes, ears, and tastes open up; the more I find attractive, intriguing. Life brings different needs at different times. "

Your music instruction background is extraordinary - just a few generations away from Beethoven on your teacher tree through Czerny to Leschitizky to Schnabel. How do you feel this musical affected Schnabel's work with you? And how do you feel it affected the development of your musical tastes?

I grew up in a music culture that I wouldn't quite describe as puritanical, but Schnabel frowned somewhat upon music that gave into sentimentality. He did play Liszt and Chopin, but he was not fond of Russian or French music.

When Schnabel kicked me out of his studio (because I had become lazy), I was mixed back in with my peers and colleagues, who were predominantly first generation Russian, Polish, and German Jews. They introduced me to repertoire by composers such as Rachmaninoff - "the dark chocolate fudge brownie" music. It comes from a different place inside. I fell for it hook, line, and sinker. Then I was introduced to the French music - Ravel, Debussy. All of this music has remained with me. But it's not the same as the universal side of Mozart, Beethoven, and Haydn.

If one would want to characterize the music, we could say that much of the Russian music has a very passionate, maybe even self- pitying approach. The Rachmaninoff second symphony, and his second and third piano concertos come to mind. The Tchaikovsky fourth, fifth, and sixth symphonies.

French music is sensorial. It's incredibly artful and masterfully crafted. It remains, however, a little bit on the surface the way that skin is on the surface.

Most of the music that we play is European. It's unbelievable how much of the cultural output is Germanic: Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Haydn. I think that German music is the most metaphysical of all. German composers somehow ask, "How do I relate to the universe?" "How am I like a brook?" "How am I like a leaf on a tree or a blade of grass?" There's always yearning outward into the universe, into the cosmos. It reaches out beyond self-absorption. 

I mentioned before that Schnabel insisted on duet work, and he felt that chamber music was extremely important for the development of a pianist. 

Leon Fleisher early in his career. Photo credit: Don Hunslein, Sony BMG Music Photo Archives

As did Beethoven, of course. I recall that Beethoven felt duet work was so important that he directed Czerny, who was teaching Beethoven's nephew, Karl, to assign him duet playing every day. So it's not surprising that Schnabel emphasized collaborative work.

Indeed. I am so grateful for the opportunities to make music with friends and colleagues. I perform four-hand literature with my wife, Katherine Jacobson Fleisher, and recently with some former students, including Jonathan Biss and Yefim Bronfman. It's been a wonderful experience to work with many exceptional colleagues. (Editor's Note: See Part one of this interview for reminiscences by Mr. Fleisher of some memorable collaborative experiences.)

My son Julian is a jazz singer in New York, and he invited me to sit in as a guest performer when his group played a concert in Washington. I even performed with Benny Goodman!

You were guest performer at a jazz concert, and you performed with Benny Goodman? I am sure there is not one reader who will be satisfied without knowing what you played!

My son Julian claims that I introduced him to jazz. He recently reminded me that I encouraged him to buy his first jazz recording, a Mel Torme record. Nevertheless, Julian says that his band members were shocked to see a classical concert pianist step into their territory. I performed a beautiful left-hand arrangement of All the Things You Are, which was arranged for me by Steve Prutzman, an incredibly gifted former student of mine.

In my performance with Benny Goodman, we played Schubert's Der Hirl auf dem (Shepherd on lhe Rock) for a concert in Chicago back in the '50s. It's written for piano, vocalist, and clarinet.

How do you feel your playing has evolved over the years?

In performance, I've finally learned to let go and relax more. To not demand too much of myself. If we get between seventy and eighty percent of what we are striving for in a performance, we should be pleased. The music is so much bigger than we are.

I take more time; I fi nd myself feeling the music a little bit farther behind the beat. I have more awareness of what happens between the notes. Listen to great orchestras such as the Berlin Philharmonic. Almost every note is on the back side of where it "should" be.

Schnabel talked of the beauty of proportioning the notes so that there is a structure underneath the performance. He taught us the extreme importance of the balance between horizontal and vertical proportions. I have developed a deep appreciation for these proportions.

The older I become the more my eyes, ears, and tastes open up; the more I find attractive, intriguing. Life brings different needs at different times. 

Many musicians are pleased to see you performing with the score. Perhaps society became too entrenched by the Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt legacy of mermorized piano performance, even though there are benefits to having music committed to memory?

Schnabel did not insist on playing from memory. Many artists from the present and past have performed with the music - Claude Frank, Gary Graffman, and Myra Hess, for example. I perform with the score, but I do usually have the music memorized. Students should memorize their compositions as there is a deeper awareness and understanding when the music is committed to memory.

Your concept and projection of rhythm contribute to a sense of timing rarely heard. You mentioned being aware of what happens between the notes, and proportions. Will you further describe for us these aspects of rhythm and timing?

Schnabel spoke of rhythm as a living thing; not just in time, but living. We must play how the heart beats. There is one beat stronger, and one softer. It creates an inner excitement.

