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Beyond the Notes: An interview with Elvina Pearce


Elvina Pearce studied piano with Isabelle Vengerova and pedagogy with Frances Clark. For more than six decades, she has presented recitals, workshops, and master classes in more than forty states as well as in Canada, the Republic of China, and Australia. Highlights of her pianistic career include recitals in Taipei, Taiwan, and Perth, Australia, at Carnegie Recital Hall in NYC, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and as soloist with both the Chicago Symphony and the Chicago Philharmonic.

For fourteen years, Elvina taught piano and pedagogy at Northwestern University. She also served as National Certification Chair for MTNA, and from 2000-2006 she was Editor-in-Chief of Keyboard Companion magazine. She is the composer of more than thirty published piano collections, and is the author of a best-selling book, The Success Factor in Piano Teaching: Making Practice Perfect. In 2011, Elvina received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy, and in 2014, she was inducted into the Illinois Fox Valley Arts Hall of Fame.

Following the 2015 National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy, Elvina and I spent several days talking about her life and career.

Elvina, let's focus on those experiences which you believe were the most significant factors in shaping your remarkable musical and pedagogical career. How did it all get started?

It began in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I grew up as the only child of a great mother and father, along with a dog named Inky. Not one of them could read or play a note of music. Classical music and composer names such as Bach and Beethoven were unheard of in our home, and there was no piano.  

When I was about five, my parents volunteered to store a neighbor's piano in our home for two years while he was out of the country, and so this enormous, old western saloon-style piano moved in with us and consumed virtually all of the space in one room of our small house. Almost immediately I began to doodle around on it and soon discovered that with one finger I could pick out tunes such as "Twinkle," "Yankee Doodle," etc. Then I discovered how to play using both hands! Almost at once this big old piano became my favorite play-pal.  

After two years, the neighbor returned and reclaimed his piano. By then I was in love with music and thoroughly smitten with making it myself on the piano. Losing the piano was devastating!  

So what happened?

Well, around that time, an itinerant piano teacher appeared in our neighborhood offering lessons in the home for fifty cents a pop. Nearly every kid signed up and, of course, I also wanted to enroll. When I asked my parents for permission, they agreed, but with one stipulation—if I took piano, I'd have to discontinue dancing lessons which I also loved! They reasoned that it was better to focus on just one thing and really do it well than try to do several things with less impressive results. However, they left the decision entirely up to me, and so, after much pleading and shedding buckets of tears, I finally chose piano instead of dancing.  

Elvina Pearce in 2014

I assume that your parents then bought a piano and signed you up for lessons with the in-home teacher. Tell me about your first lessons with her.

Her name was Lenore Hunter. She was young and pretty, and to my delight, she taught me how to read music! I'm especially grateful that the positive environment she created for my beginning lessons was perfect for nurturing my newfound love for music and the piano. However, after about two years, she dropped a bombshell when she recommended that my parents seek another teacher who could work with me at a more advanced level. This was a real bummer because I loved Miss H. and had assumed that she would be my teacher forever. But my parents followed her suggestion, and so I was enrolled with teacher number two, Helen Ringo, a professor of piano at the University of Tulsa.

Elvina Pearce with Ed Darling, who studied with her from 1958-1962 at Westminster Choir College and The New School for Music Study in Princeton, NJ

Tell me a bit about her.

She was a dear woman with whom I studied for nine years and from whom I learned a great deal about music and technique. But what I remember most was her exuberant love for music and music-making which permeated every lesson. Her studio piano was a Mason & Hamlin grand which had a gorgeous, mellow tone, and I'll always remember her continual emphasis on the quality of sound being produced—never harsh, never percussive—and this is still a high priority with me, both as a pianist and teacher.

When Mrs. R. unexpectedly passed away, it once again became necessary to find a new teacher, and soon I was off to New York to begin three years of lessons with teacher number three, Isabelle Vengerova, the renowned Russian teacher whose students included Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, and Gary Graffman, to name just a few. 

In your Success Factor book, you include a candid discussion of your time with Vengerova. What was she really like?

Ugh! Appearing in the 1979 summer issue of The Piano Quarterly is an article by Joseph Rezits which contains descriptions of Mme. Vengerova submitted by thirty-two of her former students. Leonard Bernstein said, "I was in mortal terror of her." And in his delightful book, I Really Should be Practicing (Doubleday), Gary Graffman writes: "She inspired fear and trembling among even the most stouthearted… At lessons, shouts, screams, threats, curses, and stamping were the norm…" Other students described her as "a terrible taskmaster, tyrannical, an authoritarian, uncompromising, intimidating, overpowering, egotistical, sadistic, cold and cruel," etc.  

