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How do you use DVDs and YouTube videos of historical pianists in your teaching?

A few years ago I asked piano majors in a piano pedagogy class to name some twentieth-century pianists. Elton John and Liberace were mentioned, but few classical pianists were identified. I later did a presentation to the group on historical pianists, beginning with Ludwig van Beethoven, his student Carl Czerny, and his two nineteenth-century students Theodor Leschetizky and Franz Liszt, the teachers of many great twentieth-century pianists. I came to the realization that piano students are not going to know of this legacy or about other great pianists unless we as teachers make an effort to inform them. 

For the past several years I have given my students a CD of piano music played by a well-known artist as a Christmas gift. I also encourage them to listen to performances – live, on CDs, and on YouTube – of both music they are playing and other classical piano repertoire. I always ask them to name the performer, and I suggest pianists, and at times specific YouTube videos, for them to watch. Gradually they are becoming more aware of legendary pianists while also learning more of the great piano literature. This is how Jerry Wong educates his students about historical pianists. In the article below you'll read about some of his recommended pianists and videos. Please be sure to visit our website at for additional online material and links to YouTube videos.

Teaching tradition

by Jerry Wong

"Did you listen to a CD recording or watch a DVD performance of this piece?" is a common question in my studio. Enthusiastic nod. "What was the name of the performer?" Look of confusion, followed by "I can't remember ... " 

I believe aspiring pianists need to know great pianists by name as much as they need to know great composers. Students should be able to name characteristics of several major pianists, and ideally students should be able to visualize these pianists' performances. What better way to learn about great pianists of past generations than to observe their playing through video footage? Watching their physical gestures and stage demeanor can open up a new world for piano teachers and students. While watching, they can listen for the wide range of colors and emotions and refine their thinking about piano technique.

When admonished for not knowing names of major pianists from Liszt to the present, students have often explained that they don't know how to locate this information. Fortunately, we have video resources available for the younger generation to learn about many of the great pianists who were born in the early twentieth century. 

DVDs of historical pianists

In addition to DVDs of individual pianists, there are two excellent films about multiple pianists from past generations: The Art of Piano and The Golden Age of the Piano: A Documentary of the Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century: Both films trace the advent of colorful, poetic, spectacular piano playing on the concert stage with Franz Liszt, the birth of the piano recital, and many pianists and pedagogues that followed him. Musical lineage is traced back to some of Liszt's pupils: Arthur Friedheim, Moriz Rosenthal, Emil von Sauer, and Carl Tausig. 

While different in style and approach, both documentaries pay great homage to the performances of Claudio Arrau, Alfred Cortot, Vladimir Horowitz, and Arthur Rubinstein. Both films also discuss the legends of Josef Hoffmann and Ignacy Jan Paderewski-pianists who lived and performed during a time when there was very little audio or visual recording, making the rare footage that we have of them all the more valuable. Practically speaking, both films contain a title menu with various pianists listed as tracks, a huge advantage when seeking to illustrate a particular point about a performance to a student. 

Linking the present with the past, The Art of Piano contains interviews with several of the world's most famous living pianists speaking about the pianists from prior generations. The Golden Age of the Piano is narrated by David Dubal, celebrated in New York City for his radio commentary on WQ2CR's R eflections from the Keyboard and for his well-attended piano-related courses at The Juilliard and Manhattan Schools of Music. Dubal speaks with an uncanny refinement and poise, branching off easily into broader historical references. Paintings and drawings are subtly interspersed, presenting a historical montage of art and music.

In The Golden Age of the Piano, Dubal states, "With the deaths of the great pianists Vladimir Horowitz in 1989, and of Rudolf Serkin and Claudio Arrau in 1991, the world lost what many music lovers considered to be the last links to the great golden age of romantic piano playing." Having taken a class with Dubal during my doctoral studies at The Manhattan School, I can indulge in my own "golden age" memory of his ability to talk at any given moment about virtually any pianist, immediately calling up dates, places, and events. His knowledge of piano literature is equally as encyclopedic. 

DVDs of historical pianists

Another viable source of researching this "golden age" of piano playing is As with all online research, I remind my students that while there is valuable information to be found on the Internet, it is important to remember how easily video footage, opinion pieces, and even false statements can be posted on the web. Students who are just learning about great pianists must learn how to sift through all of the amateur content and identify the videos that are truly worth studying. Here are a few questions students should ask when choosing performances on YouTube:

Is the performance in a formal venue on a large grand piano? Is it in black and white? What is the quality of the recording? Is it possible that the video clip was lifted from a professional DVD? What information can you find if you search for the pianist on Google or Wikepedia? Can you find the pianist in David Dubal's book titled: The Art of the Piano: Its Performers, Literature, and Recordings? 

This is certainly not to imply that one cannot discover new performances on YouTube. I enjoy searching for pianists I know personally and watch their performances with enthusiasm. However, for the budding pianist, there is greater value in learning about famous pianists. This is no different in how we learn the piano literature; we begin by studying Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Debussy before branching off into the limitless discoveries of lesser-known gems. 

Essential historical pianists

Claudio Arrau

Known for his elegant and honest interpretations of Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, and Brahms, Claudio Arrau (1903-1991) was a South American pianist from Chile. Arrau is featured prominently in both The Art ofPiano and The Golden Age of the Piano. I vividly recall hearing Arrau live at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in California performing Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto, Op. 73. I was a student at the time, and the idea of producing a truly cantabile sonority with sensitivity to underlying harmonic color was prevalent in my lessons. Arrau's performance brought this to life for me with new meaning and resonance. His imaginative interpretations and elegant, aristocratic nature shine through in all of his DVD performances. From a pedagogical standpoint, Arrau's comments during an interview in The Art of Piano are quotable time and time again: "If you are stiff in any joint, you impede the current, the motion-the physical current of what the music itself dictates to you." This free current is so apparent in his rendition of Liszt's Gnomenreigen (The Golden Age of the Piano), where he appears to be born with the gift of forearm rotation.

In his performance of Liszt's Ballade No. 2 in B Minor (The Golden Age of the Piano), Arrau's hand appears less like a human body part composed of ten digits than a focused mitt or paw, drawing warmth and color out of each and every phrase. A model of an uninhibited, unrestrained physical technique, Arrau's performance of portions of the Arietta from Beethoven's last Sonata, Op. 111 (The Art of Piano) again exhibits his elegant love of sound and his honesty of interpretation. Arrau is able to teach us the art of freeing the ego and the body so that the music speaks without blemish or distortion. 

Vladimir Horowitz


Russian-born Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989) was an icon of romantic playing who put his stamp on the works of Scarlatti, Schumann, Chopin, Scriabin, and Barber. Words like dazzling, electrifying, charming, and mystifying come to mind when considering Horowitz. With modest demeanor, Horowitz was known worldwide for the trademark characteristics of his performing persona: an interest- ing bowtie, Sunday concerts at 4 p.m., fresh asparagus and Dover sole as his preferred meal, and his very own Steinway Concert Grand that traveled with him.

Schuyler Chapin (1923-2009), the famed impresario and former New York City Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, tells the remarkable story of Horowitz's return to the stage in a 1965 Carnegie Hall recital after a twelve-year, self-imposed sabbatical from concert life (The Art of Piano). The camera pans in immediately on an unparalleled display of riveting, fearless showmanship and orchestral colors in Horowitz's own transcription of Busoni's Carmen Fantasie. This is a reminder to all students who have said, "I can't because of my nerves," that indeed one can in spite of tremendous nerves. Both DVDs feature portions of Horowitz playing Scriabin's Etude in D-sharp Minor, Op. 8, No. 12. A signature piece for Horowitz, his performance demonstrates an explosive temperament and nuanced poetic feeling for sinuous lines. This performance could encourage an emotionally reserved student to imagine a more expressive performance. Few pianists reveal such an innate, kinesthetic connection to the music as the mythical Horowitz.

