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An Interview with Nelita True: Part II


In the March/April issue, Nelita True, one of the world's great artist-teachers, discussed her childhood and teen years as a piano student and her evolution as a teacher. She also described the contributions oher major influences: Helen Titus, Leon Fleisher, FernandLaires, Nadia Boulanger, and Sascha Gorodnitzky.

Please tell us about your family background and your home life when you were growing up. Were your parents musicians?

My mother was born and grew up in a small Icelandic community in Alberta, and she was orphaned when she was six. She became a school teacher. I don't know how she managed to learn to play the piano, but she essentially gave it up once my brother Wesley and I began our piano studies.

She was very dedicated to ensuring that Wes and I were exposed to great music. She sold World Book Encyclopedias door to door until she saved enough money to buy a record player. A lifelong memory is the first recording we heard on that wonderful machine: the great English pianist, Clifford Curzon, playing the Brahms D Minor Piano Concerto. She also was totally dedicated to the success of the Community Concerts Organization and worked hard to bring important artists to our hometown (Bozeman, Montana). Thanks to her efforts, we heard many inspiring performances. 

My mother died of cancer during my senior year of high school. My father was so overcome by grief I was actually afraid that he was going to die as well. Of course, it was a tough time for the three of us, for we all adored her. Wes and I are indeed very lucky to have had exceptional parents. After some reflection that year, I felt fortunate to have had her in my life at least during my important formative years. I left the following fall for the University of Michigan, where the entirely different environment helped me deal with that difficult loss. 

Our father was a gifted musician. He played the violin and the baritone horn. John Phillip Sousa heard him play the horn and invited him to join the Sousa Band as his soloist. Although he must have been tempted to accept, Dad had just married our mother and worried that the life of an itinerant musician probably would not be good for their family. So he turned Sousa down. Sousa came back and asked him again the next year, but Dad again refused his offer. In his youth, Dad played for silent movies and in an orchestra. He could sight-read absolutely anything. He also sometimes played chamber music in our living room with my violin teacher and his pianist wife. (I studied the violin for nine years, but was never very proficient.) 

Our father attended Montana State College (now Montana State University) in piecemeal fashion: he would enroll for a quarter and then would stop and work for a quarter to earn tuition for the next quarter. He was on a harvest crew in Montana. As the weather warmed up, they traveled north, finally harvesting crops in Alberta. He wanted to play the violin in the evenings, so he asked if there was a pianist around. We're grateful to music for our parents' meeting. Later, our father worked as Director of Publications at Montana State. He was also an Elder in the Presbyterian Church, and our mother headed the Sunday School program.

Our grandparents on our father's side moved from Minnesota to Montana to start a farm. We used to visit as we were growing up, and our father helped to harvest their crops. My brother and I used to ride around with him on the combine.

I welcome the opportunity to state publicly that Wes is, without any doubt, the best brother and role model anyone could have. He has influenced me over the years more than he may realize. Wes has always been very protective of me. He would even take me skiing with his buddies when lie was in high school. Can you imagine how many fellows would ever want to drag along their little sisters? 

Not many! So, you were interested in skiing? Any other sports? 


I was involved in several sports: figure skating, skiing, swimming-I was the city badminton champion and the city tennis champion. My dad thought I would be a physical education major. I was also on the all-star basketball team in high school, but keep in mind that I earned these accolades in a very small town! 

Didn't you get into trouble with your piano teacher? Wasn't she terrified that you'd be injured? 


Yes, but I played sports anyway. My father once said to me, "Your mother and I often hoped for an independent daughter. But sometimes we think we wished too hard!"

I did have an accident that resulted in an injured finger. I was already serious about the piano, and I remember sitting in the doctor's office waiting room, praying, "Please, don't let it be broken. I promise I'll never play basketball again." My finger wasn't broken, and I kept that promise. 

Your college experiences we previously discussed were fascinating and enlightening. Please also tell us about the extraordinary opportunity that further enriched your last year at Juilliard. 


