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The teaching legacy of Rosina Lhévinne

The teaching legacy of Rosina Lhévinne

Rosina Lhévinne found herself in an awkward position in the late 1940s. Later famous as the teacher of Van Cliburn and John Browning, among others, and as an outstanding pianist who made her debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1963 at the age of eighty-two, in 1946 she was "at a loose end."

Her lifework until then had been to serve as the helpmeet and co-teacher for her husband, the legendary pianist and Juilliard teacher, Josef Lhévinne. Mr. Lhévinne's success as one of the top virtuosi of his day enabled them to live a comfortable, even lavish lifestyle. Beth Miller Harrod, a student of Josef Lhévinne and the founder of the Rocky Ridge Music Center described a trip by Mrs. Lhévinne to Lincoln, NE. "...she was driving their big car [with a chauffeur]—a Rolls Royce with a glass divider between the front and back.... She also had a cleaning lady, cook, and general caretaker. Marcia was her personal maid, without whom she could not even dress.

"Mr. Lhévinne's death in 1944 changed everything. She had to give up the luxuries and lived in a student apartment near Julliard, "...a one-room efficiency with a bed that came down out of the wall," Beth Harrod continued. "She had an upright Acrosonic piano. I was so shocked to see her in these surroundings, I almost wept."1

Her pedagogical career had come to a temporary halt, too. "Because she was grieving after the death of her husband, Rosina Lhévinne had not been teaching," explains Salome Arkatov, Lhévinne's longtime student, assistant, friend, and a filmmaker who made a prizewinning documentary about her, The Legacy of Rosina Lhévinne [see sidebar on p. 25]. "The depression triggered by the death of her husband really showed how much she had to overcome. She had been with him since she was such a young girl. She didn't feel she could do anything on her own."2

But the next step came soon. Dr. Gary White, the Director of the Los Angeles Conservatory (later merged into the California Institute of the Arts), invited Mrs. Lhévinne to give a series of masterclasses in Southern California. According to Arkatov, "coming to Los Angeles in 1946...was the first time she had taught on her own."3 The classes were an immediate success and lasted for eighteen years, concluding at USC in 1974, two years before Mrs. Lhévinne's death at the age of ninety-six.

"Masterclasses weren't her thing. But what was so exciting was to see her working with each individual and to hear her ideas. She had some teaching experience before an audience with Mr. Lhévinne; they had taught classes in Maine and Colorado, and she would give a little talk about technique before each class. All through her life, any type of public speaking made her very nervous, so she rehearsed each speech well in advance. But when she spoke, she was so poised that it had the same intensity as a [piano] performance," according to Arkatov. "She never faltered or searched for a word onstage.

"Mme. Lhévinne's thick Russian accent could sometimes make communication problematic. Jeaneane Dowis Lipman, who later became Mrs. Lhévinne's assistant at Aspen and Juilliard, first studied with her in the Los Angeles classes. "Between her heavy Russian accent and my heavy Southern accent [Lipman was from Texas], Rosina and I were often at an impasse. The first instance of this occurred when she started to beseech me to 'sink'.... I surmised that I was supposed to lower myself toward the keyboard. I obligingly sank toward the piano, but she kept bellowing 'no, no'! It was only when she began to sing the melody in a dreadfully out-of-tune way that I realized she was saying 'sing'.... Quickly adjusting my stance and touch, we went on, but soon the outcries of 'sink' again rent the air. I was nonplussed: we were in the middle of a very fast staccato passage but I tried valiantly to sing. Again, 'no, no!' This time she took my hands off the keyboard and pointed to my head. 'Sink' now appeared to mean 'think.' After a while I intuited what she wanted, and off we went. A third time came the dreaded 'sink-sink.' I tried my best to look cerebral but nearly fell off the bench as she suddenly leaned her entire upper body weight into my hands and arms. Finally, it seemed, 'sink' really meant 'sink'!"4

"Yes, she was a very 'hands-on' teacher of technic. She'd put her hands on top of your hand or lean on your back," says Arkatov. "I guess you'd call it the 'old Russian School of Technique,' which she got from her teacher Vasily Safonov. She didn't invent it, but she could impart it. Her technical ideas were part of her feeling for sound and the shape of phrases. That, to me, was her greatest gift. James Levine [Music Director of New York's Metropolitan Opera since 1976 and a former Rosina Lhévinne student] told me that this, too, is what meant so much to him: her quality of sound.

