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:


ckoh71 said...

Max, I'm sorry to hear of Bruce's passing. First, Patricia - now Bruce - sigh, I guess it's a sad indication of our advancing age that we're gradually losing more and more teachers/friends/loved ones as the years go by. It was a nice tribute to him, and I'm sure he's agree that you've done him proud as an adult. Glad to see the blog updated too. I noticed I even missed another post and am behind reading.

mrfoo said...
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Stan said...

Max, I just got a chance to read this (and watch the interview). I was very moved. As I told you, I loved Bruce, more and more as we (all) got older. When you told me about his passing, I was kind of shocked. It didn't occur to me that he could actually pass away, especially given his mysterious age! Thanks for sharing this.

Laurel Kenner said...

I studied with Bruce from 1963-69. He was my first piano teacher, and often taught me for free when my family was short. He was always gentle, but always shot for perfection. The discipline I learned in his studio was perhaps the most valuable thing I learned in early life, and it formed a foundation for later work. I had been thinking of him every day for the past month, and just turned up your post, Max, when I googled Bruce to try to find his email. What a bright spirit. Laurel Kenner

Payman Akhlaghi ----- ( پیمان اخلاقی ) said...

Dear Max,

I just came across your post -- and I'm still in shock at the news of Mr. Sutherland's passing. I had written a brief note on him back in July 2010, in my own blog. I had not been in touch with him for many years, but he stayed with me each time I sat at the piano, or whenever I was teaching. I never expected him to go so soon. And I blame myself for not having gone to visit him all these years.

Thanks for writing this touching eulogy.

Best of wishes,
Payman Akhlaghi

Ryan said...

Hey Max, this is Ryan. I was also one of Bruce's students. Has there been a service already? Sadly enough, I did not hear about what happened until yesterday. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Hello Max, I just saw your post and am saddened to see that Bruce has passed away. It was such a privilege to have known him during my youth when I studied with him. It is amazing how many people seem to have the same recollection of him as such a soft-spoken, gentle human being who loved music and was so dedicated to his many students including of course you Max. Warm regards to you (and Anders and Costy if you are out there anywhere...) - Todd Katz (

Steven Fagel Wright said...

I was lucky to have studied with Bruce from 1968 to 1971. I will NEVER forget this gentle, patient, kind man. He really stressed technique with me which helps me in all that I do. The sight singing was both scary and wonderful at the same time. I was always afraid of the dreaded flash cards because I was such a poor reader:) Bruce leaves a rich loving legacy. God bless you Bruce!

Mrs.Ebersole said...

Dear Max,

Thank you for sharing your eulogy. I, too, was his student in my earlier years and was very impacted by him. I also remember Bruce introducing me to you for a possible future at Boston Conservatory (I believe this was back in 2001 or so). I just spoke with Mitzy today and found out about his passing. Words cannot express the amazing work and the life he has exampled for his students. I feel very fortunate and blessed to be a witness of his life as a musician and a teacher. Thank you again for sharing your memories with him.

Sincerely, Christina Park

David Frank said...

Bruce Sutherland was all the things you said. I cannot believe he is gone.He was my teacher from 1998-2003 and then became my son Griffith Frank's teacher.
I will never forget the day (after years of lessons) that he told me how much I had improved and how happy that made him. I realized I was exhausted from trying to achieve his saying those words! I was 52 at the time and juggling piano practice with a full career in Pop R+B music songwriting and production.
Bruce always pointed out that all musical styles demand the same level of perfection. He was an amazing man who embodied a philosophy of discipline,practice and perfection of one's art. When it became evident that Griffith's bigger talent was as a singer he and Mitzi came to all of his recitals and concerts. He arranged performance opportunities and so much more. What a wonderful person. There will never be another like him. I am so grateful to have known Bruce Sutherland.
I will always be trying to live up to his standards and I will see his smile in minds eye when I succeed. Thank you Bruce!

janb said...

Laurel Kenner, a student of Bruce's, introduced me to him when I was 15, and I studied with him for 2 years in his Santa Monica studio. "Study" only begins to define what he provided - I will never forget his demanding, laughing, articulate drive for the clear, delicate yet commanding note. Thank you Bruce (and you too Laurel!)

Baron Mucki said...


Is mitzi still living?

Lisa Klein