An Interview with Fernando Laires

From the Autumn 2003 issue of Keyboard Companion magazine

by Helen Smith Tarchalski

We are privileged and pleased to share a conversation with Fernando Laires in which he offers a rare glimpse into the exceptional life of an extraordinary man and musician. In this interview, we learn how many of Fernando Laires' perspectives developed and evolved. Although some of his experiences were clearly opportunities that helped to shape his career, others were challenges that he turned into opportunities and life lessons.

Fernando Laires lives by his precept that "piano teachers are more than piano teachers, they are music teachers and tutors about many things, including life itself." He closes his comments by answering a decades-old musing by members of the piano pedagogy field: How do artists of the stature of Fernando Laires and Nelita True co-exist in the career of music while maintaining a deeply devoted marriage?" His advice is simple, and proves that his philosophies and approach to musical and teaching perspectives are indeed inexorably intertwined with his approach to life.

His fascinating story is rich in examples of how we can use our own experiences as "life lessons" that mold us into stronger human beings with a deep sense of mission and artistry.

Read more: An Interview with Fernando Laires

New Piano Teaching Gems You Will Want to Explore

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Having taught piano for 25 years, I have never really been totally satisfied with the materials out there, especially for adults. That’s why I was thrilled when my inspiring colleague Christine Cacioppo decided to create a new method book for adults that is unlike any other. She, too, had been teaching adults and saw the potential for improvement.

The book Christine created and now sells on Amazon, Classic Piano for the Adult Beginner, uniquely combines 3 entire books into one – in a unique way I have never seen in a piano teaching book: Part 1 is a detailed and thorough instructional method, which is followed nicely by Part 2, a collection of selected and edited compositions, some of which you have seen in other places in the literature, but appear in this book with better markings and improved indications for fingerings. Part 3 is a gold mine, even to that adult student who once upon a time took lessons as a child. It’s an annotated listening guide that includes history of the keyboard and the major piano composers – incredible photos of them included! She made sure to write about the jazz greats as well.

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Classic Piano for the Adult Beginner includes explanatory text, finger exercises, and musical examples appearing in a succinct yet smooth sequence. Christine explains musical terms, teaches rhythm and gives us exercises and worksheets that really help the student gain the new skills, then the pieces help the student to practice those new skills. The repertoire anthology is truly delightful, with 48 original elementary to intermediate compositions by composers we love. The discography includes famous pianists to explore via recordings or YouTube. This book is ideal for any adult beginner who wants to read and play, and also appreciates the beauty of the classics, but also great for the adult who studied as a child and are seeking to revive their dormant piano skills. It has the capacity to revolutionize adult piano teaching, whether private or class settings and I recommend it wholeheartedly to everyone teaching beginner adults, high school or college students.

Christine has also compiled an excellent two volume series called Treasures from the Piano Bench. This outstanding series is packed with a superb succession of pieces, some well-known and some obscure, all definitely treasures, aptly titled. The pieces are well marked with dynamics and fingerings. They’re ordered from easy to intermediate (Vol 1) to advanced intermediate (Vol 2).

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The price of these books are surprising, because books nearly two hundred pages with so much material are normally expensive. Her prices are very reasonable for books that can last. If you want to see more about her books before buying them on Amazon or from her website, go to christinecacioppo.com.

Tone production: Doing the right things for the right reasons

As a sophomore in college, I performed in a master class given by a former Van Cliburn Competition medalist. At one point, I was asked to play certain chords so that my fingers moved toward the fallboard as they depressed the keys, and this was supposed to change the timbre of these loud chords without actually changing their volume (providing a “richer” sound). It took all of my willpower to quietly follow this advice and not bring up the fact that the piano escapement mechanism makes the basis for the advice completely fallacious. I didn’t want to be disrespectful, so I followed the advice.

