Artist/Educator Archive Interview - Kalman Novak
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 August 1998 artist/educator:
PEP: What made you go into music?
I was given piano lessons starting shortly before my 5th birthday and took to it well enough to be encouraged. Thanks to the financial help of a brother-in-law, I was taken to the Boston Conservatory of Music for lessons. There, after a few months, I was assigned to Margaret Chaloff, a brilliant and vivacious personality, if unstable. Eventually, I was "promoted" to her husband, Julius. Julius never let a talented pupil out of his grasp if he could help it; he encouraged me to enter the New England Conservatory as a junior in the diploma program when I graduated from high school,(which I did, at age 15).
PEP: Who was the most influential person in your years as a student of the piano and why?
Julius Chaloff, who was a brilliant pianist and a dedicated, if rigid, teacher.
PEP: What do you enjoy the most about making and teaching music?
Giving students the tools that make it likely that they will continue to make music al their lives.
PEP: Do you use any of the piano "methods" in your teaching? If so, why do you prefer that one over others.
The only series that I use consistently for beginners is the Diller-Quaile, but usually only the first two or three volumes. I prefer it because it doesn't try to tell the teacher how to go about teaching and it uses either respectable music composed by great composers or folk tunes from various countries (which is always good music). Beyond these, there are any number of well-edited volumes with well-chosen repertoire to draw from.
PEP: What "deficiency" in training or technique do you most often find in students of the piano?
As the director of three different music schools over a 25-year stretch, during which time I interviewed all new piano students, I can say with assurance that almost none of them has been taught to sight-read effectively.
PEP: What kinds of things would you tell students of the piano and their teachers to try to avoid?
Mistaking learning pieces for learning to play the piano.
PEP: What advice would you give to students of the piano?
Besides the above, I would tell them that "practice makes perfect" only if the practice is perfect!
PEP: What advice would you give to teachers of piano or music generally?
Avoid playing a new piece for the students as he is about to start studying it; if the students has a good ear, he will learn it by imitation and never learn to sight-read.
PEP: Can you reflect upon choosing music as a career?
The only persons who should aim for a career in music (which includes accompanying, administration and teaching) are those who would not be happy or successful doing anything else, and who don't aim to get rich thereby.
PEP: What does it take to be a "successful" musician or music educator?
I've often said that all one has to have, in order to be a teacher, is a student! I've known many "successful" teachers whose students have learned little or nothing but it don't realize it. "Successful" needs definition.
PEP: What were your best and worst teaching and performing experiences?
Best teaching: Seeing a talented students who couldn't sight-read improve to become regular choral accompanist. Worst: Learning that a former very difficult and disturbed student had committed suicide. Best performing: Soloing at the Worcester Music Festival ( Rachmaninoff 2nd) after winning a competition. Worst performing: Losing concentration and forgetting where I was in the middle of a piece in my debut recital (Jordon Hall, Boston)
PEP: What kinds of things can a teacher do to maintain the interest of students, in the face of all the distractions modern society provides?
A student who feels himself making real progress in sight-reading and/or technique rarely loses interest. With sufficient sight-reading ability, a student can enjoy duet or chamber music, which are powerful positive sources of motivation.
PEP: Do you have a favorite pianist and if so, what attracts you to that persons performances?
There are many outstanding pianists whose playing I enjoy, but none as much as I remember enjoying and admiring Rachmaninoff's annual Symphony Hall recitals. His rhythmic and tonal control, plus the imagination of his interpretations, have never been equaled, in my experience.
PEP: What can we do as musicians to interest more people, children in particular, in good music?
Not much, if the home environment is not supportive: taking children to concerts, bringing them up listening to recordings of good music.
PEP: What are your views on competitions and what should teachers and students expect from that experience?
Competitions can be a spur to harder and more careful work on the part of many students- but for many others the measure of success if winning, and losing can be devastating. On the other hand, competitions can be a good testing ground for the young person who wants to have a career as a performer.
PEP: We get many questions at The Piano Education Page from new teachers starting private teaching studios. What general tips do you have for new teachers?
Always try to "reinvent the wheel" - never be satisfied that there isn't a better way to do what you are doing.
PEP: What are your greatest joys and greatest frustrations teaching in a private piano studio?
Joy: meeting up with a former student after many years and learning that music is still important in his/her life. Frustration: Losing a student because a parent's ambition exceeds the student capacities.
PEP: Generally speaking, do you find membership in music teacher organizations valuable? What could such organizations do to help teachers more? What should teachers themselves do to get the maximum benefit from such organizations?
Not particularly helpful: the level of sophistication is usually low, and the philosophy of members doesn't agree with mine
PEP: Pretend this is your personal soapbox. What would you like to say to students, parents, and teachers of the piano?
Students, parents and teachers should all have the same goals: to enhance the student's learning skills, to experience the pleasure that can be had from musical performance, to appreciate the qualities that set good music apart from the self indulgence represented by rock and other unsophisticated kinds of music.
You can ask your own questions of Mr. Novak by mail to: 210 Wagner Rd., Northfield, IL 60093-3297
Last updated: 01/30/15