Art does not live in a vacuum, separated from current events and world politics. Horowitz's return to Moscow in 1986 after sixty-one years of bitter exile was a momentous occasion that illustrated the union of art and history. At the height of negotiations between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and U.S.S.R. General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, Horowitz's Moscow recital was broadcast live on CBS Sunday Morning (and is now available on DVD). A lesson in complete rapport between performer and audience, as well as the transcendent power of music, this video is a multi-faceted must-see for aspiring pianists.

Arthur Rubinstein

Of Polish descent, Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982) eventually settled in Los Angeles, where he continued one of the longest pianistic careers of all time, retiring from public performances at the age of eighty-nine. Thought by many to be the quintessential interpreter of Chopin, he was a model of pianistic refinement. Few pianists can claim to have pursued such a state of complete musical and physical naturalness as Rubinstein. Whether in the cadenza of Beethoven's 4th Concerto (The Art of Piano), Schumann's Aufschwung, Op. 12, No.2 (The Golden Age of the Piano), or Chopin's Barcarolle, Op. 60 (YouTube), Rubinstein's impeccable refinement and taste were never separate from the perfection of his craft. Long before Alexander Technique seminars were a frequent part of piano teachers' conferences, Rubinstein displayed ideal posture at the instrument. As noble as his actual playing of Chopin's Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53 was his profile at the piano. I have often referred students to video footage of Rubinstein showing the lack of contortion in his hand position, the free-falling nature of his arms, and the model alignment of his spine. 

Artur (note the different spelling) Rubinstein: Historic Film of Rubinstein in Performance, produced by Kultur, is a film devoted entirely to Rubinstein. Among the many memorable performances here is Mendelssohn's Spinning Song, Op. 67, No. 4, in which Rubinstein's simple, direct, unblemished manner cuts to the heart of this delightful music. Daniel Barenboim comments (The Art of Piano) that Rubinstein never equated "artistry" with anything "neurotic." 


Alfred Cortot

French pianist Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) remains one of the most imaginative pianists of all time. His editions of Chopin contain many useful ideas and practice suggestions. Daniel Barenboim's remark that Cortot was searching for musical qualities "totally removed from reality" is perceptive. Nothing could be "removed from reality" more than Cortot's performance of Debussy's Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum, complete with black and white film of a child at play (The Golden Age of the Piano). This frequently-played teaching piece is transformed by the magical hands of Cortot, who reveals an easy lightness of touch, evenness of passagework, and a creative interpretation entirely his own. 

Rudolf Serkin


With his Austrian heritage and probing mind, Rudolf Serkin (1903-1991) altered the way a generation of musicians consider Germanic repertoire. Many musicians can link their musical heritage to Serkin through his teaching at both the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and the Marlboro Festival in Vermont. Serkin's art is revealed twice in The Golden Age of the Piano. Both excerpts are final movements of Germanic masterpieces-Beethoven's Sonata, Opus 81a ("Les Adieux") and Schubert's Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960. Serkin completely embodies the musical tension and high-minded ideals of these works. For students who tend to err on the side of arbitrary, erratic, or incoherent interpretations, a Serkin performance is a testimonial to a thought-provoking approach of fidelity to the score. A Deustche Grammaphone DVD of Serkin performing Beethoven's last three sonatas is a worthwhile journey for a young pianist who is entering a new phase of musical maturation. 

Myra Hess


The British pianist Dame Myra Hess (1895-1965) is another performer who exemplified the essence of Germanic music. In The Art of Piano, Hess plays a portion of Mozart's Concerto No. 17 in G Major, K. 453 in a series of London concerts she instigated as a response to severe bombing during World War II. In contrast to Horowitz's 1986 return to Moscow (which symbolized two superpowers com- ing to a more resolved era), Hess chose to uplift spirits around her during a time of great duress. Teachers can use her performance of Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata, Op. 57 (The Art of Piano), as a pedagogical resource to explain the concept of sturm und drang (storm and stress). Hess's rhythmic verve and dramatic dynamic range capture the restless and passionate qualities of this music. 

