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Menahem Pressler: Artistry in Piano Teaching

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As soloist, master class teacher, and pianist of the world-renowned Beaux Arts Trio, Menahem Pressler can boast of four Grammy nominations, three honorary doctorates, more than 80 recordings, and lifetime achievement awards presented by France, Germany, and Israel. Former Pressler student William Brown traces the master's pianistic development through Rudiakov, Kestenberg, Vengerova, Casadesus, Petri, and Steuermann, blending techniques and traditions derived from Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, and J. S. Bach.

Brown presents Pressler's approach to performance and teaching, including technical exercises, principles of relaxation and total body involvement, and images to guide the pianist's creativity toward expressive interpretation. Insights from the author's own lessons, interviews with Pressler, and recollections of more than 100 Pressler students from the past 50 years are gathered in this text. Measure-by-measure lessons on 23 piano masterworks by, among others, Bach, Bartók, Debussy, and Ravel as well as transcriptions of Pressler's fingerings, hand redistributions, practicing guidelines, musical scores, and master class performances are included.

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One: A Brief Biography

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Menahem Pressler was born on December 16, 1923, in Magdeburg, Germany. In 1939 he and his family fled to Palestine as the Nazi regime made life increasingly difficult for Jews in Europe. Pressler, who had begun playing the piano at age six, continued his musical studies during these years of turmoil. In 1946, while still a student, he flew to San Francisco where he won first prize at the First International Debussy Competition. Soon after, he began his solo career, which included an unprecedented four-year contract as soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Eugene Ormandy.

While continuing his successful career as a soloist in recital and with orchestras, Pressler co-founded the Beaux Arts Trio, which today is considered the world’s foremost piano trio, regularly appearing in major international music centers and festivals. Since its debut concert on July 13, 1955, the Trio has performed throughout North America, Europe, Japan, South America, and the Middle East, as well as at the Olympics in South Korea and Australia. Annual concert appearances include series at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Celebrity Series of Boston, and the Library of Congress. The Trio has recorded fifty albums, including almost the entire chamber literature with piano on the Philips label, and has been awarded numerous honors, including England’s Record of the Year Award, four Grammy nominations, Musical America’s Ensemble of the Year, the Toscanini Award, the German Recording Award, the Prix Mondial du Disque, three Grand Prix du Disques, the Union de la Presse Musicale Belge Award, and Record of the Year awards from both Gramophone and Stereo Review. On July 14, 2005, the Trio celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with a performance at the Tanglewood Festival.

 

Two: The Studio

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On many days Menahem Pressler can be found in his piano studio, Room 105, in the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. His daily schedule is to practice from 8:00 AM until lunch at noon and then to teach from 1:30 until 5:00 PM. Late afternoons are frequently spent in recital hearings for the school’s hundreds of piano students. Evenings often include attendance at some of the school’s more than 1,100 annual recitals, many of which are presented by Pressler’s own students. Some evenings Pressler goes to bed at 10:00 PM and then gets up at 1:30 or 2:00 AM to practice for another hour or two. His health, eyesight, and level of energy surpass people many years his junior. His work ethic is extraordinary in that he has never cancelled a concert or a lesson.

For more than fifty years, since 1955, Pressler has maintained a full class of fifteen to thirty students. This would be remarkable in itself even without the twenty-four weeks of the year that he is on tour, presenting more than 120 concerts with the famed Beaux Arts Trio or performing solo piano recitals. His former students are now faculty members of conservatories and music schools around the world, and the influence of his performance and teaching has shaped the way many people perform and listen to music, especially in the realm of chamber music.

 

Three: Pressler’s Early Training

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Times were uncertain in Germany in the early 1920s when Menahem Pressler was born to Moritz and Judith Pressler, owners of a clothing store in Magdeburg, ninety miles southwest of Berlin. But as Pressler recalls, he and his younger siblings, Leo and Selma, had a happy life at home as children.

“What I remember really is, the strongest part of the memory, was that there was always love. Yes, sometimes my father was very, how shall I say, rough. He would say, ‘That has to be done,’ or something like that. None of us children ever was rebellious or would think even in those terms, not to do what he had asked, and mother was as sweet and as kind as could be. And there was and is to this day very fine relations among the three of us.”

