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Artist/Educator Archive Interview - William Leland




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 September 1995 artist/educator:

Dr. William Leland, Pianist in Residence, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, NM, USA

William Leland is recently celebrated his twenty-fifth year as Pianist in Residence at New Mexico State University, receiving an appointment there in 1969 upon completion of Doctor of Musical Arts in Performance under Mme. Olga Conus at the College-Conservatory of Music of the University of Cincinnati. A native of Philadelphia, Leland received his Bachelor's degree from the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts and a Soloist Certificate from the Hochschule fur Musik in Hanover, Germany; he has also worked privately with the noted pianists Mieczyslaw Horsowski, Karl Engel, and Manahem Pressler. Since coming to New Mexico, Leland has performed over four hundred times as soloist in recitals and concertos, as chamber music artist and accompanist, and in duo-piano recitals with his late wife, Melba Halamicek, also a member of the NMSU music faculty. He has been heard in such major centers as Dallas, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Denver, as well as numerous communities in some twenty-six states and Mexico. Leland has also performed in Germany and Italy.In addition to his duties as artist and teacher, Leland is principal conductor of NMSU's Dona Ana Lyric Opera, recently leading productions of Mozart's Don Giovanni, Rossini's Barber of Seville, and Sondheim's musical Sweeney Todd. Professor Leland is familiar to recital audiences in many communities.

PEP: What made you go into music?

I can't remember ever having considered anything else. Ours was a musical family, and my earliest recollections include singing around my grandfather's piano with my mother, brother, three cousins and four uncles; joining my grandfather's church choir; listening to records; and being fortunate enough to attend the Philadelphia Academy of Music concerts at an early age. By the time I was fifteen or so I had seen and heard Horowitz, Solomon, Rubinstein, Serkin, Arrau, Kapell, Firkusny, Heifetz, and even the Metropolitan Opera--a terrific advantage for a kid forming in his head what music ought to sound like! I remember sitting many, many times just stunned and flattened by the incredible sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra; I couldn't believe that such a sound existed on earth.

So I grew up with music around me; there's nothing more advantageous than this. I can't even remember learning to read music--it was just there and I picked it up like I learned to talk; there's no telling when or how it happened.

PEP: What do you enjoy the most about making and teaching music?

You hear about "runner's high", the feeling joggers get after a certain amount of distance and effort, when the endorphins kick in; something like that accompanies a satisfying performance in which you feel you're really communicating with people, or even when you're just playing alone and some damn thing finally jells. The greatest satisfactions for anyone come, of course, with mastering something really difficult, and there can't be too many things more tedious and aggravating than learning to play the piano well. So maybe "performer's high" is on a par with any other. As for teaching, probably all of us would agree that there is no satisfaction like seeing a student catch your enthusiasm and come alive with that same 'high' after suddenly understanding or solving something. And it doesn't matter a bit what level they're on. Touching others with music and getting a response has to be the greatest enjoyment of both performing and teaching.

PEP: What were your best and worst performances in teaching and performing?

I can tell you my worst moment on stage, easily: during the 1970 Beethoven Bicentennial Year I was giving my third all-Beethoven recital in four days and got utterly lost in the fugue of the "Hammerklavier"--just could not work my way out of it. I had to stop completely, something that never happened before or since; then I got the music and finished it. But the audience was sympathetic and I was able to come back after intermission and play a pretty good "Waldstein". My happiest performing experience, at least one of them, came after one of my Doctoral recitals at the University of Cincinnati which, incidentally, included the same sonata--"Hammerklavier". The leader of the world-renowned LaSalle String Quartet, a tremendous musician whom I admired greatly, was the first person backstage, grabbed my hand and said, "Bill, that was a great recital!" Wow! I was at high altitude for six months.

My worst teaching moments come every time I have to put a student on stage in an important recital or audition; I would rather play myself in front of 50,000 people than put a student up there--you're so helpless!

