The Zen Master of Piano Playing

Piano Pedagogue Peter Feuchtwanger

by Heiner Klug

Piano virtuosos often have an aura of untouchable genius about them. But at the peaks of piano playing conditions are often far from Elysian. Artistic virtuosity affects the whole person and is achieved and maintained through hard work. In answer to the question, where master pianists can go for support, one hears one name time and again: Peter Feuchtwanger. To name just a few, Martha Argerich, Shura Cherkassky, Dinorah Varsi and David Helfgott, amongst many others, have worked with him. We spoke to Peter Feuchtwanger at his masterclass at the Augustinum in Bonn. Engaging with his sometimes unusual way of working can at the same time give an insight into short-comings in our system of musical education.

Peter Feuchtwanger comes from the family of the famous writer, Lion Feuchtwanger. He was born in Munich and grew up in Israel after his family's inevitable emigration just before the Second World War. He didn't enjoy school and was a bad pupil. As a result he didn't get piano lessons either. He began to play truant, faking his father's signature on notes of absence, and secretly spent his mornings visiting a lady who lived nearby (also an emigrant from Munich) who had a piano. Records were no rarity at the Feuchtwanger home: his parents had a large collection of, amongst other things, opera and piano recordings: "We had all the Chopin studies with Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Backhaus, Beethoven sonatas played by Arthur Schnabel, Liszt etudes with Simon Barere and some Liszt pupils: Frederic Lamond, Eugene d'Albert, etc.," Feuchtwanger remembers today.

On his neighbour's piano the 12-year-old played pieces that he knew from records, without ever having had a piano lesson. But he learnt them all in the wrong key, because the gramophones available to him all ran slightly too fast: "So I learnt the Chopin etudes, the first in C sharp major, the second in B flat minor and so on, all wrong." When his father happened to meet the headmaster of the school one day, his truancy was discovered; he was expelled, and had to explain to his parents where he'd been all the time. The rest is the tale of a child prodigy.

The neighbour invited his parents to come and listen to Peter, and they were of course impressed by his capabilities. Finally allowed to have his first piano lesson, though, it proved to be a fiasco. Peter played Franz Liszt's La Leggierezza, albeit in F sharp minor, as he'd never heard it any other way. He failed the ensuing sight-reading test, never having seen a score. The teacher placed a volume of Beethoven on the piano and Peter had to play, so he guessed which pieces they might be. He plumped for the slow movements of the Moonlight, Pathétique and Appassionata sonatas, which he then played "at sight". The teacher realised very quickly that the boy had no clue about notation. Feuchtwanger still remembers the teacher's words: "He said, 'First of all you're playing the wrong sonata, secondly it's always in the wrong key, and for another thing, you've not looked at the music once.' Going red, I had to admit that I couldn't read music. The teacher added, 'By the way, La Leggierezza is in F minor, not in F sharp minor.' He played me the beginning, albeit not very well. I was at once able to play it also in F minor."

When the teacher then tried to change the technique that was serving Feuchtwanger so well, the 13-year-old decided that this would remain his first and last lesson at this address. Today Feuchtwanger still quotes his first teacher's technical advice as a warning to his students: "You have to imagine that you're holding an apple in your hand and that your fingers are like little hammers."

Feuchtwanger's subsequent teachers, however, recognised that, with his autodidactic approach and his anything but "hammering" touch, he had developed a completely natural technique, and didn't try to reform it. (Clearly it is preferable to use the word "touch" - compare French "toucher " and Italian "tocare" - rather than the potentially misleading German "Anschlag" - "attack" or "hit"). As a result Feuchtwanger didn't have to deal with the technical issues in piano playing again for a long time. His lessons with Max Egger, Edwin Fischer and Walter Gieseking were - understandably - concerned with other matters. His first experiences as a teacher, too - amongst others with Martha Argerich - were at an entirely artistic level. That Peter Feuchtwanger was much in demand as a teacher after his work with Argerich is hardly surprising, as Martha Argerich won the Chopin Competition in Warsaw following her studies with him.

With his typical modesty Feuchtwanger emphasises, however, that these were not really lessons as such; it was more a case of playing for a colleague, Martha Argerich being such a good musician that she wouldn't have needed him at all. Nor did he initially want to earn money through giving lessons. But he continued to discover his pedagogical gifts and started to enjoy teaching. Shura Cherkassky became a regular visitor: for decades he played his recital programmes for Feuchtwanger. Even Germany's mass-circulation Bild-Zeitung became interested in Feuchtwanger following the success of the film Shine, which tells the story of his pupil, David Helfgott. Feuchtwanger still has many "secret pupils" - famous pianists who don't want it to become public knowledge that they are still studying or seeking advice.
The fact that Peter Feuchtwanger became a juror in international piano competitions when he was still very young also brought him many very good students. At his first competition in Montreal he was just 26 years old, younger than the oldest competitor.

As Feuchtwanger's reputation as a teacher grew, more and more mediocre pianists turned up on his doorstep asking for lessons. At first he sent them back home. He remembers: "I told them, go and practise and then come back. When they returned, though, it was no better. Then I started thinking about what I did completely naturally as a child, and about how a Haskil or an Argerich plays."

This spurred him to develop his technical exercises, which he has been teaching for some time now, and which will shortly be released on video in conjunction with a book. Particularly striking are the flexible fingerings and a frequent use of the thumb. From the point of view of traditional conceptions of fingering they seem adventurous. But the fact that Feuchtwanger is self-taught results in a great enrichment: he is able to help all those pupils who may have taken their way of playing and finger technique directly and unthinkingly from their teachers and only now realise that these aren't suitable for their own hands. But Feuchtwanger doesn't simply replace the dogmas against which he has turned by new ones. In his teaching concepts such as freedom and flexibility are of great importance.

The seemingly superficial subject of fingering is subsumed into a deeply musical context: the necessity of mastering pieces as securely as possible when one steps onto the platform leads him to an unavoidable insistence not to rely on that most easily disturbed mechanism, muscular memory. A simple test shows if one is really holistically in command of a piece, or if one only knows it motorically: by playing in a different key, or everything with one finger, or with crossed hands, muscular memory is eliminated. As an example of a place to try the one-finger test he cites the beginning of the second variation in the slow movement of Beethoven's op. 109. As there are no chords, this passage can easily be played with one finger (both staves with one hand - first right, then left). "If you can do this, you'll no longer have gaps in your memory. Because you no longer rely and depend on finger memory. You can choose an ideal fingering, but you mustn't be completely reliant on it. Because if finger memory suddenly deserts you, it's over."

Similarly, transposing helps to sharpen one's musical imagination and to trick muscular memory, as the ordering of white and black keys on the keyboard demands different nuances of movement every time without changing the musical and mental processes, which are thereby trained and gain independence. The result is a flexible, holistic technique based on musical structures. It is particularly suitable for mastering difficult passages, as stability requires flexibility: that is a law of nature which no one can ignore. Many pianists who learn pieces stereotypically reach the limits of their ability by overloading their motoric, that is to say muscular, memory. Feuchtwanger emphasises: "The music must be firmly in the mind! A pupil brought me the Abegg Variations of Schumann - the third variation is really difficult. I advised her to play the variation in a different key every day, and in the next lesson it went without a hitch." He adds: "You have to transpose with all pupils from the very beginning. It's so important! If listening plays an important enough part in learning, it shouldn't be a problem anyway."

Peter Feuchtwanger's artistic model and most important influence was Clara Haskil. Naturally gifted, she had a very flexible technique, as well as a huge hand: she could take a twelfth with her second and fifth fingers and a thirteenth with 1 and 5. Feuchtwanger remembers a scene with Clara Haskil after she had played a cadenza he didn't recognise in a Mozart piano concerto: "After the concert I asked her, 'Clara, what was that lovely cadenza?' 'Oh, but it was awful,' she said in her typically self-critical way, 'I improvised it. Wasn't it horrible?' " A few weeks later Feuchtwanger went to see her before a performance and asked if she would play the same cadenza again. "I have no idea what I did then, I'll play something new. Hopefully it'll be better this time."

With such flexibility it's not surprising that anyone who asked Clara Haskil what fingering she used in this or that place received the succinct retort, "Whatever comes." As Feuchtwanger remembers, Alfred Cortot was completely satisfied when Haskil, in contrast to his other pupils, practised only one hour a day. "Haskil had an unbelievable ear. She heard Feux follets, one of the hardest Liszt studies, played by Vlado Perlemuter in a private concert. Two days later she played it as an encore. After the concert someone asked to have a look at the music, but she replied, 'I've never seen it!' " Although Clara Haskil was the kind of talent one finds once in a century, Peter Feuchtwanger is convinced that her musical er her virturosiy must be a (admittedly probably unattainable) model for all serious piano teaching.

Musical imagination and creativity and flexible technique are, for him, two sides of the same coin, and as such inseparable. As a small taster of his method of working, Feuchtwanger suggests trying the beginning of Für Elise with an unusual fingering: "What I teach today is exacly what I did completely naturally as a child. As nobody had told me how I should use my fingers I developed a free way of fingering. Take, for example, Für Elise (which I've never played) and try the beginning not with two fingers, but with 1-2-4-3-5. It's like going for a walk towards the piano lid and gives you complete suppleness." To attain this suppleness, he stresses the importance of a calm and stable posture to his pupils, the need to avoid all superfluous movements and tensions. As role models he cites, besides Clara Haskil, Vladimir Horowitz and Alfred Cortot, as well as the jazz pianists Fats Waller and Art Tatum.

That Peter Feuchtwanger decided to end his own career as a pianist is, from today's perspective, a stroke of luck for his many pupils, but was a somewhat painful process at the time. Playing concerts was such a torment for Feuchtwanger that at the age of just 20 he decided not to perform any more.

His ability to play by ear made him very useful if a substitute was needed at short notice. This was often used by concert promoters - and, coupled with his fear of saying "no" to anybody, resulted eventually in Feuchtwanger not performing at all. Remembering the following story today, he tells it with good humour, but one can vividly imagine the intense pressure that he felt at the time: "I entered the green room having prepared Beethoven's sonata op. 109. When I looked at the programme, however, it said op.101. I pointed the printing error out to the lady representing the agent. She called the agent, and, even before I spoke to him, I heard him shouting at the other end. He said to me, 'If you don't play op. 101, I'll never engage you again! Fischer played 109 a couple of days ago, Backhaus is playing it next week: we can't have another 109.' I didn't dare to protest and found myself having to play op. 101 in the recital, although I'd never played it before. I knew it very well from records, of course. Naturally I was terribly nervous, but everything went without a hitch until six or seven pages before the end. Suddenly I had no idea, which key comes next! I started to sweat; I improvised the fugue for maybe ten minutes. I had no idea what I'd done, but at some point I found myself on the last page and remembered the end. By the way, the critic didn't notice a thing! He wrote that the best thing in the concert was the sonata."

After situations like this Feuchtwanger often felt like a charlatan - he found himself on the defensive in the face of his own musical standards: "I decided then that it's not right to play a masterpiece by Beethoven just like that, without having worked on it." Today Peter Feuchtwanger thinks that this may have been exaggerated modesty. But in the Fifties his self-confidence was not yet developed enough to resist the pressure that was weighing him down. The result was his complete retreat from the concert platform.

This gave Feuchtwanger more time to devote himself to other interests: psychology, painting and non-European music. Oriental music has a particular importance for Feuchtwanger - he feels a strong bond with Arabic and Indian music. When he left Israel in the Fifties to return to Europe, he missed Arabic music, which had been an integral part of his environment in the Middle East, as he had had close contact with Arabic families as a child. "I started to compose, my first composition in an Eastern style. And then I heard Indian music, and it seemed very familiar, although I'd never heard Indian music before. Almost as if I'd known it in a previous life." His Variations on an Eastern Folk Tune won first prize at the International Viotti Composing Competition in 1959. In the Sixties he presented a raga and other pieces in an Eastern idiom at a London university, where an Indian lecturer was so impressed that Feuchtwanger received a scholarship and was able to study Indian music, sitar and tabla. Today his style of composition is still strongly influenced by oriental music.

When Yehudi Menuhin heard a composition of Feuchtwanger's he was so enthusiastic that he commissioned a raga for the 1966 Bath Festival. It was premiered by Menuhin and Ravi Shankar and was the basis for the internationally successful record, East meets West.

These days teaching takes up so much of Feuchtwanger's time that he no longer finds much time to compose. When he's not at home in London giving private lessons, he's travelling as a jury member in competitions or giving one of his many masterclasses in Europe, the US or the Far East. An up-to-date list of his courses is available on the internet at (also in English). On top of this Feuchtwanger has just decided - exceptionally - to accept a guest professorship at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. He emphasises, however, that he is doing this only because of his great respect for the professor whose place he is taking while the latter is on sabbatical, and because he can be sure that his way of working will be welcome.

His pupils see in Peter Feuchtwanger one of those rare people in whom mind and body are in harmony. To them, Feuchtwanger the man is a role model. Is this the reason why he is sometimes described as the Zen Master of piano playing? Certainly he recommends that his students read the book Zen in the Art of Archery.
Feuchtwanger tells a parable which sums up his holistic attitude to life and art, influenced by Eastern philosophy:

A boy travelled across Japan to the school of a famous master of the martial arts. When he arrived at the Dojo he was permitted an audience with the Sensei. The master asked, "What do you want from me?" "I'd like to be your pupil and become the best Karateka in the country," the boy answered. "How long must I study?" "At least ten years," said the master. "Ten years is a long time," said the boy. "What if I were to study twice as hard as all your other pupils?" "Twenty years," replied the master. "Twenty years! And if I were to give my all, day and night?" "Thirty years," came the master's reply. "How can it be that each time I say I'll try especially hard you tell me it'll take longer?" asked the boy. "The answer's obvious. When one eye is looking towards the target, there's only one eye left to find the way."

From: PianoNews 2003, Issue 2.
Translated from the German by Nils Schweckendiek.

An adapted version appeard in the American publication "clavier" in April 2006.
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