Friday, March 20, 2009

A Great Piano Teacher Remembered



Joseph Bloch, a pianist and scholar who taught piano literature at the Juilliard School for more than 40 years, passed away this month at the age of 91, culminating a life of musical discovery and high adventure. Along the way, he guided generations of pianists around the world, some of whom stayed in touch for over five decades. He was not unlike the prized Lagavulin Scotch whisky with which he welcomed visitors to his Larchmont, N.Y., home: cultivated, singular and awe-inspiring.

[Joseph Bloch] Peter Schaaf/Juilliard School

Joseph Bloch

His friends called him "Jimmy." This stemmed, he said, from the fact that his initials were J.M. -- for Joseph Meyer -- which somehow morphed into "Jim." But, like most things about the man, the complete story is more complex. He was actually named Joseph Jr., a fact that couldn't be allowed to stand, since it robbed him of his individuality (the "Meyer" part is a puzzle, even to his children). Indeed, he was no junior version of anything.

He had been everywhere, knew everyone, and had the anecdotes to prove it. His exploits all had the patina of high romance: While a young man traveling throughout Europe, he was taught how to play the card game Hearts by the actress Marlene Dietrich (in silk pajamas), as the two passed the time on an overnight train. While touring the Far East, he traveled to Borneo and unexpectedly ended up performing in a leper colony. In Sendai, Japan, where the temperature in the concert hall was below freezing, he soaked his hands in a bowl of hot water between each piece.

His classes at Juilliard could be treacherous in other ways. In a now-legendary interaction, the pianist Paul Jacobs -- accomplished and supercilious even as a student -- listened to Jimmy demonstrate an early keyboard work, then responded to the question "Can anyone tell me what was unusual about this piece?" by replying "For one thing, your pedaling." Talented students could be both a blessing and a trial.

Jimmy once expressed the suspicion that he killed Van Cliburn's interest in early music because of the amount of time he devoted to surveying it in the classroom. Mr. Cliburn actually got an F from him for poor attendance. Mrs. Bloch, who passed away last June, had recounted to me the phone calls she used to receive from him, explaining that he just couldn't get out of bed early enough to make it to school on time. Nevertheless, when a group of friends hosted an 80th birthday celebration for J.M. at Steinway Hall a decade ago, Mr. Cliburn sent flowers. "The overriding atmosphere in his classes was of the wonder of music-making," the pianist told me by phone last week. "It wasn't just intellectual -- it was spiritual. And I loved that about him."

The introduction of unusual repertoire was one of his major accomplishments at Juilliard -- not just very early music, but Mozart concertos (at a time when few of them were being performed in the concert halls), and piano works of then-relatively unknown composers such as Alexander Scriabin and Charles-Valentin Alkan. "I had this fascination with [Ferruccio] Busoni and [Adolf von] Henselt," remembers pianist Sara Davis Buechner, who now teaches at the University of British Columbia. "No one else cared. But with him I had a sense that here was someone who loved the vast range of keyboard literature with every fiber of his being, and he wanted you to love it too. Of the several things he gave me over the years, the most treasured was his Harvard monograph on Alkan. He signed it with the date, hour, minute and second, and a large crescendo. He said the crescendo was to indicate an ever-growing friendship. He actually signed it three times over the years -- and each time the crescendo was bigger."

Jimmy's championing of little-known music led to his being named a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Palmes Académiques by the French Government in 1985 for his service to French culture; just last year, Juilliard awarded him an honorary doctorate.

His legacy -- in addition to a handful of recordings and a series of music books published in Japan with co-author Peter Coraggio -- rests on the enormous influence he exerted on all who attended classes. Pianist Jeffrey Siegel remembers how "he managed to take familiar works and approach them as revolutionary masterpieces, opening our eyes, ears and minds. Even up to the present time, he was an invaluable source of help to me in planning the many 'Keyboard Conversations' programs -- concert with commentary -- that I give."

"And there was always that rapier wit," says Robin McCabe, now professor and director of the University of Washington's School of Music. "Once he was telling me about a semester of Liszt he was planning and I asked him how he was going to organize all that repertoire. 'By mistresses,' he replied."

"He could have done that," explains David Dubal, who took over the Juilliard piano literature course when Jimmy retired, "dividing the music up by Countess, Princess and Baroness. That was Jimmy. Not only did he look like a 19th-century aristocrat, he was the most urbane man of his generation. How he loved being seen in the proper setting. He would shoot out a bon mot, and if you were intelligent, your ears would spring to life."

Perhaps the sum of the man is best encapsulated in an image offered by Robin McCabe. "You know how you can be walking or driving in the dark, and you suddenly see a house that is lit from within?" she asks. "This is what strikes me about Jim and his mind. It really glowed from within, with knowledge and curiosity, with humor, humanity and a sense of the profound. I think he radiated those qualities quite naturally, and we were all the beneficiaries."

Mr. Isacoff is on the faculty of the Purchase College Conservatory of Music. He is editor of the magazine Piano Today.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Duelling piano playing growing in popularity


Duelling piano playing, lest you don’t know, is growing in popularity in the United States, according to Dueling Pianos Kansas City ( Just what is a duelling piano player?

Apparently, one has to have some serious credentials including natural abilility (you can play by ear), humour (you must be funny), a wide and varied knowledge of music (you know every song ever written, well most of them), the ability to read an audience (you can look out at your audience and decide what genre and era of songs to play, as well as what comedy rating to use) and you must be able to generate tips.

Duelling pianos is based upon random requests from the audience and one has no script to get through the performance. A duelling pianist like Matt Giraud, does however, usually possess a large songbook – with lots of lyrics. Even though he may have the talent to pick out the melody to a strange song, he may not know the correct lyrics – thus, the lyric book comes in handy.

Monday, March 2, 2009

In Sioux City, ID?

Free piano lessons for kids who otherwise wouldn't be able to afford them will begin soon at the Piano Laboratory at First Lutheran Church.

The next session is scheduled for 4:30 to 5:15 p.m. Wednesdays from March 25 through May 20. Students in grades three and four will be given priority and will be selected through a drawing.

Deadline to register is March 18. Registration can be done online at or by calling the church office at 336-3734.