During my last year at Juilliard, I had the good fortune to be sponsored by the eminent head and neck cancer surgeon, Dr. John Conley, and his wife Mary. A cellist on the Juilliard preparatory faculty, for whom I did a lot of accompanying, played chamber concerts in homes around New York. She performed in the home of the Conleys. They asked her to recommend a student whom she thought would benefit from their sponsorship and life in their home. I lived with them and their two daughters in a five-story townhouse just off Fifth Avenue, one block from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I had the fifth floor to myself and access to their fine piano for practice. My standard of living took a decidedly upward trajectory for those nine months. In a sense, I found myself living two lives: I would literally count pennies for lunch at school and then join the Conleys for fabulous dinners and fine wines served by their cook in the evening. My father counseled me against making this move "since it might be difficult to adapt to that wealthy atmosphere." But I found it to be quite easy! Surgeons from all over the world would come to watch Dr. Conley operate. Then they would be invited to have dinner at the Conleys' home. I served as a sort of "court musician," playing for the guests after dinner. I met countless fascinating people not only in the medical field, but also in the arts. The dinner conversations were lively, stimulating, and mind-stretching. 

How did your teaching opportunities arise? 

My first job after receiving my masters degree was at the University of Kansas. There was no search committee; the dean was the only one who conducted the interviews. He was coming to Juilliard, and he arranged an interview with me. Believe it or not, Juilliard had been banned from the National Association of Schools of Music, and they wanted to be reinstated. I think they were banned because they were offering only a Bachelor of Science degree and not a Bachelor of Music degree. This visiting dean happened to be the president of NASM. When the administration at Juilliard heard he was coming, they gave me the recital hall and the faculty lounge to use while he was there. They weren't favoring me; they were courting him. The first private lesson I ever gave was to a very talented freshman piano major at the University of Kansas. (Some years later I had an opportunity to apologize to her for my inexperience.) The University of Kansas was also John Perry's first job. We had a fun-loving piano faculty! When a lo cal movie theater offered free tickets to a 7 a.m. movie if you came in your pajamas, we couldn't pass it up. So we all showed up in our pajamas, with John carrying a grocery bag full of popcorn.

There was a job opening at the University of Maryland when I came back fro m my Fulbright studies in Paris. I was interested, especially since I had begun working toward a doctorate at nearby Peabody. Roy Hamlin Johnson, who was on the faculty at Maryland, had been my colleague at KU. He recommended me, so Stewart Gordon, who was the piano faculty chair, came to hear me play with the orchestra at Peabody. 

Nineteen years later, Robert Freeman, Director of the Eastman School of Music, called me about the possibility of my chairing the piano faculty there. Even though my husband, Fernando Laires, was on the piano faculty at Peabody at the time, he was all for making the move- so off we went to Rochester. My husband later joined the piano faculty there. 

How did you and Fernando meet? 

We met at Interlochen.We decided not to let people know we were dating. We succeeded! Only one person knew. People were stunned when they found out that we had married. We had known each other for several summers.

He was the year-round Artist-in-Residence and sort of felt like host to the summer piano faculty. So he went through the alphabet, inviting everyone out to dinner one by one. Since "True" is at the end of the alphabet, the summer was almost over by the time it was my turn. He invited another couple so that I wouldn't feel uncomfortable going out alone with him. The other couple had to cancel; we went out to dinner anyway and had a fabulous time. He invited me out again the next weekend. We corresponded after the summer was over. He came to do master classes at Peabody, and we got together then. I don't remember his actually proposing. At the end of that last summer before we were married, he said, "Now, if we were married..." I thought to myself, "What did he say?" Later that year, I took him to Montana to meet my father. My father really wanted us to get married in Montana, so just a few days later, we made arrangements to marry on Christmas Eve in 1971.

Nelita True and Fernando Laires at the International Workshop in Brisbane, Australia, 2001

Did you ever teach beginners? 

