E.E. Cummings once said “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”
For many years, I didn’t understand what that meant. But it’s starting to make more sense. After all, it’s easy to follow a well-worn path, to do the safe thing, or to take others’ advice when it comes to figuring out what we should do with our lives.
But artists seem to find their own way. Artists learn to listen to that inner voice, and have the courage to follow – even if they have no idea where it will take them.
And whether we fall in love with their art or not, we respect the artist within them. Because we see their courage, and that resonates with the artist within us – which wants only to do the same. To follow our own path.
Meet Menahem Pressler
Pianist Menahem Pressler (1923-2023) had a remarkable career spanning more than seven decades. As a founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio, he recorded pretty much the entire piano chamber music repertoire over the trio’s 50+ years.
And in his 60+ years of teaching at Indiana University, he guided students to prestigious teaching positions around the world and prizes in all of the major international piano competitions.
In this 30-min chat, recorded in 2012, you’ll hear the wisdom and insight he had gained from a lifetime of performing and teaching – and what it takes (and means) to truly be an artist.
In addition, we explore:
- 1:39 – How Mr. Pressler prepares for performances, and identifies the potential problem areas in advance
- 5:35 – The importance of finding your own voice
- 7:28 – How he has, for himself anyway, figured out how to connect to an audience
- 14:28 – What he is thinking about during a performance on his best days…and on bad days
- 19:03 – On dealing with critics and bad reviews
- 24:41 – He acknowledges that awards are nice, but identifies something more profound that he finds more deeply rewarding
- 27:00 – I ask him if there’s anything he wishes he would have known when he was starting out in his career; he responds with what I think is the best possible answer
[00:01:24] Noa: You perform so often all over the place and with so much different repertoire over the years that I'm curious about how you get ready for that or how you've come up with some sort of routine or, regimen, if you will, for making sure that when the performance comes, you're ready to go.
[00:01:40] Menahem Pressler: The first thing is that I learn the piece very carefully.
I learned it, study it very carefully, and then maybe will have a tryout performance. I mean, with the trio, we used to try out, or I as solo would try out the piece, until I feel more secure, as far as the piece is concerned. And then you always know that there are always places in the work that give you problems.
And so you are in a way, prepare for those problems, which means that when it arrives that you don't tighten up, that you don't start all of a sudden fear, but that you are somehow prepared for it. That now somehow, as I said, because what happens in real life is that the problem moves very often.
It may be this is this bar that gave you lots of problem. All of a sudden that bar is not difficult at all. And another bar seems very, very difficult. So you are prepared for these things. And then what is is for me, the mainstay and the main reason, actually the main reason for playing, the main reason for still playing, is the love for the pieces.
So I will, I do love my repertoire. I do love the repertoire that I'm playing, although I to play an enormous repertoire, which is utterly ridiculous with so many different pieces. But I'm still doing it. And uh, actually next week I will be in, uh, Ottawa and I play, uh, Brahms quintet and I play quintet for woodwinds by Beethoven and Mozart. I play a Mozart concerto I mean it's, it's, it's hair-raising, No, the only thing is I don't raise any hair. I wished it was, but uh, I'm just trying to with all that play a repertoire that I know while I still have to learn new repertoire. And imagine at 88, I'm playing now this summer the Winterreise for the first time.
[00:03:56] Noa: Oh, wow.
[00:03:56] Menahem Pressler: And this is, "oh wow", you're right. This was a singer who's done it maybe hundreds of times, I'm doing it for the first time. The only thing is, of course, Schubert is not... How should I say, a closed book for me, on the contrary, I play many works of Schubert, and so I am familiar with this repertoire, this vocabulary.
I love him and I love his music. And, and of course I used to listen to the Winterreise, but just to tell you what I have ahead of me, and here again, it's a preparation. It's playing it, preparing it. Seeing the piece and then forming inside of you an opinion of the piece. Opinion means the way you would like to hear it, the way you would like to play it.
Now, very often we think we play one way and then we hear tape of that performance. And it sounds completely different. It's like, yes, if you don't recognize your voice on tape, which very often happens, so you still then identify and identify what is it that will make it more your voice so that you will recognize, that you will do it.
And yeah, I can only say one of the most, and the most important aspect is preparation.
[00:05:23] Noa: It's hard to get around being prepared. I mean, even in terms of confidence...
[00:05:26] Menahem Pressler: that you cannot, that you cannot, how shall I say it? There is, you know, sometimes what life is, sometimes you have to learn a piece very fast, and especially when I was younger, I had to do in order to have the date or something.
