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An interview with Gary Graffman

An interview with Gary Graffman

Editor's Note: This article is the first in an intermittent series of articles dedicated to profiling the teaching ideas and methods of various pedagogues. Gary Graffman is a perfect choice for the first entry in this series, as he is not only one of the most effective and influential pedagogues of recent decades, but he was also a student of Horowitz, Serkin, and Vengerova, three of the most influential pianists of the twentieth century. The following interview is translated from its original appearance in the Chinese journal Piano Artistry.

Gary Graffman, born in 1928, studied piano with Vladimir Horowitz, Rudolf Serkin, and Isabelle Vengerova, cementing a worldwide reputation as an impressive virtuoso in his teenage years. His well-known recordings include collaborations with Leonard Bernstein, Eugene Ormandy, George Szell, and Zubin Mehta, among many others. In the late 1970s, an injury to his right hand prevented him from performing his usual repertoire, and he turned his attention to music for the left hand. In 1980 he joined the faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music, and he served as director of this institute from 1986 to 2006; in 1995 he was also appointed president. He has a great interest in Asian culture and has been quite active in China in recent years. His renowned Chinese students include Lang Lang, Yuja Wang, and Haochen Zhang, a winner of the 2009 Cliburn Piano Competition.


Thank you for inviting me to your home. To begin, I'd like to ask: How often did you receive lessons from Horowitz? 

For one year, I received lessons almost every week. After that, I received monthly lessons for a period of three or four years.

How did you come to begin lessons with Horowitz?

I studied at Curtis with Vengerova from age seven to seventeen, and she arranged for me to meet Horowitz. Horowitz had heard me a few times in some broadcasts—he was not playing at that time. He didn't have a special style of teaching at the beginning, other than to think of the human voice ninety percent of the time. "Suppose you are a singer, how would you sing at this phrase?" If you try, you will find where the breath is, where the most important note is, and your playing will become more natural. So I still think about that and tell my own students very often to do that.

Did Horowitz suggest any special technique? 

Not really. I was not a kid, so I just played for Horowitz the way I normally played. Technique was practiced more when I was very young.

When you were young, who influenced you? 

Horowitz and Serkin, of course, and also Rubinstein and Schnabel. Those four were the ones I grew up with. They influenced not only me, but also the rest of the pianists of my generation. And when I was very young, Toscanini and Heifetz both influenced me very much.


Do you have a personal teaching style? 

I don't think I have a special way. My style of teaching depends upon the student. I just had students perform graduation recitals at Curtis a few days ago, and each one was completely different! I don't think there is "one right way" to do something—you should teach students to think for themselves.

The students at Curtis have enormous potential to be great artists. How can you predict that a pianist may become a great artist? Can you recognize potential when you hear someone play an audition?

Age is an important factor. There is a big difference between eighteen years and thirty years. There are also many different situations. At the audition, we don't talk about somebody who is obviously very good or very bad. "In between" is the most difficult. It is almost impossible to predict whether someone who doesn't make mistakes at the audition will progress much later on, and someone who doesn't play perfectly at the audition may develop marvelously.

You cannot teach potential. In other words, I probably have no potential as a ballet dancer. If I were to learn ballet, it would only just be for fun. The potential of kids today is very much wasted in the United States, especially since we don't have a good public school system of arts— the majority of the talent is not noticed or pursued. A person who is five or ten years old could have tremendous potential, but if nobody notices it, by the time he or she turns eighteen it's too late.

At Curtis, everyone is highly motivated and willing to practice. Technique is not an issue; we only take three or four students each year from a large pool, so the students we choose have very good technique already.

How do you bring out the best in students? 

You see what gaps exist and what they do best. Someone may play Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff wonderfully, but at the same time may never have played a Haydn sonata. When I first met Lang Lang, he had hardly heard any Spanish music, such as Granados or Albeniz. I told him to learn one or two of the Albeniz Iberia, but he learned eight of them! Each student is a different individual. As a student grows older, something emerges.