The family worked hard and was, as Pressler says, “very, very religious.” “We went to pray. We kept the Jewish holidays, which I, of course, became much less to keep them as I was traveling and playing. But I remember them, and I remember the prayers. And when I can, I like to go and pray. Yes, we were very, very much religious.

 

Four: The Debussy Competition

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While preparing for the Debussy competition, Pressler met a musician who became a great influence in his life, Paul Loyonnet, a touring French concert pianist who had studied with Charles-Marie Widor and Isidor Philipp at the Paris Conservatory. Noted by Charles Timbrell to be “an important link to the traditions of the nineteenth century,” Loyonnet was performing a concerto with the Palestine Symphony Orchestra and needed someone to play the orchestral part on a second piano.

Pressler began rehearsing with Loyonnet, which proved to be valuable to Pressler in two ways. The first was that Loyonnet was the first person ever to speak to him about technique. “That’s what I learned with Loyonnet: to keep the fingers strong and have the arm relaxed and free.” Loyonnet practiced the high-finger playing of the French School, which often caused tendonitis, but, according to Pressler, “he had a way of freeing his hand by keeping his arm loose, which is the best prescription to avoid tendonitis.”

 

Five: Opportunities in America

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Following the Debussy competition in 1946 but before playing the debut concert, Pressler began studying with Madame Isabelle Vengerova, a formidable teacher who was born in Russia and had studied in Vienna with Joseph Dachs, Theodor Leschetizky, and Anna Essipova.

“I was in New York, and I played the Chopin F Minor Concerto at the Metropolitan Opera House as a benefit concert for Hebrew University,” says Pressler. “I was brought to her. She was at this time a teacher at both Juilliard and at Curtis in Philadelphia. She had Bernstein as a student and many others, Graffman, Lateiner, Rezits, Foster.

Fig. 5.1. Isabelle Vengerova. Courtesy of The Curtis Institute of Music.

“I had lessons with her for six months to a year at her apartment in New York. What she showed me, just in that short time—even if I couldn’t do it at that time—revolutionized my thinking, because it was, for me, the discovery of the wrist. It is always something that goes with the key, that plays into the key, like you have a shock absorber on a car, providing cushioning. She, being a student of Leschetizky, taught me her exercises. I saw that and used it and organized it so that it would help me. Everyone who studied with Vengerova came out differently, understanding it differently, and then found his way through her opening of the door, his own way of doing it. Okay, we all do it differently, and we all expect something different out of it, but it has helped me. It has helped [her other students], and it has helped my students.”

 

Six: Bloomington

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Just as his concert career began to soar, Pressler’s life took an unexpected detour. He received an invitation in October 1954 from Dean Wilfred C. Bain of Indiana University. “I said, ‘No, I can’t. I have concerts.’ “Bain wanted me to come to Bloomington, a great music school of course, and he had my name in his little black book because he had first invited Steuermann, my teacher. Steuermann had said, ‘No, I am a city man, but I have a young colleague,’ so Bain just wrote my name in his little black book, but didn’t invite me yet.”

Next Bain invited the pianist Willi Masselos to come to Bloomington. “Willi and I were part of a four-piano team and made recordings under assumed names playing things like Night on Bald Mountain just to earn some money. Willi believed in his stars. If the stars didn’t tell him to go, he wouldn’t go. And then one day, Masselos said, ‘Menahem, should I go or shouldn’t I?’ I said, ‘You must, of course.’ He said, ‘You wouldn’t, would you?’ In order to encourage him, I said I would, but I didn’t have the slightest idea what Indiana University was like.”

 

Seven: General Aspects of Pressler’s Teaching

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Menahem Pressler has instructed hundreds of students over his fifty-year teaching career, most of whom have been enrolled in masters or doctoral degree programs at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. Some have been undergraduates, and some have studied for their Artist Diplomas. In the earliest years of Pressler’s teaching, students were routinely assigned to his studio. As the numbers of interested students increased, students would contact Pressler by phone or letter, indicating their desire to study with him, and Pressler would schedule personal auditions, at which time he would hear students play for ten or fifteen minutes and talk with them about their plans for the future. Students came to consider admission into Pressler’s class as personal triumphs, affirmations of accomplishment, and guarantees of future success.

