by Anastasia Tsioulcas
The relationship between a teacher and a student can be transformative. It’s a particularly important relationship in classical music. A teacher is part mentor, part manager — even a parental figure.
Recently, I had the unique opportunity to sit down with two piano greats who bring a special dynamic to this conversation: pianists Gary Graffman and Lang Lang. This occasion marked the first time this teacher and former student have sat down together this way to talk about their work and each other’s music-making.
Now a worldwide superstar, Lang Lang began studying at age 14 with Graffman at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, arguably the greatest conservatory in the world, where the elder artist was director and then president between 1986 and 2006. And Graffman knows more than a little something about good teachers himself. He studied with greats like Vladimir Horowitz, Rudolf Serkin, and Isabelle Vengerova — the same teacher who also trained Leonard Bernstein.
I think it’s really interesting to see how both Graffman and Lang Lang really reject a very authoritarian, my-way-or-the-highway style, the whole idea that you have to suffer terribly to learn how to make beautiful music. There’s a misconception that classical musicians have — or at least maybe should have — very severe personalities. And that to be teachers, they might even have to be even kind of scary to be successful. Both Lang Lang and Gary Graffman told me that this couldn’t be farther from the truth. And it seems like what they have to say about teaching and learning could be applied to many different areas and fields, not just music and the other arts.
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