Do you think you are a good friend to your students? Do you talk to them about other aspects of their lives? 

Some students want to talk more about life, and others want to talk more about music. Often these students are very young and come in with no parents. Yuja Wang was alone at age fifteen because her mother didn't get a visa.

I think the relationship between student and teacher is very important. In general, Asian students treat teachers very respectfully. If the teacher also respects the student, there can be good two-way communication.

Have you ever learned anything from your students? 

Yes, I get ideas from them. Sometimes I am jealous because they learn so quickly! [laughs] 

Maybe someone who is seventeen or eighteen can tell me what Mozart or Schubert did when they were seventeen or eighteen. You learn all your life.

Why did you keep Lang Lang from entering competitions yet encourage Haochen Zhang to enter the Cliburn Competition?

I was not strongly pushing for or against competitions, but winning a competition is one way to start a career. The world knows you have won the prize, and you may get concerts, recitals, and management. (But not always!)

If you already have a developed career, you don't need competitions. When Lang Lang was fourteen, managers already knew about him, and he had played for important conductors. So, I didn't see a need for competitions. Haochen was unknown to managers, so in his case it was helpful to enter competitions.

In China, everybody is competing all the time. In Chinese history, there is a mentality of ranking—if you discuss painters from the Ming Dynasty people would say someone is number one and someone is number two. In France, they wouldn't say "Monet is number one and Renoir is number two." They are both "number one," perhaps along with others.

In China, many teachers who are middle-aged are not so good at piano technique, perhaps because they were working in factories or farms during their prime years for practicing the piano. I'm wondering, if a teacher doesn't have perfect technique, can he or she still help students acquire a good technique?

They can still be good teachers. Students should not copy a teacher, or a recording. Before I had my hand problem, I was performing Brahms and Rachmaninoff concertos and teaching as well. Yet I am probably a better teacher now than I was back then, because I have more experience.

Many of your students have gorgeous sound and color in their playing. How do you help students get great color in playing different pieces?

Not everybody has the same sound. Some people are more addicted to gorgeous sound than others—Serkin was less interested in sound than Horowitz. It doesn't make his playing better or worse, just different. Yet, there are some places where you might want an ugly sound intentionally, such as the first movement of the Prokofiev Seventh Sonata.


What is your suggestion for building up the confidence of an introverted student for public performance?

There are many stories of students who were tremendous in the conservatory, but in front of an audience they could maybe play at seventy-five percent of their true potential, which is unfortunate. Sure, you need practice, and sure, you should make performance more routine. If you play all the time, it does become more routine. Maybe that's a bad word, but that's part of it. And yet, there are so many people who play better when they are at home.

What do you do the day of a concert? 

If there is an orchestra, of course I'm rehearsing with the orchestra. And I go to the hall and practice on that concert piano to get to know that piano, because every piano is different. The majority of pianos are fine, but some lack a beautiful sound over the complete range of the instrument. In other words, if you bang too much on the top, it sounds percussive. So you need to adjust.

Other things are just routine—go back to the hotel, read a book or lie down, then get dressed and don't eat too much before—not because it's a problem, but I would eat afterwards, and that would be four meals a day! [laughs]

What do you think about during that moment on the bench, just before you start to perform?

There are so many different things—I can't begin to describe them. Actually, Arthur Rubinstein had the best system. He would walk out, sit down, look for a beautiful girl in the front rows and say "OK, I'm playing only for her!" [laughs]


How do you play Baroque music on a modern instrument without losing the Baroque style?

Bach's music sounds good on any instrument. He wrote some harpsichord concertos that also exist for violin, sometimes in a different key. There are two harpsichord concerti that also exist for oboe and violin. Early when I was a director at Curtis, I went to a student's recital. On the program there was a cello suite played by marimba! It sounded wonderful.

Bach's work is more about the approach to the music than the instrument. Obviously you should use less pedal in general, but I wouldn't say use no pedal. When you play an organ in a church, you will get a long-lasting sound.

