Leschetizky's teaching methods

Leschetizky combined the classical training of Czerny and the cantabile style of Chopin with the brilliance of Liszt. These are also the qualities which are predominant in the playing of Leschetizky's pupils.

As a teacher, Leschetizky claimed he had no method, at least not in the rigid technical sense. The method he taught was the study of the score in the minutest detail, in order to discover all the implied and hidden meanings and then find a way to their technical solution. The musical ideal came first for which the technical solution would be found. To succeed in this, a thorough technical training, based primarily on extensive study of scales, chords and double notes including octaves, as well as etudes (predominantly by Czerny) was a prerequisite.

Leschetizky himself, at least by the time he became famous, did not teach children, unless their talent bordered on the genius. For that reason, there is no record of how he would have approached the problems of teaching basic piano technique. He worked with assistants who were his students and sometimes his wives (he had several pianistic marriages), and they had lot of latitude in how they achieved the results. They prepared the young students until they reached sufficiently advanced level to benefit from the Master's teaching.

All the various 'Leschetizky Methods' were written by assistants or other students but only the one by Malwine Brée was endorsed by the Master himself. An interesting feature of this book is that Leschetizky let photographs of his hand be used for the illustrations. The book was written before detailed studies have been made of the physiology of piano playing and therefore, it is not surprising that, besides some good points, one finds inconsistencies and physically contradictory remarks.

Leschetizky himself had little patience or time to consider elementary technical matters - one must remember that he was over seventy when he endorsed Malwine Brée's book. The influence of his teaching, of which the technique was just a tool, could be best be judged from observations on how his many famous students played. What they all had in common was the absence of all inessential movements. They generally used flowing movements of the hand with fingers close to the keys, except when special effects were required by the music. My own recollections of the playing of Horszowski and Moisewitsch bears this out. Moisewitsch was particularly legendary for his playing of the most expressive cantabile or most exuberant bravura with the same facial expression and very little body movement. Rachmaninoff, by the way, was also reputedly like that.

His teaching was full of imagination and sometimes humor. Here are some recollection of his teaching and sayings:

Padarewski said; The method of Leschetizky is very simple. His pupils learn to evoke a fine tone from the instrument and to make music and not noise. There are principles, you will agree, that are to be uniformly inculcated in every pupil - that is breadth, softness of touch and precision of rhythm. For the rest, every individual is treated according to his talent. In one word - it is the method of methods. Leschetizky remarked: "I study for hours when I am walking alone in the night. I look far down the street and imagine a beautiful voice, and I learn that far away 'pp' quality - that means attention" For him "the best study could be done away from the piano .... Listening to the inward singing of a phrase was of far more value than playing it a dozen times." He has come to appreciate a fine melody line from the singing of his first wife, Anne de Friedebourg, whom he had married in Russia.. His three later wives were all students, including Annette Essipov, one of the greatest 19th century women pianists. He felt that muscular relaxation in piano playing was like deep breathing to a singer.

He told Ethel Newcomb: ... what deep breaths (Anton) Rubinstein used to take at the beginning of long phrases, and also what repose he had and what dramatic pauses. "There is more rhythm between the notes than in the notes themselves." He reminded me that Liszt used to say this: "Paula Szalit is the only one who ever asked me to tell how Rubinstein breathed. No one else ever seemed interested to know."

To Frank Merrick he said; I advise you very often to stop and listen when you are practising, and then you will find out a great deal for yourself."

Annette Hullah recalled that he felt four, or at the most five hours a day of concentrated practice was sufficient . Miss Hullah wrote: "Concentrated thought is the basis of his principles, the corner-stone of his method. Without it, nothing of any permanent value can be obtained, either in art or anything else. No amount of mechanical finger-work can take its place; and the player who repeats the same passage, wearily expectant that he will accomplish it in process of time, is a lost soul on a hopeless quest.

Leschetizky enumerates the essential qualities of good work as follows; First, an absolutely clear comprehension of the principal points to be studied in the music an hand; a clear perception of where the difficulties lie, and of the way in which to conquer them; the mental realizations of these three facts before they are carried out by the hands. 'Decide exactly what it is you want to do in the first place' he impressed on everyone; "then how you will do it; then play it. Stop and think if you played it in the way you meant to do; then only, if sure of this, go ahead. Without concentration, remember, you can do nothing. The brain must guide the fingers, not the fingers the brain". Each student's interpretation of a piece was fashioned to the student's personality.

Benno Moisewitsch (1890-1963) remarked that Leschetizky never taught two pupils the same piece in the same way, that there was a sense of urgency about his music making; "Whatever he did was intensely felt and shaped to that ideal: he made us think of the shape of the phrase, of the paragraph, of the composition. Each of the phrases in the dissecting process would be different and separately perfect. Put together, there was a sublime and unpredictable continuity of feeling about the piece as it took shape in one's newly minted interpretation."

He told Ethel Newcomb: "Be ideal, think ideally. We can all afford to cultivate that quality .... Whether it makes you happier or not, it is worth the trouble to try to live ideally. If you think yourself a poor specimen, you will probably always remain one, or most likely become one, but if you think of yourself as having the possibilities of greatness in you, there is a chance for you."

Here are some teaching remarks by Leschetizky: "Sit at the piano unconstrained and erect, like a good horseman on his horse, and yield to the movements of the arms as far as necessary, as the rider yields to the movement of his horse. Sit at such distance from the keyboard that when the arms are easily bent, the finger tips may rest on the keys with easy effort, and the feet reach the pedals comfortably. The elbows should be held neither too close to the sides nor too far away; moreover, they should be on a level with the keys, or be held but a very little higher. To make an effective accelerando, you must glide into rapidity as steadily as a train increases its speed when steaming out of a station. Teach yourself to make a rallentando evenly by watching the drops of water cease as you turn off the tap. A player with unbalanced rhythm reminds me of an intoxicated man who cannot walk straight. Your fingers are like capering horses, spirited and willing, but ignorant of where to go without a guide. Put on your bridle and curb them in till they learn to obey you, or they will not serve you well. If you are going to play a scale, place your hand in readiness on the keyboard in the same position as you would if you were going to write a letter - or to take a pinch of snuff. The bystander ought to know by your attitude of your hand what chord you are going to play before you play it, for each chord has its own psysiognomy. If you play wrong notes, either you do not know where the note is, or what the note is. If you want to develop strength and sensitiveness in the tips of your fingers, use them in everyday life. For instance, when you go out for a walk, hold your umbrella with the tips instead of in the palm of the hand."

There is a single verbal recording of Leschetizky summing up his credo: "No art without life, no life without art."

(Written by Janos Cegledy)