An important aspect of rhythm is to experience an internal pulse that goes on underneath the notes, like setting up an internal grid. We can think of rhythmic lines somewhat the same as what sports people call "the sweet spot in time" - hit at the optimal time in the optimal spot, and theb all will sail. 

You described that Schnabel spoke in terms of gestures- rather than emphasis on a lot of finger work, "arming" and "handing" the piano for expression of horizontal lines and for beautiful tone. What other concepts can you share that you believe contribute toward your incredible sound?

Generally, we should avoid striking directly into the keys, and we must keep the muscles supple. Sliding motions on the key surface contribute to a beautiful sound in addition to expressing more horizontal lines. We can think of the sound as billowing out of the instrument. We should lift the sound out of the piano. I like to say that one must be supremely confident of one's armpits in order to play the piano well!

Fleisher portrait unveiled in Steinway Hall Gallery

The portrait of Leon Fleisher on the Keyboard Companion Autumn 2008 cover has a new home! The Oil on Panel like- ness of Fleisher was picked up by the National Portrait Gallery last summer, but made its way back to New York for a special unveiling in the Steinway Art Collection. The artist, Dr. Paul Wyse, is shown at right with the portrait.

On Tuesday, December 9th, Stein- way & Sons celebrated the unveiling of the portrait in the renowned Steinway Hall Gallery at 109 W 57th Street in Manhattan. The champagne reception was attended by both Paul Wyse and Leon Fleisher, and the portrait was unveiled by Leon Fleisher's wife, Katherine Jacobson Fleisher. The event was doubly significant because the portrait's artist is also a Steinway artist.

"Tonight is truly special as we are unveiling an exquisite work of art not only of a Steinway Artist, but by a Stein- way Artist," said Ron Losby, President of Steinway & Sons-Americas. "Mr. Wyse is also a former student of Leon Fleisher's at the Peabody Conservatory. The introduction of Mr. Fleisher's portrait marks the first time in Steinway's 155 year history that a painting for the Collection has been done by a Stein- way Artist, let alone by a former student of the subject."

Fleisher's likeness in the Steinway Art Collection now joins those of Beethoven, Berlioz, Chopin, Cortot, Grainger, Handel, Hofmann, Horowitz, Janis, Mendelssohn, Paderewski, Rachmaninoff, Anton Rubinstein, Arthur Rubinstein, Schubert, and Wagner. 

Do you feel as though your teaching has evolved?

After this many years, I hope so! Actually, I attribute some of the changes in my teaching to the results of dystonia - the expanded emphasis on dealing with the instrument. And, I've become a lot more aware of how to realize my intentions since I had to find ways to verbalize more. I had to learn how to describe the indescribable. Previously it was more instinctive, more of a "play it this way" approach. The evolution of my own playing translates to my teaching as well. 

Thoughts about teaching

The big responsibility of a teacher is that we have to teach students how to learn. To question why. To learn what to look and listen for. I think that students should be exposed to as much literature as possible, as early as possible - when they are the most curious, and while they have no fear. Then two or three years later, we can come back to the repertoire for more in-depth learning. I don't think that students should be required to polish every piece they study at the time it is initially introduced.

We must bring students beyond the notes - engage their imagination. Schnabel had extraordinary images. Give students descriptions, and then at a certain point, imitation is helpful to prove that they really hear what you are describing. Play for them, and play recordings for them.

We must help students to learn how to diagnose what is not happening, and then prescribe solutions. My work as a conductor has sharpened that ability. Conducting and teaching expand the ways we think about music.

We tend to try to codify our instruction, to try to fit everything into neat boxes - but life doesn't work that way. I'm trying to remain aware of that. For example, if someone asks you to play more rhythmically, what do you change? There are as many differ- ent answers as there are people in the orchestra. 

Photo credit: Joanne Savio

What changes have you noticed in students through your years of teaching? What remains constant?

The technical prowess of students is as it has never been. More young people than ever have extraordinary skill. But the awareness and communication of what is behind the notes - what the notes say or what the notes imply - is as rare and elusive as ever.

I think that many students fall short of understanding what "technique" really means on something other than a superficial level. Technique is the measure of the speed at which one can repro- duce what one hears.

Students too often want to learn new, big repertoire in time for a big competition or other performance. This upsets me. I think that one should learn a work, study it, put it away for a while, and then come back to it. It gives it time to settle, to sink in a different way, resulting in a broader understanding of the work. During the time one doesn't play a composition that has been learned, it develops. 

When we discussed focal dystonia, you advised that it is extremely important to avoid perfunctory repetitions to help avoid the blurred signal associated with the development of focal dystonia. What other advice do you have about practicing? 

Practice with closed eyes. Practicing with closed eyes causes us to perceive the music in an entirely different manner. And accuracy increases when one practices with closed eyes. It's like Braille in that it creates a heightened awareness on a different level. We should develop the dendrites. That visual concentration does take up space. 

Play very slowly, very softly. It suddenly changes the way one hears.

Question one's awareness.

Study the music away from the piano. To "hear" a piece of music through the eyes is wonderful.

I suggest writing a composition down from memory. Not only does this show us where there are lapses, but when copying it out and then comparing back with the score, one suddenly discovers all kinds of things one was not aware of.

I understand that you have some new projects.

I recorded the world premiere of Paul Hindemith's Klaviermusik mit Orchesler with Christoph Eschenbach conducting the Curtis Symphony Orchestra. It was written in 1923 for piano left hand and orchestra, but only discovered in 2002. It is scheduled for release in the spring by Ondine Records. As for future projects, Katherine and I plan to make some four-hand music recordings together.

I have always been interested in and performed music by Ameri- can composers, composers of our time - Aaron Copland, William Bolcolm, Ned Rorem, Louis Kirchner, Lukas Foss, Dina Kosten. I would also like to make a recording that would include American popular standards. Since I spent a good third of my life performing for the left hand alone, I would like to include some left-hand arrangements, including The Man I Love, arranged by Earl Wild, and Steve Prutzman's arrangement ofAll the Things You Are. 

Thoughts about music-making and music

Playing the piano is a weird business in a way. Music is a horizontal activity. It passes through time from point A to point Z. Being movement, it is subject to all the forces that affect movement. It's like physics - the rising and releasing of tensions. It's true for every instrument! You bow the stringed instrument. You're blowing air to play the piccolo or the tuba. When you stop, the sound stops. To play the piano, we have 88 keys (more on so me pianos, of course) and they go up and down. How do we create horizontal sound from an activity that is exclusively vertical in nature? That's the main challenge in playing the piano. Think of strings running across the keys, and think of our arms being like bows - and keep as many notes in one grouping as possible. This also increases the ability for more speed. 

Schnabel taught us to have a deep respect for the composer. It's imperative for us to remember that we are the vehicles of the great music, note the other way around. 

Classical music somehow ennobles and empowers us. Classical music addresses a part of us that unfortunately is somewhat under siege by marketers and technology - these things take time away from being able to address a certain dimension of our spirit to which great music speaks. That part will always be there. It's what makes us human. 

Reflections on life's journey

If I had my life to live over, I don't think that I'd do anything differently. The journey of trying to find an answer to what at the time seemed to be a problem without a solution opened up many doors to me; conducting, investigating and performing the left-hand literature, teaching. All these activities have brought immense personal satisfaction in their own right, and they have deeply affected the way I understand music.

It's difficult for young people to understand and accept, but it's not just the destinations in life that are important. It's the journey and all that one learns along the way.

My journey brings to mind the story about the farmer who was rumored to have amassed an enormous fortune. On his deathbed, he called his sons. He whispered to them that his fortune was buried in the field. So after he passed away, they started digging and digging. They didn't find anything, but the overturned earth became so fertile that from this ground, all kinds of wonderful crops grew. 

Back to the Editor

Many aspects of Leon Fleisher's life reflect back to his work with Schnabel, which Fleisher recalls as lessons in life and in ethics as well as in music.

Fleisher also recalls hearing Franklin D. Roosevelt's live radio address when the president declared, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." Even though he was only a child at the time he heard Roosevelt's address, Fleisher says that he was deeply moved by the president's words.

Perhaps guided by Schnabel's and Roosevelt's influences, Leon Fleisher clearly subscribes to Liszt's motto, Genie Oblige (with genius comes obligation). Despite what was initially viewed as a devastating and very public end to his career, Fleisher forged on, teaching and mentoring thousands and inspiring millions through music, medicine, and social causes.

Glen Estrin, president and co-founder of M usicians with Dystonia, confirms that Mr. Fleisher has been an exceptional help to the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation. Fleisher has raised public awareness for this condition that was little known before his own diagnosis, and he has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Foundation, mostly through mentions in his public appearances. A portion of the proceeds for one of his most recent CDs, Two Hands, is donated to the Foundation. Because Fleisher has been so forthcoming about his own affliction, he has helped thousands of musicians to identify, face, and manage playing injuries.

Mr. Fleisher and his wife, Katherine Jacobson Fleisher, offer their talent to bring awareness to a passion they share: saving and caring for homeless a nimals. Through Animal Rescue Inc., the Fleishers serve as foster parents for animals until suitable permanent homes are found. They are currently the foster parents of three dogs and three cats, and they perform at least one or two concerts each year to benefit Animal Rescue Inc.

At the age of eighty, Mr. Fleisher continues to perform concerts, conduct, teach, and record. And, of course, he continues to manage the symptoms of his focal dystonia.

Experiencing Leon Fleisher performances, listening to him speak, and observing him mentor the artists of today and tomorrow, there is an expectation that we carry away from spending time with this legendary artist and exceptional human being. We can bet that even at the age of eighty, Leon Fleisher will continue to remember his parable about the farmer, and that he will continue to "overturn the earth" in many ways for a long time, enriching all our lives as he does.

To hear recordings of Leon Fleisher, go to www.clavier

For further information on Dystonia research and treatment, go to 

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