Bach's music is also a question of how you improvise. For example, people in Bach's time likely added different things on repeats. But nobody alive has actually heard performances from Bach's time. People spend their whole lives studying this, yet they often have completely different conclusions. The approach of Glenn Gould is quite different from Landowska's, but they both played very convincingly.

Could you talk about touch in the music of Bach?

It depends upon what type of piano you have. For example, Glenn Gould actually liked a more percussive piano where the sound did not last that long. You need a different touch for different pianos and different works. For example, a Bach fugue doesn't sing like a Chopin nocturne. They require different approaches.

In the works of Mozart and Beethoven, should the trill start on the upper note?

Nobody knows how Mozart played. Probably one starts from the upper note, but sometimes it must be preceded by the same note—otherwise it might not make so much sense. In most cases we want to create a dissonance. Some are less pedantic than others.

If you look at the programs during Beethoven's time, a singer would come out to sing one song, then a pianist would play one movement, and somebody else would play the third movement. And people improvised. Most composers who were good performers improvised a lot. Perhaps they didn't do the same thing at each performance.

So there is no "fixed way."

No, this is a question of taste. For example, at the beginning of Beethoven's Sonata Op. 57, you can play from the bottom of the trill, or sometimes people add an extra note. And one wonders if Beethoven actually himself played it the same way each time, and would it matter to him that much? I don't know. I guess one has to be consistent, playing the trills from the same composer in the same way, or intentionally different.

How much respect should pianists have for the tempo that composers marked? For example, in Beethoven's Sonata Op. 106, the beginning tempo is 138 beats for the half note, but almost no one plays it at this tempo.

No human being can play at that tempo. Obviously Beethoven wanted a fast tempo. It has to have the feeling of falling off a cliff. It could be that the metronome wasn't working properly on that day, or maybe Beethoven was not that meticulous about that kind of thing. I really don't know.

How do you present the rhythmic character in Chopin's work?

Chopin's music is very nationalistic, not only in the polonaises, but in almost everything. You have to feel that when he's writing the melodies he is saying, "I'm from Poland!" In a polonaise, of course, the first beats are important, but you can have an extra little emphasis on the off or short beat. You have that military thing, too, with drums—"listen to me!" [smiles]

You can imagine the beginning of the Fantasy, Op. 49, as a procession or a funeral march for somebody who is close to you, or perhaps someone who is an important person from the government or a great man.

Schnabel told his students (I know this from Leon Fleisher, who studied with him) to imagine that there is a picture in your mind. The pictures might be completely different; for example, take the image of walking. But walking for what reason? To the store? For a victory parade? Or for something serious or sad? You can imagine how artists would reach different conclusions.

In my generation, many pieces from the repertoire were recorded by important pianists such as Horowitz, Schnabel, and Serkin. And they were all completely different! If Beethoven wrote pianissimo they all played pianissimo—they followed all the marks on the score, but they do so much in the music that they sound completely different— they have different visions. It doesn't mean one is wrong, another is right.

What is the importance of piano pieces written strictly for the left hand?

It is not about importance. If you cannot play with your right hand, you have no choice. Most of these pieces exist because of Paul Wittgenstein, the pianist who lost his right arm in World War I. He was from a wealthy family, and he could have gone into the family business or studied law. But he wanted to be a pianist, and the parents had money to commission the great composers of that time, such as Ravel, Prokofiev, and Strauss. Because of his tragedy, this body of music exists. That is what I'm playing too. I also have had music commissioned for me, including five concerti, but it remains a very limited repertoire.

Asian culture

How do different piano schools influence each other? The piano teaching in China has been influenced by the Russian school—usually Chinese students use a lot of finger technique from the Russian school.

Horowitz played with flat fingers, Rubinstein's were higher, Serkin was moving all over. My teacher said "listen to them all the time, don't look! They will give you bad habits." [laughs] Yet they all play marvelously in their own way.

