Pianists in the Lion's Den
By Paul Schenly
Published in Piano & Keyboard, Sep/Oct 1997
"It is wiser to follow one's day-dream to its natural conclusion. Its airiest fragments, as impalpable as they may be, will possess a value that lurks not in the most ponderous realities of any practical scheme." —Nathaniel Hawthorne
There was once a pianist who was desperate for a job. He couldn't find one anywhere so, in his desperation, he went to the circus. The owner told him he didn't have a job for a pianist, but pointed to a bear costume in the corner of the room and said, "If you get in the bear costume and learn how to walk the tightrope, we could pay you $100 a month." The pianist needed the job, so he learned to walk the tightrope in costume.
The day of his debut finally arrived. The ringmaster told him, "Look, I've seen you practice, and you're good. But whatever you do, don't look down, because there is no net beneath you, and the lions are in the center of the ring." The pianist walked on the tightrope and was feeling confident. But halfway across, he couldn't resist looking down. Suddenly he felt dizzy and fell off. He landed in the center of the ring, and the lions roared and started to claw him. The man shriveled up in his costume and thought, "God! This is the end." Just then the lion closest to him looked down, lifted up his mask and said, "Don't worry. We're all pianists, too."
The story continues ... in more down-to-earth terms.
Parent to teacher: Where does it lead? What is he going to do when he graduates? Will he get a job? What are all these pianists going to do? The question, "What is he going to do when he graduates?" expresses a parent's love, hope, and anxiety for the child's welfare. Nobody wants to see their child out in the cold. Many people think that since there are so few opportunities for solo careers, curricula should be tailored for more realistic musical careers such as those of teacher and orchestral musician.
Experience shows, nevertheless, that the most demanding education creates the most possibilities. The main reason to go to a conservatory is to gain knowledge. Perhaps the most important part of that knowledge is to acquire an awareness of what is best for the person, and what that person does best. This personal quest takes time. It may be that only near the end of the quest does the person realize what is best vocation-wise.
I believe that in the early years of study the student needs to be allowed to be idealistic. We become musicians because it captures our imaginations and presents us with an ideal way of expressing ourselves. We seek beauty, believe in it, and want to serve it with all our being. Teachers and administrators must remember to keep the incubator warm for genius, because if the considerations are only practical, nothing advances.
Aaron Copland said it eloquently. "Living for music means hitching one's wagon to an ideal - an ideal of tradition, of achievement, of greatness [...]. Certainly all historical perspective confirms the truth that man would not have attained the possible unless time and time again he had reached out for the impossible."
Telling the student what to do early in his or her career can be limiting. The career decision has to be the student's. And the student can only make an informed decision after years of study. By then, the student will know if he is injuring himself by straining for something outside his natural bent and ability.
In light of these views, you may well ask what is the aim of my teaching? The teaching itself can have no definite aim. I believe, simply, that teaching can show the best way for the student to attain whatever aims he himself has. It is a privilege both to teach and study music because it opens up a world of beauty. The labor of the pursuit rewards itself. The more you know, the more life there is to enjoy. The end of a melody is not its goal; the journey is actually the goal. In the same way, we work not only to produce, but to give value to time. An important goal of my teaching is to provide this kind of compass.
It is fashionable to remark that finding employment in music is difficult. I disagree. No profession comes with a guarantee. The world changes rapidly, and fields and opportunities also change. But music itself has proved enduring.
You can shake a tree in New York's Central Park, and four pianists will tumble out able to play the Prokofiev Third. But not everyone needs to live in New York! There are very limited opportunities for international solo careers (not for the faint-hearted), but other doors are open: teacher, conductor, collaborative pianist, scholar, theorist, arranger... You don't even have to stick with classical music.
There is a talent for living as well as a talent for playing an instrument. Making your own connection between life and art, relating your art and sharing your love of music through whatever doors open - these are the abilities to acquire in the school of life. In this sense, the opportunities are endless.
In the midst of these opportunities, however, there are challenges. The arts are threatened more now than they have been in the recent past. Schools are dropping arts education and, as a result, young people are not exposed to classical music.
Teaching and sharing classical music has never been more important or relevant. We have a chance to educate, and to bring with this education the beauty and satisfaction that the arts have to offer. By doing so, society may improve itself - and we will have played a role in the process:
"What is he going to do?" Why, of course, he's going to play the piano!