Pressler comments that what he looks for, first and foremost, in prospective students is their love for music and their desire to dedicate their lives to it “so that, whatever life brings, they will be happy. By that I mean, if they are in a certain place and they teach there, I want them to be happy they found an outlet for all they know, for their love of the works, and that they can transmit that love to others.”

 

Eight: The Technical Approach

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Any discussion of Pressler’s approach to teaching must begin with an understanding of the technical principles essential to achieving precision, freedom, control, sensitivity, colors, and intensity. In considering how to begin to communicate technical ideas to students at their first lessons, Pressler says, “You must build a relationship first. You have to build a mutual vocabulary. You see, we must learn to understand one another, so that when I say, ‘relax,’ they know exactly what I mean.” Former student William Goldenberg recalls, “It was common knowledge that the first thing [Pressler] would do at the first lesson was greet you with a handshake and talk about the strong grasp of the fingers and hand while keeping the arm relaxed.”

Next Pressler leads students to the piano, where they experience the relaxed arm while playing single notes, and over the next several weeks Pressler presents various drills and exercises that help students understand proper use of the fingers, hands, wrists, arms, and torso. This process enables students to interact with the mechanism of the instrument in a natural way, as if the keyboard were an extension of their own bodies. The goal is that students learn to play in a relaxed manner with balanced arms, strong fingers, and flexible wrists, creating beautiful, sonorous, non-percussive sounds without harshness.

 

Nine: Principles of Expressive Performance

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Recurring throughout Pressler’s teaching are certain principles of expression that give insight into the multitude of “colors” that permeate his performances and those of his students. These principles of expression deal with all aspects of practice and performance, including integrity to the score, emotional involvement, quality of sound, phrasing, formal structure, pedaling, rhythm, fingering, and color.

Pressler believes that the first and most important consideration when learning a musical score is to follow the composer’s indications. Audiences and music critics often hail Pressler’s performances for their insightful expression, but he says, “All expression is based on the score. What does the composer expect? Let us satisfy him.”

Pressler believes that only through thoroughly studying the score can one know accurately how to interpret a piece of music. “Very often the mistake is made that people think that, by playing the piece, they have the emotions. But what they do is, they just read the notes and repeat them. They have neither digested them nor internalized them. Of course, we are spoiled by some of the great pianists, Horowitz, Martha Argerich, the ones that take immense freedoms. And when they do it, one excuses it, one accepts it by virtue of their enormous ability. But we, as young pianists—like me!—we look at a score as our teacher.” Pressler himself practices almost exclusively with music rather than by memory because, he says, “The score is the Bible. Ninety-nine percent of your effort should be directed toward the score.” As he asked one student in illustrating this point, “Can we be more religious and do what the composer asks for?”

 

Ten: Guides for Practicing

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Practicing could be considered the most important part of a pianist’s life since it is through practice that there is the gain of the confidence and security upon which a successful performance is built. During practice time, pianists study their bodies and apply technical principles to the repertoire in order to determine how to play comfortably and with beauty. Practice is a time of contemplation and appreciation of the great works of the repertoire, a time of exploring and experimenting, trying various fingerings, phrasings, dynamics, and articulations. It is a time for drilling the technical solutions and also for listening for beautiful sounds.

“What is practicing for?” Pressler asks. “Practicing is for creating within you how you would like the music to sound. And obviously, it is very seldom that we come to the ideal, but we come close because we create something that leads us toward that ideal.”

All pianists would do well to follow Pressler’s example of practice. He has always made practice time a priority and readily admits that “to this very day, I have always loved to practice.” He recalls a young pianist friend in Palestine. Pressler would practice for eight or more hours and then walk over the hill to his friend’s house. Many times, upon hearing his friend still practicing, Pressler would return home to practice even more. In recent years, Melinda Baird observed her teacher’s practice: “He gets here at 8:00 every morning, sometimes after walking forty-five minutes from his home to school, bundled up in his Russian hat and coat. He doesn’t like to be interrupted. He gets in four hours every morning while he’s fresh and doesn’t schedule anything during that time unless it’s something exceptional. He practices until his lunch break at 12:00 and then teaches from 1:30 PM until 5:00 or 5:30.”

