Thursday, July 24, 2008

Grateful memories of my teacher

Two days ago my teacher, Patricia Zander, left this world, and no doubt is brightening her new environs with her wit, charm, and insight. Yesterday I wanted to write a bit but didn't know where to begin. This evening I started to have some idea of what I might say about such a remarkable person to whom I am so very grateful.

This was actually thanks to a masterclass I attended given by one of her recently graduated students, Tae Kim (aka Steve Kim). I know he won't be insulted when I say he doesn't quite have her way with words yet - no one seemed to be able to find just the right way to explain a difficult but essential musical concept like she did. Whether consciously or not, Tae did many things that reminded me of her, and I'm sure that I do the same when I teach. (However, I studied with her from 1990-1996, and so things would be fresher on his mind than on mine). He wandered around the stage, singing, exclaiming, grunting, clapping, dancing, inspiring as much with his passion and energy as with his ideas.

PZ, as most everyone called her (but not me, for some reason - somehow I always called her by her first name ... in any case, she liked nothing less than being called "Mrs. Zander" or "Prof. Zander"), was tireless. She was relentless - she never let things slide, but always expected and insisted on the best, at every moment. I realize now how much *confidence* that gave me - I felt as though following her guidance would lead me not just to the top of a hill, musically speaking, but to the heights of Parnassus. When I left a lesson (typically after 2.5-3 hours of non-stop work) I always felt that I knew exactly what I needed to do in order to play a given piece well.

Yet she was the opposite of an autocrat. She asked lots of questions, using the Socratic method to lead me to find answers. Rarely did she completely discard one of my musical ideas, but instead was always working to help me be the best version of myself. She seemed to take this approach with all her students, which meant that she didn't like to take students who were dutiful and respectful but lacking in opinions, and it also meant that each of her students ended up playing quite differently from each other.

I think she ended up focusing on different things with different students, which is a sign of a really great teacher - she didn't do as many lesser teachers do, assigning the same limited number of pieces to students and simply going over the same set ideas. She encouraged everyone to play a unique repertoire, and with me she ended up talking a lot about sound, imagination for character and color, and developing a sense of architecture, the ability to see a piece in its entirety and play with a sense of unfolding drama and story-telling. We didn't talk a lot about piano technique, perhaps because I had the benefit of good technical training before coming to her. There may have been another reason for this: she always said the most important part of the body used in playing the piano are the *ears*, not the hands. As we develop our inner ear, the imagination for specific sounds and ideas, and our outer ear, the one that assesses whether we are actually creating those sounds, we will find, through experimentation, the way to make those sounds with our hands, arms, etc.

Her energy was all the more remarkable because she herself was rarely if ever in perfect physical condition. Her diagnosis with cancer was made about 6 years ago, but before that she had terrible back problems, and had some surgery to try to correct them. (It seems that some of the nerves in her spine were perhaps pinched because her spine was too small or narrow - this probably led to the arm problems that curtailed her career as a performer). She confided in me at one point that she was for years unable to sleep well (sometimes sleeping only 2 hours in a night) because of the discomfort she had in her back. I don't think any of her other students knew this, because she didn't like to "burden" others with her problems. But where other people would no doubt complain or at least take the occassional lesson off, she taught every lesson like a tornado unleashed.

It is surprising to me that she was not better known. Everyone who knew her knew that she had more musical insight than anyone else, but she seemed to dislike the idea of being a "star" teacher. My wife asked her several times - begged, really - to come to the Killington Music Festival and give a master class. She refused quite vehemently, on the grounds that, in her opinion, a master class often ends up being about the teacher more than about the student(s). She was incredibly influential and important "behind the scenes" at the New England Conservatory and in Boston more generally, but she not only didn't seek attention, she seemed to have a distaste for glory.

Her specific musical insights are too numerous to mention here. Perhaps I will share some of them later.

One thing more I'd like to mention: she understood that being a successful pianist meant more than just sitting in a practice room with a copy of the Chopin Etudes. For one thing, you needed to be a person first, and a musician second. She looked after all her students, including me, as people, with our frailties and insecurities, our hopes, dreams, and bouts of despair. She even looked after our stomachs, and was a wonderful cook. For a time I did not have my own piano and she gave me the key to her house so that I could practice there (only when she was *not* there, however - she definitely needed her personal space!). So on days of the week when she was at NEC, I would show up to practice and usually find some cookies on the piano waiting for me.

She had a fantastic music room in her house, with a Steinway C (no longer being made - as the name suggests, it is in between a B and D in size) and loads of scores and books about music. I loved her library, the room next to the music room, with floor to ceiling books about art, literature, philosophy. Her home was a place that made you want to be your best, musically, intellectually. emotionally, and gastronomically. Oh, and you should have seen the garden in the back! And Mr. Bill, the cat who died a few years ago. And the special closet Patricia had just for her shoes. And the fantastic laugh you heard coming around the corner at NEC.

I hope that I can play my part in keeping her spirit alive here on Earth.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Patricia Zander (1942-2008)

Yesterday morning my dear teacher, Patricia Zander, died after several years of fighting cancer. I'm going to have to find a good chunk of time to summarize and share my thoughts and feelings on this blog, but for the moment I'm going to link to some articles and just briefly mention that I am so grateful that I was able to gain from having her in my life. She was an incredible person, musician, and teacher, and the world won't be quite the same without her. I owe her a giant percentage of what I am able to do as a musician.

More on this later. Here is the link to her obituary in the Boston Globe:

And here is a press release from New England Conservatory, where she taught for over 30 years:

Monday, July 7, 2008

Bach and lunatics

It's hard to know exactly why, but it seems that the music of Bach lends itself well to crazy performers. I have always loved Bach but I have definitely found myself bored by many a tasteful performance of his music. But today I stumbled upon two videos on youtube (what a great source of surprises that can be) that were riveting and strange. I'll post them both here. It makes me wonder if the "irrational" is something that a really great performance of Bach needs. Remember that the Classical movement in music (which corresponds basically to the neo-Classic movement in the visual arts) was in part a reaction to the complexity and opacity of the Baroque music that preceded it. Both of these videos had me glued to the screen - I don't think I'd play either piece like this, but then again maybe I should.

First Pogorelich playing the Sarabande from the Gm English Suite:

... and Glenn Gould playing the B-flat minor Fugue of the Well-Tempered Clavier Book 2: