Menahem Pressler: Artistry in Piano Teaching

Menahem Pressler: Artistry in Piano Teaching

by William Brown

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As soloist, master class teacher, and pianist of the world-renowned Beaux Arts Trio, Menahem Pressler can boast of four Grammy nominations, three honorary doctorates, more than 80 recordings, and lifetime achievement awards presented by France, Germany, and Israel. Former Pressler student William Brown traces the master's pianistic development through Rudiakov,

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As soloist, master class teacher, and pianist of the world-renowned Beaux Arts Trio, Menahem Pressler can boast of four Grammy nominations, three honorary doctorates, more than 80 recordings, and lifetime achievement awards presented by France, Germany, and Israel. Former Pressler student William Brown traces the master's pianistic development through Rudiakov, Kestenberg, Vengerova, Casadesus, Petri, and Steuermann, blending techniques and traditions derived from Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, and J. S. Bach.

Brown presents Pressler's approach to performance and teaching, including technical exercises, principles of relaxation and total body involvement, and images to guide the pianist's creativity toward expressive interpretation. Insights from the author's own lessons, interviews with Pressler, and recollections of more than 100 Pressler students from the past 50 years are gathered in this text. Measure-by-measure lessons on 23 piano masterworks by, among others, Bach, Bartók, Debussy, and Ravel as well as transcriptions of Pressler's fingerings, hand redistributions, practicing guidelines, musical scores, and master class performances are included.

Indiana University Press

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Editorial Reviews


"This is a loving paean to Pressler (b. 1923) written by a former student with a wealth of input from other former students.... A good selection for collections supporting study of the piano." —Choice, June 2009

American Music Teacher

"This book offers an invaluable insight into the world of this outstanding musician and his teaching." —American Music Teacher

Clavier Companion

"Brown's Menahem Pressler allows us to gain a unique perspective on the contributions of this extraordinary man and the impact he has had on the lives and music making of so many." —Clavier Companion, February 1, 2010

Joel Harrison

"[Brown] provides a fine reference tool for the pianists not so fortunate as to have studied with Mr. Pressler, and for those who did, a means to reflect upon and deepen their understanding of this remarkable musician." —Joel Harrison, Artistic Director, American Pianists' Association

From the Publisher
"This is a loving paean to Pressler (b. 1923) written by a former student with a wealth of input from other former students.... A good selection for collections supporting study of the piano." —Choice, June 2009

"This book offers an invaluable insight into the world of this outstanding musician and his teaching." —American Music Teacher

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Indiana University Press
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Menahem Pressler

Artistry in Piano Teaching

By William Brown

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2009 William Brown
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35241-5


A Brief Biography

Menahem Pressler was born on December 16, 1923, in Magdeburg, Germany. In 1939 he and his family fled to Palestine as the Nazi regime made life increasingly difficult for Jews in Europe. Pressler, who had begun playing the piano at age six, continued his musical studies during these years of turmoil. In 1946, while still a student, he flew to San Francisco where he won first prize at the First International Debussy Competition. Soon after, he began his solo career, which included an unprecedented four-year contract as soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Eugene Ormandy.

While continuing his successful career as a soloist in recital and with orchestras, Pressler co-founded the Beaux Arts Trio, which today is considered the world's foremost piano trio, regularly appearing in major international music centers and festivals. Since its debut concert on July 13, 1955, the Trio has performed throughout North America, Europe, Japan, South America, and the Middle East, as well as at the Olympics in South Korea and Australia. Annual concert appearances include series at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Celebrity Series of Boston, and the Library of Congress. The Trio has recorded fifty albums, including almost the entire chamber literature with piano on the Philips label, and has been awarded numerous honors, including England's Record of the Year Award, four Grammy nominations, Musical America's Ensemble of the Year, the Toscanini Award, the German Recording Award, the Prix Mondial du Disque, three Grand Prix du Disques, the Union de la Presse Musicale Belge Award, and Record of the Year awards from both Gramophone and Stereo Review. On July 14, 2005, the Trio celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with a performance at the Tanglewood Festival.

In the same year that he co- founded the Beaux Arts Trio, Pressler joined the faculty of the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. He was named to the Dean Charles H. Webb Chair of Music in 1998 and currently holds the title of Distinguished Professor. In addition to presenting master classes worldwide, Pressler also has served as a juror for the Van Cliburn, Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, Arthur Rubinstein, and Paloma O'Shea piano competitions and the International Piano-e-Competition.

In 1994 Pressler was honored with Chamber Music America's Distinguished Ser vice Award, and in 1995 he won the German Critics' Ehrenurkunde award for having set the standard for chamber music over the previous forty years. In 1998, he received one of only five Lifetime Achievement Awards granted in the last fifty years by Gramophone magazine, placing him in the distinguished company of Dame Joan Sutherland, Sir Georg Solti, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Sir Yehudi Menuhin. In 2002 Pressler was awarded the Gold Medal of Merit from the National Society of Arts and Letters, which recognized him for "a long and distinguished career not only as an internationally recognized concert artist but also a teacher and mentor of young artists." In 1986 he was invited to dinner at the White House. In 2005, he was named a commander in France's Order of Arts and Letters, France's highest cultural honor, and soon after received the German President's Deutsche Bundesverdienstkreuz (Cross of Merit), Germany's highest cultural honor. In 2006 he was awarded the Concertgebouw Prize, and in 2007 he was named an Honorary Fellow of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. In addition, Pressler has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and received honorary doctorates from the University of Nebraska- Lincoln, the North Carolina School of the Arts, and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Pressler has continued to perform as a soloist, having made his Carnegie Hall recital debut in 1996 in the Great Performers Series. He has also recorded thirty solo albums. He lives in Bloomington, Indiana, with his wife, Sara. Their son, Ami, is a hospital laboratory technician in Bloomington and their daughter, Edna, is a clinical psychologist and director of the University of Massachusetts- Boston Counseling Center.

The New York Times has called Pressler "a prodigious talent" with "exceptional gifts." The Washington Evening Star praised him as "a poet of the piano." And Le Figaro in Paris has hailed him as "one of the greatest living pianists."


The Studio

On many days Menahem Pressler can be found in his piano studio, Room 105, in the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. His daily schedule is to practice from 8:00 am until lunch at noon and then to teach from 1:30 until 5:00 pm. Late afternoons are frequently spent in recital hearings for the school's hundreds of piano students. Evenings oft en include attendance at some of the school's more than 1,100 annual recitals, many of which are presented by Pressler's own students. Some evenings Pressler goes to bed at 10:00 pm and then gets up at 1:30 or 2:00 am to practice for another hour or two. His health, eyesight, and level of energy surpass people many years his junior. His work ethic is extraordinary in that he has never cancelled a concert or a lesson.

For more than fifty years, since 1955, Pressler has maintained a full class of fifteen to thirty students. This would be remarkable in itself even without the twenty- four weeks of the year that he is on tour, presenting more than 120 concerts with the famed Beaux Arts Trio or performing solo piano recitals. His former students are now faculty members of conservatories and music schools around the world, and the influence of his performance and teaching has shaped the way many people perform and listen to music, especially in the realm of chamber music.

Pressler presents students with a technical regime that ensures their ability to play without physical tension, an approach that frees the student from injury or abuse from strain, despite hours of daily practice. Pressler's method produces finger dexterity, sonorous sound, a command of touches, and a myriad of tonal colors.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect students gain from working with Pressler is to begin to share his ability to hear the limitless possibilities of color that are available in piano playing. His keen ear, musical sensitivity, and tremendous insights are easily recognized by the perceptive listener and can be systematically transmitted from teacher to student so as to affect the shaping of melodies, balance of musical lines, and rhythmic flow.

People often ask Pressler how he maintains his boundless enthusiasm, to which he offers this standard reply: "When you wake up and you see a very beautiful new day is coming, that is the way you keep your enthusiasm up. You take a piece of music and you feel renewed. You feel, 'That's what I wanted to do all my life, and now that I have the opportunity and the privilege of being able to do it, should I not be happy or full of gratitude? Or should I feel, 'Oh, I've done that before. There is nothing new?' I have never felt—and I don't think the Trio's ever felt—that we have dug to the deepest possible way that one can dig into these masterpieces. So, for us, a lifetime is barely long enough to dig, to find, and to renew that which makes our lives worth living as musicians."

Pressler seeks to share his insights, those things that have worked for him in practice and on the concert stage. He does not compromise his musical standards, and he demands the highest level of musical performance from himself and his students. As Mia Kim Hynes remembers him saying at her first lesson with him when she was only fourteen, "You are playing the Chopin Ballade today, and I will teach you as an adult."

Being selected into Pressler's class is a much-sought-after distinction, but that is when the work really begins. Pressler's students must dedicate a minimum of four to six hours to daily piano practice. Although the long-range goal may be a public recital, the immediate incentive is preparing for the next lesson. Th e nature of the lessons is demanding and uncompromising. No matter how prepared the student is for the lesson, Pressler uses that preparation as a basis for further study into the score, looking for more depth of musical expression, solving technical difficulties, and taking the performance to a higher level of achievement and understanding. Because Pressler is frequently away from campus, touring with the Beaux Arts Trio or playing solo recitals or presenting master classes, a student may receive a cluster of two or three lessons in the same week, which increases the demands of practice during this time.

As deadlines for competitions or recitals approach, Pressler's teaching style becomes less specific and detailed. At this stage, he may sing along with the melodies, perhaps conducting with his arms and body, striving for climaxes and insisting on a consistent tempo to ensure structural integrity of the performance. There may be discussion of how the acoustics of the hall will affect the listener's perception of the piece. Pedaling may become adjusted and the musical character more defined.

Once students leave his studio, they have learned to perform with confidence and security because they know what they have accomplished and understand how far they have come. They have observed Pressler's work ethic, and they have seen his example of a performer's life. They know what can be accomplished, how to achieve results from their practice, how to listen in depth to their own playing, and what to expect when they listen to others. They have learned a great deal of repertoire from their own studies and from listening to other students in performance classes and recitals. They have learned principles of technique that ensure looseness and flexibility. They know how to establish goals for learning repertoire. They have learned principles of musical expression that can be applied to all music, and they have learned how to play with color, how to shape a melody, and how to adapt to different pianos. They are indeed ready for what ever musical opportunities await them.


Pressler's Early Training

Times were uncertain in Germany in the early 1920s when Menahem Pressler was born to Moritz and Judith Pressler, owners of a clothing store in Magdeburg, ninety miles southwest of Berlin. But as Pressler recalls, he and his younger siblings, Leo and Selma, had a happy life at home as children.

"What I remember really is, the strongest part of the memory, was that there was always love. Yes, sometimes my father was very, how shall I say, rough. He would say, 'Th at has to be done,' or something like that. None of us children ever was rebellious or would think even in those terms, not to do what he had asked, and mother was as sweet and as kind as could be. And there was and is to this day very fine relations among the three of us."

The family worked hard and was, as Pressler says, "very, very religious." "We went to pray. We kept the Jewish holidays, which I, of course, became much less to keep them as I was traveling and playing. But I remember them, and I remember the prayers. And when I can, I like to go and pray. Yes, we were very, very much religious.

"Of course, when I came of age, I had a Bar Mitzvah, and my brother Leo had it. I remember that I had to learn the part of the Torah that I had to read, and that took at least six months, because you not only have to read, but you have to read and have to sing it the way it is marked in the Torah. You see, the Torah has little signs how to read it, how to sing it, and that's not easy. And I had to learn it, and I did. And I even remember what is my capit in the Torah, which was Vayigash, which means 'and he approached.'"


There were few concerts in Germany at the time, but the family loved music and enjoyed listening to records. Pressler remembers that his father "played very badly the violin," but at the age of six, Menahem began violin lessons, and his brother began piano lessons with a Mr. Kitzl, the Lutheran church organist who came to the Pressler house. Leo didn't practice much and didn't really want piano lessons, but Menahem learned his brother's piano pieces just by having heard them during the lessons. Soon, at age seven, he was allowed to discontinue his violin studies and begin learning the piano.

Because he played by ear, "cheating," as he calls it, Menahem did not read music well. "I always asked the teacher to play the piece for me, and I would remember it. And then when I would play a wrong note, he would say, 'Now why don't you read the music?' And I barely could, until he discovered the problem, and then he taught me to read. He was a good teacher and he was very kind, and I would say that my physical ability and also my desire were much greater than my musical advancement at this stage."