Other than class piano at the University of Michigan while I was a student, I only taught beginners at Interlochen. I figured, "Well, I'm a graduate student. I certainly should know what to do with beginners." How wrong I was! Among many other things, I didn't realize that eight-year-old boys would forget to bring their music and didn't know fractions. (How can I explain an eighth note?) My respect for teachers of beginners skyrocketed that summer-not only because of what they deal with, but because they know how to manage what they are dealt.

You mentioned earlier that you adored teaching class piano. 


There are many benefits to teaching in groups. The dynamic of group teaching is stimulating for everybody. I teach my own private students in groups every third week. They confess that they practice harder for those lessons because they don't want to be embarrassed in front of their peers. I find it highly amusing that it doesn't bother them to embarrass themselves in front of me. Peer pressure is truly a powerful force.

Often questions will come up from other members of the class that may not have occurred to the performer. Plus, if you are not the one on the "hot seat," you may be more open to ideas that you then can apply to your own Mozart sonata.

Participation in group lessons, of course, broadens students' knowledge of the repertoire. A former student wrote to me, "Thank Heaven for those group lessons...Otherwise, I wouldn't have known anything about the Copland Variations, and I had to teach them today." 

You've  received a phenomenally wide palate of information from legendary artists and pedagogues. How do you feel you have sorted, processed, and internalized it all as you've grown older? 


Leon Fleisher once said that right after he left Schnabel, he couldn't remember anything that Schnabel had said to him. I was so interested when Fleisher said that. I have often thought the same: "What do I really remember that Gorodnitzky taught me? What do I really remember that Fleisher said to me?" I've learned that nearly everyone has a similar experience. 

Leon Fleisher and Nelita True at Houghton College, October, 2006.

A lot of advice given to me came back and was made clearer through my own teaching. Do you believe that teaching is a valuable part of our own learning process? 


Most certainly. And it enriches one's own playing as well. We really don't forget what we learn from our teachers. When we integrate that learning into our own teaching (and playing), we listen more acutely and hone in even more on the many possibilities the score has to offer. I like to think that whatever I suggest to students is entirely original, but those students who have attended Leon's master classes giggle when they recognize certain verbal expressions and concepts. Obviously, l owe a lot to him and to my other teachers.

I value deeply being part of the eternal. continuum of teaching. I, like thousands of others, can trace my piano lineage to Beethoven, so I can't resist the possibility that some things he said to his students may have passed down to us through the ages. I simply cannot imagine a more satisfying role in life than that of Teacher-and being part of that continuing legacy. 

Richard Chronister and Nelita True.

We discussed what differences notice about your teaching now. What changes do you notice in the evolution of your own music-making? 


One hopes that there is a deeper understanding, of course. I have noticed a curious phenomenon when reviewing a work I haven't played for a long time. Somehow the brain. continues to ruminate about the music unconsciously. When reviewing the piece years later, you see and hear things that are revelatory, even though you might have performed it many times ten years previously. That, I think, carries over into learning new repertoire. You might perceive it in a different and expanded way because you have had that experience of reviewing an "old" piece.

Two or three times in my life (I suppose it may happen to other people more often), I have performed at a level beyond where I think I am capable. That carried me into some other sphere and afterwards caused me to think about even more possibilities in interpreting a new score. 

I know that you have perfect pitch. There are obvious benefits, but you have also mentioned that, in some ways, it can be a disadvantage. Have you consciously done anything to adapt what you would say is a disadvantage of "pitch"? 


People with perfect pitch may tend to hear individual tones, while those with relative pitch are more likely to hear relationships.

I became aware of this when I was a theory teaching assistant while studying for my doctorate at Peabody. We were working on seventh chords. I noticed that those with perfect pitch were writing down the individual notes and then identifying the chords. After I became aware of this, I made an effort to be sure I was truly listening harmonically.  

Which can mean that a high level of pitch awareness has the potential to impact interpretation, positively and negatively? 


