Posts filed under:  The Music Life

Still electrifying, Mr. Wild


American virtuoso Earl Wild

Today I had the great pleasure of playing some of Earl Wild’s stellar performances on the air, during my Saturday morning radio shift on WRTI-FM in Philadelphia. He was born in Pittsburgh 101 years ago this day.

He died in 2010, teaching until the very end. I was one of the lucky recipients of an almost “secret knowledge” handed down by a virtuoso of the old Romantic tradition, who had heard Rachmaninoff in person many times, and who had studied with a student of Ravel’s, and of Busoni’s.  Earl could explain every aspect of piano playing — from fingering, to nuances of phrasing, to chord balancing, to pedaling, to power in brilliant passages, all the while demonstrating, at the second piano. He knew, by heart, nearly every passage from the piano repertoire. He could talk and do.

Some other things about him, impossible to convey on the air — his charisma and rapier wit. His elegant way of dressing, which never looked foppish, because he was tall and broad-shouldered, with a shock of white hair, and blue eyes that widened or which he rolled to punctuate every story he told. The most colorful ones I can’t repeat, but here’s a milder one. When a new student at Juilliard approached him in distress, saying she’d been turned down by another teacher because her hands were so small she could barely reach an octave, he said, “How big is your brain?” She became his student and went on to have a successful debut at Carnegie Hall, critically praised in the Times for her fresh interpretation of an unusual program that alternated between Schumann and Bach.

Earl was not afraid to tell us students that he practiced — a lot. His income went up with the number of hours he practiced, he said, quite deadpan. Out to dinner, he preferred a Tanqueray martini, up, with a twist. A favorite pre-concert snack was a bowl of chocolate ice cream, which he ate in his bathrobe (why I was at his house while he was getting ready for a concert, I’m not sure, but the memory sticks.) He wrote his marvelous compositions and transcriptions for piano, in part, he said, to ward off the “boredom of practicing.” Earl was a sweet man, but he was not one to sugarcoat the life of a concert pianist.

For one of his recording sessions, I served as page turner. He was recording all the Rachmaninoff Preludes and the 2nd Sonata, on his white 9-foot Baldwin grand piano in his spacious living room in Columbus, Ohio, with its acoustically advantageous cathedral ceiling. He had to record at night, to minimize extraneous outdoor noises, but there were train tracks about a mile away, and a train rolled through just as the recording engineer was doing sound checks. Earl placed his hands on the keys and perfectly replicated the diminished/augmented/whatever chord that the train horn made, mournfully blowing across the flat Ohio plain.

Earl suffered no fools. Any pompous sort unlucky enough to try to cross him would wither and burn under that caustic wit. Consequently, managerial types would not necessarily feel fondly toward him. He was not cliquish or popular with the musical in-crowd. Ever independent, he was the opposite of a “yes” man.

Oh, but how his audience adored him, from music lovers, to great arts patrons, to opera stars, and of course his students. Listen to his recording of the four Rachmaninoff Concerti and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, recorded when he was 50, with Jascha Horenstein and the Royal Philharmonic. Recorded in just five days, Earl told Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times, that he had an instant rapport with the orchestra, and making that recording was “a joy.”

Listeners today definitely heard that joy. I received an unusual slew of phone calls and e-mails after playing his recording of the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto on the air. Everyone could feel the special brilliance of Earl Wild’s playing; its precision, power, pacing, gorgeous sound, and utter sensitivity, to this day, are something rare. Happy birthday, Mr. Wild — you are still electrifying.


J.S. Bach: What happened to his DNA?

Johann Sebastian Bach, the father of many offspring, biological and musical

As social animals, we human beings can’t help our intense curiosity about other people.  Faced with a member of the species who behaves outside the norm, we wonder, “How did so-and-so get that way?” This is especially true in the case of remarkable talent, and has led me to the subject for my next lecture-recital. Why does musical giftedness awaken in some people, and not in others who have, purportedly, the same DNA?