It always feels like the time I taught my daughter to ride a bike: after walking her through it a number of times, I finally had to let go and watch her go wobbling off by herself--the same helpless feeling.

But, conversely, the best moments in teaching come when a student plays well and is well received, and feels really good about it.

PEP: Who was the most influential person in your years as a student of the piano?

It would have to be Hans Barth, who tore down my tense, awkward technique and rebuilt it from the bottom up. I was 25--terribly old to be doing this--and had given up the idea of making any kind of career in piano, had even taken a full-time church position. Barth was well known in the thirties, performed with Stokowski, etc., and had studied with Josef Lhevinne and Josef Hofmann, so there was very little he didn't know about technique. I learned to economize movement and effort, and began to apply the principles of quiet, natural, relaxed playing without any gimmicks. I was his last student before he died.

Those years of reprogramming my coordination patterns were the hardest of my life, but they made me a better teacher because I had to think through and analyze every movement, and so became better able to explain them to students.

PEP: Do you have a favorite pianist? If so, what attracts you to that person?

I have several, depending on what music is being played. Horowitz, for instance, is unbeatable in Liszt, Scriabin and a lot of other things, but I'm uncomfortable with his Schubert. For Schubert and Beethoven, Solomon is, for me, the most satisfying player, Gieseking for Debussy and Ravel, and so on. These are all old-timers, I know, and not very original choices. But here's one that will surprise you: for Chopin I prefer Charles Rosen, whose playing is sensitive and flexible and entirely unmannered. And for overall spontaneity and excitement I loved William Kapell; it was a major tragedy when he went down in an airliner at only 31. Among the younger pianists I most enjoy Evgeny Kissin; and my least favorite among the great artists is Claudio Arrau (that'll get me some flak!).

PEP: What does it take to be a 'successful' musician or music educator? Can you give us your reflections on music as a career?

To begin with, I don't believe anyone should choose a musical career of any kind unless they simply cannot imagine themselves doing anything else, for two reasons: first, because it's way overcrowded; second, because, in addition to talent, you have to have an intense inner compulsion for music to go through the discipline, discouragements, and hard labor it takes to achieve any real skill at it. Maybe this sounds extreme, as though I'm talking only about an international performing career, but the same things should hold true for teachers. The idea that someone with no real aptitude for music can take a few years of lessons and then set up a home studio to make a little money on the side is reprehensible, and there's a lot of it in this country. It's this sort of attitude that spawns so many dippy 'methods', with their insipid music, their tricks to entertain instead of educate, and their gimmicks to spell out every minute of every lesson for teachers who can't teach. I'm not targeting the many fine, imaginative and dedicated private teachers who do grace the profession; but teaching on any level is one of the most honorable of vocations, and it ought not to be entered into casually or frivolously. And I believe that anyone who teaches piano, while they need not be of concert caliber, should have first gone through the ordeal of learning to play reasonably well; otherwise they have no first-hand knowledge of what they're talking about.

PEP: What deficiency in training or technique do you most often find in students?

They haven't heard enough music. Music is a language, and you don't learn a language by going to a language lesson one half-hour a week; you learn it by growing up in a family and a culture that speaks it. Anyone who wishes to play or sing well should be soaked in music from as early an age as possible, and not only that of their own instrument but all kinds: solo, orchestral, chamber music, choral and vocal, good jazz and pop--everything. Without the musical language floating around in your head you can't formulate an aural concept of what you want your own playing to sound like; that's the main reason why so much student playing sounds aimless, and why it's so hard to get them to shape a phrase or really listen to their own playing objectively: they don't recognize the language, because they haven't heard it enough. And it doesn't take great genius to do this--only interest and opportunity. You can bet a lot of teens know the language of rock and rap; they walk around all day with headphones on.

PEP: What can we do as musicians to interest more people, children especially?

