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An interview with Rada Bukhman, pianist, teacher, author, about the “Russian School of Piano Playing”

51sfEigbLVL._SX285_blow up book cover Bukhman

Rada Bukhman, a Vancouver-based piano teacher with native Russian roots, has produced a 212-page soft cover volume that entices with its interspersed selections of compositions at various learning levels.

The text offers a variety of fascinating topics, “Developing Initial Musical Skills: on the Nature and Development of a Musical Ear, on Rhythm, Preparatory Stage, Sight-Reading” and continues with “The Means of Expression in Performance: Sound production, Dynamics, the Art of Phrasing,” etc. among a plethora of compelling instructional headings that follow in a well-organized sequence.

Rather than retread specific areas covered by Ms. Bukhman in her volume, I asked her to respond to a series of inquiries that arose from my exploration of her book.

SK (Shirley Kirsten): Is there a Russian School of Piano Playing, and if so, what exactly is it? Nikolai Lugansky, a student of Tatiana Nikolayeva, for example, said the following when asked the same question:

“It is difficult to describe, but the piano is not a knocking instrument (perhaps he meant percussive), and you must always try to play a melody as if you were emulating the human voice.”

Rada Bukhman: Before answering your question, I would like to define the meaning of “Russian School of Piano Playing.”

Many musicians stress the word “playing,” while for me, it is the “school” that’s important. There is no such thing as Russian piano playing, but there is definitely the SCHOOL.

The singing tone cannot be related to Russians only. The majority of Old Russian masters who impress us with their singing tone have a Western European background. Russia developed slowly: the Rubinstein brothers opened their music conservatories in Moscow and Saint Petersburg only in the second part of the 19th century. By that time Europe produced quite an impressive number of amazing pianists- Talberg, Chopin, Liszt, Busoni, Clara Schumann, Brahms.

While I don’t believe there exists a Russian way of playing, I do recognize the Russian School of Piano teaching – the method historically proven by raising generations of accomplished musicians. I would like to avoid over-generalizing by implying that all Russian teachers are excellent or that only Russian teachers are great. However, in Russia there was a very well-defined organizational structure and pedagogical strategy, both aimed at children. This is something I miss in North America.

In regular Russian music schools children had quite a few courses additional to specialty instrument study. These included solfeggio, theory, and music literature. Students were expected to participate in a choir and to play in the orchestra. The schools provided general musical education on a very high level. Many of these graduates continued professional studies in musical colleges.

There were also special music schools meant for gifted children, which Lugansky himself had attended. Teachers in those schools were both exceptional musicians and great performers. Therefore, the students were taught refined musical taste and a high level of musical understanding.

These teachers had developed the core of the method that we now call the “Russian Piano School.”

One of the most important features of the School is the development of the piano apparatus based on a serious foundation of musical and medical knowledge. It is a well-known fact that many pianists suffer from all kinds of professional traumas due to inappropriate training in childhood. It is vital, therefore, to understand how our body functions. It’s also important to know which movement best suits the desired articulation, particular tone…. Then instead of hours of repetitive practicing one can achieve quality results much faster and be injury-free.

The standard set in schools for gifted children was extremely high. It demanded the embrace of art as a whole. The best Russian teachers expected children to explore music, visual art, and literature. This is another major feature of the Russian School.

The teachers were also unique, and worked day and night. I should mention that the only motivation they had was love for the students and for the music. I have read memories of a principal of one of those schools, where he shared his admiration for old teachers who voluntarily worked long hours and weekends.

Nowadays music teachers have to be business-oriented; it makes the teaching process totally different. You would not imagine someone working additional hours with a private student unless paid extra. The same is the case in contemporary Russia. These extra lessons cost money, and the rate is not low.

It’s ironic, but the terrible economic and political conditions in the Soviet Union motivated artists to work with greater enthusiasm, because the only sanctuary for real freedom and spiritual happiness was their art.

Consequently, only during the first half of the 20th century had Russia produced an enormous amount of extraordinary musicians.

SK: In the Russian tradition of teaching piano, what is the physical route to producing a legato (smooth and connected) singing tone? And what role does a supple wrist play in developing a molto cantabile. (very singable sound)

Rada Bukhman: Legato is a more audible phenomenon than physical. It is sort of an illusion. First of all, one should be talented enough to imagine and to hear this type of sound internally. Another important thing is to control the sound. We often play legato using pedal for connection in situations when physical legato is impossible. It is crucial to build smooth dynamical change from sound to sound creating an illusion of legato.

In the book I introduce the melodic exercises which aim to teach how to play legato with dynamic development. It motivates children to control the decay of each sound and initiate conscious transfer from one sound to the next.

Physical legato definitely is a very important skill and it depends on proper use of pianistic apparatus. The singing sound physically depends on proper touch of the fingertip and on a masterful distribution of weight of the arms on fingers, while moving from key to key.

The wrist helps our fingers to reach the most desirable position on the keyboard. Wrist is a bridge connecting the forearm with the hand, and it contributes to a greater mobility of the hand. It helps the hand to change positions. The wrist can work as a resisting force while we are playing heavy and loud, softening the tone. Thus the wrist should be flexible but never loose. Excessive movements of the wrist may result in a professional injury; this is something to keep in mind.

SK: I notice that in one portion of your book you recommended inking a dot on the fleshy part of a student’s fingers to remind him or her of where to make contact with the key. Does this allow flexibility as far as a deep in the key approach, with longer, less rounded fingers in Largo or Adagio passages? Daniil Trifonov mentioned in an interview that he often plays with “flat fingers.”

Rada Bukhman: Inking a dot is not my invention; this was advice given by the legendary teacher Anna Artobolevskaya.

A skillful performer instinctively flattens his or her fingers for a variety of reasons. Sometimes in fast tempo as well, playing, for example, on black keys. While the finger is flattened, the distal phalanx is still a bit curved allowing touch of a key with a fingertip. In the case of legato, the larger part of the flesh is involved.

Why it is essential to teach children to touch with a tip or in other words, to grab a key with a tip? Because this skill is not innate to us. This skill has to be nurtured, sometimes for years.

Professor Mikhail Voskresensky, who has been teaching for many decades in the Moscow conservatory, once said to me: you should feel as if you’re holding the keyboard with your fingertips. In other words, one should imagine that the grip of the keys should prevent keyboard from falling on the floor. When this feeling is established, one is free to experiment with colors of tone.

SK: What is the value of playing detached notes, before exposing a student to legato playing?

Rada Bukhman:
Legato is the most complex skill. Playing non-legato establishes the foundation for movement and touch. It motivates to play with a full arm, realizing the unity of the different parts of the piano apparatus; it teaches to immerse the finger to the end of the key bed. In my book you will find exercises for circular movements of the arm, necessary for establishing the habit of transferring the hand comfortably.

SK: Your teacher antecedents go back to Heinrich Neuhaus who taught Richter and Gilels. What was the main dimension of his teaching that was passed down to you?

Rada Bukhman: I am still learning from my former Moscow teacher, examining her video recordings. Richter and Gilels are not very good examples of Neuhaus’s art of pedagogy because they are geniuses, not to mention that Gilels can hardly be considered a pupil of Neuhaus.

My teacher, Lidija Phikhtengoltz, who was student of Neuhaus from the age of 14, explores his musical principles more obviously. She was always touched following her performances when somebody would say that it is apparent that her teacher was Henry. She has a refined musical taste, expressive natural phrasing, and a deep understanding of a composer’s language. Pay attention to her logical gestures (there are no unnecessary movements). When she was performing, it was always sincere and truthful. From her I learned appreciation for the quality of the sound and the importance of musical taste.

SK: One of the strengths of your book resides in its inclusion of repertoire that you recommend with tie-ins to your whole technical/musical approach to teaching.

Were these pieces you were given to study as part of your training in Russia?

Rada Bukhman: I was searching for repertoire in all possible internet libraries; additionally I wanted to incorporate the material which would be new for teachers and students. I was using the Nikolaev book in my childhood, which is translated into English. However, I found it impossible to use most of its content. I managed to combine well-known music like the selections from Children’s cycles by Tchaikovsky, Schumann, Maykapar with the music that has never been published before in North America. For example, my book includes pieces by Russian prominent composers such as Sviridov and Lokshin. For the part of the book called “Development of Piano Apparatus” I was searching for pieces that would correspond to each technique.

SK: Could you describe the specific teachers who most influenced you and why?

Rada Bukhman: My learning experience is a combination of skills I acquired from very different but unique musicians. All of them contributed to my musical development tremendously. However I feel that teaching young musicians continuously makes me a better musician and performer.

SK: How is your book set apart from other piano instructional materials on the market?

Rada Bukhman:
My book is both an exploration of the method and repertoire. The method is a pedagogical tool for teachers interested in learning the “Russian way” of building the piano apparatus. I offer an explanation of the nature of pianistic movements as well as a strategy to follow while working with beginners. I explain in detail the order of techniques introduced and how all exercises have to be performed, from an audible and physical perspective.

By using some of the exercises one can help more advanced students who suffer from inappropriate initial training. Additionally, I touch on every aspect of musical development of the child. That makes my book different from other children’s piano methods.

(I offer free consultations via Skype to new owners of my book who would like to have more detailed explanation of the book’s themes)


AMAZON: DISCOVERING COLOR BEHIND THE KEYS: The Essence of the Russian School of Piano Playing

RADA BUKHMAN’S YOU TUBE CHANNEL with playing samples of her students

Bruno Monsaingeon, classissima,, Documentary on Richter pianist, Heinrich Neuhaus, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, Moscow Conservatory, piano addict, Piano World, piano world-wide, Sviatoslav Richter, The Enigma - Bruno Monsaingeon -1998- Parts I and 2, Uncategorized, word press,, you tube, you

Film art and great pianism fuse in a Richter documentary (The Enigma – Bruno Monsaingeon -1998- Parts I and 2)

sviatoslav richter
The set is plain. Sviatoslav Richter is 80, looking physically like a shadow of himself. He’s seated at a table, sometimes appearing depressed. His memories flow extemporaneously. They’re filled with a wide range of emotions, perhaps a microcosm of his playing.

He can be uplifting, impassioned, regretful, disappointed, inspired, exalted and traumatized as he relives his Russian childhood and family disintegration. A poignant sub theme: his father, a pianist and Odessa Conservatory professor was executed during the era of Soviet purges. A recurring motif of sadness permeates many of his reflections.

In the same vein, we learn that Richter’s father, who taught the child piano, was “horrified” listening to his son’s early practicing efforts at age 8.

He complained to his wife. “He never plays scales or exercises.” And she tempered his anger by saying, “Leave him alone.”

Richter recalls his first piece learned: Chopin’s first Nocturne, followed by the E minor Etude. With that said, Monsaingeon cross fades to the Etude, with a display of the pianist’s jaw-dropping virtuosity!

(Footage of Richter’s performances permeate the documentary affording a historical perspective that matches the pianist’s moving narrative)

Part 1:

Part 2:

We learn over the course of a two part documentary, that “mama” met “papa” at the Odessa Conservatory where she was his piano student. And though considered a privileged, landlord’s daughter, she married what was considered a “commoner.” (Her father registered his disapproval of the marriage)


As an only child, Richter was the favorite of his doddering old aunties who sheltered him for a time during a family separation, and there he gave his first concert, performing the Schumann Concerto at ONE piano.

Every aspect of “Slava’s” life is explored: It includes his early professional engagement as an “accompanist” in theaters and clubs. (for singers, violinists, and circus performers, and his subsequent stint as an opera coach) He intones his love for Wagner as he ingested whole scores at the piano, including those of Verdi.

In a career overview, Richter emphasizes that his Odessa debut was not a professional high point. (Often “politics” clouded what should have been art for its own sake) But what resonates in his self reviews, are self-deprecations that are in glaring contrast to what critics had declared great musical successes!

When Glenn Gould regales Richter’s Schubert G Major sonata, as tantamount to a second coming, Richter dilutes his excitement with a lukewarm response: “the playing was unremarkable.”

Suddenly, Richter perks up and springs to life, recounting his years at the Moscow Conservatory as a student of Heinrich Neuhaus. A mouse click to 26:00 Part One through 31 is worth a preview, even before apportioning a large chunk of time to absorb this awe-inspiring film.

Neuhaus was “like a father,” he says, yet more “lighthearted” than his own (The music professor had declared Richter “a genius” after his Conservatory audition)

And how did Neuhaus influence the pianist? Richter views this teacher as his personal idol.

“It was in tone production–he freed up my playing. My sound had to be opened up.”

And conversely, “he taught me how to make silences sound.”

For a sample of Neuhaus’s OWN playing, a snatch (Kreisleriana) from his Moscow Conservatory concert is inserted, supporting Richter’s hyperbole. (He confesses that his mentor played “like a pig” in the first two Schumann openers–comments revealing Sviatoslav’s unabashed candor and sharp-witted humor)

In the entertainment realm, Richter is caught on camera playing “Liszt” in a Russian-made movie about GLINKA. Slava with a wig, in period costume is a sight to behold, rendering a lively Glinka composition. Suddenly, a magical cinematic moment: The composer, Glinka, is standing beside him, shaking his hand.

Richter recalls this “dramatic exchange” as a peak, theatrical moment.

Of note, more than a few of the pianist’s opinionated, though heartfelt responses to people, places, performances, and pianos during his distinguished career:

On America.. “too standardized.” He was not fond of time spent touring the US. (an understatement)

About pianos, and choosing one for a concert. When asked, “what is required of your instrument?”

Answer: “I require more of myself.”

On playing with music in recital: “It’s more honest.. you can play exactly what’s written.”

Whom does Richter prefer, Haydn or Mozart?

Reply: “Mozart!” He says, with authority! (“It’s easier to phrase Haydn….Mozart is too difficult.”) “The secret of playing Mozart” evades him.


Nina Dorliak, singer/recitalist who became Richter’s long-term live-in companion following Richter’s stint as her accompanist, intersperses commentary on his life, practicing routines and performances. (From Wiki: “She accompanied Richter both in his complex life and career. She supported him in his last sickness, and died herself a few months later, on May 17, 1998.”)

She insists, “he practiced 10 to 12 hours per day.”

Not surprisingly, Richter denies it: “No, never. It was three hours.” (The camera pans to what looks like a timer, though it might have been a metronome)

Again a contradiction of observations.

Sadly, the documentary ends on a somber note:

“I don’t like myself,” Richter admits, as he slumps into a reclusive pose. A dimming fade-out to credits brings part 2, to conclusion.

Looking back on Sviatoslav’s colorful musical journey, admirers around the world continue to celebrate his artistry, humanity, and generosity. (Often, he donated free concerts at schools in the countryside and beyond)

And above all, they treasure his recordings and you tube videos that memorialize his musical genius.

So to dearly beloved, Slava,

Rest in Peace.