 

Eleven: Technical Instructions

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Pressler’s students receive an abundance of specific technical assistance to improve their playing. One learns how to apply technical exercises to the repertoire, how to work with the mechanics of the instrument, how to improve a passage with a new fingering or redistribution of the hands, and how to use the body efficiently and effectively in order to play comfortably and with beauty. Because Pressler’s performing repertoire is immense, many students report that their teacher seems always to be able to demonstrate fingerings and phrasings from virtually the entire repertoire; and in doing so, he reminds students that technique is a tool for expression.

By practicing, the student experiences progressive growth over a period of time and learns to apply technical principles to all fingers and on black or white keys. The student learns to adapt to different pianos and how to blend movements of various parts of the body, from fingers to the wrist to the arm to the torso. Pressler challenges each student to discover what might be causing a musical passage to be uneven. Is it the position of the hands? The action of the fingers? A poor choice of fingering? Improper accent? Then he instructs in methods for remediation of the problem. Former student Sherri Jones describes Pressler’s fingering suggestions. “Pressler’s fingerings are, first and foremost, decided upon according to the intended sound color and musical content of a particular passage and secondly on comfort and expediency.”

 

Twelve: Pressler’s Humor

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Pressler’s humor and great wit has played an important role in his teaching. Though sometimes biting, his humor is a reflection of his good nature and optimistic outlook on life. Because lessons with him can be intense and students may at times feel intimidated, Pressler’s humor has a way of lightening the mood and offering encouragement for students to continue study, to dig deeper within themselves, and to face further challenges of the repertoire. As Alan Chow describes, “He was very direct, and his vocabulary took a little getting used to: ‘This is ugly,’ ‘You don’t feel anything,’ ‘You play like a Xerox copy.’ His comments were never intended to be mean or unkind. It was just his assessment, and once I got past the words themselves and understood the intent behind them, it was fine.”

Other students offer examples of Pressler’s wit and humor:

One of my favorite memories was of Menahem telling me that it doesn’t matter how one gets the right sound, only that one gets it, then proceeding to demonstrate by playing a passage with his nose.

 

Thirteen: Pressler at the Met: Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 110

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A Lecture Recital Presented at the
Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York City, New York

On one specific occasion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Pressler, ever the teacher, offered a lecture recital to the public, a setting in which he provided his audience with background about the piece he was to perform and the composer who wrote it. Then he worked through the piece, emphasizing areas that he especially wanted his audience to grasp. Pressler noted specific places that were of special significance and demonstrated how particular measures were to sound, explaining why they should be played and heard a certain way. In working through the piece, Pressler told the story behind or within the work, noted the mood(s) the composer was trying to convey, and then provided a brief analysis of the various musical, technical, practical, emotional, and often literary elements that worked organically to create the beauty and wonder of the music.

 

Fourteen: Pressler at the TCU/Cliburn Piano Institute

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A Lecture Presented at Texas Christian University
Fort Worth, Texas
May 2005

Pressler is often asked to judge piano competitions, not the least of which is the Van Cliburn competition held in Fort Worth, Texas, every four years. He has judged the Van Cliburn several times and enjoys having the opportunity to address his audience of young players who are searching for the very nuances of performance and understanding of music that Pressler offers.

During his most recent visit to the Cliburn Piano Institute in May 2005, Pressler addressed an audience of music teachers and students, a forum in which he spoke about his training, his career, and his life-long love of music. He then took questions from the audience. The forum was recorded.

Tamás Ungar asked me to speak to you today. This is the year my Trio is going to be fifty years old, and I thought that would be a good thing to talk about because, in a way, it speaks about what my life is about, not just what the Trio’s about but what my life is about and what music in my life is about. All of you who are coming here to practice, to learn, to listen, to participate are coming for a number of reasons. The very first one—and I hope the most important one—is the love for music, that which brings you here and that which actually nourishes you and that has nourished me.

