The plentiful gifts of Irina Gorin and her brood of piano students captivated so many after You Tube postings of musical offerings revealed soulful, expressive playing by youngsters as young as 4 to the ripe old age of 14+. A treasured group of pupils gracefully approached a Steinway grand with a finesse and creative uniqueness that radiated through each performance.
Only a few days ago, Irina had dashed off an e-mail to me following the recital:
“By the way, someone just sent me an interesting video link. I’ve never heard of this teacher, but she reminds me so much of my teacher. I just wanted to share it with you.”
This note was incentive enough for me to investigate, and I wasn’t disappointed.
The word “creative” springs forth again in a documentary about Irena Orlov, a piano teacher with a mission to realize each and every student’s full range of “creativity.”
Having a passion to find each child’s well of artistic expression, she soul searches with them as they grow side-by-side as musicians and human beings.
The opening to this Arista Video Production is riveting:
“This is a film about a unique person, a musician with a quest not only to bring people into the beautiful and harmonious world of music but also to bring this beauty and harmony into everyday life.”
Known to many as “Irena,” we learn that she has a warm and endearing presence that has influenced the lives of so many inside and beyond musical universe.
The question is, from where did her passion for teaching spring?
To provide answers, she sat down with an interviewer and shared how it all started and where it began?
At the age of 14 or so, a singular teaching opportunity sparked Irena’s creative fire and illuminated her career path. As she tells it, her teacher at a music school where she had been enrolled for about ten years, gave her a chance to help a young piano student within a classroom setting. The experience was so engaging, that it had far-reaching implications. Irena excitedly raced to tell her teacher, “I want to do it all my life.” Not long after having this epiphany, Irena, just 15 at the time, was gifted her very own piano student by her mentor, and the rest is history.
In 1980 Irena had left the Soviet Union in response to its oppressive regime. Having graduated the esteemed Leningrad Conservatory, she had made an indelible impression on a Pedagogy Professor, Faina Bryanskaya, who taught at a musical college affiliated with the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Irena’s presentation there was memorable.
“She entered the room, very young, very small, very energetic with twinkling eyes. Her ideas were so unique and creative that I told my colleagues, ‘Pay attention to this girl, she’s a genius teacher.'”
Years before Irena had arrived in the US to join the faculty at the renowned Levine School of Music in Washington D.C., she emigrated to Israel where she broke ground in the field of Music Therapy. Working with psychiatric patients whose disorders ranged from major depression to schizophrenia, she was able to “enrich the lives of those whose existence may have seemed hopeless, proving that what may have seemed impossible was possible.”
A determination to dig deeply to find the soul of human beings, reach in, and bring expressive, creative beauty to the surface, became the theme of Irena’s life work.
As things played out, Irena relocated to the US, and began teaching in the Levine School of Music in 1988.
The Director at the time, Joanne Hoover, vividly remembers their first meeting:
“In came a small dynamic bundle of energy, emanating fire and determination. I don’t recall what she played for me as that was always something I asked of those who wanted to teach at Levine… But I do remember that unlike other applicants who insisted that they wanted to teach only the gifted and talented children, Irena said, ‘I will teach anybody.’ I knew from that moment on, that this was someone who was quite special.”
Others, including members of the piano teaching community, likewise praise Irena.
Brian Ganz, a teacher at the Peabody Institute says that Irena “uses humor and stories to cajole and coax the very best out of her students…”
Her professional colleagues suggest that Irina does not teach by any rules. She teaches and learns as well on her own–always open, willing and ready to receive something new.
Santiago Rodriguez, concert pianist, and former artist-in-residence at the University of Maryland, insists that Irena has “a combination of personality and passion that we can all learn from.” He goes on to characterizes Irena as a teaching “icon” in the D.C. area as evidenced by the consistently accomplished and expressive pianists that have come through her studio. Rodriguez, like Julian Martin have been pleased to accept many of her pupils as they continue their musical pursuits at the college or conservatory level.
It’s clear that Irena’s teaching has “a disciplined side,” Rodriguez says. “She won’t tolerate mediocrity…She wants to teach you how to do something very well–to excel and be better. And the students work hard because they like her.”
Elisa Virsaladze, a Professor at the Moscow Conservatory and Hochschule fur Musik und Theater muses that “Irena is like a child who is amazed by life and maintains a constant joy of living.” (paraphrase) This description would indicate a wide-eyed appreciation of a sunrise as the first, or a miracle of nature preserved fresh in the imagination.
Brian Ganz, views Irena’s students as being in a communal “rainforest” thriving amidst the lushness of the environment.
Others echo how Irena “understands people so well, knowing how to motivate students to nurture and develop their creativity.
One pupil says, “Irena is a unique person. She makes her students grow in so many ways…She’s like a friend.”
Another states that Irena makes you “feel the music, and see it as if you’re reading a book. It’s very special.”
A teenager emphasizes how Irena “explains the pieces in stories so I will be able to project the composer’s ideas as I am playing the music.” It’s like the composer is standing there telling me just how to play his work.
Irena encourages her students to take on formidable challenges and stretch their abilities.
A youngster who wanted to study a difficult piece, perhaps a bit beyond his technical skill, was not discouraged by Irena from pursuing it. She told the child to learn the composition “one measure a day.” With such words of wisdom under his belt, he had gone on to master a Bach selection in just 56 days.
Many of Irena’s pupils learn by her example: They say that she lives in the moment–in the here and now, and encourages them to embrace the same. “Live for today with no regrets about yesterday, or for what is to come in the future,” she wisely tells them.
It applies to music-making.
Married to Henry Orlov, musicologist, Irena and her chosen partner, appear to have a unique chemistry between them. Walking arm-in-arm, playing chess on the terrace of their apartment, sitting on a bench charming their prancing white dog, the two are observed in a harmonious relationship that emanates far beyond its own boundaries.
The film is a bundle of tender moments such as these and includes snatches of inspiring performances given by Irena’s piano students, some of whom have gone on to pursue professional careers.
To conclude I will admit that I had a piano teacher who in many ways resembled Irena. Mine, a Peabody faculty member for many years, taught me that studying piano was a metaphor for life, a soulful and expressive pursuit like no other. Like Irena, Lillian Lefkovsky Freundlich reached beyond the label, “piano teacher.”
Watching this documentary evoked her memory, and for many others it will touch the heart in a special place.
Graduate degree from Leningrad Conservatory; began teaching piano during student years; educator and lecturer at seminars throughout Russia. After emigrating to Israel in 1980, taught music and worked as music therapist in a psychiatric hospital. Has been teaching piano in Washington, DC since 1986 and at Levine since 1988.
Irena Orlov is a Levine Master Teacher.
A tribute to the work of Irina Gorin, piano teacher, Carmel, Indiana
Getting into the spirit of piano playing.. with references to Irena Orlov
Piano Teachers, Students, and Reluctant Farewells