A Piano in the Kitchen
Written by Paul Schenly
"Goodbye to the teenage experience." As you read this in 2008, our summer festival has indeed left its adolescence behind. The beginning of this season - Pianofest's 20th - is therefore a milestone for us. I've always been troubled by the cliche "the more things change, the more they stay the same,"€ and its suggestion that stasis or unending, predictable cycles are the way of the world. I've never been able to buy this. For one thing, I look in the mirror and emphatically say to myself that this isn't the same person who founded Pianofest 20 years ago. More generally, we can all see how the Hamptons have changed in the last twenty years. If you were stuck in traffic on the way here you know that, and it is also pretty clear that we are not living in the same world of 20 years ago, the pre 9/11 world. We are all moving down a river of time.
Nevertheless, I am hoping that, for the moment, you will indulge me while I look upstream for a little while, back into the mists of time that shroud the origins of Pianofest - a simpler, more innocent time...
In the summer of 1988 I rented a small cottage in Three Mile Harbor, Long Island. Winter and Spring had been particularly busy for a long time. I had working hard without a break and needed time to get away, think, and most of all relax. I had to be near NY, and a friend recommended the Hamptons as an unusually beautiful area, close to NY, but a good place to read and rest, to be outdoors and to fish.
I felt at home right away and at peace in my East Hampton cottage. The sunsets and the rest of nature were indeed spectacular, and I knew this was a place that I would always want to come back to.
Even here, however, I found music's pull to be as irresistible as nature's, and thus gravitated to a concert by the Bridghampton Chamber Players, a group founded by Andre Michel Shub, Anni Kavafian and other artists I knew personally. While I was chatting with them afterwards, a ruddy-faced, cheerful-looking gentleman, who introduced himself as Bill Plate, approached us. He asked me if I was a musician too, and expressed his wish that there would be more classical music available in the Hamptons. This struck a resonant chord, because among the many thoughts I had while looking out over my little harbor was that there was surprisingly little classical music offered in this area. (The area is noted for its visual arts, good jazz, and in addition, has a terrific classical radio station, but few live classical performances.)
Talking with friends from the Hamptons reinforced an idea that had been germinating in me for sometime of bringing more classical music to the Hamptons, possibly in the form of a summer institute for the study and performance of piano repertoire. Bill promised to round up every possible means of support during the coming fall and winter, while I went back to my teaching duties at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Several months later I decided to begin investigating some of the more pragmatic aspects of starting a music festival - the endless perusal of real estate lists that necessarily precedes the Liszt and the listening. I needed a spacious home with a large living room to fill it with pianos and create a suitable environment for intense teaching and an appropriate showcase for performance.
Soon I found a perfect home - a house with several bedrooms, and a huge living room that could seat almost a hundred people. (It was a converted riding stable.) I sent my deposit to the realtor. A short time later the angry prospective landlord called me and said "No way are you putting eight pianos inside my house. As a converted stable, the floor is on stilts and the pianos would crash through!" Fortissimo!
Eventually I did find a home for "Pianofest," as I now called my venture, a short walk one way to East Hampton Village, and the Atlantic Ocean. Because there weren't enough pianos available in the Hamptons, I brought in eight Steinway grand pianos from the Cleveland Institute of Music. (During our second summer, Steinway graciously provided us with the pianos.) I felt nervous, but tried not to show it as I asked the movers to muscle two of the instruments upstairs, to the bedrooms. I fervently hoped they wouldn't end up in the living room below. One each went into the ground floor billiard room and foyer; two more of them fit, side by side, in the parlor. The last one had to go in the kitchen - where it competed for prominence with the formidable, restaurant sized Garland cook stove. One went to LIU, in nearby Southampton.
Soon the students I had auditioned would arrive too. I had made arrangements with Southampton College of LIU to house them, and use their auditorium for master classes and performances. Almost before the summer had begun a core group of volunteers had gathered and spread the word via posters, announcements, and word-of-mouth publicity. I walked up to the local television station, LTV, and asked them to televise the master classes. They agreed.
The groundwork duly laid, "Pianofest" was ready for its debut. From the beginning, I kept a journal of our daily activities. Here are some brief excerpts from the first two summers:
June 8 - Awadagin (a student, as are most of the names which follow) arrives by train, but gets off in the wrong city. Later that evening Awadagin starts practicing upstairs, and all of us think the roof is caving in. He is practicing Beethoven Op 110, singing, and stomping the pedals and floor in the syncopated second movement trio. (We wonder whether we can tie his foot to the piano leg.)
Tim and I go see a mindless summer movie.
June 10 - A long and late rehearsal for tomorrow's class.