 

Fifteen: Johann Sebastian Bach

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Bach appeals to that which we all need in living, which is a kind of order of things, whether an inner order or an outer one. Bach is on so many levels—the intellectual level—that you see how the voices are living with each other, next to each other, above each other, and somehow harmonize. Then when you hear his church music, his B minor Mass, or the Passions that he wrote, he becomes a religion in himself. You can be feeling, when you hear those Passions, that you are really communing with God. That’s Bach. And there is no composer who did not appreciate that. Everyone, whether that’s Beethoven or Mozart or Chopin, had to concern themselves at one point or another with Bach.

Each of the Partitas is a masterpiece in its own way, but this one is a favorite of audiences and performers because of the beauty and variety presented in the various movements. The grandeur of the Sinfonia is a wonderful way to open a recital and allows both performer and listener the opportunity to become accustomed to the sonority of the instrument. Too often the player approaches these pieces with too much emphasis on the top voice, without giving attention to all the voices. There must always be direction. Bach’s lines are always going somewhere. There are sequences. There must be clarity of form, and the rhythm must be exact.

 

Sixteen: Béla Bartók

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Fig. 16.1. Out of Doors

Béla Bartók created a signature in his writing which is clear to all of us. You cannot help but recognize Bartók immediately, because his face in his music is very clear. Who liked Bartók at the time? The quartets you couldn’t give away; but today you put Bartók on a program, and it’s one of the things people love. The Sonata, the Rumanian Folk Dances, the Out of Doors, these are all popular pieces because they are colorful, innovative even today, and appeal to our basic need for excitement and drama. Here is a composer who understands structure and knows how to write music to fit the hands.

Out of Doors gives us five character pieces, with the bass clusters representing drums, swirling figures in multimeters, reminding us of the gondola moving through the water, bagpipe effects in ‘Musettes,’ mysterious night sounds, and a perpetual motion race to the finish. Sometimes people say they want to hear more melody, but to me there’s melody everywhere in these pieces. The challenge is to take pieces with such obvious primitive elements and present the subtlety, the simple charm, and beauty.

 

Seventeen: Ludwig van Beethoven

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Fig. 17.1. Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73, Emperor

Beethoven is the Bible. That is the first thing you think of when you say Beethoven. I mean, the greatness of that music is overwhelming. You play it, and at no time should you not be aware that, to live up to the piece, takes all you’ve got and more, so that you actually can never live up to the piece. It is enormously difficult physically. It is difficult emotionally, it’s difficult intellectually, and it is difficult stamina-wise. Beethoven mirrors the universe, to my feeling. He always speaks for us, to us. He always addresses the world. It is beautiful to be able to say that you have devoted your life to his music because the only one who gets richer from it is not Beethoven, but you. And there is something very, very magnificent about that one man who had that many variations of emotions, his coarseness and depth and virtuosity. There is no one else who had that breadth of emotion, from the most esoteric, from the most philosophical, to the most vulgar. He has it all, and he is as human and as divine as a man can ever be. He is made in the image of God, yes?

 

Eighteen: Johannes Brahms

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Fig. 18.1. Piano Sonata in F-sharp minor, Op. 2, from Piano Works In Two Volumes by Johannes Brahms, Edited by E. V. Sauer

Brahms, actually, is our language today. I would say he’s the most popular composer in that sense. And that which he himself felt as a weakness—not being as varied and as profound as Beethoven—to us doesn’t mean anything. To us, he is very profound, he is very varied. And so we play his works, and each time we feel absolutely fulfilled, and it doesn’t matter if it is a symphony or his piano concerto or an intermezzo, quintet, quartet, trio, sonata. He has been one of the great ones, yes? His lyricism, the variety of his harmony, the form are all sublime. Of course, he couldn’t compare himself to Beethoven. And why should he? And why would we? I mean, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, they are incomparable, and Brahms is incomparable.

 

PERFORMING BRAHMS’ CONCERTO NO. 2 IN B-FLAT MAJOR

 

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