Your Cart UMS
January 18, 2016

Community Spotlight: U-M Piano Professor Arthur Greene

UMS
By UMS

Editor’s note: Isabel Park is a regular contributor to UMS Lobby and an undergraduate pianist in the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Isabel explores connections between the UMS season and student life.

andras schiff
Photo: Pianist Andras Schiff performs in Ann Arbor February 16-20, 2016. Photo by Nadia Romanini.

This winter, master pianist Sir András Schiff visits Ann Arbor for three concerts exploring the “The Last Sonatas,” later-life sonatas, of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. He says of the sonata, that it is “one of the greatest inventions in Western music, and it is inexhaustible.”

We often view the musicians on stage as learning students or a developing performers, but, perhaps more rarely, do we think of the musicians as a teachers. Teachers can play a significant role in shaping a student’s musical style and artistic ideas. To gain some insight into the perspective of teachers and find out more about what it’s like to help younger musicians grow into independent artists, I talked to my own teacher at U-M, Arthur Greene.

Isabel Park: We’ve worked on the Beethoven Op. 109 together. Can you give an overview of the process of teaching a piece from the teacher’s perspective?

Arthur Greene: There are two sides to teaching. One is communicating and developing a conception of the work – to put it in an overly simplistic way, what the work means. The other is responding to the particular student’s way of playing and learning. With a late Beethoven sonata, our work is weighted towards the meaning of the music, because it is so particular, dense, and at first enigmatic. As far as the student’s playing, I always try to combine technical suggestions with musical ideas, based on what is working or what is not working for the student.

IP: I know this is a difficult question, but when is a piece “good enough” or ready to be performed?

AG: We had a visiting “great artist” when I was first teaching at Michigan, Eugene Istomin, to teach every few weeks. He said that in his life there were never any performances he was happy with, and usually he was very distressed after playing, because they fell so far short of perfection. I don’t think like that. When the music feels part of you, well memorized, with technical issues working 90% of the time, and if you feel you have something to say with the piece, it is ready to play.

IP: Is there anything that, say, can’t be taught to a student – or anything that you consider to be the responsibility of the student?

AG: Almost everything is the responsibility of the student. Most great teachers, such as Theodore Leschetizky, would have been unknown if they didn’t have students the caliber of Ignaz Friedman and Artur Schnabel. Teachers can inspire and guide, but the student should not rely on the teacher ultimately, or else he or she will never be an artist.

IP: What kind of a role do these classical sonatas play in the piano/classical music repertoire in general and in the repertoire of a pianist?

AG: Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn represent the summit of the tonal system, and their sonatas are simply great music, so I can’t imagine being a pianist without playing them.

IP: For this program, Schiff is exploring the “last” sonatas of four master composers and the ways in which later-life creativity or near-death creativity was expressed for each of them. What’s your take on this programmatic structure, especially given that your work focuses on nurturing the emerging creativity of student pianists?

AG: Most composers whose works I know well develop a more subtle, complex, and personal style in their later works – Chopin, Beethoven, and Mozart for example. These are the pieces I am personally most drawn too, and I am not surprised that Schiff is as well.

IP: It’s often said that one shouldn’t say the masters until one as older (this is said humorously). What do you think about this idea?

AG: Kids might not have the last word on late Beethoven, but I’ve heard horrible performances of mature works by mature pianists as well. I like the idea of a work maturing in one’s soul for many years. Also, the idea that one must learn all the patterns of earlier music of a composer before tackling the later works is dangerous, because it fosters a paint-by-numbers way of playing. It is better to consider each pattern, phrase, and piece on its own, rather than as a meme. Overly patterned playing, and the desire to find the correct way to play something, are the reasons piano playing has become so dull.

IP: What are your favorite works to introduce to students?

AG: Chopin mazurkas. They are fascinating emotionally and rhythmically, and most of them are rarely played.

Thinking about the teaching embedded in music adds another dimension of complexity and inspiration to a performance. I’m excited to listen to pianist András Schiff’s programs with an eye for these complexities.

Sir András Schiff performs three concerts in Ann Arbor February 16-20, 2016.

Love great music, theater, and dance?

Love great music, theater, and dance?

Surely your inbox has room for one more email... Sign up for notifications on new digital and live performances, plus season updates.

Thanks! We'll keep you updated.