Famous, curious example: the Bach family. For five generations, the descendants of bread baker Veit Bach dominated their musical corner of Germany, producing an astonishing line of professional musicians, many of whom achieved creative greatness. The zenith of this familial dominance culminated in Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750,) whom many consider the greatest composer of all time. Yet after the generation of J.S. Bach’s sons, it all seemed to fizzle out.

What happened? Why did the genetic code that found such marvelous expression for so many generations suddenly go dormant?

The relatively new science of epigenetics studies what factors affecting a cell can change the shape of its underlying DNA, allowing certain genes to be expressed, or to be kept under wraps. It’s not only at the level of the genome, the double-helix, that causes certain traits to be expressed and even inherited, it’s what happens on the surface of the genome, or the epigenome, that can affect genetic expression. Quantifiable, scientific work is being done at the micro-cellular level. But it’s tempting to extrapolate to a larger platform and consider what factors in an organism’s (or person’s) environment affect the expression of certain genes, behaviors, and even talents.

Musicologists offer clues, through their exhaustive study of biographical data, primary sources, and historical records. Mining these musicological resources has proved fascinating. It turns out that of J.S. Bach’s twenty children, only half survived past childhood. Of these, only one grandchild chose a musical career. Only three of Johann Sebastian’s grandchildren had children of their own. And curiously, the line, without professional musicians of note, ended up in Oklahoma.

In an essay for the American Bach Society, Christoph Wolff tracks down a great-grandson of J.S. Bach who eventually settled in Stillwater, Oklahoma, amongst a large German-Ukrainian community, and whose own granddaughter possessed personal items belonging to her forebear, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, J.S. Bach’s eldest son. This American descendant of J.S. apologized to Wolff for the family not being more forthcoming about their connection to the great musician. Devout Lutherans, they were for years embarrassed that they had sprung from a somewhat wild branch of the family, and had originated from an illegitimate birth.

Fortunately for us, not all secrets remain hidden — a persistent scholar will dig up evidence, and a persistent offspring with a modern sensibility will want to claim the truth.

Which brings me to the conclusion that all this curiosity, and all this pursuit, musical, genealogical, or scholarly, is just a quest to know the truth about ourselves. Who are we? Gifted or not, that is the question worth digging for.


The essay by Christoph Wolff, called “Descendants of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach in the United States,” appears in Volume 5 of Bach Perspectives, edited by Stephen Crist, and published by University of Illinois Press, 2003, produced by the American Bach Society.



Where Music Shines Bright

Daniel with his working Braille copy of the Chopin Etudes from the Lighthouse Music School

I’ve taught many wonderful students over the years, but one in particular stands out — Daniel Gillen, who is a physics major at Haverford College, and a lyrical pianist with a strong artistic voice. That Daniel has been blind since infancy doesn’t seem to hinder him much. Part of his confidence stems from the remarkable education he’s received from a place he often speaks about, the Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School at the Lighthouse Guild in New York City.

Mignon Gillen, Daniel’s mom, a dancer and choreographer, invited me to visit the school when I was in Manhattan recently. We met in the sunny lobby of the Lighthouse Guild Headquarters on East 59th Street, where people were hurrying in from the wind and cold. Designed by Mitchell/Giurgola Architects, the building has an open feel that seems to draw people in and up, with purpose. Here a person who is visually impaired can receive eye care, vision rehabilitation, academic and practical training. At first glance, the only clue that patrons here might have special needs are the elevator buttons, which are large and colorful. Mignon and I rode up to the fourth floor music school. There we were welcomed by Executive Director Dr. Leslie Jones; Dr. Lisa Johnson, the director of administration, and Daniel’s longtime piano teacher and Director of Musical Studies, Dr. Dalia Sakas.