This is a really tough one. There are so many more options and distractions available to young people today that music making in the private home has almost vanished. A hundred years ago, almost all but the poorest families owned a piano; now, relatively few do, and many of those use it as a piece of furniture to hold a picture and a vase of flowers. But for openers, I think we teachers need to face honestly our own motivations for wanting to interest more kids in music, because we're all in a bind: on the one hand, we ourselves are turned on to it, know the positive effects it can have, know that the Arts are needed more than ever to help counterbalance the progressive coarsening of our contemporary culture--and we sincerely want to share it with others. On the other hand, we have a practical need to make a living, too: the private teachers have to drum up students they might not want to take, or would ordinarily advise to try something else; and we in the universities have to recruit music majors so we can get funded and keep our jobs. Our motives are necessarily somewhat ambiguous. Another thing we have to face--and it's a big one--is that piano students do not have the group dynamic that is so much a part of band, chorus and orchestra. Those kids rehearse, perform, travel, eat and socialize together, even wear the same uniforms, and there's nothing more important to a young person than interacting with a peer group that has common goals and values. Piano students don't have the enormous attraction of that as an integral part of their music study.

Then again, there's often a difficulty interesting students in the music of the past. I'm all for preserving and using our great heritage, but too many teachers ignore the music of their own time because it's so much effort to shed prejudices, open the mind, and learn a new language; Debussy, Kabalevsky and Jane Smisor Bastien are not really contemporary composers. But I've seen very young children get excited by music of Boulez, Cage, Messiaen and George Crumb, once it's properly explained to them.

I don't pretend to have all the solutions, but I think it's helpful to recognize and articulate these problems honestly, because we're in danger of become extinct. After that, I would suggest that nothing is more effective at sparking someone else's interest than being enthusiastic, vital and productive yourself--being a living example of how music can add to and even transfigure someone's life. This means continuing to learn and explore, constantly improving your own skills, being a visible cultural force in your community. I would also suggest encouraging more group activity with your students: recitals, master classes, visiting artists, group attendance at concerts and workshops, recreational outings, and duet, two-piano and ensemble playing. Get to know the teachers of violin, cello, clarinet and voice in your area and cooperate in ensemble projects. Have your kids play for shut-ins, hostels, retirement homes, schools and churches. And, finally, get more involved with contemporary music literature and become more comfortable with its language, then use it in your teaching. You might be astonished at the response.

PEP: What are your views on competitions?

I have the same feeling about competitions that I do about dentists: I hate them but we have to have them.

On the positive side, competitions provide incentives and focal points for the quest after excellence, compelling the student to prepare something with extra finish and polish and then concentrate on holding it together from beginning to end; they frequently give recognition, monetary reward, scholarships and performance opportunities to deserving players who might have no other access to them; they give contestants a chance to hear students of other teachers; and they often spark public interest at local, state and even national levels.

On the negative side, I guess I just hate to see music made into a contest; the creation of winners and losers is not what Bach and Brahms and Ravel ought to be used for, though I know that competitions have been around for a long time and that many of the greatest musicians, including Mozart and Beethoven, engaged in them. But the big ones have become athletic events, with the Van Cliburn affair in Fort Worth as the Super Bowl. And they so often produce a bland, common-denominator sameness in performance, with every nuance, coloring, phrasing, even every emotion, carefully assembled in advance, like a jigsaw puzzle, and then transferred to the stage. Nobody dares to play with any daring or spontaneity for fear of hitting a wrong note or offending a judge. On a more local level, occasional competitions serve important functions, as mentioned above; but a lot of teachers get competition-happy, concentrating on little else. Then far too much lesson time is spent on perfecting a few pieces, and not nearly enough exploring literature, analyzing, and maturing the sense of style. What is music study for, anyway? Students need to be in hibernation part of the time, so they can experiment and nurture their imaginations without the constant pressure of crucial auditions, which are too often used to glorify the teacher anyhow. I think the student's growth is more important, and you can't grow musically while you're on display.

PEP: Pretend this is your personal soapbox. What would you like to say?

I think I've said enough to get into plenty of hot water already!

Page created: 9/14/95
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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