Why Learn to Play The Piano?

December 28, 2015 Comments Off on Why Learn to Play The Piano?

“What are piano lessons FOR? ” This question from a parent of a talented student once stumped me. It’s in the category of If You Have To Ask You Won’t Understand The Answer. But I’ve been looking for answers to it anyway, ever since.

Here’s an excellent one: If you are in a French train station with time on your hands, you can start improvising on the station piano. Some stranger who also knows something about the piano might show up and play along.

You can make music together. That sentence is loaded with metaphorical meanings old and new. The literal meaning is rich enough, however, to warrant learning to play the piano.

Why learn to play the piano? You can make music with a complete stranger in a French train station.



Why has the piano become Chinese?

September 14, 2015 Comments Off on Why has the piano become Chinese?


It is said that there are more people in China studying the piano than there are people of all sorts in Canada. It is also said that up to 80% of all pianos produced world-wide were made in China in 2013. And Lang Lang plays to an audience of-what? A billion? Could that be right?

What is going on in China? The numbers don’t make sense. The piano has, in my lifetime in the U.S., been only a specialist’s instrument, mastered and appreciated by only a select few. But in China it is clearly a skill with mass appeal, more like driving a car than playing a Steinway.

This article in Caixin Online, an English language Chinese news source, is titled “How the Piano Became Chinese”. It is the source of some of the above statistics and gives a short history of keyboards in China.

But it doesn’t tell WHY the piano has become so central to Chinese life. In “Men, Women and Pianos”, Arthur Loesser tells of the 19th century role of pianos as symbols of middle class respectability in the U.S. The piano was the iPhone and PC of its day. Everyone wanted a piano and everyone wanted their children to learn to use it. Desire turned piano manufacturing and distribution into the main engines of economic and technological growth after the Civil War. It became unthinkable for proper sorts of families to not have a piano and piano lessons even if they lacked indoor plumbing and electricity.

I understand this kind of piano pressure. I was raised by a mother who assumed her children would play the piano, speak French and have loads of Keats by memory.  It was, in her small-d democratic unexamined way, a racist, classist and Western chauvenistic way to assure that her children turned out like her and not, Lord help us, like someone from the other side of the tracks or, even more unthinkable, the other side of the planet. She was a child of the 19th century herself, and the piano was the aspirational coin of that era.

I can  imagine that some of the same social forces are propelling piano mania in China. China wants to be modern. China wants to join the Western world on equal footing. But isn’t there a better way to modernize than to buy a piece of 19th century technology made of cast iron and wood and leather and wool, all stuck together with boiled animal hide glue, and then spend a decade or 2 or 3 or never to master playing it?  Is the piano still so potent a symbol of progress that an entire hugely populous country will embrace it?

Where is Arthur Loesser’s successor who can illuminate this phenomenon?

Funny enough: Victor Borge

December 26, 2014 Comments Off on Funny enough: Victor Borge

Not his funniest 8 minutes, but the only instance I’ve seen of Borge playing with The Beatles AND the Maharishi in the front row.

Art is in the details

February 10, 2014 Comments Off on Art is in the details

Just like God and the devil. Here’s a video about how stage hands at Carnegie Hall dealt with Horowitz’ extreme fussiness over where to place his piano on stage.



Pianist Helped Nelson Mandela By Playing Beethoven 4th

December 8, 2013 § 1 Comment

harold-rubensHarold Rubens was a Welsh piano prodigy, shown here playing for George Bernard Shaw. When he got too old for the prodigy business he moved to South Africa, where he became active in anti-apartheid groups. Working with Nelson Mandela, his piano playing skills were in demand.

According to Norman Lebrecht, writing on Slipped Disc, resistance groups would meet in Rubens’ home, where he could play loudly to cover up the conversations and prevent their being picked up by the secret police.

Lebrecht quotes Albi Sachs: ‘We were meeting in the underground in their cottage in Newlands. We would hear him practising the fourth Beethoven piano concerto, going over it and over and over again while we were doing our secret planning in the room next door. Happily the music was very loud, and if there were any bugs, all the security police would hear would be Beethoven and not us planning resistance to apartheid. Beethoven would have been happy. Such complex and mixed-up feelings in this simple building.’

I wonder about that Beethoven being so very loud. I play that piece and it is impossible to get the right elegant effect if you are too heavy. I guess I won’t be invited to host any resistance meetings around here.

Rubens’ sister was the novelist Bernice Rubens who wrote the novel Madame Sousatska, based on Harold Rubens’ piano teacher in London. It was made into a movie starring Shirley MacLaine as one of my favorite movie piano teachers.

Gunther Schuller, 88, still composing 15 hours a day

November 18, 2013 § 1 Comment

schuleer-1You may remember Gunther Schuller. In his youth, he made a big splash in the classical music world by taking jazz seriously and mixing it with classical idioms. It is hard to remember now, but just a short while ago a classically trained musician couldn’t get much respect if he dabbled in jazz.

Schuller did more than dabble. He played  with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus. He also was president of the New England Conservatory of Music and has had his works played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic. Those are pretty good credentials from both sides of the aisle.

Schuller almost single-handedly made Scott Joplin’s ragtime piano music a part of every pianist’s repertoire.

Here is a recent story on him in the Dallas Observer.

Pianist Frank Glazer, 98, plays piano recital of Haydn, Liszt, Barber

November 9, 2013 § 2 Comments

Pianists can easily keep playing into their 90’s and still have something to say. Here is Frank Glazer, a student of Schnabel, which puts him in my lineage from Leschetizky, giving a recital at age 98. He played Nov. 6 in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

“Glazer, 98, is a pianist, composer and music professor, who began playing piano when he was 3 years old and now has spent almost 60 years as a professional performer”.  You can read the full article on MichiganLive here.

A review of an August concert in Wisconsin is here. In other words, he plays concerts all the time.



Click here to hear an interview with Glazer on American Public Radio’s “The Story”. 

Want to have a great old age? Play the piano.



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