Piano lesson

by Rob Tiller

One door closes, and another one opens. My piano teacher for the last four years, Randy Love, left for a sabbatical in China last month. Our piano lessons, at intervals of once a month or so, have taken me a long way along the path of the great western piano music tradition. The tradition is based on written texts, but much of it is unwritten, transmitted from teacher to student. Randy has transmitted much, and been an excellent master and a good friend.

During that time, I’ve enjoyed gaining fluency at the keyboard, but I don’t view increased technical mastery as the most valuable accomplishment. Much more important, and also much harder to express, is a change in the experience of the music. “Music is feeling, not sound,” according to Wallace Stevens (in Peter Quince at the Clavier). Stevens was on to something, although music is, obviously, sound. There’s a type of emotional energy stored in written musical texts and released and renewed with each performance. And there are many levels to that emotional experience.

So I went in search of a new master, and found myself yesterday at the music building at N.C. State in the studio of Olga Kleiankina. She’s a Russian with degrees from schools in Moldova and Romania, a masters from Bowling Green and a doctorate from University of Michigan, and joined the NCSU faculty last years as head of the piano program. She’s got an impressive amount of performance experience, and is an active concert artist. She was friendly but focussed. Straight away, she invited me to try out her two pianos, and after playing a bit of Chopin on each, I settled on the Mason and Hamlin over the Yamaha. Then she asked me what I’d brought to play for her. I played the first half of Chopin’s nocturne in D flat, Op. 27, No. 2, one of Chopin’s most beautiful, lyrical pieces, very like an operatic aria, with a broad emotional range. I played it rather well, with real feeling, I thought.

Olga was polite, but wasted no time with compliments. She said she could help me with my technique, and plunged in. It was quite bracing. We worked hard on weight transfer, activating the back and arm and relaxing the wrist. She showed me different ways of positioning the fingers on the keys for different sounds. She also talked about the shape of the gestures of the hand as it related to the flow of the music. She demonstrated this in various ways, including taking my hand and guiding it. I’ve usually thought of the physical aspect of piano playing as supporting but separate from the musical part, but Olga seemed to view the two as unified. Beautiful movements make beautiful sounds. She also demonstrated a level of attention to detail that was inspiring, and daunting.

At the end of the lesson, I felt like I could be at the foot of a new mountain. There’s a long way to go to reconfigure my playing along the dimension Olga pointed to. It will be challenging, and maybe transformative.