Germany had come under the Nazis by this point, which made lessons difficult at times. Pressler recalls Kristallnacht, the "night of broken glass" in November 1938, during which mobs throughout Germany and Austria broke into synagogues, Jewish homes, and Jewish- owned businesses, including his parents' store, looting and destroying property and attacking scores of people. "But I also do remember something which is amazing. My brother was out on his bicycle and he fell and he broke his leg. The SS men, the ones in uniform, the Nazis, brought him to the house. They had kind of immediately set his foot, which later really proved to be of great help. So these were the murderers actually, but here on these terms they were marvelous, humane."

Germans, of course, were not supposed to associate with Jews, and certainly not visit their homes or teach them music. Pressler recalls, however, the courage of his teacher. "I do remember the great, great, great kindness of Mr. Kitzl. It was difficult for me to go on a tramway to his house, so he would come to my house and teach me. His whole attitude, the kindness that he showed me, was of help to me. You couldn't imagine what it would be like, when you wear the sign of Cain supposedly on your forehead. That's how they make you feel. But he didn't. He made me feel good."

Pressler remembers the first pieces he played with his teacher. "I only played classical pieces, but I remember an anecdote with my father. I played that little Schubert F minor Moments Musicaux. And when I finished playing for Kitzl, he said to me, 'The ending was wonderful.' So I told my father with pride, 'And the ending was wonderful.' He said, 'Well, what about the beginning?' He didn't understand what's with the rest of the piece, but I understood what [Mr. Kitzl] meant. Instinctively I understood there is a difference between how you approach this and the other, and that there I succeeded more than with that. "

Despite growing political concerns, Pressler was able to attend three special concerts during these early years. The first was in 1936 when he was twelve or thirteen and on a business trip with his father in Poland. The two took a side trip to Lwow so Menahem could hear the great Ignaz Friedman play a solo recital, an event that Pressler says had an enormous impact on him. He attended the second concert the next year, when Walter Gieseking played the Strauss Burlesque and a Mozart concerto with orchestra, and the third was an all-Chopin program presented in Magdeburg that included majurkas, waltzes, a Polonaise, and the Bolero, "a very interesting, thoughtful and creative program," Pressler recalls.

During his years of study with Kitzl, Pressler learned several Bach Preludes and Fugues, Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodie no. 13, Beethoven's Sonata Op. 2 no. 3, a Mozart concerto, Beethoven's Piano Concerto no. 1, and Chopin works, including Impromptus, Nocturnes, Mazurkas, and Waltzes.

"To some extent," Pressler muses about that period of his life, "I was considered special [in the family] because I did what I did, which was playing music, and being successful quite early, so they all tried to help. If I had a recital, they all publicized it. Th ey all tried to sell tickets. That's what I remember of home."

While Menahem studied the piano, his father, Moritz, kept watch on the political climate, thinking that the situation for Jews would improve. Preparations for the horrifying exterminations of Jews were just beginning, and Moritz waited almost too long to get his family out of Germany. In 1939, when Menahem was fifteen, Moritz applied for tourist visas for the family to visit Trieste, Italy, supposedly for a family vacation just weeks before World War II started. "That we could leave was a matter of luck," Pressler says. "Th e German border police let us through to Trieste, but they didn't have to." He remembers the "enormous act of kindness" of Mr. Kitzl forwarding to him in Trieste a copy of Debussy's Reflets dans l'eau with all fingerings marked.

Many years later, in 2005, Pressler returned to Germany to receive the Deutsche Bundesverdienstkreuz (Cross of Merit), which was presented to him in Magdeburg. "They had everything," he says of the event. "They even had a picture of my father's store which was destroyed. That was unbelievable to me. And [the presentation] was read by the prime minister [Dr. Wolfgang Böhmer] of the province. That was in my hometown, where they made me an honorary citizen and they gave me my graduation, which I had never had the chance to complete."


Excerpted from Menahem Pressler by William Brown. Copyright © 2009 William Brown. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

William Brown is a professor of piano who has contributed to Piano Guild Magazine and PedalPoint. He lives in Bolivar, Missouri.

Indiana University Press

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