from the series: The Word Around Us: News & Views

Leon Fleisher early in his career: Photo credit: Don Hunstein, Sony BMG Music Photo Archives.

Appearances on 60 Minutes, NPR, and CBS Tonight; features in The New York Times, People, Vanity Fair, and Reader's Digest; blog reminiscences from a childhood neighbor; Grammy Award nominations and an Academy Award nomination for a film documentary about his life; recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors; and young fans asking for his autograph on everything from concert programs and CDs to iPods - these are the expected accolades of a consummate pop culture star. These are not the expected accolades for a concert pianist - unless that pianist is Leon Fleisher. The first living pianist inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame and the first American pianist to win the Queen Elizabeth of Belgium International Competition, Fleisher's life story is as compelling as his musical interpretations.

Lauded by Francis Ford Coppola, Elton John, Christopher Plummer, and Sean Connery (the nominating committee for the Kennedy Center Honors) for Lifetime Achievement in the Performing Arts, Fleisher has stood the test of time replete with the roller coaster rides of life doled out to even (or perhaps especially?) the most gifted humans. "His comeback," wrote Holly Brubach in The New York Times in 2007, "has catapulted him up next to Lance Armstrong as a symbol of the indomitable human spirit and an inspiration to a broader public."

Qualifiers used by students to describe Fleisher, his music-making, and his teaching include "transcendental," "some kind of God," the "Obi Wan Kenobi of Piano," and "absolutely the best teacher on the planet." Performing with two hands or one, teaching or conducting, the Fleisher legacy has touched millions of music lovers all over the world, and it has deeply affected the way that pianists perceive music and express themselves through music. Fleisher has prepared many students for noteworthy careers, some who have also been featured in the same aforementioned media. 

Fleisher's parents, who were Eastern European immigrants, settled in San Francisco, where they started rearing their children. His father was a ladies' hat-maker. They later moved the family to New York so that Leon could continue his studies with Artur Schnabel. Much of Fleisher's story is well known in music circles and beyond. But as an artist and mentor with whom few can compare, he has reached far beyond the extraordinary events in his remarkable life and worked to make sense of it all in a way that can be meaningful to others' lives.

We are very grateful to Mr. Fleisher for taking time out of his exceptionally busy schedule to share some of the lesser-known details of his life - along with some teaching ideas and advice for avoiding the condition that is one of the best-known elements of his life story, focal dystonia - with the readers of Keyboard Companion

The interview

What do you recall about your early years at the piano? Who were your early influences?

I remember watching my brother, Raymond, who was five and a half years older than I, taking his piano lessons on our little upright when his teacher came to our apartment. He was far more interested in getting out to the ball field. But I remember being curled up on the couch, watching and listening from the other corner of the living room, and being fascinated with the sounds that could come from the piano! When my brother went out to the schoolyard after his lesson, which he invariably did as quickly as possible, I would go to the piano and I was able to reproduce what was asked of him during his lessons. My parents and the decided that I should have lessons, too. I was four years old.

I was eventually moved to a teacher known as a "Prodigy Maker" in San Francisco, a Russian named Lev Shorr. I remember he was bald, he wore pince-nez, and spats - in San Francisco! He spoke with a Russian accent and he walked with a cane. If we played a wrong note, he did everything but rap us on the knuckles with that cane. It wasn't considered a good lesson until he made me cry! Then we had a "good lesson." Every time he made me cry at the lesson, he took me out for lunch and fed me lamb chops. And I still love lamb chops to this day.

The greatest influence on my musical life was Artur Schnabel. He introduced me to music on a whole new level. It's very difficult to put into words the inspiration that seared our souls. That was probably the most important aspect of studying with Schnabel - the constant level of inspiration. Every phrase he played was expressed in the most eloquent way.

Along with Artur, his son Karl Ulrich Schnabel had a most profound effect on my life; not only as a musician, but as a human being. Karl Ulrich, or "Ruli," had the ability to engage and inflame one's imagination. Ruli analyzed and put into words much of what his father did. 

The studio at Lake Como in Italy where Artur Schnabel and his family lived and taught after fleeing Germany in 1933. This is where Leon had his first lessons with Schabel.

How did you become acquainted with the Schnabels?