The influence of the Russian School on China is significant. At the Second World War, the Russians came to China in many ways, including artistically through music, ballet, and opera.

I first went to China in 1981. In Beijing, I got a call from the director of the Conservatory, who wanted to meet me. He didn't speak much English, and I spoke very few words of Mandarin, but when I asked him about studying in Moscow, I realized that he could speak Russian. I speak Russian, so then the whole conversation was in Russian. He showed me the Conservatory—many Chinese teachers there also spoke Russian. And there were a few Russians too, but there were mostly Chinese who studied in Moscow or Leningrad.

After the Second World War, Asians started coming to America—first from Japan, then Taiwan and South Korea, and finally, after the Cultural Revolution, from China. A large number of Chinese students studied at Juilliard, Curtis, the New England Conservatory—and at the conservatories in Europe. Many went back to teach in China. So today, China has not just a Russian influence, but also German, French, and other European influences. It's changing now. You see this in auditions. We just had more than 100 pianists audition for Curtis (and we had room for three). Almost all of the applicants were Asian, and out of those maybe eighty were Chinese. They all played very differently— they were all individuals.

We were lucky to attract such talents here in the United States because of the unfortunate circumstances happening in the rest of the world. The Russian Revolution, after the First World War, caused Heifetz, Horowitz, Rubinstein, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky to come to America. Then, because of Hitler, most of the Jewish musicians came—names like Serkin and Schnabel. So we have influences from Germany and Russia. (At Curtis, they make jokes about how Curtis was "the St. Petersburg Conservatory in exile" because its original teachers came from there after the Russian Revolution.)

If there had been no revolution, or no Hitler, everyone would have probably stayed in Europe, just coming here for tours now and then.

Your interest in Asian culture and art is well known.Where did this interest originate?

Maybe some of it came from family. My father had lived in Shanghai. During the Russian Revolution, many Russians from Siberia came to Harbin—Harbin was a "Russian city." My father was concertmaster (and occasionally a conductor) of the Harbin Orchestra for a while, and then he went to Tianjin and Shanghai. He lived in the Russian zone of the Bund in Shanghai for two years, then Yokohama, and then he came to America.

In the 1950s my good friend, the late Julius Katchen, a great pianist, went on an Asian tour for the first time, and he came back with many Asian artifacts. That appealed to me, and I started to read about Asian art. I went to museums, and Julius, who lived in Paris, introduced me to some dealers and collectors.

Then when my hand problem started, I went to Columbia University and started taking courses on Asian arts so I could read more and more. At that time I made new friends who liked music but were not musicians—they were museum curators, dealers, the people at Sotheby's auction house, and other collectors. In 1981, when I went to China for the first time, it had nothing to do with music. It was the head of the Chinese division of Sotheby's and a group of museum curators who were friends of mine who invited me. After 1981, I went many times on my own to visit provincial museums, and read more and more. I bought Chinese artwork in Hong Kong many times because of the restriction of taking things out of mainland China.

The Future

In your opinion, what can we do to inspire young people to love classical music?

In my opinion, education and exposure to all the arts is essential to interest young people in these disciplines. Sadly, public schools in America these days offer very little or even no arts education. If students were routinely taught about the arts (as they are about science and math, for example), they would be more likely to go to concerts, museums, and so forth. Education and exposure is the only answer, I believe. The good news is that with the amazing advances in technology nowadays, it is easier than ever for youngsters to gain exposure to fine music. One can now have all of Western music on a small electronic device that almost everyone has access to.

What do you think about the future of piano study?

I think it will continue pretty much as always. Great music will always exist, and it has always been true that such music has been of interest to a minority of the population. Maybe in one generation or another there will be a smaller or larger percentage of this minority who care about it, but the fact remains that Beethoven wrote thirty-two piano sonatas, and I believe that there will always be people who want to play them and hear them.

Gary Graffman with Liu Ye.

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