Afterthoughts of a Pianist/Teacher - A Collection of Essays and Interviews
by Donald Isler
The author of this book, Donald Isler, has forged a distinguished multifaceted career as a classical pianist, teacher adjudicator and recording artist. His teachers included Artur Balsam, Bruce Hungerford, Constance Keene and Robert Goldsand. He’s also the founder of KASP Records, a label where he has promoted the archival legacy of Swiss pianist Adrian Aeschbacher (1912-2002), the American pianist Constance Keene (1921-2005), the music of the New York-based composer Louis Pelosi (b. 1947) and the ill-fated Australian pianist Bruce Hungerford (1922-1977), whose life ended in an automobile accident.
The book is divided into two parts. The first consists of thirty-five essays with such intriguing titles as “Of Course He’s Not Beethoven”, "In Praise of Rule Breakers", “But Is It Good Enough to Perform Yet” and “Do You Hover?”. He also reflects on artists he has known, heard and studied with. The second part comprises of thirty-one interviews Isler has conducted with artists and musicians. Such famous names as Gary Graffman and Ruth Slenczynska feature and, surprisingly, there’s even an interview with sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Isler has been running a blog Isler’s Insights for several years, which I’ve followed. Many, if not all of these essays, derive from there.
Isler draws on his wealth of pedagogical experience, offering many insights into his tried and tested methods of teaching, including dealing with students and their parents. In one chapter titled “A Piano Teacher’s New Year’s Resolutions”, he offers some thirteen suggestions, among them:
1. To be cheerful at all times.
2. To be nonjudgmental
4. To accept all forms of popular music as being of equal value to the Classical repertoire.
In another he provides some opinions on piano lessons, discussing the master class as opposed to the private lesson. Where to hold lessons, in the studio or in the student’s home? Should the parents be present? Where does contemporary music fit into the student’s schedule?
The author reminisces about his teachers, the pipe-smoking Robert Goldsand, Constance Keene and Bruce Hungerford. The latter, a pianist I admire enormously, I was most
eager to hear about, and there are plenty of anecdotes to satisfy.
Although many of the interviewees in Part 11 I wasn’t familiar with, I still enjoyed Isler’s interesting probing questions. Some of the interviews I was particularly eager to get to; those of Gary Graffman, Ruth Slenczynska, Jerome Rose, David Dubal, Ursula Oppens, Massimiliano Ferrati, Jed Distler and Tim Page were of specific interest to me. Isler’s cozy style certainly doesn’t preclude the odd amusing anecdote. There’s Gary Graffman’s tale of the “famed and feared” Isabella Vengerova picking up a chair in a fit of pique and throwing it down, breaking a leg off, an incident that so terrified her cat, it scurried away to hide under the couch for a long time.
Isler shares his insights in an engaging, fluent and readable style. This absorbing book, at times entertaining, is a real page turner. It will appeal to pianists, teachers, students and piano fanciers alike. Most enjoyable, it’s well worth tracking down.