*This interview originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Clavier Companion and has been re-posted with permission.
By Edward Darling
Elvina Pearce studied piano with Isabelle Vengerova and pedagogy with Frances Clark. For more than six decades, she has presented recitals, workshops, and master classes in more than forty states as well as in Canada, the Republic of China, and Australia. Highlights of her pianistic career include recitals in Taipei, Taiwan, and Perth, Australia, at Carnegie Recital Hall in NYC, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C., and as soloist with both the Chicago Symphony and the Chicago Philharmonic.
For fourteen years, Elvina taught piano and pedagogy at Northwestern University. She also served as National Certification Chair for MTNA, and from 2000-2006 she was Editor-in-Chief of Keyboard Companion magazine. She is the composer of more than thirty published piano collections, and is the author of a best-selling book, The Success Factor in Piano Teaching: Making Practice Perfect. In 2011, Elvina received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy, and in 2014, she was inducted into the Illinois Fox Valley Arts Hall of Fame.
Following the 2015 National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy, Elvina and I spent several days talking about her life and career.
Elvina, let’s focus on those experiences which you believe were the most significant factors in shaping your remarkable musical and pedagogical career. How did it all get started?
It began in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I grew up as the only child of a great mother and father, along with a dog named Inky. Not one of them could read or play a note of music. Classical music and composer names such as Bach and Beethoven were unheard of in our home, and there was no piano.
When I was about five, my parents volunteered to store a neighbor’s piano in our home for two years while he was out of the country, and so this enormous, old western saloon-style piano moved in with us and consumed virtually all of the space in one room of our small house. Almost immediately I began to doodle around on it and soon discovered that with one finger I could pick out tunes such as “Twinkle,” “Yankee Doodle,” etc. Then I discovered how to play using both hands! Almost at once this big old piano became my favorite play-pal.
After two years, the neighbor returned and reclaimed his piano. By then I was in love with music and thoroughly smitten with making it myself on the piano. Losing the piano was devastating!
So what happened?
Well, around that time, an itinerant piano teacher appeared in our neighborhood offering lessons in the home for fifty cents a pop. Nearly every kid signed up and, of course, I also wanted to enroll. When I asked my parents for permission, they agreed, but with one stipulation—if I took piano, I’d have to discontinue dancing lessons, which I also loved! They reasoned that it was better to focus on just one thing and really do it well than to try to do several things with less impressive results. However, they left the decision entirely up to me, and so, after much pleading and shedding buckets of tears, I finally chose piano instead of dancing.
I assume that your parents then bought a piano and signed you up for lessons with the in-home teacher. Tell me about your first lessons with her.
Her name was Lenore Hunter. She was young and pretty, and to my delight, she taught me how to read music! I’m especially grateful that the positive environment she created for my beginning lessons was perfect for nurturing my newfound love for music and the piano. However, after about two years, she dropped a bombshell when she recommended that my parents seek another teacher who could work with me at a more advanced level. This was a real bummer because I loved Miss H. and had assumed that she would be my teacher forever. But my parents followed her suggestion, and so I was enrolled with teacher number two, Helen Ringo, a professor of piano at the University of Tulsa.
Tell me a bit about her.
She was a dear woman with whom I studied for nine years and from whom I learned a great deal about music and technique. But what I remember most was her exuberant love for music and music-making which permeated every lesson. Her studio piano was a Mason & Hamlin grand which had a gorgeous, mellow tone, and I’ll always remember her continual emphasis on the quality of sound being produced—never harsh, never percussive—and this is still a high priority with me, both as a pianist and teacher.
When Mrs. R. unexpectedly passed away, it once again became necessary to find a new teacher, and soon I was off to New York to begin three years of lessons with teacher number three, Isabelle Vengerova, and renowned Russian teacher whose students included Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, and Gary Graffman, to name just a few.
In your Success Factor book, you include a candid discussion of your time with Vengerova. What was she really like?