This “pushing in” technique caused the hammers to strike the strings more slowly, as I predicted it would, producing a softer sound, giving the master of the class (and the audience) a most glorious false positive. I felt violated, because I had just been used as a tool to advance an illusory belief system I did not share. Asking me to simply play softer would have been equally as effective and a lot simpler. I’ve received instruction like this in more than a few lessons and master classes, and I have encountered many teachers and pianists who subscribe to various misguided beliefs about what can change the tone of a given note at the piano. This has led to my interest in researching the topic.

Read more: Tone production: Doing the right things for the right reasons

Three Ways Teachers Can Grow Their Studios and Engage Their Students

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Three Ways Teachers Can Grow Their Studios and Engage Their Students

Every year representatives from The Royal Conservatory attend conferences across North America, including the annual MTNA National Conference (April 2–6) and the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy (July 26–29, 2017). These events give us the opportunity to connect with private music teachers to find out how we can support their efforts to foster excellence among their students and increase the impact of music education. Below are three of the topics we are discussing this year: using diverse repertoire to engage students, choosing the best digital resources for your studio, and bringing music to life through theory.

Look Beyond Classic Repertoire

Beautiful, inspiring music cuts across genres and time periods. Many contemporary pieces include pedagogical challenges for teachers and learning opportunities for students. In a recent blog post for The Royal Conservatory, examiner Pete Zarins pointed out six pieces of popular music – ranging from George Jones to the James Bond theme – that can reveal a wealth of music theory.

Similarly, many works of jazz, blues, country, soul, rock, and musical theatre can add a fun dimension to a student's practice routines while also developing their musical skills. The Conservatory's Popular Selection List, 2015 Edition, lists arrangements of hundreds of non-classical pieces – including songs by Adele and Beyoncé, as well as the theme to The Big Bang Theory – selected to complement the repertoire in Levels 1 to 9 of The Royal Conservatory's Celebration Series®, 2015 Edition. Pieces on the list can be used as one of two required etudes for examinations from Levels 1 to 9, or as the “Teacher's Choice” selection – also an etude substitute – for examinations from Levels 1 to 9.

The core repertoire of the Celebration Series® also extends beyond classical favourites to include pieces in popular and jazz styles written for piano, and including works like Jazz Blast by acclaimed composers Randall and Nancy Faber, and Carnivalse by Grammy Award-winning composer, pianist, hip hop artist, and Royal Conservatory alumnus Chilly Gonzales.

Find the Right Digital Tools for Your Studio

One of the best ways to attract the attention of parents in your community is to enhance your online presence. Many parents of young children are accustomed to finding information over the internet and communicating via social media profiles.

Consider setting up a website so your studio will show up in Google searches for music lessons in your community, and promote your site through a Google AdWords campaign. Build your social media presence by creating a Facebook page for your studio – separate from your personal account – and encourage your friends to “Like” it. To further expand your social media presence, join one of the many professional music teacher groups also available via Facebook and connect your account to LinkedIn to build relationships with your colleagues.

You can further professionalize your practice by integrating technology into your teaching. For example, The Royal Conservatory's new Four Star® online ear training resources allow students to practice ear training exercises anytime, anywhere with an internet connection. Each ear-training module includes hundreds of questions presented in an interactive format that ensuresstudents have a new experience every time they practice. The interactive exercises map perfectly to the Four Star® Sight Reading and Ear Test books. Each one of the books includes a unique code on the inside back cover that provides access to the corresponding online resource.

Piano teachers can also invest in online professional development through RCM Piano Teacher Specialist Courses. These 10-week / 40-hour courses in piano pedagogy are led by outstanding pedagogues and provide deep insight into subjects such as: artistry, musicianship, repertoire, and physical approaches to the instrument. Each module of study contains videos and articles from experts in the field; an assignment and portfolio element; RCM curriculum insights; and a moderated discussion forum with 20 – 25 professional colleagues. Teachers can choose from three courses: Elementary, Intermediate, and Advanced.

Bring Music to Life Through Theory

Through the study of theory, harmony, analysis, and history, students will engage more meaningfully with the music they hear and play, enabling them to become well-rounded musicians. This summer we are launching Celebrate Theory®, the first-ever Royal Conservatory-authored series that supports the study of music theory at every stage of a student's musical development.