But that's, first of all, it's not anymore the case. And secondly, I recognized the that, or I recognize now by now truly recognize that it is only the good performances, the ones where you can put your name under it, are the ones that really count.
[00:06:05] Noa: Is the big thing for you, having had the time or the preparation to form an opinion as you said, is that really the key to feeling confident about a performance going into it?
[00:06:16] Menahem Pressler: You know, uh, confident about a performance career you never can be, because here it takes two to tango, which meant when you play, you hope that the audience will like you. You hope that there is something in your playing, which the audience will like and will respond to. Because I've heard very good performers and the audience, and left the audience cold, I've heard performers who had the ability to get the audience to love them.
In a way, I would say that is a talent too. It is not just that you play better or you play cleaner, or you play louder, or you play softer. It's not that. There is something in which a certain performer is capable or able to reach the heartstrings or whatever you may call it. The soul, the ear, the relationship, in order to establish that which we call a successful playing career.
[00:07:24] Noa: Have you figured out what it is that seems to most effectively do that or connect with an audience in that very deep and touching sort of way?
[00:07:34] Menahem Pressler: I have figured it out for myself because the things that I love is the sensitivity and the peace.
And I do love the beauty of sound. That means how you say it. Now I have seen that my biggest success was not the fast playing or the loud playing, but was the soft playing. And maybe not the faster, it may have been the slow one. I don't know that part for sure, but there is in sometimes I have been, I hear, hear some place in the Schubert trio or when I hear myself, there's a new video out and I'd like you to see it. And a DVD, the concert that I played a few months ago in Paris. And you can get it on amazon.com. It's a DVD of Beethoven Opus 110 and Debussy Estampes and, uh, some Mazurkas of Chopin, and, and finishing it up with big B flat major sonata of Schubert. Really big, big program. And seemingly, I, I must admit I haven't seen it myself. But I have gotten the input for one of the great composers a great musicians that I regard very, very highly. His name is Kurtág. I don't know if you know the name.
Hungarian. Fabulous. Really fabulous. Anyway, He will criticize everything. He still liked it and so I take his word for it.
[00:09:10] Noa: Well, that's really interesting because it sounds, and correct me if I'm wrong, but it sounds almost like you're saying that whatever the artist finds most compelling, most beautiful, their own definition, whether it's sound sensitivity or something else in the music, that's the thing that you're really showcasing because it's so personal to you and meaningful, that you hope the audience then responds to what you find beautiful in what you're playing.
[00:09:34] Menahem Pressler: Yes. I think that, that you put it in good words. Yes. Because you have some artists, whose brilliance is so overwhelming and the audience reacts to brilliance, of course, very easy. The sport of, instrumental playing. But yet the great, impressions, at least that on myself too. And I heard [?} by Schnabel and I heard playing, Gieseking some event, or I heard, you know, I heard Rubinstein do some Chopin Mazurkas, but Horowitz plays not only the phenomenal part of his handling of the instrument. But just the beauty. I mean, nocturne for [?] the Mazurkas, as I mentioned it have always had on me an overwhelming effect. So I think I'm not alone in listening to music that way, that there are people, on my side of the room, that will hear it the way I hear it.
[00:10:38] Noa: It sounds almost like you're talking about being touched by the music as opposed to being impressed by the performance of the music.
[00:10:44] Menahem Pressler: Absolutely. Absolutely. Because I do feel the real deep value that is in the performance is that work. Which is of course proved its worth by staying alive 200 years, 50 years whatever have you. And staying alive by being as direct to your feelings, to my feelings. That's when I hear it. As it was when he wrote it. So I do feel very strongly for myself that serving the work is in a way more important than how you serve it. I mean, in what clothes you are, and that if you can, if you can whisper or shout or sing it from the rooftop, what the message of the work is. The message that the composer intended. And that, I think, uh, takes time for you, first of all to find out too, Because there are certain things that you immediately like about a work or that you have heard, and so therefore you like, but that's when you start to get to know it deeper and deeper, then you do find some of the works that were used that touch you, and then when you feel that you may be able to do those works in such a way that you will touch the one who listens to you.
[00:12:12] Noa: It brings up a related question for me in that when you're actually playing, whether it's one of your favorite parts of the piece or a bridge to another part, what do you find yourself thinking about when you're having one of the best days?
[00:12:26] Menahem Pressler: When I have a best days, I don't think about anything. I listen. I'm inside the music. I sing it, I, I play it. I don't think of anything. On the bad day. Of course, I think "My, I should have practiced more." Or, "For heaven's sake, why didn't I pay attention here with the left hand?" I mean, I hear it and the red light goes on in my brain that tells me now this, "watch out," and, and most of the time I am capable of watching out, but some of the time I'm not. And so therefore, at that moment thoughts enter your mind, which have no place in the performance.
In the performance, you shouldn't see in details, you react spontaneously. Your ear is your guide. Your feeling is the guide for the ear. Your hands are operating under those feelings, and of course through their training will know that you can't exaggerate. Because your hands are not capable to do what Mr. X can do. But you can tell the message as well as X, if you are concentrated, of the way, you see like we each have a different face, that each has a different size. And each of us have a different need, let's put it this way.
So there is that need. And so when you ask what I'm thinking of, of course that's what I'm thinking of, during sometimes. But there are, when I'm not so happy or the acoustic is not very good, or the piano is not responding, or the action is not right and oh look, the upper register's out of tune.
There are many little things, that get but on a good day, none of that matters. Even that the piano's out of tune on a good day, you're not even concerned with that.
[00:14:29] Noa: Have you found a way to keep your mind more focused on singing, using your ears as a guide, and really listening carefully and being immersed inside the music as opposed to being on the outside of it.
Have you found any, I don't wanna call them tricks, but have you found strategies or ways of helping yourself?
[00:14:50] Menahem Pressler: Not really. I mean, you do a number of things and many of the things, of course, especially when you're an old teacher like me, in order to explain it to a student, I would've had to put my finger on it.
Now, when you do it for yourself, there isn't enough feeling where "That's the right thing" or "That's the wrong thing" and you don't talk to yourself, you don't explain to yourself. But of course, having gone through the process, the explanation in a way do stick to you too. But it's still instinct.
It is the sounds that you produce, it is the feeling that you have. I, for instance, just now played the slow movement of the Schumann quartet. I deeply adore the peace and have had a long history with the peace, having recorded it twice and it still moves me. To a great extent. It moves me all the way in. And I feel that I can, in a way, convey that to someone who listens to me playing it.
[00:16:05] Noa: Are there times where you have had to deal with audiences that, aren't coming along for the ride or just aren't responding? Or critics even who just don't seem to understand, where you're coming from with the music.
[00:16:21] Menahem Pressler: Of course, everybody has that. And. I was at a thing where [?] Once said to me, "Menahem," he said, "when 51 of the critics write well about you, you are a success. There is no one that doesn't get bad reviews. And the bad part very often is that neither the good nor the bad one are written by people with deep knowledge. I will say this, when I started to play, of course the critics were old. Therefore I had deep respect for them and then thought "Oh, they've heard a lot," so when they say, "this is not right," or "this should be done," I was very apt to listen to this.
But the older I got, the younger the critics got, and then I had some critics that I would never even take into my class or listen to their musical opinion. But of course it's printed black and white. And so very often you do have to revisit even though you feel insulted and or you feel not even giving it a second thought, it exists. And we have found out that of course, anything that is black and white that remains is all good or a stain on your picture, that it's there for anyone in the world to either make dirty or beautify it. And it is true that from time to time you feel that you didn't play at your best and you get the most wonderful writeups, and then when you feel you played at your best, you get a terrible writeup.
[00:18:07] Noa: In that regard. I'm always curious about people who have had, by any measure, a successful career, and what they themselves actually considered to be the most successful aspect of the career or the most difficult part of the career I mean, so for you, what would you consider to be one of your greatest successes over the 50 plus years of performing? All the different awards and nominations and accolades?
[00:18:33] Menahem Pressler: I will tell you, I told you before that the last DVD was seen by Kurtág, a man that I adore. Because he showed me, once I was playing with the trio, he has written pieces for my trio. Now he has even written a piece for me solo, but he came once in Amsterdam and we played for him a Beethoven trio, which probably I don't know if anyone in the world has played that piece as much as I have. I've recorded it twice. I have taught it many, many times and then he spoke about some of the things inside the music and found something that absolutely staggered me, all the insights that he had that helped me to understand the piece deeper.
Now, when I get a compliment from him or I got a compliment from Richter in his memoirs, and that's something that I didn't know about because he never told me that directly like that. Now I am of course, thrilled, and because for where the compliment came. Yes.
Just the other day, a few weeks ago, I was in Madrid receiving the Menuhin Prize, which is very, very big award by the queen of of Spain. And in New York, I got the highest award to American music teachers.
It was very thrilling and very rewarding. And, uh, the book that came out about my teaching was a big success, actually, still the best seller. Or the biography, which came out in England is doing so well. All that is fun and it's a pleasure, but that what is of course the main space of those people that in your life you look up to.
And that mean a great deal to you and in that respect, and so when you hear something from them that touches you, that is the confirmation is like when I speak, and this is very true to all students, that write to me, that after 40 years telling me how much it meant to them to be away and still look at the music the way I taught it, the way I looked at it myself, and so that was very, very rewarding and is very, very rewarding.
[00:21:05] Noa: Sounds like to be for the effort and the thought and the study that you've put into developing something...
[00:21:11] Menahem Pressler: You know, you feel understood in the way that you could convey that which is meaningful to you in the music that, to someone else who then it becomes meaningful, too.
And who actually will continue in that way. And so, if you are looking in a secret way to immortality, this is surely a way in which you find that your ideas somehow seem to generate seeds. Then they stay alive and they bring that way that you have found, the content of the music, that have been so important to you and have now become very important to some others.
You are rewarded to feel grateful in a way because somehow that is what you do. That's what you want to do. Because by now, especially by now, you don't do that to make a living. That is not anymore the reason for teaching. That's not anymore the reason for trying to have a more successful career so that the income is good. That is really in a way, secondary at this particular point in my life.
The important point is to reach out and to give that which have given my life the reason to be a life.
[00:22:46] Noa: It seems like one of the themes throughout what you've talked about today has been love, I mean love for the music, sharing that love, making sure the beauty of what you find beautiful is effectively conveyed to the audience and now conveyed to other colleagues that you respect and students that carry on afterwards, based on what you've opened their eyes to. The one last thing that I, if it's okay to ask was, is there anything that you wish you had known many years ago when you were just starting out in your career that, you know, if you'd only known that, then maybe you would have had something different?
[00:23:20] Menahem Pressler: You know, if I had known that... you do know it, but you don't. It's true, it's that, if you go your way and you are consistent and faithful to yourself, that you will make your way. You don't have to satisfy Mr. X or Ms. V. In order to get ahead, which seems sometimes the case that like they would say to me many, many years ago, "But how can you be in Indiana? You can't make it. You have stay in New York, to be able to do that. No, you don't have to stay in New York. You have to stay focused. If you are in Indiana or if you are in Illinois you don't have to. It is not the city that makes you, it's not the hall that makes you, it is you that make you, and it is you by being consistent.
Of course, the important aspect you have to bring with you, which is talent. That is the one thing that, that only God can give you or the lottery of the genes of your father and mother can do that. But otherwise, it is talent, it is your inner discipline, and you outer discipline. It is that which in a performance will give you the pleasure, not the applause.
It is in a performance where you have reached out. And you have felt that you have reached someone, then you know that you are on the right track. I must admit, I've never felt, "oh, this was fabulous and I was thrilled to...", no, I've never felt that. I was always critical. Even when we made records or when I made records, I was always critical because I felt there is much more to be found. And, I was right. And that's which makes a life in music so wonderful and rewarding. Because you are, at this time in my life, I'm still out on the way of discovery that there are certain things in the sensitivity, in the way of listening that has not been explored.
You have still ways of looking, you have still ways of feeling. Yes, you get older, you lose one part, but you also gain a part. So if you ask me if I would recommend to become a musician to have that life, I would fully and wholly recommend it, not because it was a successful. I would recommend it because that which speaks to your soul is occupied. It's the beauty in which we don't live the daily life, because in daily life, there's many things around it, which is not beautiful.
And has many things around it, which we despise. Has many things around it, I can, you can name it. But there is that one thing in which you, in your dream, and in your listening, and in your feelings, you don't have to bend to anyone. You have to reach out high and higher and higher.
These people that we call Beethoven and Schubert and Brahms, Debussy are, in a way, my gods. And my temple is the hall in which those are being celebrated.
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Overwhelmed by Mr. Pressler’s discography and not sure which recording to start with? Try reverse chronological; and here are some newer releases that he recommended (at the time we spoke):
A compilation of Pressler’s thoughts on teaching, technique, musical expression, and practicing – think of it as a more in-depth elaboration of everything he touches on in the interview. One of my favorite parts of the book is a play-by-play of his thoughts and notes on selected repertoire from a Beethoven concerto to a Chopin Sonata to the Ravel Piano Trio.
Photo Credit: Marco Borggreve