Artist/Educator Archive Interview - Eloise Niwa
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.
PEP: What made you go into music?
Around age 14, I realized that I couldn't imagine doing anything else. The fact that my parents were opposed to music as a serious career choice probably fueled my enthusiasm and determination.
PEP: What do you enjoy the most about making and teaching music?
For me, one of the greatest aspects of playing and teaching music is the infinite variety. As pianists we have an enormous choice of repertoire to play, and as teachers we have many different students, each with a unique personality. It is fascinating to me to observe how different students react to the same piece of music, which I feel that I'm presenting in basically the same way. Similarly, I am constantly amazed at the creative process of developing a concept of a work, new or old --- the changes that occur day-to-day, week-to-week, etc. And sometimes after a couple of years away from a piece, you come back to it wondering how you ever thought what you thought then was good!
PEP: What do you think is the "best" way to learn to play?
Find a good teacher, with a proven record of good students, and follow his or her instructions faithfully and completely.
PEP: What advice would you give to students of the piano?
PEP: What advice would you give to teachers of the piano or music generally?
Since I find myself falling into this trap occasionally, I'd like to remind teachers not to get so mired in the technical execution of the work that they forget to convey to the student how much they love the music. That is paramount.
PEP: What kinds of things would you advise students of the piano and their teachers to try to avoid?
One of the most insidious things that can creep into a teacher-student relationship is boredom. The teacher may assign a piece with a justifiably preconceived idea of how it should sound. The student "attacks" it in good faith, but for one reason or another, fails to connect with the teacher's ideal. At this point, the teacher needs to re-evaluate his or her perspective, as well as the validity of the student's viewpoint. There is so much repertoire out there for the piano that I feel no need to push something that is not achieving a broader goal. It is our job as teachers to provide the tools with which the student will work as an individual artist. Finally, we must be open-minded, courageous, and willing to risk a "giant step" now and then with the exceptionally gifted student.
PEP: What were your best and worst performances in teaching and performing?
I can recall a couple of exhilarating competition wins, and a few recitals that I thought were pretty good, but my most memorable and pleasurable performing experiences have been in chamber music: violin and piano sonatas with my husband (and others), and piano trios with a long-time friend and colleague in the Chicago Symphony, Margaret Evans. We worked together as a Trio for nearly 30 years, during which time we must have played most of the repertoire. The thrill of studying and performing works like Beethoven's "Archduke" and "Ghost" Trios, Ravel, Tschaikowsky, Dvorak's "Dumka", --- I could go on and on--- has been incomparable. Now, I'd like to avoid worsts, but can't resist telling you this one. My husband and Margaret had played a wonderful trio by a contemporary composer (who shall be nameless here) for violoncello, cello, and clarinet. When we discovered that this composer had written a piano trio, we jumped on it --- programmed it for a big performance at Orchestra Hall, bought the music, and after a suitable length of time, got together for a first run-through. After many weeks of diligent rehearsal and individual practice, the odds of our arriving at the end of any movement together were about fifty-fifty. And that was exactly the situation when we walked onto the stage for the performance! That has to be one of worst feelings I've ever had. Actually, we got so used to this happening in rehearsal that we became quite expert at faking it, and it turned out that we didn't like the piece very much at all.
PEP: Who was the most influential person in your years as a student of the piano?
In my very early years, my mother was certainly the strongest influence. She was a church organist and choir director, and a very good pianist. From the time I was 5 until I was 12 or so, she supervised my practicing virtually every day. One day, when I was 8, she put on the piano a volume of Overtures, arranged for 4 hands, and suggested we try one. Pleasantly surprised at my exceptional sight-reading, she took me through several more, having me play secondo some of the time. Over the years, we traveled together through the symphonies of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, and Franck. There is no more enriching and broadening experience than becoming familiar with all that wonderful music at an early age. Learning it by frequent hearings is OK, but nothing like the "hands on" experience and seeing the inner parts.
PEP: Do you have a favorite pianist? If so, what attracts you to that person?