Through family friends I became connected with two conductors in San Francisco. One was a Frenchman, the conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, Pierre Monteux. The other was his predecessor, a German, Alfred Hertz, who had directed the first Parsifal at the Met. I performed with Hertz when I was nine years old. Hertz had been asked by the government to form another orchestra in response to WPA.1 Hertz's new orchestra played school concerts, and we performed the third movement of Beethoven's 2nd (B-flat) Piano Concerto. We only played the third movement; even back then there was the tendency to underestimate the concentration capacity of children!

Monteux and Hertz became interested in me and said that I should study with Schnabel. They both knew him, and he was contacted. Schnabel politely turned me down because he said I was too young. He said that he accepted students no younger than sixteen because younger ones generally do not understand the abstract language and concepts with which he worked in music.

In the winter of 1938, Schnabel came to San Francisco to playa concert. He had dinner with the Hertzes while he was in town. The Hertzes snuck me into their Pacific Heights house through the garage downstairs. They sat me at the piano so that when dinner was finished and the dining room doors opened, there was this little nine-year-old kid sitting at the piano in the living room. Being the gentleman that Mr. Schnabel was, he patiently sat down and listened to me play. I played the cadenza to the Beethoven B-flat Piano Concerto. It is, of course, quite difficult. The cadenza to that "young" concerto was written much later in Beethoven's life, so it is a wilder, more profound Beethoven. And I played Liszt's Sonetto del Petrarch #123. For some reason, perhaps too much wine at dinner, he changed his mind and invited me to study with him that summer in his summer home at Lake Como (recently "discovered" by George Clooney; but we knew about it a long time ago!) in Tremezzo, Italy. It was the start of ten years of work with one of the greatest hearts and minds in music. It was an extraordinary time being there with the Schnabels. I am filled with so much emotion when I think of those days. 

Leon Fleisher teaches a master class. Photo credit: Gilmore Festival J. Lacko.

What are some of your recollections of working with the Schnabels?

I later heard recollections from other Schnabel students, including Leonard Shure, who recalled that Schnabel was "sarcastic" and "sardonic" during their time with him. But by the time I went to study with him, he had already been in his residence in Italy for a few years and had perhaps mellowed a bit.

Schnabel was short, had a twinkle in his eye, a wry smile, and a wonderful sense of humor. He loved spoonerisms; one time he had some dental work done in London that did not please him, and he said, "I paid fifty shillings for some shifty fillings!"

He was married to the singer Theresa Behr. He said that he learned most of what he knew about music from his wife.

Schnabel rarely talked specifically of technique. But he did speak about gestures, and in terms of "arming" the piano and "handing" the piano - less in terms of the fingers. We glued our eyes on his hands when he played. It was beautiful to watch! He guided everything from the arms and from the hand.

He spoke of special pedal techniques for color effects - half pedal, quarter pedal, and vibrating pedal. He taught that one can use the pedal to make a difference between an eighth-note staccato and a quarter-note staccato.

Schnabel insisted on duet work. Schnabel felt that chamber music was extremely important for the development of a pianist.

I teach the way I was taught. Schnabel rarely taught individual lessons, rather he taught in groups. That way we covered an enormous amount of repertoire. 

Schnabel's lessons were two and a half to three hours long. He grabbed you by the soul. He reached transcendental heights. We used to stagger out of the lessons like drunks - inebriated with his concern and inspiration. He used lots of imagery, such as liquid gold, to describe a warm, fluid legato. It makes sense, and it works.

Schnabel was concertizing a lot in those days. He didn't want some of his students to go without instruction while he was gone, especially young ones like me (I was the youngest student he ever had). So he sent me to his son, Ruli. They were not just lessons in music that stimulated the imagination. They were lessons in ethics, they were lessons in life. He was a man of extraordinary personal integrity. He had similar ideas and solutions as his father, but he also worked on making his own path with his own ideas. I was most fortunate to work with both father and son.

Schnabel finally kicked me out of his studio after ten years because I had become lazy. I would pick up a Beethoven Sonata and take it in to him with the attitude, "The truth will be laid upon me." It was difficult to become independent when under such a powerful influence. 

