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6 minutes reading time (1241 words)

Winter 2021: Reminiscences of Leon Fleisher (1928-2020)


The scene: Leon Fleisher's fourth-floor studio, Tuesday afternoon, September 3, 1985, 88 degrees, no air-conditioning. Thirty-five students line the walls of his studio. Some sit on the floor and others lean against the sills of an open window.

"I know what you're thinking," he says slowly. "You're thinking: what is the level? And where do I fit… into…all of that…I'm just looking for two individuals…who will… transcend…all of that…garbage." 

"Mr. Fleisher, I'll play," I say, before I can take it back. 

"Good—what will you play?" "Beethoven, Opus 111." 

Almost immediately, my classmate, Stephen Prutsman, also volunteers to play. When Mr. Fleisher turns to me to begin, I stall, saying I need a drink of water, so he asks Stephen. That leads to a nearly one-hour session on the first movement of Beethoven, Op. 7. 

Then my turn comes. After performing the first movement of Op. 111, a few of the things Fleisher says include: 

"You need to play the 32nds strongly as well, or they'll get swallowed!" 



And the most indelible: "The secret of rhythmic playing is to be as late as possible while still playing in time." 

This first of many lessons, spread over thirty years, was a paradigm shift for me as a musician and artist. Incisive rhythm, dramatic rests, bold contrasts, penetrating imagery…these only scratch the surface of Leon Fleisher's gifts and inspiration. 

Over the next six years, I had the pleasure of performing works by Beethoven, Schubert, Haydn, Mozart, and Brahms for Mr. Fleisher, and observing him present dozens of other master lessons. Playing for Fleisher brought on a kind of euphoria—his intellect so penetrating, his wit so quick, and his rhythm so infectious that afterward, I felt like I was flying. Once, after finishing the fugue of the "Eroica Variations" with Mr. Fleisher conducting and transmitting energy to me, I walked down Charles Street feeling a foot taller, like my feet weren't touching the ground. 

In 2004, I attended a four-day workshop where Fleisher taught the last four Schubert Sonatas at Carnegie Hall. Mr. Fleisher was just as spry as fifteen years earlier—he continued to orate and sing with as much intensity as ever. I'd thought that my habit of demonstrating with singing (and demanding that my students do the same) originated in my role as a vocal and chamber coach. But seeing Mr. Fleisher teach the 17-year-old Yuja Wang how to scat-sing brought back memories of playing the 'big' Haydn E-Flat Sonata for him ("Yumm; Pumm; pumpumm!") and countless other examples. Without a doubt, it was Mr. Fleisher's unrestrained demonstrations that moved me to be unashamed about using my own mediocre singing voice, boldly and often, in piano lessons.

As Mr. Fleisher said to Ms. Wang, "If you can't sing it, you can't really hear it, you can't really play it." I tell my students that singing compels us to verbalize our musical intentions. Producing sound with one's own voice and immediately evaluating it is very instructive; it engages multiple senses and heightens one's internal sense of rhythm. Singing and rhythm are intertwined: melodic phrasing, articulation, inflection, and declamation are all affected by our intentions. The more we risk being uninhibited by integrating singing into our practice, the clearer and more engaging our playing becomes. 

One instance where Mr. Fleisher's inspiration bore fruit was during a stint as a visiting professor at Eastman, where I worked with two doctoral students from Belarus and Korea on the Mozart Sonata for Two Pianos. Hoping to heighten the synergy of their ensemble, I asked, "Do you ever scat?" They looked at me as if I had two heads until I realized my error—as international students, they had only heard this word in another context…Once we cleared up the misunderstanding, they each sang the main theme. They discovered that they had different inflections of similar phrases—articulations were longer or shorter, one's rhythm moved more determinedly forward while the other's had more poise, etc. After experimenting, they came to a unified approach that fit the stylistic, architectural, and musical needs of the piece. This interaction surely had Leon Fleisher's influence stamped on it. 

I was delighted when Mr. Fleisher agreed to begin working with me again in 2013. Spending hours with him on the Schubert D Major Sonata reenergized me anew. Also, new dimensions had appeared in his playing and teaching. As I told him, what especially thrilled me in the opening seconds of his CD, "Two Hands" was his sound. (He looked at me with humility and asked, "It's better, yes?") His approaches to sound and pedaling had become more nuanced and inspired me to seek new possibilities. At one point, he shared how a colleague had referred to "Schnabel-izing" a passage (a kind of stylized, vibrant rhythm) and I admitted to occasionally discussing "Fleisher-izing" with my students. He said, "you do?" and then looked down and quietly said, "oh, s---!"

Subsequent sessions and communications led to a residency where he taught solo and chamber master classes and conducted me and Syracuse University's orchestra in his signature piece, the Brahms D Minor Concerto. This occurred in October 2015. 

It was my great good fortune to spend between three and four hours a day with Mr. Fleisher for six days, not only partaking in musical discourse, but also communing over meals and breaks. He was warm and keenly attuned to issues of social justice, notably expressing concerns about inequality and opportunity. He was solicitous of my video pedagogy work and asked probing, insightful questions about it, including how to best convey the balance between music and technique in what we now refer to as asynchronous learning. Early on his second day, I picked him up at his hotel and he promptly boomed, "I wish you would call me LEON!!" I was touched, but not surprised. After all, this was the same humble man who exhorted us to "transcend all of that garbage" on the first day I met him, and clearly had no use for pretense and hierarchy in human relationships. 

When I arrived at Peabody as a student, Mr. Fleisher's assistant warned me against playing the Brahms D Minor for him; he thought Fleisher's ideas were too strong, that the maestro wouldn't allow sufficient room for a student's creative freedom. Now, after so many years as a professional, I found the opposite to be true during his residency at Syracuse. He treated me as a colleague and was eager to collaborate as equals. He shared his wealth of ideas freely while also allowing space for, and accommodating, my own. Getting on the same page with Mr. Fleisher was easy. A much greater challenge was playing with a student orchestra (including many freshmen playing in their first concert). 

The performance was engaging and life-affirming. Anguished furor, tender intimacy, and determined passion were just some of what we and the orchestra experienced together. I felt honored and grateful to have been a part of this event, and so pleased that the students were able to gain so much from a rich, exuberant week with Mr. Fleisher. 

Leon Fleisher's impact on the teaching of music, in general, and the piano, in particular, is enormous. He is with me always—when I play and in every lesson I teach—inspiring me and others with imaginative ideas about rhythm, inflection, and the music's meaning, urging us to take risks and never to compromise by taking the safe route.

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Winter 2021: Life in Music
Winter 2021: Fred Kern: A Pedagogical Giant


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