No, I do not have a favorite pianist, and I know that I'm going to leave out (inadvertently) some very important names in this assessment. I'll comment only on pianists that I've heard in person. I was fortunate enough to have heard Rachmaninov twice --- once in recital and once with orchestra. Being a rather tender age, I was not in a position to judge his pianism: I knew only that I was listening to a legend, an icon. I've since acquired the complete set of CD's of Rachmaninov's extant recordings, and I am constantly amazed and amused by them. Moving ahead a generation, Horowitz and Heifetz forever changed the image of the virtuoso soloist. Their overwhelming technical supremacy and artistic individuality became benchmarks. Since then, big techniques have become standard equipment, and are now a "dime-a-dozen." The unique artistry of these 2 giants has not been so easily emulated. As a student, my favorite pianists were "Rudy" Serkin, Rubenstein, and Myra Hess, none of whose performances I would miss. Others came and went, but these three endured as favorites for me for many years. The next wave gave us Janis, Watts, and the star-crossed Kapell and Lipatti. Currently, Watts is still here (in spades!), and Lupu, Zimmerman, and Schiff stand out for me. And who can forget the incredible Emil Gilels? The artists I've mentioned are a very diverse group, and while each places a very individual stamp on his performance, I think that the common denominator is honesty, integrity -- and an ability to let the music speak directly to the listener. I don't know how it's done, but when I leave a concert by any of the above-named pianists, I know that I've been entertained, dazzled perhaps, but also have had what can only be called a spiritual experience.
PEP: Can you give us your reflections on music as a career?
Reflecting on my own career, I can say that I am one of the lucky ones. I've must say I've never had to be totally self-supporting. After a relatively short time , I was able to be very selective about the students I accepted: thus, I've enjoyed a successful teaching career. On the performing side, my husband was extremely supportive of my solo playing, and we've enjoyed a rich and fulfilling life in chamber-music. A 40 year association with one of the world's greatest symphony orchestras has provided me the opportunity to travel the world, to influence many young lives, and I've grown with each experience.
PEP: What deficiency in training or technique do you most often find in students?
Technical deficiency is almost always the result of poor early training -- the other possibility being, of course, lack of practice. From the very first lesson, it must be made clear to the student exactly how each part of the body must function and feel in the execution of even the simplest pianistic move. In my favorite beginning method, the first 4 lessons are concerned almost exclusively with posture, controlled relaxation of the arm, and independent motion of wrist, elbow, and shoulder. These 4 lessons can take 10-12 weeks to master, but it is time well-spent. The other prevalent deficiency is in knowing (or not knowing) how to practice. Most kids sit down to practice without any clear idea of what they should accomplish in that hour, or 2, or more (?). We must encourage the student to make a "game plan" --- first, for the week, so that the next lesson is prepared: then day by day, in order to achieve the weekly goal. If there is a long-term objective, such as a recital or competition, the plan must span months, and should be done with calendar in hand. Related to this lack of plan --- and I find this rampant among students today --- is the idea that practicing involves only the fingers. As soon as they sit down at the piano, the brain and the hearing system shut down. "Ears, Brain, and Fingers" is the title of a wonderful little book by my esteemed and beloved teacher, Howard Wells. If it is still in print, I recommend it highly for any serious teacher's bookshelf.
PEP: What are your views on competitions?
Like them or not, contests are here to stay and they do provide some measure of excellence. On the plus side, they motivate most students to work harder, and to perfect things to a performance level that might not otherwise be achieved, not to mention providing a subtle but significant incentive to "stick with it". I wish that musical competitions could take a similar place in our kids' lives as competitive sports, which are generally regarded as important to a healthy, well-rounded personality. Of course, we've all heard the stories of the over-zealous sports parents who can destroy the whole idea of healthy competition and good sportsmanship. Sadly, music parents can become the same way. From the very beginning, the teacher must emphasize the idea of the competition as a learning experience, not a "must win" situation. Really, no one loses if that idea is foremost.
PEP: What can we do as musicians to interest more people, children especially, in classical music?
I think that an interest in classical music is not an entity in itself, but part of a larger cultural awareness. A real interest in and love for good music must start in the home. PARENTS: Turn on the radio to your local classical music station --- not constantly (that can be numbing), but an hour or so several times a day, and don't call attention to it --- just let it happen. Occasionally choose a fine TV show --- music, drama, ballet --- and watch it with your children. Be sure there are good books around, and let the children see you reading them. Go to museums art museums, the library, concerts for young people --- almost every city has something. The earlier you start all this, the better. TEACHERS: Have home or studio concerts where students can hear a variety of music performed by their peers. Piano playing is a lonely activity --- encourage ensemble playing. Take them to concerts. Have books and records available to borrow (charge a small fee --- there can be a lot of wear and tear). Many symphony orchestras have programs which send their players out to schools, so children get to see, hear, and meet the musicians "close up". I've worked for many years in the Chicago Symphony's Ensemble Program which sent us out in small groups (3, 4, 5 people, typically). We played two 35 minute programs back-to-back, with a variety of music from Beethoven to Bartok. Our program certainly generated a lot of interest from the kids: they could see the instruments at close range, ask questions (some very specific), and generally get "into it". If each of these mini-concerts created one or two potential concert-goers, I'd say that's a high rate of success.
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Last updated: 01/30/15