Your recordings with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra are universally considered the Gold Standard of Beethoven and Brahms piano concerto performance. How did you become acquainted with Szell? What was it like to work with Szell?

When I was about twelve, my parents got me a 78 RPM recording of the Brahms D minor Concerto. The soloist was my teacher, Schnabel, and Szell was conducting. Schnabel and Szell were good friends. The long opening tutti still makes my hair stand on end - starting with the thunder of Thor in the timpani, and the monumental, revolutionary theme. I played the opening tutti so many times that I wore out that side of the recording. Even though it was my teacher playing the piano part, it was about a week before I got to the side of the record with the piano! I fantasized about playing it some day with Szell. When I was seventeen, I was engaged to play it with the Chicago Orchestra and a young America conductor making his debut with the orchestra - Leonard Bernstein. Lennie and I did the D minor Brahms. The concert was such a success that in the following summer of 1946, I was contracted to play four concerts, two with William Steinberg, and two with the conductor I had dreamed about - George Szell. And one of the performances we did was the D minor Brahms! In 1947 when Szell became music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, he chose me as his first soloist! That was an extraordinary honor to me.

Later, Columbia Records had the New York Philharmonic with Lennie and the Philadelphia Orchestra with Eugene Ormandy on their label. But they really wanted the Cleveland Orchestra because Szell was turning it into one of the best orchestras in the world. They created a new label for the Cleveland Orchestra (Epic Records). Szell came to me and asked, "Would you like to record the whole piano literature with me?" Greedy little squirt that I was, rather than accepting immediately, I was quiet at first. I had racing through my mind: "But if I do this, what about Lennie, and what about Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra? If I align myself like this, what about recording with them?" And Szell roared, "You hesitate?!"

He could be quite intimidating, but was warm beneath it all. There are stories about him treating many soloists abominably. Big names. Szell appreciated and adored Schnabel, so since I was a student of Schnabel, Szell and I had similar approaches to music and the challenges that composers present. Szell and I never had a word of disagreement in interpretation or approach to the music.

Szell made the most stringent demands upon himself, and anyone who worked with him. So from that point, the recording was tremendously stressful. His standards were virtually unreachable. But if one could get past that, the joy of making music with a great artist and great orchestra was amazing. It shook one's soul. 

Photo credit: Don Hunstein, Sony BMG Music Photo Archives.

Can you tell us about the onset of focal dystonia?

It was in 1964. I remember what I was working on at the time - Schubert's "Wanderer" Fantasy. I had been practicing eight, nine hours a day. I had a small accident when carrying a piece of lawn furniture. My thumb was cut and I had some stitches. I was forced to rest for about ten days. When I resumed practice, I went right back at it as I had been doing before the accident. But something didn't feel quite right in my right hand. My fourth and fifth fingers weren't responding very well; they felt sluggish. So, I practiced more. And harder. My fingers just wouldn't obey no matter how hard I practiced! I watched in horror as my fourth and fifth fingers began to curl involuntarily toward my palm.

It was during the Cold War, and the Cleveland Orchestra was going to Russia. I was their soloist. It was becoming obvious to everyone that I was having serious trouble with my hand. Szell came to me and said that I would have to cancel. Of course, he was right. Eventually my right hand became unusable for playing the piano.

I entered a period I refer to as my "deep funk." I sank into deep depression. My marriage broke up from the strain. My career had been riding high, and now everything I had worked for all those years seemed to be gone. I was filled with self-pity and anger. I tried everything I could think of: acupuncture, meditation, biofeedback, surgery, even psychotherapy. I grew tired of my deep funk after a few years, and I realized that my connection was to music, not just playing the piano with two hands. I began conducting, and investigating the piano literature for the left hand. And I started teaching more.

I discovered a lot of beautiful literature written for the left hand alone, and I began performing and recording these compositions. I also discovered how much I love teaching and conducting, and how they affect one's playing by developing a deeper understanding of the music and a different kind of listening. And when teaching, I could no longer shove the student off the bench and say, "This is how it's supposed to sound." I had to develop ways to describe the indescribable through words. 