My first experience with Vengerova was during a two-hour audition which preceded the start of my lessons with her. As I played, she said little, but when she finally evaluated my performance, she said, "I am not at all impressed with how loud or fast you can play." Then pointing to a picture on her piano, she said, "My dear friend, Vladimir Horowitz, already holds the record for this. What else can you do?"

Three years later when I terminated my study with her, her parting words were, "I'm sorry you are leaving because I think I might have been able to make a pianist out of you yet." And that was the nearest she ever came to complimenting me. Need I say that Mme. V. neither fostered my love of music nor of making it at the piano? Actually, when I left her studio for the last time, I didn't know whether I loved or hated music, but I felt sure that I didn't want to ever go near a piano again!

Elvina Pearce presenting three of her new piano collections for Alfred Publishing at the 2015 National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy

If you had to do it all over again, would you still choose to study with her?

Absolutely. And I shall be forever grateful for all that I learned from her. For instance:

  • In technique: I acquired an acute awareness of the function of every part of my body that was involved with playing the piano—particularly how to control the balance of muscular tension and relaxation. I also learned a technical approach which was based on beginning tone production on the keys as opposed to lifting up individual fingers before striking the keys. The "on-the-key" approach produces a true legato and a non-percussive sound, both of which are characteristic of Vengerova's students.    
  • In approaching a piece: Step one was always to do a thorough study of its formal structure, notational symbols, word cues, etc., and Mme. demanded that, without fail, her students project all of these in every performance.   
  • In practicing: I learned a myriad of specific strategies designed to either prevent or solve common problems that all pianists must deal with in practice. (Well, maybe not Lang Lang.)   

Speaking of practice strategies, your book includes pages and pages of tips for achieving success in
practice. Did you learn some of these from Vengerova?

Yes. Nearly 100 pages of the book deal with specific practice strategies, most of which I learned from her.  

In your own teaching of elementary and intermediate students, have you been able to adapt some of the same Vengerova practice strategies which you, yourself, use when working on advanced repertoire?

Yes, but of course with some modifications (and without stamping, screaming, or cursing)!  

I know you are still performing, as I heard your lecture-recital featuring music of Schumann at the 2015 conference of the NCKP. When did you make your debut as a performer, and what are some highlights of your performance career?

My "debut" occurred at age twelve when, as a student of Helen Ringo, I presented my first solo recital. It was great fun, and I have loved performing ever since. Looking back at my early performance experiences, there are two that have special significance for me, and both involve entering national competitions, one in Chicago and the other in Washington.  

Although I wasn't a first-place winner in either competition, happily, I was selected as a finalist in both. As a participant, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and was glad I entered. And that was that! Well, at least I thought so until some time later, I was contacted by one of the contest judges inviting me to present a solo recital at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. And a bit later on, I received similar invitations from two other competition judges—one inviting me to perform the Liszt E-flat Concerto with the Chicago Symphony in Orchestra Hall, and the other to perform the Liszt with the Chicago Philharmonic in a coast-to-coast radio broadcast over The Chicago Theater of the Air.  

From these two competition events, I learned much about what's involved in preparing for a major performance. I also learned that not winning a contest isn't necessarily a final outcome—that sometimes participants can "win" equally gratifying rewards even if not selected as a competition winner.  

Let's talk now about teaching. When and why did you decide to start teaching?

I began teaching when I was in the fifth grade, and my first student was my best friend, Diane. One day she confessed that although she practiced a lot, she had problems with her pieces and she asked me to help her. I agreed, and when I observed both her playing and practice, I concluded that her problems were mostly the result of how she practiced. So I gave her a few tips to try for a week or two, and then suggested that we meet again to evaluate the results.  

This we did, and Diane was so pleased with her progress that she asked me to continue coaching her. These ongoing "lessons" were not only fun, but also very gratifying because Diane was becoming a much happier pianist due to her success. Even though my goal at that point was to become a concert pianist, I still found this first "teaching" experience quite rewarding. 

From junior high through my New York years, I taught several students a week—mostly average kids who were only studying because their moms made them. They disliked practicing—and probably me, too!—and their progress was minimal. I only suffered through these lessons because I needed the money, such as it was. During all of my student years, my goal continued to focus on becoming a concert pianist, even though the longer I studied with Vengerova, the reality of that ever happening seemed less and less likely. Oh, well—if all else failed, I could always teach! 

At some point there must have been a major change in your attitude about teaching. What motivated you to consider it as a career?

