Artist/Educator Archive Interview - Dr. Linda Holzer
e regularly feature the personal experiences and insights of a noted artist/educator on various aspects of piano performance and education. You may not always agree with the opinions expressed, but we think you will find them interesting and informative. The opinions offered here are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent those of the West Mesa Music Teachers Association, its officers, or members. (We have attorneys, too!). At the end of the interview, you'll find hypertext links to the interviewee's e-mail and Web sites (where available), so you can learn more if you're interested. Except where otherwise noted, the interviewer is Dr. John Zeigler.
PEP: What are some of your favorite early musical memories?
Growing up in Chicago, my earliest musical memories are of my mother singing along with the phonograph. She loves Broadway musicals. When I was old enough, she would buy tickets for us to go downtown and see a matinee. But when I was small, she often played records of Rodgers and Hammerstein classics while doing the housework. I enjoyed singing along with her. My father, like most of the kids in his neighborhood in the city, took accordion lessons as a boy. Sometimes when I was little, he would take the accordion out of its case and play. (For some reason, the accordion scared me. Instead of singing along, I cried. But Dad was a good sport about it.)
My parents were always on the lookout for learning experiences for us--swimming lessons at the Y, the summer reading club at the public library, various Scout Troops, those kinds of family adventures. Music lessons were a natural extension of that. Aunt Jessica had bought an upright piano for her family and signed some of her kids up for lessons. When my Mom heard about it, she thought that would be a good route for us to go as well. I was 7 years old when I started lessons. My first piano teacher was Mrs. June Krause, the organist and choir director at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Chicago. I studied with her for 7 years. From the beginning, I loved it. Making music at the piano was a pleasure.
PEP: When did you know you wanted to go into music?
By the time I was 14 years old, I was taking music study very seriously. I began to consider it as a career choice at that point. I had developed good facility in sight-reading, and that opened a lot of doors for me. I became the principal accompanist for my high school. Maine East High School had a tremendously active music department with several choirs, an orchestra, a jazz band, a concert band, and an electronic recording lab. There was a lot for an eager young pianist to be involved in every season of the year. I dabbled in conducting and arranging music, sang alto in choir, and collaborated at the piano with a wide range of soloists and ensembles. I accompanied the Concert Choir on tours to Minnesota and Wisconsin. It was exhilarating, a great time of discovery! I was very fortunate to be at a high school that offered such a wide range of musical experiences.
PEP: Who were some important musical influences on you?
Mr. Albert Payson, a percussionist in the Chicago Symphony, was one of our neighbors across the street. When I was in high school, he kindly listened to me play, and sometimes invited me to attend symphony rehearsals at Ravinia. (His wife also gave me a job as a timpani mallet trimmer for Payson Percussion Company, working in their basement!) Although he wasn't my teacher directly, I admired him very much. Mr. Payson exemplified what the hard work could lead to: a stunning concert performance! Before I met him, I had never known anyone who worked up onstage playing classical music before.
When I was 15 I auditioned for Dr. Donald Isaak at Northwestern University. His teaching took me up to a new level of difficulty in technique and repertoire, especially important for professional development. He broadened my horizons, encouraging me to go to the piano recital series downtown at Orchestra Hall, a first for me. He grounded me in important musical traditions and piano technique, and gave me confidence to continue musical discoveries in contemporary repertoire. I studied such a wide range of music with him, from Bach to Muczynski. He also taught a lot about the "inner work" of preparing for public performances. Looking back, I grew up in a very supportive environment where many talented musicians, family, and friends fostered my interest and development. The main ingredient seems to be that so many people in my life enjoyed listening to music of all kinds.
PEP: Do you use any of the piano "methods" in your teaching? If so, why do you prefer that one over others?
I don't use any particular method books, but that is mainly because I teach college music majors and minors.
PEP: What "deficiency" in training or technique do you most often find in students of the piano?
I often find physical tension problems in piano students. Usually the tension originates at the wrist. Students lock their wrists, thinking that will improve their accuracy, especially in octave passages. Unfortunately, that stiffness causes more problems than it solves. Eventually it leads to tendonitis.
PEP: What kinds of things would you tell students of the piano and their teachers to try to avoid?
I tell students to avoid buying poor editions of the music they are studying. Standards repertoire is usually available through several publishers. Some editions include more valuable information than others--fingerings, an explication table for ornamentation, that sort of thing. For example, when I start a student on Bach, I recommend that s/he buy the Alfred edition, with editorial markings by Willard Palmer. I prefer the Paderewski edition when teaching Chopin (it's available through Dover Publications now at quite reasonable prices).
PEP: What advice would you give to students of the piano?
Look at your lessons as a special opportunity to learn. How many classes do you take where you get to work one-on-one with your teacher? Take advantage of that rare situation, and come to your lesson prepared not only to play, but to ask questions. Let yourself wonder about music and composers, and be actively curious! Pick your teacher's brain.
PEP: What qualities do you hope to develop in your piano students?
I focus on increasing students' skills and awareness in several areas. With the freshmen, the first order of business is solidifying piano technique and productive use of practice time. I feel it is important to help students eliminate problematic tension from their arms and wrists as soon as possible. Students need to know that if they are experiencing pains in their arms when they practice for any length of time, there is something wrong. The goal is to get them to incorporate healthy technique in everything they do at the keyboard, whether it is fortissimo octaves, fast scale or arpeggio passages, or a simple, lyrical melody.
Next we move on to considerations of broadening repertoire, a sense of what is stylistically appropriate for music of a particular historical period, sensitive listening/expressive sound production, and dependable approaches to memory work. I wouldn't call the latter "secondary considerations," but piano technique has to be the starting point.
PEP: What do you enjoy most about making and teaching music?
There is a poem by John Keats that begins,
When I work with music, I feel that I am working with something timeless, a durable treasure. It feels like a special privilege. Teaching, similarly, is an opportunity to open doors of understanding. The art of music is an ancient one, and there is a wellspring, hundreds of years worth of material, to draw upon. Remember the title of one of Leonard Bernstein's books, "The Infinite Variety of Music?" It's so true!
PEP: What advice would you give to teachers of piano or music generally?
My advice is to be proud of what you do. It helps me to think a bit like a gardener, and remember that different seeds germinate and bloom at different rates. Some piano students learn quickly and make progress in leaps and bounds. Others may be slower readers, or less technically proficient. It is gratifying to cultivate a variety of kinds of musical talent. Research is being published now from a variety of scientific sources about how music study in young children fosters brain development. (Two articles I enjoyed in particular were: 1) Sharon Begley, "Your Child's Brain," Newsweek, February 19, 1996. 2) James Shreeve, "Music of the Hemispheres," Discover, October 1996). The studies show that regardless of whether a child goes on to become a professional performer as an adult or not, music lessons have a positive impact in terms of improved motor skills and spatial reasoning. There is measurable brain development. Generations of music teachers have noticed the blossoming that occurs when people come into contact with beautiful music. But it's nice when there is scientific validation of the benefits of music study, too.
PEP: What kinds of things can the teacher do to maintain the interest of children in piano in the face of all the distractions modern society provides?
The modern condition that is sometimes at odds with productive piano study is the fast pace of modern life. For example, microwave ovens let us whip up flavorful frozen dinners in 5 minutes. That is terribly convenient, but it doesn't teach us much about patience and discipline, two essentials for musical development.
Occasionally a student wants to do the equivalent of "microwaving" an assigned sonata or nocturne, assuming that s/he can get by with sight-reading through the piece every once in awhile instead of putting in careful daily practice over a period of weeks and/or months. That requires an attitude adjustment.
I was fortunate to have music teachers throughout my life who understood human nature. The teaching approach I learned from them is to acknowledge both the strengths and the weaknesses of a student. Then provide the student with assignments that address both areas. When the student is having fun working on a piece s/he really shines in, there is enough positive energy left over to get through the harder parts of the lesson. The goal is to strike a balance between things they are good at and challenges they have yet to master.
PEP: Do you have a favorite pianist and, if so, what attracts you to that person's performances?
I have been fortunate to hear recitals by many fine pianists. Two of my favorites are Annie Fischer, and John Browning. (Ms. Fischer died recently.) I enjoy the poetry and drama of their performances. Through the phrasing and sonorities they created when I heard them play, they just swept me away. There was real power and conviction in their music-making. The performances were just captivating, beautiful. It is hard to describe in words the magical effects they created at the piano.
PEP: What are your thoughts on music technology?
As a musician in the late 20th century, I find music technology is an important part of my life. When I was a doctoral student, I bought a WERSI digital piano with a weighted action. I was living in an apartment complex at the time, and the digital piano enabled me to practice at home in the evenings without disturbing my neighbors (I practiced on grand pianos at the campus during the day). Internet Searches and CD-ROM's have been very useful in several of my scholarly research projects. I use software as a teaching aid for Aural Skills, and I find notation software & MIDI come in very handy for some teaching and performance projects. I'm glad the technology is available.
PEP: What can we do as musicians to interest more people, children in particular, in good music?
Well, one of the magical qualities of music is that it can reach a person so directly. You can be swept away by a beautiful song just because of how it sounds the very first time you hear it. What I think we as musicians can do more of is to talk enthusiastically about what's out there. Encourage musical discoveries. Are parents of your students looking for an interesting holiday, birthday, or graduation gift? How about suggesting a pair of tickets to a concert, or a couple of CD's? Perhaps a gift certificate to a music store? A musical software program? A good book about music? Sometimes, a teacher can facilitate a field trip for students and parents to a live concert in your local community. Help non-musicians you know see how the enjoyment of classical music can fit into their lives.
It's funny because we live at a time when technology has made a greater variety of music available to a larger population of people than ever before. There are an abundance of opportunities to hear good music via recordings, broadcasts, and live performances. But sometimes folks are a little shy about trying something that is new to them. They are hesitant, for example, to try an exotic new restaurant until they hear from friends that it was tasty and fun. Musicians can provide encouragement to people in their communities, opening their ears and hearts.
PEP: We get many questions at The Piano Education Page from new teachers starting private teaching studios. What general tips do you have for new teachers?
Get to know your local arts community. Every state has an Arts Council, and music teachers' organization, and retail sources for music. It is easier to do your job as a professional music teacher when you become part of a network of other music professionals. Join the local teachers' organization, and get to know your colleagues. You may be asked to take transfer students from some of them on occasion, or to refer a current student of your own to another teacher. It is important to cultivate a healthy support network among your colleagues to be able to help students realize their musical potential."
PEP: Generally speaking, do you find membership in music teacher organizations valuable? What could such organizations do to help teachers more? What should teachers themselves do to get the maximum benefit from such organizations?
I find teacher organizations tremendously valuable. To me, it's a question of not wanting to re-invent the wheel. I attend conventions and workshops, and read a variety of music magazines because those are ways of staying informed and learning. Most music teacher organizations provide handy reference material in the form of their membership directory and mailing list. These are helpful tools, for example, when one is publicizing a musical event, and wants to reach the area musical community.
However, another tool that the organization can provide teachers is a pamphlet listing area teachers that is intended for distribution to parents. When a parent calls me inquiring about lessons for a child and my own teaching load is full, the parent invariably wants to know names of other teachers to call. A simple pamphlet listing teachers/business numbers, and their area of specialization fills that need nicely. (The Central Arkansas Music Teachers' Association publishes such a pamphlet. I don't know if all organizations do.)
I suppose it is fair to say that "a chain is as strong as its weakest link." The strength of any organization depends on the level of commitment of its membership. Do you feel your organization is sponsoring thought-provoking programs and providing you with useful information for your work? Have you read about events you would like to see happen in your local musical community? Don't hesitate to float an idea to a colleague and see if the two (or more) of you can make it come to life!
PEP: What are your views on competitions and what should teachers and students expect from that experience?
For beginning and intermediate piano students and for small children, I feel it is better to play in a festival or group recital than in a competition. In such settings, the emphasis is simply on sharing music, rather than on being ranked against other performers. Later in a student's development, it can be beneficial to enter competitions. This performance setting can inspire you to push yourself to a higher level than you would try for if you weren't competing. Juries and auditions are a fact of life for those wishing to pursue professional training at a university or conservatory. Having the experience of playing in a competition prior to entering college can be good preparation for a student. However, one must keep in mind that there is only going to be one 1st prize winner at most competitions. That doesn't mean that everyone else is a "loser." Look at it this way: if you entered the competition and felt you played well, then take pride in that accomplishment, whether you got "1st place" or not. Try to compete against yourself and learn from the experience. Did you play better in the finals than you did the last time you performed these pieces? Savor that.
PEP: What were your best and worst: teaching experiences, performing experiences?
One of my best performing experiences was with the North Florida Trio. The 3 of us were doctoral students at Florida State University. We had prepared a recital that included a piece by the American composer, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, her Piano Trio. After the performance, we sent her a copy of the tape. She was pleased with it, and subsequently invited us to come to New York to play the work during the 50th Anniversary Celebration broadcast of WNYC-FM, a radio station that often champions the work of American composers. Dr. Zwilich attended the live broadcast. It was a thrill to play for her.
PEP: What are your greatest joys and greatest frustrations teaching in a private piano studio?
My greatest joy in teaching is when a student works hard and starts to reap dividends. The student is happy to be playing well, the music sounds better, and it's a contagious process. The greatest frustration in teaching, for me, is when a student isn't honest with himself about the need to practice regularly. It is frustrating when a student doesn't accept responsibility for holding up his end of the learning process.
PEP: What contributes to a successful career in music?
A successful career in music usually involves the ability to wear many hats. People with an entrepreneurial spirit, "self-starters" often thrive in the music business. You'll have more in common with a small business owner as a professional musician than you will with a corporate employee.
A performance career involves a certain amount of emotional vulnerability. People speak of "paying your dues" and "developing a thick skin." To become a performer, one must go out onstage and play a great deal. One must be open to taking a lot of criticism from experienced artists in order to learn the craft of musical interpretation. One must play--and pass--a lot of auditions and juries. Even after the hours of careful practice and lessons, some concerts go well, others go less well. One must contend with all sorts of variables: the weather, the mood of the audience, the state of the instrument you're playing on. One's own human fallibility is a factor, too. Ask any athlete if her body has always performed 100% of what she wanted it to do 100% of the time. A pianist, however inspired, is human after all.
Some personalities handle all those variables of performance just fine, and are comfortable with those facts of concertizing. They bounce back from the rough patches. Other people find those variables prohibitively frustrating. Which personality are you? You have to get to know yourself as well as what the standards and expectations are for a musical career. Something to consider, as a wise professor at Northwestern once explained to a group of us freshman, is that if you can think of anything else you might enjoy doing instead of a career in music, Do That. A career in music--whether as a composer, teacher, performer, or musicologist-- requires a sense that no other career matters to you. (Small business owners can relate to this. They know very well that their work consumes much more than 40 hours per week. It dominates one's life to an extent that some other kinds of employment do not.) If you don't feel that "All or Nothing" focus for a musical career, then consider giving yourself permission to pursue music as an avocation instead. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Remember that "amateur" means literally, "one who does it for love." The art of music benefits from the involvement of dedicated amateurs as well as professionals.
Dr. Holzer will be happy to answer your questions by e-mail to LRHolzer@ualr.edu. You can learn more about Dr. Holzer at the UALR Music Department Home Page.
Last updated: 01/30/15