The web is often something I lament these days (remember when it was going to bring world peace and all the world’s intellectual riches within reach.) But there are some rabbit holes I find enjoyable to disappear down, to wit:
Inspired by Igor Levit, one of my favorite pianists of the younger generation, I was inspired to look up jazz artist Fred Hersh, as Igor played a piece of his in a great Wigmore Hall recital.
I followed the thread and found lots of great stuff including Fred’s lovely performance of his own composition, “Valentine,” and an interview, where he talks about, among other things, teaching and learning, mentioning in passing his 30 years of study with Sophia Rosoff. This was a name new to me—and a few further clicks revealed a fascinating character. She was a New York City piano teacher, trained classically, but a mentor to many jazz musicians.
Ethan Iverson is one of those musicians, and his wife Sarah Deming wrote a profile of Sophia that turned up additonal paths. She describes an afternoon at Sophia’s in which, among others, the Jazz great Barry Harris shows up. Harris, who just died at 91, was perhaps the last of that pianist of that lineage, and played a wonderful concert during at a residency of a few days when I was in college in the 80s and led weekly music workshops for most of his life.
That connection would have been enough, but it turns out that Sophia was also a student of Abby Whiteside, a piano teacher with an unusual following, in part because of Whiteside’s book Mastering the Chopin Etudes (a straightforward title for a book that tries to convey her ideas about the centrality of rhythm and the body’s expression of same in music making). Her prose, to me at least, is pretty vague, although in fairness writing with any specificity about the physical nature of playing a musical instrument is perhaps an impossible task. Had she been a great writer, she might not have been a great teacher. I first encountered her book around 15 years ago and have been puzzling it out on my own ever since. No sign of mastering the Etudes here, but she is a fascinating character to me because her views seem to go against the current of every piano lesson I’ve ever had, conventionally for piano lessons fingers are where it’s at. In Abby’s view, you don’t play the piano with your fingers, you make music with your whole body, and your fingers merely express what the entire mechanism is doing rhythmically. (Shades of another great piano pedagogue’s advice “Minimum effort, maximum sensitivity”.) Sophia is a direct connection to Abby, serving on her foundation, and kept her teaching philosophy alive—one that Barry Harris endorsed.
With this I though the journey of names and ideas would be over, but there was still one more. Charlotte Selver is a name I knew because the place my spouse and I go to vacation every year is a small island off midcoastal Maine. It has been a destination for painters (Rockwell Kent among others), but also for Charlotte Selver, a NYC educator who created a program called “Sensory Awareness,” an NYC-based human potential movement, which she brought to Maine among other places. After Abby died Sophia began to work with Sensory Awareness and became a follower of Charlotte. Why all these threads, from Igor Levit to Charlotte Selver come together is curious, but it a pleasant pastime to be able to find the links and puzzle them out.