For the next hour or so, I had a chance to absorb a world of music within this small space, where every square inch is needed; besides desks for staff and Leslie’s office, there are teaching studios for individual music instruction, and a library that houses an extensive collection of large-print and Braille music scores. Because the school accommodates many types of vision loss, it makes available many types of scores. Dalia showed me a music score in which a single measure of very large noteheads took up an entire 8.5 X 11 page. “That’s for an 80-year-old woman with macular degeneration who wanted to play the piano again.”

When a student needs a piece of music that doesn’t exist in the library, there are a few options: a request to the Library of Congress, a commission to Dancing Dots, a company in Pennyslvania that specializes in creating scores for the visually impaired. Or, as Dalia told me, “I make it.”

If needed, Dalia can generate print-on-demand large-print or Braille music scores with computer software on-site. (Keep in mind that Braille music must be learned at a relatively young age, when the fingertips are sensitive enough to feel the tiny raised dots that comprise the system of notation.) Now Lighthouse students are creating their own scores. One room of the school is devoted to music technology, with a MIDI keyboard/computer lab, and the capacity to teach MIDI sequencing, recording, as well as notation programs such as Finale, Sibelius, Lime Light (to produce large-print scores) and Goodfeel (to produce Braille scores).

Specialization for vision loss aside, what the Music School at the Lighthouse Guild offers its students, who range in age from pre-school to ninety, is a multi-faceted music education. They can study theory, ear-training, and solfege, receive private instrumental lessons, and participate in vocal ensemble, jazz improv, pop/rock ensemble, choir (directed by Dalia) and dance. Students perform in recitals, performathons, and in an annual concert co-produced with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a collaboration that has successfully run for eighteen years. Not long ago, in an extraordinary effort, the school put on a professionally staged version of Benjamin Britten’s “Noye’s Fludde,” which received high praise from Anthony Tomassini in the New York Times, who only lamented that there hadn’t been enough funding for a longer run.

The staff and teachers at the Lighthouse Guild Music School work with the kind of devotion and creativity that can’t be measured in hours or dollars. They’ve built a model that is both unique and dynamic, and believe the community music school is where the future of music will thrive. To get the message out, they’ve invited music education majors from local universities to serve as interns at the school. They also give talks to share their vision. Anyone who meets Dalia and Leslie will realize that the future of music is bright. Their enthusiasm and entrepreneurial spirit reflect their joy in music-making, and their determination to give their students a rich, undimmed future.

An inspiring day with extraordinary women Leslie Jones (left) and Dalia Sakas (right)

From the Annals of The Practical Musician

Kizmit checks out my new compositional aid

Back in graduate school, I used to admire the impeccably finished manuscripts of a composer friend, whose orchestral scores were marvels of precision, each notehead and tiny stem aligned like miniature Japanese calligraphy.

“How do you make your scores look so perfect?” I asked. My own music notation more resembled Beethoven’s scrawl. I like to erase musical thoughts and re-do them, constantly.

“I have a secret,” Ruzh said.

He showed me how his penned manuscripts were actually written with a fine-point mechanical pencil on archival paper. Once it was mistake-free, he spritzed the paper with hairspray to fix the final version.

Nowadays, of course, anyone who arranges or composes must learn to use notation software. I have been learning to use Finale, which, I must say, is a tedious process. In order to produce a complex piano score, there are a lot of un-intuitive hoops a musician must jump through; in my opinion, the elegant efficiency of the human brain and hand has not been so easily translated into computer language. Until one masters the quirks of the program, one must spend countless hours in front of a computer with multiple keyboards and mouse attached.

The muskulo-skeletal system protests.

“You need an ergonomic task chair,” my friend in the corporate world insisted. She mentioned a few brands, whose price tags also had me wincing.

After some searching, I came across a brilliant idea: someone in our area had decided to start a business recycling task chairs and other office furniture. They refurbish the pieces and re-sell them at one-fifth the original price. Even more brilliant — they had recently opened a “showroom” not far from my house.

