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An Interview With Paul Sheftel

An Interview With Paul Sheftel
Paul Sheftel with the Steuermanns on his Juilliard graduation day.

I first met Paul Sheftel when he worked with the educational wing of the Baldwin Piano Company, back in the early 1970s. Through the ensuing years I attended many of his instructive (and always humorous) sessions at MTNA. When I moved to Manhattan in 1999, we began a warm relationship. He often invited me to his nearby studio, where we had delicious lunches that he prepared. During those meals we had enthusiastic conversations about piano teaching. After the meals, he spent time orchestrating some of my duet collections and teaching me how to use the notation software Sibelius. He also invited me to his Manhattan apartment frequently to hear recital run-throughs. There, I heard his Juilliard pedagogy students give their final exam, a performance with a talk. His wife Sara always prepared delectable post-performance snacks.

I observed several lessons at Paul's studio and found his style of teaching unique, especially with his use of technology. He graciously invited me to give talks and demonstrations to his Juilliard pedagogy students. Paul is a person I miss after moving to Rhinebeck, NY, in the winter of 2012. But we are still very much in touch via phone and emails, and continue our great friendship. It was a pleasure to sit down and interview him for Clavier Companion.

I understand you were born in Como, Italy. Would that be a good place to start?

It would be a great place to start. It was there that I developed my lifelong passion for pasta, even though I was only one year old when we returned to the States.

Tell me a bit about your early musical education.

I grew up in Los Angeles. I was seven years old when World War II began. Mom and Dad were rarely at home. My first teacher was Frances Robyn, bless her. I adored her. Later I worked with Mr. Quinn, Alfred Price Quinn. Mr. Quinn was a very dear man and a fine musician. Thanks to Mr. Quinn I developed a lifelong passion for Burgmüller, Czerny, Clementi, and Heller—less so for Hanon. My parents were busy and left me pretty much alone. Practicing was not an important part of my agenda at that time. There were no expectations that I would follow a musical career path. I was no prodigy. Just a kid having a fun time—at least most of the time.

In your teens you went to Paris?

Mom and Dad were dreamers. I was about fifteen years old. Around that time, a friend came back from Paris, enthused about the wonderful post-war recovery that was occurring. "Let's send the boy off to Paris," decided my parents. A pretty wild idea—but the start of a magnificent experience. I had two unforgettable teachers there: I studied piano with Lazare Levy, a legendary master and the most kindly man who ever lived. (I was in good company—he taught, among others, Solomon, Clara Haskil, and Lukas Foss.) I also studied composition with the renowned composer Alexandre Tansman, best known to the community of American piano teachers for his wonderful music for children. Both men were warm, patient, and wonderfully communicative teachers.

I have taught many of Tasman's pieces and absolutely adore them!  But now I'm intrigued.  You came back from Paris to Los Angeles- then what?

It was a tough moment, my beloved Dad was dying from cancer .After a brief period in LA—when he passed away—my mother left almost immediately for New York, where she had grown up. I did have the wonderful good fortune, during this brief and sad time in LA, to work briefly with two musical giants, Jakob Gimpel, piano, and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, theory and composition. Gimpel was a phenomenal pianist and a kindly and jovial person. Gimpel had studied with and revered Edward Steuermann and was responsible for sending me to Steuermann. But my most significant memories of that time musically were the wonderful hours spent with Castelnuovo-Tedesco, whose son was my contemporary and became one of my closest friends. Tedesco was a man of profound culture, distinguished, and, like Tansman, a person of wonderful kindness and warmth. What an experience for an impressionable teenager to have mentors of this caliber!

So now we get to New York and Juilliard.

And so I began my studies with Edward Steuermann. Steuermann was an awesome figure in my life. I was not always his best-prepared student, but somehow the lessons were always rich and filled with inspiring material. Life at Juilliard was just a wee bit intimidating. Who were my contemporaries? VanCliburn, John Browning, Marty Canin, Danny Pollack, and Jerome Lowenthal, to name just a few. What a bumper crop of pianistic geniuses! My tail was usually between my legs, but somehow I survived long enough to finish B.S. and M.S. degrees.

And then a Fulbright grant to Italy?

After Juilliard I just wanted to go off somewhere and be left alone, preferably where the food was great and they spoke Italian, if you get the drift of my thinking. I had just married my wonderful wife, Sara (we will soon be celebrating our fifty-seventh anniversary).We had met at Juilliard, where she was studying violin with the renowned Ivan Galamian. To our immense joy, the Fulbright came through and we were off on what turned out to be a ten-year odyssey in Rome (two of those years on the Fulbright), where both of our wonderful daughters were born.

Is this where you began your two-piano career?

Yes, indeed! Joseph Rollino, a fellow Juilliard student, whom I had known only slightly, was on a Fulbright as well. Sara, Joe, and I became inseparables that year. Joe and I decided to try our luck as a two-piano team, and ended up having a very exciting and rewarding performing career in Europe, and, to a lesser extent, in the U.S. We made our NY debut in 1964. We started championing contemporary works by mostly American, but some Italian, composers.