Transforming Lives, One Student at a Time: The Golandsky Institute’s Innovative Approach

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Rebecca de Almeida arrived to the United States from Brazil with a future that was bright, at least on paper: She was completing her Master’s degree at the University of Hartford, studying piano. The world was literally at her fingertips, or so she thought.

“I started feeling a lot of discomfort,” she recalled. “I was playing a really difficult repertoire, and my teacher would say, ‘Oh, this pain is just normal.’” That “discomfort” ended up being a huge cyst that formed in de Almeida’s right hand. It got so large that she could not brush her teeth, cook, or even open the door, never mind play the piano. She went to a number of doctors who tried injections, which didn’t work. The only alternative, at least according to her medical professionals, was surgery.

But that answer didn’t sit well with de Almeida, who noted that many of her fellow students also suffered from pain but refused to acknowledge it. She reached out for help outside of her conservatory’s walls and was introduced to Edna Golandsky, famed pedagogue and founder of the Golandsky Institute, through a fellow Brazilian pianist. She started working with Ms. Golandsky and within several months, de Almeida was recovered.

“It’s funny that the doctors said I needed surgery because it would have never worked. The real issue was how I was using my hand with the piano and in every other aspect of my life,” de Almeida said. “I’m out of pain and the cyst is gone. I have my career back on track. I did not have to give up. My technique is so much better, and I’m playing with so much more ease. It’s almost magical.”

That “magic” that de Almeida describes is better known as the Taubman Approach, a technique for pianists to transform their physical health and musical fluency, and the Golandsky Institute is, by far, the de facto consortium to learn and investigate the body of knowledge. Much of that has to do with the fact that the Institute’s co-founders, a group of dedicated pedagogues and teachers, studied under the mother of the approach, Dorothy Taubman, followed by many years of study with Ms. Golandsky, and have become the living disciples of her work.

In fact, the reputation that the Institute has received to assist pianists in playing more fluidly and naturally caught the attention of Vivien Schweitzer of The New York Times in 2012, who claimed that there was “a reassuring logic” to the practical teachings of Ms. Golandsky. Indeed, there is clear reasoning behind the Taubman Approach, which not only helps musicians who have accrued injuries from bad physical playing habits, but also allows pianists from all walks of life play with greater security and fluidity, while developing skills that were previously deemed too difficult. “Instrumentalists are often told that the pain is in their heads,” Ms. Golandsky stated. “It’s not in your head; it’s in your hands. I wish more people knew that they didn’t have to suffer.”

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There is a common narrative that runs amongst many of the Institute’s most devoted followers: The approach helped them overcome seemingly insuperable physical and mental barriers. Take, for example, one of the Institute’s co-founders, Robert Durso, who took his first lesson with Dorothy Taubman back in 1983. Prior to meeting Ms. Taubman, Mr. Durso “wasn’t thinking too fondly” of himself, to use his words. However, his introduction to the approach ultimately changed his life.

“The experience was immediate,” he recalled. “It taught me how to analyze solutions instead of just repeating. At a conservatory, no one says anything about how to improve. They only tell you that you miss.”

Durso’s experience is echoed by a number of musicians who have studied with the Golandsky Institute: Jarred Dunn, who takes lessons with Ms. Golandsky regularly from Poland via Skype, credits the work with perpetuating his professional career and redeeming his mental well-being, calling it a “a literal life saver.” He compared his musical life before the Institute akin to being stuck in a bog with no drain, but that finding the Institute made him realize that “playing the piano was natural.”

However, since the students of the Golandsky Institute are located around the globe, there are few opportunities for the learners of the Taubman Approach to cohesively discuss insights into their own playing and pedagogy. That’s why the Institute’s annual Summer Symposium, located on the campus of Princeton University, is such a critical cumulative program for the organization. The weeklong conference features an intensive study of the approach, including private lessons, supervised practice times (for first year participants), interactive technique clinics, breakout groups, and master classes, as well as presentations and lectures. More importantly, it creates a true dialogue and sense of community amongst Taubman scholars, according to Mary Moran, one of the Institute’s co-founders.