Ugh! Appearing in the 1979 summer issue of The Piano Quarterly is an article by Joseph Rezits which contains descriptions of Mme. Vengerova submitted by thirty-two of her former students. Leonard Bernstein said, “I was in mortal terror of her.” And in his delightful book, I Really Should Be Practicing (Doubleday), Gary Graffman writes: “She inspired fear and trembling among even the most stouthearted . . . at lessons, shouts, screams, threats, curses, and stamping were the norm . . . ” Other students described her as “a terrible taskmaster, tyrannical, an authoritarian, uncompromising, intimidating, overpowering, egotistical, sadistic, cold, and cruel,” etc.
My first experience with Vengerova was during a two-hour audition which preceded the start of my lessons with her. As I played, she said little, but when she finally evaluated my performance, she said, “I am not at all impressed with how loud or fast you can play.” Then pointing to a picture on her piano, she said, “My dear friend, Vladimir Horowitz, already holds the record for this. What else can you do?”
Three years later when I terminated my study with her, her parting words were, “I’m sorry you are leaving because I think I might have been able to make a pianist out of you yet.” And that was the nearest she ever came to complimenting me. Need I say that Mm. V. neither fostered my love of music nor of making it at the piano? Actually, when I left her studio for the last time, I didn’t know whether I loved or hated music, but I felt sure that I didn’t want to ever go near a piano again!
If you had to do it all over again, would you still choose to study with her?
Absolutely. And I shall be forever grateful for all that I learned from her. For instance:
- In technique: I acquired an acute awareness of the function of every part of my body that was involved with playing the piano—particularly how to control the balance of muscular tension and relaxation. I also learned a technical approach which was based on beginning tone production on the keys as opposed to lifting up individual fingers before striking the keys. The “on-the-key” approach produces a true legato and a non-percussive sound, both of which are characteristic of Vengerova’s students.
- In approaching a piece: Step one was always to do a thorough study of its formal structure, notational symbols, word cues, etc., and Mme. demanded that, without fail, her students project all of these in every performance.
- In practicing: I learned a myriad of specific strategies designed to either prevent or solve common problems that all pianists must deal with in practice. (Well, maybe not Lang Lang.)
Speaking of practice strategies, your book includes pages and pages of tips for achieving success in practice Did you learn some of these from Vengerova?
Yes. Nearly 100 pages of the book deal with specific practice strategies, most of which I learned from her.
In your own teaching of elementary and intermediate students, have you been able to adapt some of the same Vengerova practice strategies which you, yourself, use when working on advanced repertoire?
Yes, but of course with some modifications (and without stamping, screaming, or cursing)!
I know you are still performing, as I heard your lecture-recital featuring music of Schumann at the 2015 conference of the NCKP. When did you make your debut as a performer, and what are some highlights of your performance career?
My “debut” occurred at age twelve when, as a student of Helen Ringo, I presented my first solo recital. It was great fun, and I have loved performing ever since. Looking back at my early performance experiences, there are two that have special significance for me, and both involve entering national competitions, one in Chicago and the other in Washington.
Although I wasn’t a first-place winner in either competition, happily, I was selected as a finalist in both. As a participant, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and was glad I entered. And that was that! Well, at least I thought so until some time later, I was contacted by one of the contest judges inviting me to present a solo recital at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. And a bit later on, I received similar invitations from two other competition judges—one inviting me to perform the Liszt with the Chicago Philharmonic in a coast-to-coast radio broadcast over The Chicago Theater of the Air.
From these two competition events, I learned much about what’s involved in preparing for a major performance. I also learned that not winning a contest isn’t necessarily a final outcome—that sometimes participants can “win” equally gratifying rewards even if not selected as a competition winner.
Let’s talk now about teaching. When and why did you decide to start teaching?
