Leon Fleisher : the "Obi Wan Kenobi of the piano"by Lucie Renaud
/ February 1, 2000
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 Fleishers vocation.
"Suddenly I realized that the most important thing in my life wasnt playing
with my two hands: it was music," he told La Scena
Musicale. From then on, teaching assumed greater importance for him, both at
Baltimores Peabody Institute and Philadelphias 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
Torontos 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 others 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
isnt working? Then you have to think of a remedy, tell the student, Heres
how you can solve the problem, whether its 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. Its 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 students 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
[Translated by Jane Brierley]