Emil Gilels and Benedetti Michelangeli


Two very different pianists who both have a substantial output on YouTube are Emil Gilels, (1916-1985), who defined the age of Russian-trained virtuosi, and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, (1920- 1995) the Italian pianist who captured the public's curiosity for his persona as much as his playing.

The Art of Piano contains a magnificent performance of Gilels playing the cadenza from Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto. His of Rachmaninoff's Prelude in G Minor, Op. 23, No. 5 (The Art of Piano) is emotionally charged as he performs for an attentive group of soldiers with warplanes flying overhead. But his performance of the same piece on YouTube is the one to seek out. In this setting one can hear refined details in the lyrical middie section, juxtaposed with the precision and artfulness of the march-like rhythms of the outer sections. I personally find his YouTube performance of Brahms' Ballades, Op. 10 to be a treasure, not only for his level of vision and depth of understanding, but also for his economy of physical motion in the way he uses his hands, wrists, and arms to execute a precise and exacting performance. Gilels' recordings may not be as available as several modern-day pianists, but he was a pianistic giant, and we are fortunate to have many of his live performances on YouTube. 


Michelangeli raises the level of the artist as a unique individual to new heights. With a stage demeanor that was as uncommon and quirky as it was charismatic, he can be found on YouTube playing major works such as Beethoven's first piano concerto or Chopin's Fantasie in F Minor, Op. 49. Michelangeli has a laser sharp concentration and a pure, focused tone. Equally as fascinating are his YouTube performances of a variety of shorter works, including Scarlatti Sonatas and an intimate Debussy Lafille aux cheveux de lin. The latter performance could be a great lesson to a technically gifted who might view this seemingly simple, two-page work in a superficial light. Michelangeli finds new magic in each and every note of this piece.


Of course, the pianists presented here are a mere handful of the many other "golden age" artists who can be found on video. Piano students and enthusiasts should also be sure to see Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997) playing Chopin's "Revolutionary" Etude. Richter, like Gilels, was a pupil of the great Russian teacher Heinrich Neuhaus. Other videos of note include Benno Moiseiwitsch (1890-1963) performing and speaking about Rachmaninoff's B Minor Prelude, Op. 32, No. 10; Glenn Gould, (1932-1982) whose unconventional style can be witnessed in a variety of film footage; and Jorge Bolet (1914-1990) playing the works of Franz Liszt.  

Van Cliburn

One living pianist who links the past to the present is Van Cliburn (b. 1934). A pupil of the legendary Rosina Lhevinne, Cliburn won the first Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958. Despite the strain of the Cold War, this tall, lanky Texan swept Russian audiences to their feet with what Dubal describes as his "grand style and golden sound." Cliburn's playing of the Liszt transcription of Schumann's Widmung (The Golden Age of the Piano) is a sublime expression of romanticism. He remains a household name, due in part to the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, founded in 1962 and held every four years in Fort Worth, Texas. This longstanding competition was still the rage this past summer, as phenomenal young talents from throughout the world captivated listeners with the same ideals, principles, and feelings that formed the "golden age" of piano playing.

Jerry Wong holds the position of Associate Professor ofPiano at Kent State University, where he is also co-director of the summer Piano Institute at Kent State and a member of the Kent/Blossom Music Faculty in major concert halls, universities and festivals throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. Frequently sought after as a clinician and adjudicator, he has presented lecture recitals at several Music Teachers National Association state conferences. 

Editor's note: Be sure to visit our website at for additional material. The online version of this article will contain further thoughts from Jerry Wong on the use of YouTube videos in teaching, and you will be able to link directly to recommended videos. 

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