I began teaching when I was in the fifth grade, and my first student was my best friend, Diane. One day she confessed that although she practiced a lot, she had problems with her pieces and she asked me to help her. I agreed, and when I observed both her playing and practice, I concluded that her problems were mostly the result of how she practiced. So I gave her a few tips to try for a week or two, and then suggested that we meet again to evaluate the results.
This we did, and Diane was so pleased with her progress that she asked me to continue coaching her. These ongoing “lessons” were not only fun, but also very gratifying because Diane was becoming a much happier pianist due to her success. Even though my goal at that point was to become a concert pianist, I still found this first “teaching” experience quite rewarding.
From junior high through my New York years, I taught several students a week – mostly average kids who were only studying because their moms made them. They disliked practicing – and probably me, too! – and their progress was minimal. I only suffered through these lessons because I needed the money, such as it was. During all of my student years, my goal continued to focus on becoming a concert pianist, even though the longer I studied with Vengerova, the reality of that ever happening seemed less and less likely. Oh, well—if all else failed, I could always teach!
At some point there must have been a major change in your attitude about teaching. What motivated you to consider it as a career?
The short answer is “Frances Clark!” I first met her in the forties when I was a young student attending a Guy Maier summer piano workshop, and we had remained in touch over the years. When I told her I was leaving Vengerova and looking for a part-time teaching job in the New York area, she invited me to come out to Princeton for a job interview at Westminster Choir College, where she had just been appointed as head of the school’s piano department. So I went for the interview, was offered a job, and became a “charter” member of Frances Clark’s first WCC staff.
What was teaching on her staff like?
It was exhilarating but also very demanding. It was certainly not a typical college teaching job because Frances regularly observed each staff member teach, and this was always followed by a very straightforward, in-depth evaluation of our work. We were also expected to attend all of her weekly college pedagogy lectures and to regularly observe her teaching. Both her lectures and teaching really turned me on and revealed a whole new world which I never dreamed existed. Although Frances’ standards for teaching were extremely high, her expectations were always reasonable and somehow, with her help, most of the staff were usually able to fulfill them.
By the end of my first year on Frances’ staff, I was completely hooked on pursuing a teaching career! However, I decided that I also wanted to resume performing. Francess was 100 percent supportive of this idea. And bless her! It was she who was responsible for resuscitating my pre-Vengerova love of music and playing the piano. She helped me select and prepare repertoire for solo recitals, and we also worked together on the Saint-Saëns and Mendelssohn G minor concertos, which I performed with the Amarillo Symphony and the Tulsa Philharmonic.
Thanks to Frances, I learned that one’s career could include both teaching and performing!
Do you have any concerns about piano teaching and students in the twenty-first century?
I am very concerned about the influence of technology on today’s young people, whose lives often seem to revolve around texting, social media, and the internet. But none of these things can ever produce a beautiful, live performance of a musical masterpiece or the personal joy that can result from listening to such a performance, or better yet, from creating it oneself. It is my hope that in their piano lessons, students are discovering that even without using technology, they can “link” on to music itself and discover it as an ongoing source for motivation, inspiration, creativity, and personal fulfillment that will last a lifetime.
How would you summarize the factors which you think have played the greatest role in your success?
Four things come to mind:
- My wonderfully supportive parents, and my dear husband, John.
- Enjoying a lifelong love affair with music.
- Being blessed with teachers who were able to show me how to successfully make music myself at the piano.
- The great satisfaction that always occurs when helping others experience the joy of music and how to successfully make it themselves at the piano.
Edward Darling completed undergraduate and graduate studies at Westminster Choir College and The New School for Music Study in Princeton, NJ, where he studied piano with Elvina Pearce for four years. He is editor of the best-selling book, A Piano Teacher’s Legacy: Selected Writings of Richard Chronister, and he has given presentations on Chronister and David Kraehenbuehl at Yale University and The New School, and for the Music Teachers’ Association of California. Currently he is an independent piano teacher in his home studio as well as a high school English teacher in South Burlington, Vermont.