June 11 - I wake up early, tense about the first class. My stomach bothers me all day (and is quite vociferous about it). Everyone seems to be sleeping and it gets later and later... Tim is the first up at about 10. Yet it is 11:30, and no one's practicing! I wake up Jun and her Teddy bear; Jun gives me the evil eye. I try to take a nap at noon, but can't sleep because no one is practicing. In a normal world music might disturb slumber, but I can't sleep unless people are practicing. Giving it up, I go downstairs at 12:30 - Tim and Awadagin are playing chess, and Hsin-Bei and others are chatting in the kitchen. I feel like throwing the chess set out the window and finally tell everyone we have a performance that very afternoon, and they had better practice NOW! At 1:45 we leave for the auditorium. The television crew is friendly, and all of us are relaxed. Ergo, THE CLASS IS A SUCCESS! Barbara (Goldowsky), a volunteer, does a magnificent job at organizing the reception, printing the programs, taking the tickets, etc.
June 18 - Ed Bak plays Norman Della Joio's third sonata. Dello Joio is in the audience, and make an eloquent and most complimetary speech about the performance. ("He plays it like real music, not modern music.") I find a message on our answering machine: "Pianerfest? Whaat's thaat?"
Students read through piano quartets with Norman Pickering (violist and board member) and visiting friends. I notice that whenever a string player gets lost, they stop and accuse the pianist. Afterwards we celebrate Norman's birthday and Sergei (Babayan) plays the samba.
June 29 - Yefim Bronfman gave a hugely successful benefit concert for Pianofest at the Shinnecock Country Club, as well as lessons and a master class. The week he was with us he inspired us all with his music making. Trip to NY. Can't get through to Fima (Bronfman). He was recording, and his answering machine is on the fritz. So I go to his NY apartment, and bang on the door till he awakens, and we return to the Hamptons together. Everyone there seems to have acquired a tan while I was gone. Apparently they had also stayed up all night talking - all are in a daze from want of sleep. Fima listens to various renditions of Chopin etudes and gives fabulous lessons, showing how to practice them. Above all he approaches them not as technique, but as beautiful music.
July 1 - Fima and Sergei accompany each other in several Mozart concertos past midnight; hearing them so intimately was a privilege (and in certain ways even more magical than hearing them in a formal concert with orchestra). We were starved afterwards, and Natasha, a friend, made us a delicious dinner of cold cuts. Fima, a "pro-fresser" goes for seconds and thirds.
July 14 - Clara suspects that she has an ear infection. She has not slept well; a mouse has been sharing her room and her food.
July 15 - Three mice caught! Hopefully one was Clara's. The students hold a missa for the mousies later in the day.
July 24 - A visitor wanders into the house. "Hi there," he says, "can I have a tour? Do you study only the hard core?" "What do you mean?" "You know, Mozart and Chopin. I go for Rodgers and Hammerstein myself."
July 27 - I go fishing off Montauk Point and catch a 250 lb shark. My first! I tell the captain it is a vacationing, influential music critic - so we have to let it go.
July 17 - Had lunch with Joe and Ann Slater and sat next to Paul Volker. I didn't hear the name till later... We shared conversations and he asked me how much pianists make per concert (in context of what speakers get at conventions - $50,000 per speech). I told him. He couldn't believe how little. I said being a musician is a philosophy of life and that the arts had always been patronized - even Beethoven gave private lessons to amateurs, etc. Volker apologized: "I'm sorry, investment bankers are used to judging things in dollars, and it's obviously wrong."
July 30 - Someone from audience comes up to Mary after she plays Chopin E minor concerto for me: "Now don't you listen to a thing that man said about anything," (referring to me!).
July 18 - I wake discombobulated not knowing where I am. I hear Scriabin below, Mozart on the right, Brahms on the left, and Petroushka in the kitchen. Takes a minute before I realize where I am. Students practicing on all sides.
July 20 - Students clustered about the TV. Suddenly recognize themselves on the screen. Fascinated, everyone laughs self-consciously. A few are horrified, especially at their appearance, hair, clothes. They joke about their own interviews and performances.
It is my intention to create an atmosphere in which students cooperate and support each other rather than compete. Most of the day is given to practicing with occasional times out for trips to the beach. Students attend each others' daily lessons. They accompany each other, explore four hand repertoire, and share musical and extra-musical experiences. We prepare for public master classes every Monday in East Hampton or Southampton, as well as at private homes.
The support of the audience and volunteers - and their love of music - move us. We hope we can bring something to them as well. During PF's first two seasons, many rewarding personal relationships were formed. Our first two seasons have shown that our goal of having the audience form a personal bond with the resident student performers provides an important motivating force in building a growing audience, sustaining continuity, and inspiring the performers.
Perhaps the mechanic at the car dealer across the street from the house said it best: "Diary, Aug 3 - Tim McKee picks up his van from Buzz Chew Chevy, and the mechanic says, "Hey what's over there, a bunch of surfers?" "No, pianists, actually." "Hey, cool." Tim - "Yes, we have eight pianos." "Really! Everyone can play the same song at the same time - you'll have all of East Hampton rockin'.".