Being in Rome, we had the good fortune to meet illustrious American composers and perform their works. These composers included Alexei Haieff, Robert Palmer, Gail Kubik, Harold Shapero, Arthur Berger, and Gunther Schuller, from whom we commissioned a concerto that we premiered under his baton with the Berlin Philharmonic. At this time we became quite friendly with the German composer Hans Werner Henze, who gave us the first performance rights to a monumental work for two pianos, chorus, and orchestra entitled Muses of Sicily. We performed this work throughout Europe, recorded it with him conducting for Deutsche Grammophon, and gave the American premieres with the Chicago Symphony, under the baton of Jean Martinon.

After your time in Italy, what awaited you upon your return to NY?

Well, it was a bit of an adjustment. Joe did not want to leave Rome. We had to abandon our two-piano partnership. But Sara and I were thrilled to be back. I was now involved in a number of publishing ventures. I immediately landed a job with the Baldwin piano company. Baldwin had just developed a piano lab and created an education arm. I was in at the inception. That, by the way, was how I got to know you!

I began writing and publishing, developed a private teaching studio,and, along the way, I have served on the faculties of the Mannes College of Music, Hunter College, the Manhattan School of Music, and, at present, the Juilliard School and Westminster Choir College of Rider University, where I teach piano pedagogy. I might also add that I do still enjoy solo performing on occasion. My current fascination is to combine performance with informal talks, all with the goal of raising funds for worthy causes.

Aren't you leaving out something?

My wife had begun studies at an institute for psychoanalytic training. I was fascinated, and I took many courses with her. I never finished the program of study, but the experience certainly affected my thinking about teaching in a very interesting and positive way.

Can you tell us a bit about your elegant, upper east side Manhattan studio?

Let me first say that the reason my studio is elegant is that I married the right girl. Not only is she a superb musician, a brilliant linguist, a thoughtful and insightful psychoanalyst, and a great mom, but she also puts up with me—and it was she who designed and decorated my studio.

Speaking of your studio, I am bowled over with all the technology that you seem to incorporate into your teaching. How did that come about?

It was all gradual and incremental. I am of the wrong generation, and have had to overcome resistance to learning, but I've gradually seen the enormous benefits of technology. A short list: 

Midi technology. I became a sort of pioneer in developing MIDI orchestrations. It was a huge and delightful addition to teaching to be able to provide students with colorful accompaniments that could be played at any speed.

Computers, which have had so many and varied applications.Tutorial programs, for instance.Sibelius for composing, DigitalPerformer for sequencing. Video editing, studio records, and now a webpage (

Long-distance and video-conferencing. I have four glorious grandkids who live in the Boston area, and I have taught all of them at various times. Currently I am co-teaching a pedagogy course with my dear and esteemed colleague Phyllis Lehrer at Westminster Choir College of Rider University in Princeton, NJ. I teach part of this class from my NY studio using video-conferencing technology. Phyllis and I are also creating what we are calling a Musicianship Enrichment program called Personal Trainer that has an important technology component—all of the extensive musical examples have MIDI support.

I have also worked closely with George Litterst, who is responsible for developing the brilliant programs Home Concert Xtreme, Classroom Maestro, and Internet MIDI. I also keep video records of all of my students. As you can see, this is a rather extensive list!

Technology is great, but what about the human elements involved in teaching people of all ages? I see that you seem to do both. You have a reputation for end-less patience, not to speak of your way of injecting humor into your interactions with your students.

Well, Jim, I think I can thank my parents for blessing me with a sunny disposition and bestowing lots of love. Despite all of these wonderful advantages, learning music was not an easy task for me. I was not a prodigy. In fact, I did not get off to an early start. I can remember struggling to learn my Clementi, Czerny, and Burgmüller. I have the deepest sympathy for anyone facing similar challenges, and I am never less than intrigued by the challenge of helping people solve their learning difficulties. The years of psychoanalytic study also gave me great insights into understanding and helping people resolve resistances to growing and learning.

I have today, perhaps as never before, a profound belief that the study of music is food for the soul, nourishment for the brain, and can provide students with marvelous tools for developing learning skills.It has all added up. My studies with great piano teachers helped me understand the mechanics of technique and helped me develop avenues for students to develop their musical awareness. My life in the world of pedagogy has enabled me to study the work of others and learn from them. My life as a parent and grandparent has taught me lessons that could never be learned elsewhere. My writing and teaching have sharpened my ability to identify and solve problems. To summarize, it is about love, patience, under-standing, and discipline, of course, but always.

Thanks, Paul. It has been a privilege to do this interview with you.

Let me have the last word, Jim. Thank you for your friendship, patience, and interest.

From left: Joe Rollino, Paul Sheftel, and Hans Werner Henze in Italy.

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