Interview with Emanuel Ax

Since his 1974 victory in the first Artur Rubinstein International Piano Competition, Emanuel Ax has sustained one of the most active, beloved, and respected careers of any concert artist before the public today. In a career now spanning five decades and thousands of performances worldwide, he has also garnered the coveted Avery Fisher Prize and holds honorary doctorates from both Yale University and Columbia University. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. An exclusive Sony Classical artist with a vast catalog, he has won Grammy awards for his cycle of Haydn sonatas and his incomparable collaborations with Yo-Yo Ma.

Early last summer, Mr. Ax was in Dallas for a sold-out recital with Itzhak Perlman at the ATT Performing Arts Center Winspear Opera House. He graciously interrupted his practicing for an hour to sit down backstage with Ryan Greene and myself and conduct this interview. What follows is insightful, funny, and surprisingly candid—a testament to the hypothesis that the greatest artists of all are also the most humane, literate, humble, and generous in spirit.

Tell us about your early experiences in music and your first teachers.
I enjoyed music. I always enjoyed doing it. I didn’t practice overly much as a child—so my feelings were very comfortable. I think I was also very lucky with my teachers. I had amazing people who were able to teach children—making things both fun and serious at the same time. There was a lady in Poland who was a wonderful teacher that all my Polish friends remember very well. After moving to Winnipeg at the age of ten, I also had wonderful people, wonderful ladies. They were just so nice.

Many of our readers are piano teachers who fit that profile. Hearing how important your first teachers were to you will be meaningful to them.
My feeling is that early-level teaching is the most difficult profession—not only in music, but probably in any field. Teaching beginners and young people requires extraordinary talent and dedication. I can tell you very straightforwardly that, for every one fantastic teacher, I could probably name you ten excellent performers. It’s hard to find people who are truly dedicated to teaching. For example, my wife plays tennis. She’s not very good, but she takes lessons from a tennis coach during the summers. This man is a born teacher. What I mean by that is that he has incredible patience. He is able to show what needs to be done to fix a particular issue. He makes it fun and yet is very serious at the same time. When you do get better, he is the happiest guy in the world. And that is what you need with a ten-year-old studying the piano.

That’s a beautiful statement.
And it’s very, very hard to find those people. I’m convinced they’re the ones who should be getting prizes. I would like to see us recognize teachers—just like the Avery Fisher prize for performing artists. We should have a prize for teachers. I think it’s important.

Anything about your other teachers? What about Mieczys┼éaw Munz at Juilliard?
I studied with Mr. Munz from the time I was thirteen all the way through my years at Juilliard. And he was a wonderful teacher—but of course that was a different kind of teaching. By then I was playing
repertoire that was extremely difficult. He taught me how to practice well. And he was determined to ensure that everything was correct.

 

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Below you'll find two videos from our actual interview with Mr. Ax. The first features a series of short questions asked by Ryan Greene, the second features longer, thought-provoking questions asked by Sam Holland. To read the complete transcript, see the interview printed in your copy of the November/December issue of Clavier Companion, or at the "Click to Continue Reading" link above.