The short answer is "Frances Clark!" I first met her in the forties when I was a young student attending a Guy Maier summer piano workshop, and we had remained in touch over the years. When I told her I was leaving Vengerova and looking for a part-time teaching job in the New York area, she invited me to come out to Princeton for a job interview at Westminster Choir College, where she had just been appointed as head of the school's piano department. So I went for the interview, was offered a job, and became a "charter" member of Frances Clark's first WCC piano staff.

What was teaching on her staff like?

It was exhilarating but also very demanding. It was certainly not a typical college teaching job because Frances regularly observed each staff member teach, and this was always followed by a very straightforward, in-depth evaluation of our work. We were also expected to attend all of her weekly college pedagogy lectures and to regularly observe her teaching. Both her lectures and teaching really turned me on and revealed a whole new world which I never dreamed existed. Although Frances' standards for teaching were extremely high, her expectations were always reasonable and somehow, with her help, most of the staff were usually able to fulfill them. 

By the end of my first year on Frances' staff, I was completely hooked on pursuing a teaching career! However, I decided that I also wanted to resume performing. Frances was 100 percent supportive of this idea. And bless her! It was she who was responsible for resuscitating my pre-Vengerova love of music and playing the piano. She helped me select and prepare repertoire for solo recitals, and we also worked together on the Saint-Saëns and Mendelssohn G minor concertos, which I performed with the Amarillo Symphony and the Tulsa Philharmonic.

Thanks to Frances, I learned that one's career could include both teaching and performing! 

The cover The Piano Teacher magazine, 1961, featuring Elvina Pearce teaching at The New School for Music Study in Princeton, NJ.

Do you have any concerns about piano teaching and students in the twenty-first century?

I am very concerned about the influence of technology on today's young people, whose lives often seem to revolve around texting, social media, and the internet. But none of these things can ever produce a beautiful, live performance of a musical masterpiece or the personal joy that can result from listening to such a performance, or better yet, from creating it oneself. It is my hope that in their piano lessons, students are discovering that even without using technology, they can "link" on to music itself and discover it as an ongoing source for motivation, inspiration, creativity, and personal fulfillment that will last a lifetime.

How would you summarize the factors which you think have played the greatest role in your success?

 Four things come to mind:

  • My wonderfully supportive parents, and my dear husband, John.
  • Enjoying a lifelong love affair with music.
  • Being blessed with teachers who were able to show me how to successfully make music myself at the piano.
  • The great satisfaction that always occurs when helping others experience the joy of music and how to successfully make it themselves at the piano.

The text that follows is a continuation of my interview with Elvina Pearce which appears in the May/June 2017 issue. In this supplement, she primarily addresses issues which could not be included in the magazine due to space limitations. Elvina and I appreciate having an opportunity for this online "encore," and hope that you will enjoy it.  --Ed Darling

Elvina, in the magazine interview you mentioned your concern about the influence of technology on twenty-first century students and teaching. Have you any other concerns, and if so, what are they?

I'm concerned about the high dropout rate of piano students. Some years ago, I was stunned by the results of a survey which reported that nearly two-thirds of all students who began piano lessons dropped out by the end of just two years of study. Recently, I learned that a similar survey indicates that this same high dropout rate is also true for today's students. Here's my "take" on some possible reasons for this:

  • At their lessons, many students don't hear enough "live," artistic performances of their pieces.
  • Students don't have enough opportunities to share live music-making with others.
  • Students become bored and frustrated when unable to learn their pieces in a reasonable amount of time due to poor reading and technical skills coupled with non-productive practice habits. If lessons and practice aren't producing accurate, stumble-free, and easy-to-play performances of pieces which really sound good to students when they play them, then why should they want to continue?

I believe that when such issues are dealt with successfully, the student dropout rate should be considerably lower than the reported national average.

A different concern is about the role that contests have come to play in the education of today's piano students. I find it troubling that nowadays:

  • A top priority of many parents seeking a teacher for their child is finding one whose students frequently enter (and win!) contests.
  • Some teachers only accept students who show potential as contest winners, and there is usually a long list of parents waiting in line to enroll their children with such teachers. Certainly student participation in contests can be beneficial, but should this be the main criterion for selecting a teacher?

A second concern related to competitions is that:

  • Children whose study is contest-oriented are frequently assigned just a few pieces (their "contest" pieces) at the start of each new school year and must practice and work on them repeatedly at lessons throughout the entire year to be sure they are always ready to enter the next contest event.

What does such a plan have to do with providing students with a comprehensive musical education?

