Are Russian piano teachers really that scary?
Recently, I had a number of friends reporting that when they mentioned me to their friends the reaction was usually something along the lines of: “Is she really strict?”; “How scary is she?”; “Is she nice!?”
When this happened the first time, I thought that particular person had probably just had a bad experience with a Russian piano teacher, and I didn’t give it a second thought. However, when one of my student’s friends was shocked on meeting me (I think he was expecting to see a big 60-year-old babushka), that got me thinking… Another time, a student of mine invited me to come and celebrate his birthday (in a club, of all places), and when we were on the dance floor one of his friends asked, “And where is that piano teacher of yours? I knew she wouldn’t show up!” So I just had to introduce myself once again…
Why do English people find us, Russian classical musicians and teachers, so intimidating? I just had to write about this, to get to the bottom of this myth. When I ask, some say that it’s because Russian musicians are famous for having the best technique in the world, and Russian teachers are therefore feared for the big demands they make on their students, expecting them to ‘practise 8 hours a day’ (my grandmother used to say, “Four hours in the morning and four hours in the evening”), and for placing them under considerable pressure to achieve the best possible results.
I believe the word ‘Russian’ also still makes some people think about Soviet times, when Russian people appeared on TV or in public with stony faces, devoid of any sign of a smile… These popular beliefs combined have conspired to create the scary ‘dragon’ image of a Russian piano teacher.
It’s true: being Soviet during the Soviet Era meant distrusting your colleagues in fear that you may be reported; there was no suggestion of original ideas unless they were in line with Communist Party ideology (which was extended to science and art as well as economics and politics); and if you didn’t want to support the Communist Party openly (I personally never went on a single demonstration, even when it was compulsory), at the very least you had to keep quiet.
But times have since moved on…. Now there is a new generation of Russians who were allowed to leave when the iron curtain came down, brought up in the times of Perestroika and Glasnost. I remember preparing my school history homework only to discover that everything had changed since the previous night and what we had learned was no longer applicable… The history teacher didn’t know what to teach us as the Soviet Union and its neighboring countries were dramatically changing.
Having said that, there were good things: you were expected to be good at everything you did (Dance, Music, Maths, etc.) and the standards were extremely high. Just to give you an idea: some of the Maths syllabus from year 10 at my school covered the same topics that were on the first-year Maths programme at University! So, when our generation suddenly gained the opportunity to leave our homeland, whilst many of us sincerely wanted to leave behind all the bad things of Soviet Russia, we continued to cherish and bring forward many of the old traditions, including the quality and integrity of our work.
As teachers, that doesn’t make us unfriendly, cruel or unreasonable; we simply try to teach to the highest level of our ability. Russians sometimes have a reputation for been too straightforward and not very diplomatic. Perhaps… But if you can accept this and get past it, you may be surprised to find a genuine interest and enthusiasm for conveying knowledge to a student to help them realise their full potential. In my memory, my Russian piano teachers (Sergei Yushkevitch, Victor Makarov and Regina Horowitz – although the latter was my great grand mother), never counted the hours when they were teaching; they gave me and many of their other students as much time as was required to teach them, whether it was one hour, three hours or five… The goal was to educate the student however long it took.
Amongst the most famous teachers in the world who were either Russians or taught in Russia using Russian methods were: Anton Rubinstein, John Field, Alexander Villoing, Anton Door, Theodor Leschetizky, Vassili Safonov, Alexandre Siloti (the teacher of Sergei Rachmaninov), Heinrich Neuhaus (teacher of Richter, Gilels and Lupu),Alexandre Goldenweiser (teacher of Bashkirov, Berman and Nikolaieva), Konstantin Igoumnov (teacher of Ashkenazy, Davidovich and Feltsman) and Felix Blumenfeld (teacher of Horowitz)to name a few. They were all famous for their principles and total dedication to music and education. Some of them were stricter then others, but they are all warmly remembered by their students all over the world. I know many current Russian pianists who are both performers and teachers, and I wouldn’t associate any of them with the word ‘Scary’. Here is an interview with the incredible Russian virtuoso pianist Boris Berezovky, who is the one of the most modest people I have ever met:
So what do you you think – are we, Russian Piano Teachers, really that scary? The only way to find out is to be open-minded and try a few Russian piano teachers…
As for me, you can judge for yourself! : ) Take a look at the clips on the Piano-Yoga® Education Youtube Channel:
Better still, come and meet me in person on the 15th May at Kings Place in London at the next Piano-Yoga® retreat:
It’s now time for my piano practice…