"Lhévinne pushed top talents very hard, but she pushed herself even harder. In the fall before the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition, she gave up all of her Sunday afternoons (usually devoted to rest and country visits) to prepare Van Cliburn for what turned out to be his historic victory. She was happy to develop all kinds of talent. "She was willing to work on fundamentals," says Arkatov. "And every pupil got her best. I was not a natural performer, but that was fine with her. She inspired me to be a teacher. She knew John Williams [the Academy-Award winning film composer] was not going to be a concert pianist; she encouraged him to compose. She was always 'there' for her students.

"I lived with her for a time and came to know her well as a person," continues Mrs. Arkatov. "There is no way to describe her energy and humanity. She could be like a grand empress, but underneath so warm. She had a great sense of humor and was an excellent storyteller. She was regal and dignified, but students felt the human person inside the pedagogical image." 

Besides student performers, part of the program for Rosina Lhévinne's Los Angeles classes were lectures, on practicing, style, technic, several discourses on pedal (Jeaneane Dowis Lipman: "Rosina was without a doubt one of the foremost teachers of pedal in the world"), performance practice, individual composers, and advice to students. These talks were prepared and typed up at Mrs. Lhévinne's direction, and, in later years, delivered by her students, including Daniel Pollack, now Professor of Piano at the University of Southern California.

Below, published for the first time, are excerpts from those presentations. Additional excerpts will appear in the next issue of Clavier Companion.5

Learning music 
Approach to work (undated)
Intelligent approach to music (1947)

Talent is a priceless gift, but useless without action. It must be developed through conscious use of its potentialities. It cannot be developed through finger exercises or by learning a number of notes, but through a broad musical conception. You must have a theoretical background, knowledge of musical literature, chamber music, and symphonies.

One must approach the score with reverence to the composer. When you really know the score it helps you to explore your feelings with understanding, control, and effectiveness. When you arrive at this point, you are an artist.

I strongly advocate taking the score and trying to hear it with your inner ear. Consult your score away from the piano. The technique of interpretation is recognition of the printed page. The composer puts down for you the notes and the way to play them. So first of all do that. There are some other suggestions: in a prevailingly brilliant piece, make use of every opportunity for delicacy. In delicate music, take a more positive forte when you have a chance. 

You must have mastery of means, acquiring tonal and harmonic imagination. If a strange chord comes in a composition, don't go by it unnoticed. Be aware of modulations and of the note that establishes the new key. One way of showing it is by leaning on it or with a little hesitation or accent. You must try to make the listener aware of everything that is on the score. Feel that everything is important! 

One of the most important factors is to work with 100 percent concentration. If you feel your mind is wandering, get up, go around the block, or lie flat on the floor for a few minutes. It is a wonderful means of relaxation. 

In my teaching, I am not so interested in coaching certain pieces; rather I try to give the students basic principles and facts so that they could tackle a new composition intelligently by themselves and in turn give some principles to someone else, or even go further and teach. 

In our approach to work, we must have the recognition and interpretation of everything in the score and enough instinctive capacity for emotion and general culture. It is a big job.

Technical approach
Technique (1947)
Seating and hand position (1972)

Program from a Lhévinne master class, 1953.

In our time, we take for granted that a pianist will have a perfect technique, but we are judging him by higher standards than that which prevailed not so long ago. We expect him to use his technique only as the means of expressing the spirit of the composition performed. 

It behooves us to consider how we may achieve this. Concerning technique, there are numerous schools of thought. All have indisputable elements, a fact amply demonstrated by the success of the many pianists using the several approaches. 

I wish to speak first about the posture at the piano and the position of the hands. In this matter, as in everything else, the simplest and most natural approach is the best. If you stand erect with the arms hanging relaxed, the hands will assume the ideal position in piano playing. You simply transfer this position to the keyboard. There are two factors to be considered. 

1. Always feel the bottom of the keys, and do not play on the surface. You achieve this by having the first joint firm. 

2. Relaxation of the arms and elbow give a floating feeling.

The taller you are, the lower you must sit, keeping in mind that the weight must flow from the shoulder directly to the fingertip. In general, for music of the Romantic School, we use a flatter finger, playing on the fleshy cushion of the finger. Keeping the wrist loose, one should have the feeling of pulling with the fingertip rather than pushing.

Now to Mozart: You must think of the period exemplified to the extent in the architecture and the costumes of the time, a strong sense of design full of ornateness and orderliness. Here, it is advisable to play with a more curved finger and more on the fingertip, listening for more detachment of the tones in passagework. And, how much we can learn of his music from his delightful operas.

When learning a piece of music, it is advisable to read the books on the life and times of the composer—not only about the music of the period—but also about architecture, painting, and, of course, general history.


Rosina Lhévinne teaching Janet Guggenheim, with Salome Arkatov observing.

Jeaneane Dowis Lipman gave the background of one of Mrs. Lhévinne's most famous aphorisms. In an interview, Lhévinne was asked how she spent the day of a concert: "after a little practice and a light lunch I go to my room to rest and finger my passages." 

"What she meant was that she would lie in the dark and think through fingering (with the numbers) of difficult technical passages while moving the correct fingers in tandem with the thought...Once I was going to play the Chopin Sonata in B minor the very next day, and she made me change the fingering in the famously difficult double-fourth passage. I pleaded that I couldn't change it so quickly. 'Of course you can,' she said in a tone that brooked no interference. 'We will take a walk.' She made me say the fingering out loud non-stop...until I could spit it out like a machine gun. 'We will go back now,' she said, and upon returning to the house she sent me straight to the piano to play the passage and out it flowed like a waterfall."6

Editor's note: Additional excerpts from Mme. Lhévinne's lectures will be published in the next (Jan/Feb 2016) issue of Clavier Companion.


1 Rosewell, Paul T. (2001). Beth Miller Harrod. Media Productions and Marketing, Lincoln, NE. p.81.

2 Unless otherwise cited, all quotes from Salome Arkatov are drawn from conversations with the author on July 27, 2015.

3 Anglin, Garrett. (2013, April 23) "Documentary Plays Tribute to Rosina Lhévinne". Daily Bruin.évinne/

4 Lipman, Jeaneane Dowis (1996). "Rosina: A Memoir," The American Scholar, Summer, 1996, pp.359-378.

5 Special thanks to Salome Ramras Arkatov for providing the texts and her notes from Mrs. Lhévinne's Los Angeles classes. Content is drawn from these sources unless otherwise noted.

6 Lipman, Jeaneane Dowis, op.cit., p. 368. 

Salome Ramras Arkatov received a B.S. in Piano Performance from Juilliard, where her piano teachers were Arthur Newstead and Rosina Lhévinne. Moving to California, Salome began performing as well as pursuing her interests in the visual arts. She was awarded a full scholarship at the Claremont Graduate School, where she received an M.A. in Aesthetics. Salome became a member of the piano faculty of the Los Angeles Conservatory in 1947, and she joined the faculty at UCLA in 1976, where she taught until her retirement in 1993. She continued to study and live with Mrs. Lhévinne during the summers when Mrs. Lhévinne came to California to teach. 

At the time of her death in 1976, Rosina Lhévinne left Salome historical material dating back to the nineteenth century, including photographs, memorabilia, recordings, and the notes from Mrs. Lhévinne's classes in Los Angeles. In 1980, receiving a Mellon grant, Salome created and developed with radio station KUSC (NPR) a highly acclaimed four-hour radio series in celebration of the centennial of Rosina Lhévinne's birth, based partly on this material. In 1988, the Office of Instructional Development at UCLA awarded Salome a major grant towards the production of a video documentary on the life and teaching of Rosina Lhévinne. 

Her first film was completed in 2003 and titled The Legacy of Rosina Lhévinne. It is an intimate and revealing portrait that celebrates the life and achievement of the legendary teacher. The film won many first prizes at film festivals throughout the country and was broadcast on PBS. 

Her second film, titled Memories of John Browning: The Lhévinne Legacy Continues, was completed in 2007 and celebrates John Browning, who was a former student of Rosina Lhévinne and a close friend of Salome Arkatov. The film illustrates the transference of Rosina Lhévinne's nineteenth-century Russian pianistic traditions into the twentieth century.

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