I did not have a ticket for your Meyerhof Hall concert in 1982, which the media called your "comeback" after many years of playing concerts with one hand. I remember sitting just a few miles away, watching the lights of the ships at night on the Chesapeake Bay, and listening to a live radio broadcast of your performance with the Baltimore Symphony. We were able to hear an ecstatic host, Tony Randall, and the same sense of ecstasy in the full house audience. It was clear that this was an important time in music history. How did you feel that evening?
 

I was terrified. What a terrific responsibility that concert felt like. But that evening was no "comeback." My hand was not responding as fully and reliably as I had hoped and expected. I had to change the repertoire from Beethoven's 4th Piano Concerto to the Franck Symphonic Variations. Although I had achieved major improvement, I had not yet been fully diagnosed. I had not yet learned that this is a condition that will never be "cured," nor had I learned how to effectively deal with the lasting effects. I remember I broke down and wept backstage before I went on. 

People sometimes mistakenly refer to your dystonia as being "cured," but as you just said, people are not cured of this condition.

Absolutely not! One is not "cured" of this condition - this affliction. I am a Dystonic. Once a Dystonic, always a Dystonic. The only thing that one can do is to learn how to manage the symptoms. It was only after I was properly diagnosed and began treatment and management that I was able to have meaningful relief from the symptoms.

Medical science is still learning about the condition, but we still don't really know what causes dystonia. Doctors don't know why some people come down with it, and some don't. Dystonia is the third most common neurological disorder after Parkinson's and Essential Tremors. Dystonia is characterized by involuntary muscle contractions that force abnormal movements or positions. Someone can have generalized symptoms, or more task-specific dystonia. I have the latter condition affecting my hand, which is called focal dystonia. 

The Fleisher Duo - Leon Fleisher and Katherine Jacobson-Fleisher. Photo credit: Jennifer Bishop.

What is being done to manage your symptoms of focal dystonia?

Back in the early 1980s my wife Katherine suggested that I try Rolfing, a type of deep manipulation that gets to the heart of the connective tissues. My arm began softening more with each successive session, and to my amazement and joy, my fingers started responding again.

In 1995 I was diagnosed with focal dystonia. I thought I had tried everything already, but after the diagnosis, the doctors at the National Institute of Health began a treatment they had developed for managing the symptoms of dystonia - injecting small amounts of Botulinum Type A Toxin, or Botox, into the affected area several times a year. I like to say that I have the smoothest arms in the business! Injections of Botox work by relaxing tension in the muscles, allowing the fingers to extend again.

My wife gave me a wonderful birthday present last year. She gave me the gift of Yoga lessons. I find that the stretching and breathing techniques one learns in these classes are helpful in so many ways. 

Although medical science can't explain exactly what causes focal dystonia, have you learned what are some contributing factors to the symptoms? What advice can you give other pianists to avoid focal dystonia as best as possible?

We used to take pride in developing tough arms, and we'd go around feeling each other's forearms; "Hard as the legs on a Steinway," we'd brag. Of course, now we know that's not the way to go!

I tell people that we as pianists must think of ourselves as "athletes of the small muscles." We place extraordinary demands on these muscles, and as such, we must take care of them. That includes proper stretching and warm-up exercises before we work out. And it means listening to our bodies if we feel that something is painful or feels not quite right.

Avoid perfunctory repetitions when practicing. Always practice with a purpose in mind. What has been discovered about dystonia is that it is a neurological disorder. The signal from the brain to the affected body part, in my case, my hand, becomes blurred over time and the body part responds by locking up, or freezing. So, many fast repetitions of a passage without specific goals can contribute to this blurred signal. 


Footnote

1 WPA or Works Progress Administration (known as Works Projects Administration after 1939) was the largest New Deal agency of president Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, helping to develop jobs during the Great Depression.


Editor's Note: Please stay tuned for our next issue, which will continue this interview with the legendary Leon Fleisher addressing the question: Your musical heritage is very rich - just a few generations away from Beethoven on your teacher tree through Czerny to Leschetizky to Schnabel. How do you feel this background affected Schnabel's work with you and your development in musical preferencesIn addition, we'll hear advice from Fleisher on teaching and effective practicing, and get a preview of what's new and what's next for Leon Fleisher. In the meantime, please visit our website at www.keyboardcompanion.com to hear recordings of Leon Fleisher.

For further information on Dystonia research and treatment, you are invited to visit www.dystoniafoundation.org