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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 5, No. 5

Leon Fleisher : the "Obi Wan Kenobi of the piano"

by Lucie Renaud / February 1, 2000

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In 1952, Leon Fleisher won the Queen Elisabeth of Belgium competition and a brilliant career opened up for him. But in 1965, when he was only 37, he had to give up concert work. Intensive daily practice sessions had paralyzed his right hand. This tragic moment transformed Fleisher’s vocation. "Suddenly I realized that the most important thing in my life wasn’t playing with my two hands: it was music," he told La Scena Musicale. From then on, teaching assumed greater importance for him, both at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute and Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute. He explored the repertoire for left hand and began conducting as well. Since 1995, due to his determination and to a deep massage technique called Rolfing, his hand has become progressively more flexible. Fleisher has now returned to the classical concert circuit and hopes to recover the full use of his right hand.

Over the years, Fleisher has become an institution at Peabody. Now 70, he directs the prestigious music department, and the students call him affectionately "the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the piano," referring to the sage of the film Star Wars. He recently began teaching at Toronto’s Glenn Gould School, where he gives a series of four to five master classes a year. "I particularly appreciate the difference in the school and its atmosphere, as well as its unique admission criteria and the high level of student ability," he said. Like Schnabel, Fleisher gives almost no private lessons. Students can audit each other’s lessons. "I consider this approach most beneficial for students, as well as very stimulating for the teacher," he noted. "Repeating the same thing to each student can become very tedious! When students work in a group they come to understand that all of them share the same challenges and problems at one level or another."

Fleisher feels there is a parallel between the work of a teacher and that of a doctor. "First you have to make a diagnosis and ask, ‘What isn’t working?’ Then you have to think of a remedy, tell the student, ‘Here’s how you can solve the problem, whether it’s technical or something else.’" For Fleisher, "Technique is the ability to do what you want. The idea that two aspects of music are unconnected is nonsense. You must practise difficult passages with the appropriate musical goal. It’s important for pianists to learn to work away from the piano. The inner ear must be trained and musical goals analyzed. Pianists should avoid, at all costs, wasting hours practising without a clear purpose."

Fleisher finds deep satisfaction in his teaching career. "My greatest pleasure is to see the light of understanding in a student’s eyes – what I call the ‘Aha!’ moment. A teacher should be irresistible, should find THE way of getting information across to a young pianist. We have to serve music."

[Translated by Jane Brierley]


Version française...

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