I found the small showroom near an industrial park complex off a busy road. I was shown a number of different chairs. “And if you don’t like any of these,” the office manager said, “you can choose anything in the warehouse.” She opened the door to an un-air-conditioned, dimly lit space several acres huge, and jam-packed with desks, cubicles, and conference tables around which ergonomic task chairs sat, as if ready for a meeting. Besides a man unloading a pallet of office furniture in the distance, it was just me alone with thousands of chairs.

In the end, I settled for the Criterion made by Steelcase. It is sturdy, padded, compact, and adjustable in nearly every conceivable way. The manager helped me muscle it into my car, as the chair is heavy. (It takes the “steel” in its name seriously.) After getting it home, I noticed, because the chair was upside down, that I had some cleaning to do, which involved tweezers, disinfectant, and lots of paper towels. I also noticed that the “ship date” said “2000.”

But the chair works great. I can sit tethered to my computer for long periods, and stand up again as if I’d just gone for a nice walk. There’s no excuse for me not to produce a decent quantity of work.

Just think, J.S. Bach produced over a thousand compositions with a quill pen, flickering candles to illuminate his desk, no central heating. I’ll bet you anything he did not have an ergonomic chair.

But I’ll bet he would have loved one.

 For more information about recycled task chairs, check out Ethosource.



Heard in the Open Air — in Beautiful Mexico

The church of San Miguel, Archangel, looks out over the biggest musical party in town

For me, one of the tremendous pleasures of a walking town is that, freed of a car, I become part of a throng of people who mingle, talk, and congregate. What follows is fascinating — where people congregate, some folks naturally want to entertain and others listen. I love New York City for that thrilling chance of stumbling across great street talent, while doing nothing more than hurrying from Point A to Point B. On my first trip to the heart of Mexico, at the invitation of my friend Ariadna, I encountered equally enchanting musical surprises.

In Mexico City, remarkable voices boom out across Chapultepec Park. Mexico City is an urban giant of the most congested kind, with a constant rumble of old taxis, busses, trucks and cars, but in Chapultepec Park, one can walk among trees and breathe. Street vendors line the pedestrian zone, selling everything from snacks to caps. Without an ounce of shyness, they advertise their wares by singing at the tops of their lungs.

“Is that music?” my new friend Helene asked me, when I said I just had to capture this street symphony on video.

“Well, they’re singing in tune, in sequence, and they end their phrases in a consistent descending minor third. Yes, I believe it’s music.”

Especially noteworthy was the ice cream vendor who continued to sing without break as he scooped helado for his customers — his remarkable breath control produced a volume that could have projected to the last row of the Metropolitan Opera House, were he onstage.

More obvious perhaps was the talent we encountered in the beautiful colonial town of San Miguel de Allende. In the open-air courtyard of a restaurant improbably named Mamma Mia, we heard a guitarist, Severo Barrera, whose virtuoso fingerwork punctuated a folksy sense of line and phrasing. Another evening, in the Hacienda de Guadalupe, a dancer of outsize ability taught fluid, acrobatic salsa moves to a group of eager learners. His baseball cap on backwards, a bemused smile on his face, his encouraging “Uno, dos, tres — Quatro, cinco, seis, siETe” was like music above the lilting recorded track.

The real “battle of the bands” came out at night, in El Jardin, the town square, with its rows of clipped laurel trees, in front of the many-spired, neo-gothic Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel. There, on a Wednesday night no less, people of all ages milled about; couples held hands, children scampered, teens laughed, until all hours. Three different mariachi bands played with zest in different corners of the park, punctuated by a boombox accompaniment for some hiphop dancers. No boombox could compete, however, with these large mariachi ensembles, each composed of multiple violins, trumpets, and guitars, led by an enthusiastic singer or two. Fresh players, young guys in their embroidered black bolero jackets and trousers, red silk cravats tied at their necks, sat on benches with their violins or trumpets in hand, waiting their turn.

