Saturday, September 11, 2010

Bruce Sutherland

I found out today that my teacher, Bruce Sutherland, with whom I studied from age 7 until 16 or so, passed away a few days ago. He was a wonderful teacher, a loving and patient man, who inspired so many students with his love of music and his tireless pursuit of the highest artistic heights. There was nothing false or insincere about him, and any student of his learned to be, as he was, always at the service of the music.

I know he had success teaching students at various different levels of ability and a different ages. I studied with him at a crucial point in my development. Previously, I had studied with a great teacher who specialized (and continues to specialize) in teaching young children. Ann Pittel (to whom I also owe a great deal!) made music fun, and lessons often included running around the room, singing, dancing, etc. - all appropriate and necessary for a five year old, no matter how interested in or talented at the piano.

When it came time to move on, she had suggested a few possible teachers, and I knew right away that Bruce was the right teacher for me. But I was in for a bit of a shock: he was a real disciplinarian, and would not accept, even from a 7-year-old boy, a messy performance of, say, a Bach Invention or Sinfonia. To this post I am going to attach a youtube video of an interview I did about a year ago where I told a story about my lesson where we spent the whole hour on 3-4 measures. I won't repeat the whole story here in writing, but I can say that such a demanding teacher was not something I had expected!

More than any other single teacher, Bruce gave me my piano technique. (Although for some reason he spelled it "technic.") He taught me how to practice in a systematic way (introducing me to such instruments of torture as the metronome - which really has turned out to be a friend in my years of practicing) and while he was always generous with encouragement, he was never satisfied with any performance, in a lesson, in a studio recital, a competition, or anywhere, that included wrong notes.

He also helped us to listen to ourselves. I never liked doing it, but he included solfege as part of many lessons, as a way of training our ear and our reading ability. He introduced me to the playing of the great pianists both by playing their recordings for me (he had an enormous library of LP's and later of CD's) and by taking me to concerts with him. In that way he helped me not to compare myself to other piano students, but to try to live up to the playing of the great pianists of the world. When learning a Chopin piece, he had me study very carefully the recordings of Rubinstein, even having try once to "play along" with a recording. He said, "now you just had a lesson with Rubinstein!".

That illustrates to me an important part of Bruce as a teacher: he was humble, and was always continuing to learn. He would pass along his new discoveries or ideas to us, or share a new recording he had just heard. Not only did this make him a more and more interesting teacher, but it taught his students that we too must always be growing and learning.

As a teacher myself, I find that I borrow (OK, steal) from the things he would say to me. And it works! I was indeed fortunate to have him as a teacher, but also as a friend. He went above and beyond what my mother paid him for, which was weekly lessons, usually Friday night at 7:30pm. I spent many an afternoon after school at his house practicing (he had many pianos, and they were better than mine) and he would not infrequently drop in to correct a wrong note or suggest a fingering or musical idea. He came to every performance or audition of mine he possibly could, both while I was student and for the many years since, to show his support and to be able to offer useful advice. My mother didn't have any family in LA when I was growing up, and so he and his sister Mitzi would have us over on Christmas every year. They were like parts of my family. (Now mind you, Bruce and Mitzi are vegetarians, so that Christmas dinner wasn't quite traditional - but I loved to share the time with them!).

Anyone can tell you that Bruce would have given you the shirt off his back, and I am so grateful not only for what he gave me, but for the example he set.

A few years ago, he decided that he wanted, after dying, to leave his money and assets to a non-profit foundation he started, AMRON. This foundation will be administered through the Colburn School for the Performing Arts, and will allow Bruce to continue to help young, deserving musicians with important performance and study opportunities.

Here is that interview I did, on the subject of Bruce Sutherland: