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Artist/Educator Archive Interview - Mr. Leon Karan




e regularly feature the personal experiences and insights of a noted artist/educator on various aspects of piano performance and education. You may not always agree with the opinions expressed, but we think you will find them interesting and informative. The opinions offered here are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent those of the West Mesa Music Teachers Association, its officers, or members. (We have attorneys, too!). At the end of the interview, you'll find hypertext links to the interviewee's e-mail and Web sites (where available), so you can learn more if you're interested. Except where otherwise noted, the interviewer is Dr. John Zeigler. The current interview is below; other PEP Artist/Educator interviews can be found on our Artist/Educator Archive Interviews page.



The February 2006 artist/educator:

Mr. Leon Karan, M.F.A., B.Mus., R.M.T., Pianist and Educator, Hamilton, ON, Canada

Leon Karan holds degrees of Master of Fine Arts from Ural University, in Yekaterinburg, Russia and Bachelor of Music from Music College in Mogelev, Belarus.

At the age of 17 Leon began his musical career as a piano teacher at the Music Culture College in Mogelev, Belarus. He continued as a piano tuner, accompanist and a piano teacher at the Ural University and the Music School affiliated with the same University.

During eleven years prior to his immigration to Canada, Leon held the position of Piano Department Head and taught piano at the Music School for the Gifted Students. Concurrently, he worked as a piano methodology course instructor at the Music Teacher’s University in Minsk, Belarus.

Upon his arrival to Canada in November 1991, he started teaching piano at the Merriam Music Conservatory in Mississauga, Ontario and in 1993 performed with the Hamilton Symphony Orchestra as a guest piano soloist. As part of his later endeavors, Leon continued teaching with Caskey School of Music, in Hamilton, while working for the Conservatory for the Arts and as a piano instructor at McMaster University.

In 2004-2005 he held the position of the Vice-President of Ontario Registered Music Teacher’s Association, Hamilton/Halton Branch. Leon has also been busy with the JCC Chai Choir as a conductor since 1995 and frequently performs at the Canadian Club.

Since founding his own Leon’s Music Studio, in 1993, he has enjoyed working with students from beginners to ARCT level. Many of his students have received scholarships and the highest awards in local, provincial, nationwide competitions and become professional musicians.

Mr. Karan is interviewed for The Piano Education Page by Becky Yuan.

How did you start your piano teaching career in Canada?

I really don’t know where to start…

In summer 1993, I performed with Hamilton Symphony Orchestra. Actually after the contract with Hamilton Symphony, I realized that performance is a bad idea to maintain good standard of living.

I’ve registered my own Leon’s Music Studio and my goal is always to set good teaching standards through my teaching in order to maintain my Studio. It worked. Slowly, but surely, through referrals I’ve built my reputation. When I bought, in 1994, some books for my students at the local keyboard center, Pat, the sales person, who is still working there, asked me: "How did I not starve from hunger working as a piano teacher?" 

For many years, I have played in charity concerts and was Pianist for the Canadian Club in Hamilton. I tried to raise awareness and listeners' music skills among politicians, doctors. I played during lunch and, at first, nobody paid attention to the "background music" Again, slowly but surely, I was trying to educate people there and finally if new people attending lunch talked loud during my performance – the old ones pointed to them and said: "Be quiet – Leon is playing. You’re listening to outstanding performance"

Actually I never played "wallpaper music". Once I had a student at McMaster. I passed along to him some invitations to play at private parties, because I have had too much of it. I told him: never play "wallpaper music" – always play expressive. He performed at one private party. I believe it was party at the house of the President of Youth Ballet Company. It has happened that the President of McMaster University was there. After the party, my student was asked to play for McMaster alumni parties and he did it for two years.

I’m fortunate to work with many musicians who become professionals. A few of my students got silver medals from RCM. Last year, one of them was awarded as the best Jazz pianist in Canada and got his Juno award. Another student became a countertenor and conductor. My work is in my students and I’m proud that I could make some impact through Music on their personalities. Music really does a good job to form their character and has a big cultural effect on people.

How did you start your music education?

I started my music education at age 6. I had to compete with other kids willing to take music lessons and got the placement in music school after exam there. Actually, my mother was the driving force for me to start music lessons. She was self-taught and could play piano and sing. She learned music notation along with me and followed every step I did in my early music practice. I am still very grateful to her for her inspiration and dedication to my studies. My mother believed I should study with the best teacher available to get good start. Because I have absolute pitch, she managed to get one for me.

My teacher's students always were among winners in local competitions. My music teacher was very tough and strict. The curriculum at the music school was very demanding: two technical tests, two concerts and one formal exam per school year. Plus – theory, solfege, history, choir, sight-reading and accompaniment lessons were taught by different teachers. Most of the concerts were open to audiences, but exams – for jury of five teachers.

Who were your most influential teachers? 

I can name three teachers. The first one was Ms. Elisabeth Tsirlina. All her life was just work and nothing more. She was very demanding teacher and gave me a good technical foundation.

My musical foundation was developed under Mrs. Mira Kavalerchik at Music College. She is now in Haifa, Israel and we are still good friends with her and all her family. She actually created my musical views and taught me how to work effectively. She was a student of a very famous professor at Petersburg Conservatory.

Prof. Maria Bogomas made the final touches in my studies at the Ural Conservatory. She taught me the way her teacher taught her. His name was Prof. Henrick Neyhaus of Moscow Conservatory. Among his students were the famous pianists Sviatoslav Richter and Emile Gilels. Pianist Emile Gilels helped me with fingering in Concerto #1 by Tchaikovsky in the third movement. I still treasure his notes in the score in my library. As for my big concerts, playing with orchestra, etc, it was old German-Russian Piano School. Attention to the tone production, effective phrasing with understanding of style, form etc…

How did you meet composer Dmitry Kabalevsky?

Yes, I did. He was the Head of Government jury for my final exam at the Ural Conservatory and he gave me some suggestions on how to interpret his Sonata #2 for piano. He was very tall and very kind person willing to help everybody without any hesitation about his or her status in society. His music was very positive and bright. But in Sonata #2 was a sad movement, and it had a contrast with other movements. Kabalevsky actually gave a Master Class workshop there.

Can you tell us about hearing the late Sviatoslav Richter play when you were at university?

When I was a student at University he played for us and he asked recital hall administrators for free seats right on the stage just for students. I was sitting and breathing right to his back. He was the most inspirational pianist for me. His sight reading skills were just amazing. People who did the pages for him were confused not knowing when to turn the page, because he just gave a quick glance look at the page and played the whole page without looking at the music. It was really amazing experience to see him playing Rachmaninoff’s Trio right away with new people without any rehearsal. The slow movements of sonatas and concertos he played even slower than everybody and it was breathtaking expression in phrasing. Richter's teacher was Henrick Neyhaus – the same teacher who taught the professor I took lessons from at the University. He is still among the best pianists I have ever heard.

How is music education different in Russia from that in North America?

It is different. I think the Russia’s rigorous standards are not applicable here. However, music making here is more relaxed and more pleasant to learn. People willing to get to the top have the opportunity to do it without extra stress, especially at early education period. Good standards of teaching in Russia are insured by the Government – only licensed teachers could teach at the time I was there.

Here everybody is trying to do it and it brings a lot of frustration to little kids. Mostly, parents are expecting quick results like playing well-known tunes, but good knowledge comes with a good in-depth foundation, which pays off later. Parents should be more aware of good music education that lasts the whole life.

What aspect or aspects of "Russia's rigorous standards" would you like to see incorporated in piano teaching in North America? Do you incorporate those aspects in your own teaching?

  • It is a good idea to have music schools with professional faculty working as a group.
  • It would be good to have not only one adjudicator for any exam or competition and be able to discuss performance at the “Round table” before giving students marks in printed writing, signed by all adjudicators with all comments approved by the jury. Therefore, no contradictory opinions arise.
  • Ability to communicate and share ideas in open discussion is generally good for any musician. It could be done.
  • In music schools in Russia, students went through well prepared training program with many musically related subjects and exams in technique and variety of repertoire pieces regularly every year. No wonder musicians from Russia demonstrate good knowledge and skills around the world.
  • There is a set back of Russian system: it wasn’t tailored for individuals who just couldn’t survive and dropped out because they couldn’t withstand the pressure.

Here I found better way to communicate with parents and students and was able to maintain high standards without extra pressure on students. Parents and students do value it. The dropout among my students is very low. However, I am still missing the real professional communication with colleagues.

I have had very confusing adjudicator’s reports about the same interpretation for one student, who is definitely gifted. She has played in two different competitions and got completely different comments. It was good that we had very strong ideas on interpretation and just smiled. We knew what we are trying to convey by performing one way, not another.

I do, remember the competition when Ilona, my daughter, performed a program in seven languages and got a comment: “It is good that you are trying to sing “Tatiana’s letter” from opera Evgueni Onegin by Tchaikovsky in Russian, but your Russian sounds foreign. Keep working on it” The juror did not realize that Ilona recently came from Russia, where she graduated the high school and two years of Music College with excellent marks. I am still shocked by such misunderstanding and I couldn’t get the jury to check her ability to speak her native language. It wasn’t even allowed for me to raise the awareness of adjudicator about such obvious mistake. Since then, she has won many competitions, got many scholarships and established her career as a professional vocal performer. Now I understand – she used to hear broken Russian and thought it was the right pronunciation. 

You have just received approval to start a piano pedagogy course in the summer of 2006 at the university where you teach. What are your reasons for doing this?

As I have learned, historically, music lessons for neighborhood children were taught by "the lady down the street". Prior to 1980, few teachers received pedagogical training. This is not to say that such teachers were incompetent - often they imitated their own teachers and taught as they had been taught. Consequently, piano teaching was not highly regarded as a profession in our society.

As a result, there was a large dropout rate of music students in these substandard schools and studios. Many students quit music feeling frustrated, and some of the more persistent ones often ended up in doctor’s offices suffering from tendonitis, or other physical ailments related to not being taught the proper technique in playing a musical instrument.

The neighborhood teacher still exists today in many areas and, fortunately, the level of teaching and professionalism has risen sharply during the last half of the twentieth century. Music teaching is becoming a full time business for many musicians. Teachers are learning the basic principles and practices of business management, resulting in their ability to run an independent private studio in a professional and an efficient manner. Many could benefit from some professional help, however, in upgrading their knowledge in teaching and setting up their business.

Long ago, I used to teach the applied pedagogy course in Minsk (Belarus) at the University for music teachers. Music schools there were part of the Government establishment. I taught at the University, where licensed teachers went to learn the newest methods, and upgrade their knowledge and overall skills. According to the rules there, all licensed music teachers had to attend a one month refresher course every 5 years, and had to pass an examination in order to maintain their license.

At present, there are still people with no qualifications teaching music, trying to fill the gap left by a lack of music education in the public schools. Parents are hiring neighborhood kids with little experience, piano store owners are hiring students at rock bottom wages in order to make a profit. There are countless music ‘schools’, ‘conservatories’ and ‘academies’ taking advantage of unaware consumers.

The Pedagogy Training Courses I have put together offer Applied Pedagogy, Business Management, and individual lessons with a qualified instructor. By improving the quality of the teaching for existing, unqualified music teachers, the quality of instruction in all small institutions will improve, as will the long-term result of music instruction.

What is the most important thing a teacher should know?

Teaching music is a very personal and emotional art. A teacher must be the best they can be because they leave a very strong impression on each of the students. Music is very emotional and you are teaching from within. Many times, students will have the same views as me in terms of life, and of course, music, because they are learning from example.

You can ask your own questions of Mr. Karan by e-mail to

Page created: 1/27/06
Last updated: 01/30/15
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Reprinting from the Piano Education Page The Piano Education Page, Op. 10, No. 1,
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