“[Students] learn different ways to communicate,” she said. “It’s really an incredible situation. There’s no aspect of a person’s musical life that isn’t enhanced during our week in Princeton.”

Part of the reason why students receive such immense nourishment at the Institute’s symposium is the culture that has been carefully established by Ms. Golandsky and her co-founders. There aren’t any prima donnas or uncomfortable competitive situations for students. Rather, symposium attendees receive a tremendous amount of emotional support from each other while learning how to diagnose different opportunities with expert teachers. In short, it’s an environment that is conducive to learning, a fact that was noted in the February 2015 issue of International Piano, which said that attendees of the symposium were “inspired by the warmth, friendliness, and generosity of faculty and participants.”

“Everyone comes here searching for answers,” suggested John Bloomfield, one of the Institute’s co-founders. “[The symposium] is really important for students of the organization and for the larger community. The fact that it binds people together is the most significant aspect.” 

This year, the symposium (http://golandskyinstitute.org/symposium/) will highlight the Institute’s co-founders in a series of special presentations that apply the Taubman Approach to a wide spectrum of composers, from Liszt to Franck. Mr. Bloomfield will give a presentation on the methodical challenges and expressive virtues of accompaniment figures, while Ms. Golandsky will present a session titled “The Chopin Preludes,” where she will unlock and simplify some of the most common technical and musical challenges in these beloved pieces. She will also present “The Secret of Slow Playing,” which will examine the physical and musical challenges of performing leisurely passages; Ms. Golandsky will demonstrate the reasons for why this music can sound static and uninteresting, and will show how to make these moments flow and sound deeply moving. http://golandskyinstitute.org/symposium/

Robert Durso and Mary Moran will also present during the symposium. Durso will present Liszt’s Waldesrauschen (Forest Murmurs), discussing the musical, textural and technical challenges of this much loved work. He will demonstrate how the difficult passagework is solved using the Taubman Approach, thereby producing ease in both practice and performance.

Mary Moran continues her analysis from last year’s symposium lecture of the Franck Sonata, one of the finest and most challenging pieces in the chamber music repertoire. She presents the technical and interpretive issues in this masterpiece, concentrating on the piano part of the third and fourth movements.

But there are more than just piano studies throughout the week. Ms. Golandsky has been teaching and collaborating for several years with British violinist Sophie Till on how to apply the Taubman Approach to string instruments. Ms. Till, who says that the Institute allows for “a clarity of communication” amongst artists, will present a series of technique lectures that discuss Taubman principles, plus daily workshops, master classes, performance opportunities, and private lessons for string players who wish to experience the approach.

In addition to the daytime program, the evenings feature the Golandsky Institute International Piano Festival, a series of public performances starring some of the world’s most in-demand pianists of a variety of styles, ranging from Ilya Itin to Bill Charlap. However, the one thing the majority of these artists have in common is that they are intimately familiar with the Taubman Approach, have studied it, and have greatly benefited.

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The nighttime recitals are truly an ideal concept to introduce a larger community to the work of the Institute; Princeton University sits right in the middle of a charming college town, an equidistant journey from New York and Philadelphia, featuring gorgeous winding streets, plenty of boutiques and eateries, and charming architecture. The evening concerts serve as a perfect way to close off a midsummer’s afternoon strolling through town. But the recitals also perform another, arguably more important, function: They show the symposium attendees, as well as music lovers from the community, the rich possibility of the Institute’s work.

Ms. Golandsky said that she receives a significant number of emails from instrumentalists from around the globe, many of whom claim that the Institute and the Taubman Approach transformed their lives. That’s an incredible feat for any teacher, and for Ms. Golandsky, the ability to put a stamp on someone’s musical life has made her ongoing inquiry deeply rewarding.

“It is our way to do something wonderful for people,” she said. “Many people who have not pursued a career in music due to playing-related injuries have come to us and we have given them skills that transform, not only their playing, but their lives.”