Featured Artist/Educator Archive Interview - Heidi Lowy
e regularly feature the personal experiences and insights of a noteworthy 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.
My father's parents were Hungarian Jews, who emigrated through Ellis Island at the turn of the century, so it's a given that he played the violin and the piano "by ear". He always boasted that my musicality came from his side of the family. My mother was born in Zurich. She came from a cultured family who appreciated the arts. Although she played the piano, her passion lay elsewhere. She received her MBA from New York University. Among my forebears are the poet Wilhelm Hauff (1802-1829), which explains my appreciation of the marriage of poetry and music in the Lieder art form, and the composer/arranger Louis Oesterle, a contemporary of Robert Schumann, who edited a number of his piano works. My grandfather was an art collector, and I believe that having had the privilege of living with fine art on a daily basis continues to inform my stylistic interpretation of a composer's work.
What were the most important lessons for your teaching and playing that you learned from your years in university (and beyond) musical training?
Follow your instincts. Stick with what you know, and go for it. Think long-term. Study real-world subjects, such as business administration and marketing as your Plan B. Many conservatories now offer these courses, since the chances of landing an agent and recording contract are bleak. Teaching at a college level requires a Ph.D., and most teaching jobs in the public school sector are so low-paying, that it’s advisable to have at least a Master’s degree in Education to achieve a desirable standard of living. I would say that pursuing a career in the arts is risky and ill-advised, without a strong back-up plan.
What do you enjoy most about making and teaching music?
To answer the first part, I enjoy the process of recording. A lot of little pieces are put together to form the "whole" and that process of repeating, polishing and crafting a performance are fun, to me. On the other hand, performing live can be exciting, if done on a regular basis. Again, I enjoy the process. As to teaching, I especially enjoy the student who is an independent, creative thinker. "Spoon-feeding" is a term Mrs. Genhart used, when she was exasperated, during lessons. Now I know what she means by that. It's always more fun when you're swept along by a student's own interpretation of a work, and can act as a "foil" to help hone his intent.
If you had to give a short synopsis of the philosophy behind your teaching to others, what would you say?
My teacher at Juilliard Prep, Leland Thompson, was an assistant to Rosina Lhevinne. She often spoke in terms of "getting out of the way" in order to let things "happen". She saw technique as the liberator and the necessary step before the freedom of artistic creation could occur. If that makes any sense, then I think you know what that means, immediately.
Can you tell us about your teaching studio, its student mix and how you operate it?
I have a mix of adults and children aged 7 and up. I used to teach strictly classical repertoire, but, I now accommodate the wishes of some students to include the study of show tunes, Gospel and Jazz. Purists might believe that this is lowering the standard, but, I can assure you, that I approach this type of repertoire as I do the Classics, and that is, with the view to achieving a high-level of performance. A former student of mine, who currently composes pieces for TV/Commercials and sings in a band, recently told me that she approaches her art, using the techniques she learned from our lessons together. This was gratifying to hear, because this is the point, after all. As educators, our job is to give students the technical tools they will need, to pursue their own musical goals.
Since you have spent a great deal of time in Europe, both as a child and subsequently, how would you characterize the "European approach" to teaching an learning piano vs. that in the U.S.?
That's a little of a red herring, since it's Europeans who came here and brought with them their artistic experiences as teachers and performers. As a child of European immigrants, growing up in the US, it would be difficult to separate the European experience, per se. I would only say that the closer we get to the fount, the better. In other words, if I were to study a foreign language, I would want to study with a native speaker.
In getting "closer to the fount," what source materials to you use to ascertain a composer's intentions when you record his works?
First-hand accounts (letters, correspondence) provide the most illuminating information. If these are not available, I search for insights from his contemporaries and use the information to shape my own approach to his work. In the case of Mozart, musicologist/historian Otto Erich Deutsch and others have published reams of personal material. I’ve traced my own genealogy to the Tyrol and Salzkammergut regions of Austria, which is helpful in attempting to decipher mannerisms, speech-patterns and mind-sets that often translate from one medium to the other. And, best of all, my Godmother presented me with the 1956 Henle Urtext edition of the Mozart Sonatas as a confirmation present, which provided me with the musical material I needed to begin a serious comparative study of the man and his work.
As for the Ravel, I did meet and play in the Master Class of Robert Casadesus, the great pianist and friend of Ravel. I was familiar with his recording on the Odyssey Label of the Complete Works of Ravel, having been introduced to Ravel by way of the Sonatine, as a pre-teen. I also studied French in high school, here and abroad, including a summer at Fontainebleau, which was invaluable to my understanding of the 19th century French-Conservatoire ethos.
There is a French-Swiss element to Ravel’s heritage, so I naturally used that as a point of departure, drawing on my own Swiss family background for references. However, I knew less about his Mother’s Basque background, which required more in-depth study, a trip to Spain and Ciboure, (Ravel’s birthplace near Biarritz, France), as well as a tasting of anguillas, the baby-eel delicacy found in Basque cuisine. Everything helps, when you’re trying to place yourself in the mind of the composer.
I also met with the foremost experts in the field: musicologist/editor Professor Dr. Arbie Orenstein and poet/translator/biographer Benjamin Ivry, whose biography of Ravel prompted me to view Ravel through a literary lens. As a result, I began to study the works of Symbolist poets, or, Les Symbolistes, as a way to get closer to the composer’s thought processes.
You perform and record frequently and teach in your own private studio. Do you find that there is a synergism between your performing and teaching or are they separate parts of your career?
I'd prefer to devote a large chunk of time to one at a time, as opposed to a little of each, for short periods of time. I devoted ten years of preparing for my Mozart recordings of the piano sonatas. During that time, I did only that. It consumed all of my time. I think it's the only way, and I did the same for my Ravels. Of course, this was a luxury. I don't think I could compartmentalize to the extent where I could give "all" to more than one at a time.
Can young children benefit from piano technical exercises? If so, is there any special set of exercises you would recommend or any that you use in your own studio?
I recently wrote an article for Clavier Magazine about my Wiehmayer exercises, which I reformatted for my beginning and intermediate students. There has been a great deal of interest in these exercises, and I've heard from teachers across the country, who are pleased with the results. They are basic 5-finger exercises which focus on every conceivable finger pattern, and I've found it to be very successful in developing the independence of fingers. I also like John Perry's exercises and those given to me by Ms. Thompson. But, sometimes, it's the little "tidbits" that are passed down to us by Master teachers, which are the most intriguing. These are rarely written down, but I bump into them often, while I'm teaching. It's fun to retrieve them from the memory-bank and pass them on.
Although music teaching has many positive aspects, if you were pushed to name a "pet peeve" about teaching, what would you say?
There's never enough time to touch upon the global aspects of a composer's work and the importance of that particular work. I tend to look at the big picture, which includes not only studying the work in question, but the creative process which might have sparked the creation of that work and an investigation and analysis into the process of its creation and the performer's role in that process.
Would you advocate more emphasis on music history in teaching or just that students take time to learn more about the composers and works that they are learning?
Yes. I believe that it’s important for performers to place their interpretation of a work within its historical context. Imagine playing Bach without knowing about the era and performance practice of that period!
Do you find any one area of piano teaching to be one needing special effort with students?
For young children, it is always the same. They are woefully over-scheduled and forced into committing to too many activities. In their efforts to "expose" their children to many different creative pursuits, parents are not giving their children the opportunity to dedicate their efforts to just one area, and to do it well. I believe that quality should triumph over quantity, which is not always a popular dictum.
You are a busy educator, writer and performer. Can you give us your reflections upon music as a career?
I would say, be a realist. Have a Plan "B" ready, unless you have a rich uncle or Patron. Realize that music is a business, and, unless you're a saleable commodity, then it's time for Plan "B". Saleable means the following: Young, preferably 7-14 years old, attractive and affable. Everyone is talented. That's a given.
What do you do in your private studio when you have a student who seems to be losing interest in piano?
For pre-college children, I let them go. It's not a good idea to force children to continue doing something they just don't want to do. I usually don't experience this in adults or college-aged students, because, they have chosen this particular activity, and they are dedicated to pursuing it, at least for a reasonable amount of time.
What are your greatest joys and greatest frustrations teaching in a private piano studio?
I would rather teach in a college setting, where I could focus on specific, detailed aspects of advanced training and performance goals.
You have a rather extensive discography, including complete cycles of piano works by Mozart and Ravel. What is the most important thing you have learned from the experience of recording?
That I love doing it. I’m goal-oriented. I like preparing, months, sometimes years, ahead, for a 2-day window, when the pressure is on to produce “the goods.” Of course, after the actual recording, the editing process is crucial, and the outcome depends on the degree of skill, finesse and ultimately, trust, which exists between recording engineer and artist. From my perspective, one should remain vigilant and demanding, at the highest possible level, and strive for perfection, always.
The absolute best feeling is the feeling of accomplishment, when the work is done and “in the can.” I allow myself to bask in it for a little while, but as the saying goes, “You’re only as good as your last recording (performance).”
I understand that you have recently completed a year-long project on Schoenberg music. Can you tell us about that?
I recently completed a year-long project, arranging Verklaerte Nacht for piano solo. The Library of Congress has accepted it into their collection. According to Universal Edition, my transcription of the entire work for piano solo is a "first".
Can you relate any particularly amusing incident that occurred while doing a recording?
Yes. While recording the Mozarts (Musical Heritage Society) at the Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City, we had to wait for 40 minutes, one day, while an oil truck made a delivery next door, due to noise.
Does the recording environment affect your focus or performance? How do you adapt to it?
I recorded the Mozarts at the Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City, from January-June. The auditorium was completely darkened, except for 2 spotlights on the stage, where I sat. It was like being in a cold, black hole, with a Steinway D, a bench, and 2 microphones. The heat was turned off, because it would have been too noisy, but space-heaters warmed things up, occasionally. The engineer set up backstage, and we communicated with each other, unseen, via microphones. Occasionally, the piano would go out of tune, so the tuner, who was on call during the entire time, was called in, to fix the problem. Then, there was the occasional squeaking of the piano bench. The problem was fixed by inserting cardboard into areas that creaked. And, to cut down on pedal noise, I pedaled with my bare feet.
I recorded the Ravels in Germany, in early May, for 2 consecutive years. The weather was beautiful and white asparagus was in season. The recording studio was a converted barn, in a small town outside of Heidelberg. I’d stop by the local market, pick up a litre of bottled water and head over to the studio. A beautiful Hamburg Steinway D greeted me each day. It was a large, well-lit room, with an adjoining window to the small room where the engineer sat. We communicated silently. He, with a nod, to indicate when to begin. On some levels, it seemed the total opposite of my experience in New York, yet remains equally satisfying and inspiring in memory.
New recording technologies like SACD and DVD-A are becoming available. Do see them as presenting special opportunities for the recording artist, or for that matter, the music teacher?
I think that the recent introduction of opera into theatres as a venue to attract large audiences, is an exciting prospect. The technology you cited will support that. But the key is to attract a wider audience, and those efforts are beginning to pay off.
Do you have a favorite pianist and, if so, what attracts you to that person's performances?
Gilels, who represents the ultimate communicator. I favor a lush, recorded sound, which is why I listen to the Berlin Philharmonic. Szell and Cleveland gave concerts at Oberlin, while I was a student there, so in addition to that, I like to hear Szell breathe, on the recording. This is not done anymore. Recordings seem more sterile, now. Because I met Casadesus, his performance of the Mozarts and Ravels are meaningful on many levels. I was inspired to compose my own lead-ins and cadenzas to the Mozart Piano Concerto, KV 467 by his example. Vocalists Price and Dieskau are sentimental favorites. Horowitz’s recording of Rachmaninoff Piano Sonata no. 2 is exciting and relentless. For me, this is an example of complete abandon on tape.
Here are some perennial favorites:
What do you consider to be the strengths and weaknesses of technology for teaching and learning the piano, as the technology currently exists?
In the school setting, multiple keyboards and on-line theory tutorials, Discovery.com, Finale and Sibelius provide interesting alternatives to selected aspects of musical learning and performance. Composing/notation programs are essential for composers/arrangers. This is the tool which I used for my transcriptions. It’s a way to notate on line, using the mouse to click notes on a staff, instead of the quill pen. Everything a composer/arranger/copyist used to do with paper and pen, is now done on-line with this program. I used it to notate original works and transcriptions. Discovery.com provides biographical videos for the classroom, as well. My students recently viewed a Ravel biography, which was really excellent.
Where are technological innovations taking us in the future of piano and piano teaching?
There's no substitute for having the opportunity to play on a superbly maintained Concert Grand. It is the ultimate experience. Portable keyboards and truncated instruments with "weighted" keys that simulate the real thing are okay, I suppose. To me, these substitutes are imposters. Then again, it depends on the goal.
Given that not everyone has the space for, or can afford, a concert grand, what kind of piano(s) do you suggest for your students?
Pianists carp at all levels about the condition of instruments they must play, from Concert D to upright. My instrument of choice would be a Steinway D all day, every day, but that’s hardly realistic. Better to be able to make the most out of all keyboards. But, having said that, I would not want to teach on a keyboard that has no weighed keys whatsoever, or one that simply sits on a desktop. Here’s why:
I’ve spent my entire lifetime, paying attention to how a sound is shaped and made, and how to translate that into a sound which attains the required musical result. Therefore, it goes against everything I’ve ever been taught, to accept a nice shiny set of plastic, equally non-responsive keys as the manner in which to teach piano technique. It might be adequate for some to learn to play the piano by pressing keys as they are lit up in neon-pink Technicolor, but, for me, this would render 300 years of keyboard artistry as obsolete.
In closing, what would you like to say to an audience of pianists, teachers and students worldwide?
I would say that beauty is everything. People should seek to surround themselves with beauty, create beauty, encourage its development by others, and support its encouragement by society.
You can ask your own questions of Ms. Lowy at email@example.com. Her recordings can be purchased at the MSR Classical site and from Musical Heritage Society, among others.
Last updated: 12/28/17