Still another contest-related concern is that:

  • The criteria used for the selection of competition repertoire often seem to be based on the level of difficulty and "flashiness" of the music to be performed–on demonstrating pyrotechnics rather than musicality.

No doubt, judges are influenced by this when selecting winners. Hearing a ten-year-old play the first movement of Beethoven's "Waldstein" Sonata 100% accurately and at an amazing tempo is hard to ignore! But what about a ten-year-old performing an age-appropriate and much less complex piece expressively and artistically, and with an obvious understanding of the music that goes beyond the notes?Is there a chance of a "win" for such a student in most twenty-first century competitions?

I worry that today's competitions have now assumed an Olympian character which seems to demand an ability to play super-difficult music, but without equal demands for the performer's ability to demonstrate a thorough understanding of it (its form and structural elements, its notational symbols, the definition of its musical word cues, etc.). I wish that along with just playing pieces, contestants would also be quizzed on what they've learned about the music beyond just playing its notes.

Although these concerns are not shared by all teachers and parents, what's important to me is that before I enroll a child for lessons, the parents understand and agree with my philosophy about contest participation: that this will never be the main reason for study nor the primary focus in my teaching. I see contest participation as just one of the many positive outcomes of successful music study. 

Now let's talk a bit about practice. It seems to me that the negative that students most often express about taking piano lessons is their dislike of practicing. In your early student days, what was your attitude about this?

I always loved to practice! Okay, so I was a "geek," but honestly, I don't remember ever being reminded to practice. I could hardly wait to get home from school, have a snack, and then go to the piano. Why? Because I discovered that the more I practiced, the more pieces I could learn to play and this was all the motivation I ever needed. But rest assured that after I practiced, there was always some recreation before supper–bike riding, roller skating, horseback riding–this was my favorite activity! It took place at a nearby stable where well-to-do folks boarded their horses. Because they needed exercise (the horses, not their owners!), we neighborhood kids got to ride them. "Little Man" was my favorite horse, and I assume he also liked me because I was the only kid he would ever tolerate as a rider.  

In your pre-college years, how much did you practice each day?

In grade school, probably around 30-45 minutes a day. In junior high, from 60-90 minutes, and in high school, my goal was two to three hours a day. (I usually did an hour every morning before school, and was granted early dismissal from school for home practice.)

Of course I don't expect my students–even the most gifted ones–to have this same attitude about practicing. But I have learned that the more success they experience at the piano, the less distasteful they find practicing. I believe that really liking the music they are assigned and then knowing how to learn it quickly and make it sound good when they play it is the best way to make regular practice more tolerable. 

Elvina Pearce performing a solo recital at the age of 16 at The University of Tulsa.

Today there seems to once again be an upsurge of interest in debating the issue of memorization and the need to perform from memory. I recall that this is a subject you discuss in some detail in your Success Factor book. Would you elaborate just a bit on it now?

Ah, yes–the controversy over the necessity for performing from memory rages on and on, ad infinitum, doesn't it? For years I've thought that debates about the pros and cons of memorized performances are a lot of much ado about nothing. Believing that the real issue should be the quality of a performance rather than the format in which it's presented, who cares about memorization–especially when a public performance is by a child who absolutely must be successful? If having a piece of music on the rack at a recital helps students feel more comfortable and able to enjoy playing and sharing their music with others, then what's the big deal?

Of course I think that all students should learn to memorize because of its mind-stretching value. And they should also have opportunities to try their wings performing from memory, but not just at the once or twice-a-year recital on an unfamiliar piano and in front of an audience of mostly strangers. Certainly it can happen instead in a non-threatening environment such as group lessons with peers, or with an occasional overlap of two students' lessons which can also provide a ready-made audience. 

What do you do for fun?

I teach and play the piano!

Yes, of course. But what do you enjoy doing besides teaching and playing–what are your hobbies?

All of my life I've enjoyed sports activities–roller skating, ping-pong, playing pool, swimming, and tennis. I actually earned a Junior Lifesaving badge, and believe it or not, I even won a tennis tournament once!

Nowadays, I have to resort to watching sports rather than physically participating in them. I'm an avid fan of all of the Chicago teams–the Blackhawks, Cubs, Bears (Go, Bears!), and the Bulls. Apropos of the Bulls, I once heard an interview with Michael Jordan in which he was asked to comment on his low-scoring performance in the previous evening's basketball game. His answer was, "I'm only as good as my last game." I often pass this along to students who, after "messing up" a piece at the lesson, say, "But I played it perfectly at home!" "Could be, but unfortunately I wasn't there to hear it; and anyway, we're only as good as our last performance!" This philosophy seems to resonate positively with most students and rarely do they try the "perfectly-at-home" bit again at a lesson! Thanks, Mike! (Incidentally, I find that even young kids today still seem to know who Michael Jordan is.) 