Above it all, the bells of the churches in town began to peal, even at midnight. It was not just a feast for the ears  — it was a true fiesta.


Poetry in Music, the Deepest Emotion of All

Emily Dickinson's garden

Last Sunday I had the singular pleasure of performing with Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, a wonderful mezzo-soprano who is heard more often as part of the vocal quartet Anonymous 4. For our program, Jacqui appeared as vocal soloist, and chose modern songs written by male composers to the words of female poets and writers.

The songs that began and ended our concert drew the most applause and biggest laughs. Who can resist Seymour Barab’s buoyant and sometimes bittersweet settings of Dorothy Parker’s witty words? A woman sings of receiving “one perfect rose” and you think she is going to get all sentimental about it, until it’s revealed that what she’d rather have is “one perfect limousine.” In the final set of songs by Dominic Argento, Miss Manners advises her affronted “Gentle Readers” how to behave at concerts, whether to boo at atonal music, and most of all, why she is right.

Humor notwithstanding, it was the poignant middle songs of the program that haunt me still. I relished playing Richard Pearson Thomas’s pianistically lush settings of Christina Rosetti’s verse. The most touching of all was Aaron Copland’s song written to Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Heart, we will forget him now.”

Perhaps no music is needed to underscore Dickinson’s achingly emotional poem.  There is no greater, or simpler, description in the English language of longing. We need not know the biographical details of Dickinson’s life, or even Copland’s (who was gay in an era when he could not be open about it) to feel the hurt of trying to forget a man who must be forgotten. As in all great songs, Copland’s harmonic language and melody bring the emotion into sharper focus, and make it somehow bearable, remind us of what it is to be human.

Here is Dawn Upshaw’s version of the song (with orchestral accompaniment.) The text flows along in the video montage, so that you, Gentle Reader, can see — with your ears and eyes.




Ice and iPad

Trees gowned in ice, as seen by my husband Tom

To write this post, I must sit at my dining table, snowbound, in the gloomy late winter afternoon, pen in hand, small candles pale-ly illuminating my paper.  I’m not trying to recreate a 17th century scenario, like Tim Jenison (see previous post.) No, today I am sitting in the dark because our modern conveniences have been swatted away by Mother Nature. The lady is not pleased by what we humans are putting her through. This morning’s message of displeasure came in the form of yet another unusually brutal winter storm. Around three in the morning, Tom and I woke to the sound of pine trees in the woods all around us cracking, their branches overburdened by an armor of ice. They ruptured and slid to the earth, exploding like gunshots. Power lines came down with them, and that was that — our electricity was out.

Fortunately, being a pianist, I don’t need a single volt of electricity to go to work. I have my 10 fingers, my brain and 88 keys that activate an instrument made of wood, steel, and felt. Whether by daylight, candlelight or electric bulb, the piano will respond. Beautiful sounds can emerge whether my toes are warm or not. No booting-up of anything necessary.

But as daylight begins to fade, I realize that much of the music I need to practice has been stored on my iPad, which is still 80% charged. I set my iPad on the music desk. Its bright internal light clearly defines each note of my electronically stored music scores. Since my eyes are weak to begin with, I’m grateful for this as daylight disappears.

Back in 1700, when Bartolomeo Cristofori first introduced his new invention, the pianoforte, this remarkable instrument represented an ingenious example of new technology. In 2014, an Apple iPad allows this contemporary pianist to keep practicing her craft in conditions she’s not built for. It’s a marriage of two technologies from two different centuries, working together for no better purpose than to allow the expression of human art. Mother Nature, you don’t mind that, do you?


A Small Town’s Musical Gem


A Heavenly Place for Music Study

Just before the start of the holiday season, I met my sister-in-law Ann, a yoga instructor, in Lenox, Massachusetts for the gift of a brief, restorative yoga retreat at the Kripalu Center. With a little time to spare before check-in, I decided to browse around the tiny town of Lenox, and unexpectedly discovered a musical gem on the top floor of a square brick building on Main Street.

From the outside, the Lenox Library resembles the austere courthouse that was its original incarnation, back in 1815. After the county seat moved to Pittsfield, the building became a meeting place for parties and social assemblies, and the building’s interior reveals this friendlier function. During the Gilded Age, when the Lenox Library Association took over the space, leading residents such as Andrew Carnegie helped out, and no less than Edith Wharton served on the book selection committee.

Inside, the Lenox Library displays that rare combination of grand vistas and cozy vignettes, from the high ceilings to the archways that offer unimpeded views leading from room onto room. Balconies look down from overhead; tall windows let in lots of natural light. The place is filled with books, Oriental rugs, lamps and comfortable nooks for reading.

As attractive as all these features were, what intrigued me most was a sign on a closed white door that read “Music Department.”

Curious, I opened the door onto a deserted wide staircase illuminated by a large window. The walls were lined with portraits of all the library’s presidents beginning with elderly John Hotchkiss, born in 1794, to the present day. A spider plant and a handmade quilt depicting the library’s facade (“given in loving memory of Judith Effron”) softened the landing.

At the top of the stairs stood another closed door. A plaque beside it read,  “Courtroom: Berkshire County Courthouse, built 1815, altered 1893, restored 2003.”

Behind this door I discovered an elegant large room with an unusual, high domed ceiling. The ceiling was not plain — it was painted with morning-glories and hummingbirds in mid-flight. I could easily imagine the kind of balls and gatherings that must have taken place there a century ago, as lavish as those from The Age of Innocence.

Today, the room’s shelves are filled with music recordings and books, as fully stocked as many college music libraries. The volumes cover an extensive list of musician biographies (from Beethoven and Berg to Benny Goodman and Leonard Cohen,) volumes on musical instruments, and on the psychology of music. There is an entire Grove reference series. There are shelves of music scores, from opera to Broadway, to lieder, to chamber music and piano music, and miniature orchestral scores. Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion sits near Britten’s War Requiem.

I rifled through the audio CD’s, and pulled one out at random to discover my friend Eric Bazilian’s band “The Hooters,” looking very 1985, right next to a recording by Marilyn Horne.

More rare, the library has a large selection of vinyl LP’s. The first I looked at turned out to be the Rachmaninoff and Kodaly Cello and Piano Sonatas, played by my late teacher Earl Wild, and his good friend cellist Harvey Shapiro, recorded decades ago.

The music librarian, Amy LaFave, a dark-haired, soft-voiced woman with a gentle smile, clearly keeps things perfectly organized. She told me that the original room was deemed unsafe for large parties and balls when the hardwood floor began to warp, and so was closed.  When renovations were done in 2003, workers uncovered and restored the hummingbird painting on the domed ceiling.

How did such a comprehensive and beautiful music library come to exist in a small town in pastoral Western Massachusetts? Amy told me that the music department of the library was founded by Serge Koussevitzky and his wife in the early years of the Tanglewood Music Festival, so that Boston Symphony players could have ready access to materials during the summer season. The Koussevitzky Foundation is no longer directly involved with the library, but students who attend the Tanglewood Institute of Boston University make good use of its resources every summer.

I complimented Amy on the library’s rich collection of vinyl LP rarities.

“I keep the vinyl LP’s of certain recordings if CD’s or digital formats aren’t available,” she said.

As all libraries must do these days, the Lenox Library must adapt to the use of digital media, especially for sound recordings. It’s a challenge, figuring out how to optimally allow patrons to “borrow” these new materials, while explaining and preserving the past.

“We had a group of 4th graders in here not too long ago,” Amy said. “I showed them a vinyl LP, and they had no idea what ‘that black round thing’ was.”

For now, having the physical objects — the LP’s, the books one can hold, the scores one can turn the pages of (including pages where perhaps a famous musician’s fingerprints can be still be detected) — these physical objects are a direct link to a gilded and a golden past. I hope they are protected forever.

Interview with Michal Schmidt, pianist and cellist extraordinaire


Michal Schmidt, cellist and pianist

A few years ago, I was astonished by an amazing feat of musicianship. At a piano trio recital program for Tri-County Concerts, I saw and heard the cellist, Michal Schmidt, lay down her cello and move to the piano to perform Ravel’s Violin Sonata with violinist Min-Young Kim, so that Matt Bengston, who had just performed Ravel’s solo piano masterpiece Gaspard de la nuit, could take a much-deserved break.

Okay, I’ll admit that I’m picky when it comes to piano playing. It’s not a small thing and also not an exaggeration when I say that Michal’s tone, phrasing, fluency at the keyboard, and sensitivity to the violinist, were exquisite examples of finesse, artistry, and beauty. So it was an honor and a pleasure when she asked me to collaborate with her on a number of interesting recitals this season — two of which are coming up next month.

Rarely is an instrumentalist so exacting and vocal about the piano part — my part. In rehearsal with Michal, I submerge my ego and keep an open mind, knowing that she can play the piano part perfectly well herself. It’s been ear-opening and a lot of fun.

Today I’d like to interview this superb cellist, pianist, wife, mother, and colleague, and share with you her insights into her unique career and life.

DLH: Tell me a little about your growing-up years, and if anybody in your family was a professional musician.

MS: I grew up in a little town in the northern Galilee in Israel. As a teen we moved to Haifa, the port city more to the south.  I have 5 siblings. Everyone played an instrument at some point in their lives. My mom played piano very well (she still does at age 84) but in her professional life she is a world-renowned sociologist, and was a professor at the Haifa University for over 30 years. My dad was a teacher at a vocational school. He played the cello and the flute as an amateur for many years.

DLH: How old were you when you began music lessons, and which instrument came first?

MS: I started piano lessons with my mom when I was about 5 years old. Piano was my passion from age three or so. My mom says I would cry and ask for my “la” and my “mi” and my “do.”

Cello came later, when I was about 10.

DLH: You came to study at the Curtis Institute as a young woman. Were you admitted to study both instruments? Did any one instrument begin to take precedence?

 I came to Curtis in September of 1978, after a year at the Royal Academy of Music in London. I did get accepted on both instruments, which was rare. Later I found that maybe it was an unspoken “no-no” at the school. They were not too tolerant of the fact that I was playing and practicing both and doing the course load of the two departments.  At the time I felt my cello playing needed a push, so I decided to study piano privately outside the school and I got plenty of push in cello at Curtis. Now both instruments are pretty much on equal footing, and I practice them both, as much as I possibly can.

DLH: You subsequently earned your doctorate at Temple University, in which discipline?

MS: My doctorate at Temple U was in cello performance. I studied there with Jeffrey Solow.

DLH: What appeals to you about playing each instrument, and what does each bring out in you as an artist? You are clearly a “people-person” and both instruments allow you to collaborate with other musicians. Do you feel the cello brings out the soloistic side of you?

MS: I love the richness of repertoire for the piano, the unlimited possibilities of the instrument and the chance to accompany, which is my favorite thing to do as a pianist.

The cello, at times, has been more of a soloistic instrument for me, but also with it, I am thrilled to collaborate with colleagues.

DLH: You’ve raised three healthy, well-adjusted kids, and we all know that juggling work-life balance can be difficult with a family and a demanding music career. Does any one incident as a working musician and mother stand out?

MS: The mix of motherhood and artistic work has been just that, a mix for many years.  I did what I could, and remember being exhausted all the time!  One incident that comes to mind- I organized a big concert in memory of a loved teacher. I was the organizer, producer, accompanist for seven singers and cello soloist for one piece as well. I got home late after the concert, and went right to my baby, Abby, who was then less than a year old (she is now 19).  The abrupt switch from “stage glamour” to changing diapers struck me very strongly – to this day I remember the precise date of that concert in 1995!

