Pearly words of wisdom flowed so naturally from the pen of Irina Morozova, a concert pianist and teacher, who responded graciously to my set of pointed questions.
As introduction, she’s a Mannes College of Music piano faculty member and teaches children at the Special Music School/Kaufman Center in Manhattan.
Immersed in a richly rewarding career mentoring students, performing, and giving masterclasses in local and international venues, her inspired thoughts are shared in unedited form with videos interspersed as they pertain.
1) There’s a dualism to your career that’s bound up in teaching and performing. How does preparing for a recital grow your mentoring skills?
Frankly, there is no connection whatsoever. To prepare a recital involves time where I concentrate on myself. At least I try.
If we look at this issue somewhat more generally, there are apparent advantages for students to study with a teacher who is active as a performer. Having a vast repertoire, I am able to share some pianistic insights on certain technical issues, “quote” some examples from different works of the same style when I work on a particular piece with a student, give some of my own “recipes” on fingering or re-arranging the texture, or talk about communicating with an orchestra and a conductor if the piece in question is a concerto.
And conversely, how does your teaching influence your performing?
When I demonstrate to a student how to play this or that, I often have to exaggerate a point to be clear, because not every student can immediately detect subtleties. After doing this, I try to avoid “playing like a teacher” when I perform. On the other hand I would say that teaching helps my own learning/practicing process. Without teaching I would perhaps practice on a more intuitive level, but teaching others reminds me to work more conscientiously.
2) You’ve mentioned that your pupils significantly “teach” you. Can you elaborate?
This question is an extension of the previous one. Let’s say that a student is studying a virtuoso piece and some technically demanding sections do not work well. Even if I don’t have a “recipe” to fix it immediately, I am forced to think creatively to help the student. Here is an example: I have been working myself on the finale of Beethoven’s Opus 7 Sonata. There is a tricky place in the C minor section of the piece. After trying out several possible versions of fingering, I still didn’t find a “perfect” one that would allow me to play it with ease. Accidentally, a few days later one of my college students came to a lesson with the Sonata and said “I have a fingering problem in the Finale”. Right away I knew what she referred to. Since she expected me to be able to help her, I found a really good fingering in a couple of minutes. It worked for her and it worked for me. Perhaps I push myself harder when I feel responsible for my students.
3) One of your very young pupils displays unusual talent and musicianship. Can you share how you approached his studies from the very beginning of lessons with regard to technique and repertoire? And how has he advanced along?
Daniel Mori, a 9-year-old student of mine, is just one of several excellent and promising students I teach. Although he is small and immature (even for his age), he nonetheless demonstrates a rare musical talent, a remarkable devotion to his piano studies, and incredible patience.
I approached teaching Daniel about the same way I would approach teaching any other student.
In the early stages I usually pursue three areas simultaneously: developing musical expression and imagination, reading notes, and laying the technical foundation (we call it “building the house from bricks,” where the bricks are various technical formulas).
We played very simple pieces, many of them duets (kids enjoy them as they sound like “real” music with a few notes in the student’s part). Daniel sailed through many of these easier pieces and I never wanted to skip important stages. Studying works of diverse musical styles, learning musical “vocabulary” of different composers and times has been an important goal from the very beginning. While not giving him “mechanical” technical exercises, I have introduced different types of technique, carefully choosing pieces and etudes.
He started playing as a K-student and is currently in the 4th grade. His repertoire progressed from Mozart’s Variations on the “Magic Flute” and “In the Fields” by Gliere, to a Sonata by Cimarosa and the A Minor Invention by Bach, to Debussy’s “Le Petit Negro” and Chopin’s G Minor Polonaise, to the first movements of the F Minor Concerto by Bach and Mozart’s Sonata, K.545, to his current program, which includes two movements from Partita #1 by Bach, the first movement of Haydn’s Sonata XVI:45, and Chopin’s Nocturne in C# Minor. This list does not include many other pieces and etudes by Czerny, Berens, Loeschhorn, and Bertini that he studied.
(Update: Mori recently performed a Bach/Marcello transcription)
4) You’ve praised the great teachers that mentored you. What made each stand out as having a pervasive influence on your musical development?
I love and worship my wonderful teachers. Once a student asked me “Do you know that at every single lesson you mention or quote one of your teachers?” I did not realize that but it’s probably so.
While all of them had distinctive musical personalities, they all came from the St.Petersburg Conservatory and so belonged to the same tradition. It’s difficult for me to distinguish their influence on me. All of them taught me to understand music as a language, to be honest to the composer’s intentions, to think about music I perform rather than about “expressing myself”, and to be technically comfortable.
5) How would you advise piano students to practice with regard to developing a solid technique?
The famous Russian pianist Vladimir Sofronitsky wrote that, “There is actually no technique but a vivid imagination and strong willpower.” The most important factor in developing what we call the piano technique is our ear. Teachers always say, “Listen to yourself,” but this is too general.
Listening should be an active and focused process aimed at particular tasks. Listen to even 16th notes, listen to hands being perfectly together, listen to the correct balance between hands, etc. In my opinion, no book of exercises teaches solid technique. It’s not what you play; it’s how you play it.
Of course, students have to be fluent in scales and arpeggios, practice Etudes by Czerny, Clementi, Cramer, etc. However, for each technical issue with each student there is a trick or two (or five!) that can help solve it.
Napoleon once stated something to the effect of, “Locating a problem is 50% of solving it.” Inexperienced students often play the same difficult place many times, repeating the same mistake in hopes that the next time around it’ll go away. Instead, they learn their mistake really well! I always ask students to “zoom in” and try to verbalize what exactly is not working.
Often, this alone fixes the problem, or at least makes it clear what to “drill”. At this stage, it usually takes a teacher to reveal a “secret” (often a psychological one!) or demonstrate a special movement, to create an exercise or a way to practice.
6) You enlist a conspicuous wrist forward follow-through motion in your playing, that in part, feeds your gorgeous singing tone. What, in fact, are the physical ingredients of a molto cantabile?
All of the movements I use are dictated by common sense with regard to piano playing. The basics of technique were “instilled” in my brain and hands a long time ago, in my early years. Every single movement had been explained, analyzed and learned at some point. However, the main component of a molto cantabile is definitely not physical.
From watching great pianists it is obvious that they incorporate quite different movements to achieve the same goals, because people do not play piano with fingers but rather with the mind and the ear. Again, it is the clear image of what kind of sound one wants to achieve, combined with the knowledge of how to get it. The “knowledge” part is, of course, the physical ingredient that you are asking about, but it takes years and a great teacher to understand all of these secrets.
7) Do you present workshops on performance practice, piano technique, etc. and when and where is your next presentation?
I have been giving master classes and workshops throughout the US and several other countries. This coming summer I’ll be teaching private lessons and giving master classes in Italy for the International Music Academy in Cremona.
Piano; B.M. with Honors, Rimsky-Korsakov College of Music; M.M., Manhattan School of Music; piano studies with Vladimir Shakin, Galina Orlovskaya, Arkady Aronov; performances include Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, New American Chamber orchestra; participated in Film America’s “Music in the 20th Century” series; awards include Frinna Awerbuch, San Antonio International Piano Competitions; teaches, performs at International Keyboard Institute and Festival in NY; faculty, Mannes College of Music, Manhattan school of Music, Special Music School.
Irina Morozova plays Chopin
Morozova performs Gershwin virtuoso transcriptions