Yes. It's wonderful to have pitch. It's certainly helpful, and I wouldn't want to give it up but I think there are disadvantages if the possible "weakness" for hearing harmonic relationships is not addressed. Incidentally, some of the most gifted students I have worked with do not have pitch.

What challenges have you found in your career? 

One challenge that everyone faces is avoiding interference by nervousness. Instead we should embrace nervousness-it heightens our senses and allows us to be aware of so much more. We can be comforted by the fact that everyone gets nervous. I remember that Sascha Gorodnitzky said, "Anyone who says he doesn't get nervous is either stupid or lying." I think there is a lot of truth in that. Working to channel the nervousness to the advantage of the music-making is something that is a constant challenge for everyone.

My childhood dream was to sing at the Met. I've often claimed that I think I would have been a great opera singer-except for the voice, of course! So I shifted my dream to becoming a professional accompanist. But I was discouraged from following this dream every step of the way. W hen I was sixteen, I went to a summer music program at Northwestern University. I talked to the woman who was teaching accompanying there. She said, "Don't even try. It's an impossible career for a woman. You'd be making a big mistake pursuing this." When I went to Ann Arbor, the idea of my being a professional accompanist came up in conversation. A tenor voice teacher said, "What? Walk out on a stage with a woman in a gown? Are you kidding? The eyes wouldn't be on me! Besides, the accompanist carries the luggage! No. It would never work." Other performers, both men and women, had similar views. So I gave up. That point of view is changed now, of course. Jean Barr, Margot Garrett, Anne Epperson, and others have been pioneers in the field of female accompanists. 

What are your thoughts about the state of music education? 


I'm probably not one who should speak about this. I'm working with very committed students. So, of course, I think the state of music education is terrific.

But I realize that we have to find ways to reach additional audiences. I am very hopeful. What makes me hopeful is that every era has its popular music that everyone loves to hear and perform, but it's the classical music that endures through the ages. I don't know what's going to happen now that technology is at such a high level, because the popular music since recording started will be available for all generations to come. So that might change the equation. Nevertheless, I am very sanguine about the future of classical music and music education. 

What, if any changes, do you notice in today's students from when you first started teaching? And what are your thoughts about the future ofour profession? 


My first reaction is "Students are better than ever." However, as pianists, my best students early in my career certainly compare favorably to my best students today at Eastman. But students' concern about "What will I do with my life when I finish school?" is far more intense than when I first started teaching.

I have a number of former students who have carved out careers in interesting ways. Many of my current and former students are extremely creative and entrepreneurial.

One former student, Amy Grinsteiner, created a doctoral project at the University of Washington introducing second graders to the Goldberg Variations. Pure music. Absolute music. No pictures at an exhibition to relate. No stories associated with the music. The children were each given a recording of their own variation. With the aid of their second-grade teacher, they learned about form, design, line, and color. They were instructed to draw an impression of "their" variation. Amy gave a performance of the Goldberg Variations in a concert hall, where the children's pictures were projected on a screen. This project took place in a small town, and 230 people showed up. She asked how many had never been to a classical concert. The hands of half the audience went up. She engaged this audience of new listeners in music that is not programmatic in any way. Can you imagine these children ever forgetting this experience?

The audience was very enthusiastic. I feel it's a real triumph that she engaged seven-year-olds in repertoire that couldn't be more far removed from programmatic music. I would never have the imagination to dream up a project like this. In some ways, a music career was really too easy for people of my generation. Not only were jobs available, but also one often had choices for academic employment- without needing a DMA. 

So you believe that necessity, the outgrowth of an overburdened job market, is sparking creativity and initiative that will help grow classical musical for future generations? 


Yes, I really do. I am watching the entrepreneurial spirit expand- ing in this generation of pianists. I make a point of sharing information about the importance of creativity and entrepreneurism with my students as they think about their own careers. Our future in music is in broadening the audience. Fortunately, for all of us, that's exactly what many of today's music students and professional musicians are doing. 

July/August 2010
The life of Chopin (and autographed piano)


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