What would you suggest as essential components of a well-taught lesson?

In my opinion, a well-taught lesson will ensure that:

  • Its atmosphere conveys a genuine love for music and making it at the piano.
  • The lesson's content and sequence of happenings are well-organized and well-paced. (Making a lesson plan before the lesson actually takes place promotes the above and eliminates "off-the-cuff" teaching.)
  • The lesson is primarily student-centered rather than teacher-centered–always having more music-making than just talking about it, and always involving more discovering and playing by the student instead of talking and telling by the teacher. (I remember Frances Clark once saying that "Tellers belong in banks -- behind bars.")
  • The student leaves the lesson with clear goals for the coming week of practice and with ways to fulfill them in productive, self-directed practice, and
  • The student leaves feeling successful and looking forward to the next lesson!

You have received national recognition for your more than 30 published collections of piano solos and duets. How did you become involved with composing?

Well, Lynn Freeman Olson, a former piano student of mine at the New School and a longtime friend and much admired composer, actually got the ball rolling. Every time we'd meet, he'd ask when I was going to try my hand at composing, and I'd always say that I knew nothing about it and was happy to leave this activity in his very capable hands. But Lynn was very persistent and so I finally succumbed and promised I would try. The result was the creation of a number of intermediate-level pieces which, at Lynn's suggestion, I sent to Alfred, and lo and behold, I was amazed to learn that this music had actually been accepted for publication. That was in 1981, and thanks to Lynn and Alfred, my career as a composer was off and running, and I've been doing it ever since.  

Many of us had great admiration for Richard Chronister, and I know that you had a long association with him, both as a friend and colleague. How did the two of you meet, and what were some of the events you experienced together?

My friendship with Richard Chronister began in the fifties and continued until his passing in 1999. We met at the University of Tulsa where, as a student of Boyd Ringo (the husband of my teacher, Helen), he was a sophomore working on a piano performance degree. Even though I was still in high school, Mr. Ringo graciously allowed me to participate in his college studio classes, and this is where I met Dick (which we all called him in those days). We became good friends, and over a period of several years, we would often have a bite to eat or take in a concert or a movie. I especially remember our get-togethers in Mrs. Ringo's studio for play-throughs of ensemble literature.

I also remember the time we decided to do some experimenting with yoga. Somehow, LIFE Magazine got wind of it and came to the University to photograph us. They took pictures all right, but thank heavens, these never appeared in the magazine! I think LIFE must have decided that we were just kooks who should forget yoga and stick with piano playing! 

Piano majors Robert Anderson, Elvina Pearce, and Richard Chronister experiment with some yoga on the floor of Helen Ringo's studio at The University of Tulsa (1958).

And speaking of books, yours, The Success Factor in Piano Teaching: Making Practice Perfect, has become a great success. What prompted you to write it and how long did it take?

Shortly after the book was published, someone asked me that question and I said, "Eighty-three years!" And this is true because it has indeed taken a lifetime to experience, evaluate, and then summarize what I have learned from the events and persons who taught me whatever I know about music, piano playing, and teaching.

What prompted me to write it? Well, over the years, attending piano workshops has always provided valuable teaching tips, many of which I thought might someday be useful inclusions in a book. At such workshops I also found that most of the attendees worked primarily with pre-college "average" students as I did, and this prompted me to want to write a book which focused mainly on the needs of such students. Also, Q and A discussions at workshops confirmed that we all are dealing with pretty much the same issues in our teaching–our goals, challenges, problems and their solutions–what works? what doesn't?, and these would surely provide a good basis for a future book.

Also, whenever I presented a workshop, I was often encouraged by attendees to put some of my ideas together in a book, and my college pedagogy students at Northwestern also expressed a similar desire. So in 2009, I finally decided to bite the bullet and begin the book project in earnest. Six years later, with the indispensable assistance of Craig Sale, the book's editor, the Success Factor finally appeared in print in January of 2015. Hallelujah!

My hope is that the Success Factor will provide useful ideas not only for those who teach piano, but also for those who enjoy playing, practicing, and performing at the piano. If so, then the long journey of creating this book has been well worth the effort. 

A postscript from EP: As a final note, I would like to thank you, Ed, for the interest and time you have invested in this project. It has been great fun to reminisce, and in the words of Carol Burnett, "I'm so glad we had this time together."  

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