DLH: Now that you’ve recently become an empty-nester, do you have new goals for your life or career?

MS: Now with less worry about young kids, I would love to do more of what I have been doing, knowing that I CAN do more, because no one pulls at my arm to go make dinner NOW.

DLH: Do you have any advice for young musicians who are talented in two instruments and who would like to make music their profession?

MS: The advice is to keep practicing, and if you love both, do both. The main point is, that in our time, a music career may be such a difficult path, so diversifying may be important. Think of not only the one passion — maybe you have another passion that can help you with real life’s demands.

With that in mind — this week I learned in French the idiom “violon d’Ingres” — “the violin of Ingres” (the 18th century painter). This is an idiom that describes one’s passion, or a very loved hobby. It sounded so cool, I went searching for the source of this idiom.

So the story goes that when people came to Ingres’ studio to see his paintings, he preferred to play the violin for them, as he was a decent player. So his music passion went beyond and along with his passion for painting, for which he was famous.


How Can I Keep From Singing? A Glorious (and Fun!) Tribute

Willliam Appling, positive and powerful teacher, mentor, musician

Last weekend, I played and sang in a second celebration for my late teacher, pianist and choral conductor William Appling. It was one of the most joyful musical afternoons of my grown-up life, just as being at his summer music camp as a teenager meant absolute happiness.

Bill, whom I met when I was fourteen, and whom I called “Mr.Appling” for decades (he was the rare type of teacher who kept up with you, and whom you were always excited to hear from) — was one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever known. No matter whether you were young or old, girl or boy, rich or poor, nice or mean, he immediately “got” you, and appreciated your strengths. He cared about the loveable and the un-loveable. He was a great musician whose seriousness of purpose never got in the way of kindness and fun. For those who were lucky enough to come under the influence of his presence and his smile, one memorial service, held four years ago, wasn’t enough.

There was a practical need for the second one, held last Saturday in the light-filled, beautiful Church of the Holy Apostles in Manhattan. A group of us have been raising money to finish his last project, the complete recordings of Scott Joplin’s piano music. Before prostate cancer took him five years ago, Bill was able to record all of Joplin’s oeuvre, but the recordings are still in incomplete takes, and will require extensive editing to stitch them together in commercially viable form.

So, we decided to hold a party, a musical one — the best kind, I think. I participated like when I was a teen, by performing a wide range of things: chamber music (Brahms and Britten, with my dear friend, violist Sarah Adams) as well as solo pieces (Joplin.) Really harking back to old days, I also sang in the choir. The 25 voices were culled from the major stages of Bill’s teaching career: the great elder (though not elderly) statesmen came from the Men’s Glee Club of Case Western Reserve University; the middle-agers came from his choirs at Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio and his summer music camp there; the talented younger group came from his days at Vassar College. The youngest singers were children of his students, including my daughter Lexi.

We were directed by the charismatic Matt Oltman (director emeritus of Chanticleer — I’d expected anyone “emeritus” to be grizzled and gray, but Matt was quite the opposite.) It was a blast. The array of speakers and soloists included a famous author, some professional musicians, as well as gifted amateurs who’d continued to devote themselves to music. Just as inspiring were the conversations I had afterward, catching up with people. One old friend said he was now running a company that helps businesses solve their problems using — I think this is right — custom-designed computer technology. That seemed a far way from graphic design and women’s studies, which is what he studied in college.

My friend laughed. “I used to complain to Mr. Appling that I was interested in too many things. He said, ‘But Art, you could be good at all of them. Just do it!”

When someone extraordinary has such belief in you, one needs no better affirmation. It makes one think, as in the words of the old Quaker hymn, “How can I keep from singing?”

For more information on the William Appling/Scott Joplin project, visit: