An Interview with Pianist Leon Fleisher

Pages: 28-31
Year: 2006
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Structural Integration: The Journal of the Rolf Institute – December 2006 – Vol 34 – Nº 04

Volume: 34
Editor's Note: Michaela Orizu, a freelance journalist, interviewed renowned pianist, conductor, and teacher Leon Fleisher in Cologne, Germany, during his 2005 European concert tour. Fleisher's name first became known in connection with Rolfing® in the early 1990s. A successful performing career had been derailed in the mid-60s, and Fleisher had been limited to performing the left-handed piano repertoire for many years. Subsequent to Certified Advanced Rolfer Tessy Brungardt helping him regain the use of the afflicted hand, Fleisher has always been most generous in acknowledging the role of Rolfing in his health care. For her part, Orizu is delighted to give Structural Integration permission to print this interview, knowing that Rollers have always followed Fleisher's Rolling experiences with great interest.

Michaela Orizu: How is the tour going? I’ve seen the schedule, it is quite busy.

Leon Fleisher: It’s going very well. The orchestra is even busier than I am because they are playing everyday and I have one day off I think. It’s a very good orchestra, it’s a very good conductor.

MO: You are playing Prokofiev in Cologne, and Mozart?

LF: Yes, I played Mozart in Munich – both Prokofiev and Mozart – and I did Mozart alone in … where was it?

MO: Nuremberg?

LF: Yes, Nuremberg.

MO: Let’s talk about your new CD, which I really love.

LF: Oh, thanks. Good.

MO: How did this project come about? When did you decide to do a recording with two hands?

LF: Well, I have only been playing with two hands again for the last eight or nine years, and the idea came up to make a record. That wasn’t so much the question, as what would I record. I had done a recording with two hands about ten years ago, with two singer friends of mine for a company called Arabesque. We did Schumann songs. So this was going to be [myj first solo two-hands recording in, what, forty years.

It’s curious, there is a certain context for the repertoire we were doing. As I look back on it, I think I was reacting to the Middle Eastern. conflict, reacting to the sense of unease and disruption, and to what many of us felt was an unnecessary war. I felt the need to play music that had a certain serenity and a certain tranquility.

MO: Did you choose who to work with? It must be very special after forty years to do a project like that.

LF: Right. I met the producer, Grace Row, and her husband who is the engineer. She works for Sony. In fact, we are planning another record for this summer.

MO: What is the recording?

LF: Oh, hm.

MO: Are you ready to talk about that?

LF: No, No…

MO: I see. [Laughs.] I will be looking forward to it. I would like to talk a little bit about the process you went through when you first realized that something was wrong with your right hand. How did you actually find a cure?

LF: Well. I don’t have a cure, there is no cure.

MO: There is no cure?

LF: Through various modalities I am learning to deal with it. It’s difficult always to relive that process, but it was back in 1964 that 1 first noticed [that] my fifth and fourth fingers on my right hand began to have a tendency to want to curl under involuntarily. This happened at a very awkward time because I was preparing to go with the Cleveland Orchestra to Russia -the first Russian tour of the Cleveland Orchestra. And this was the height of the Cold War, this was to be something very special. It took about, it progressed [over] about a period of ten months, got worse and worse, so that after ten months I could not straighten out my fingers, they just remained curled into my hand. And obviously I went to anyone who was available and all the great doctors of the time, and they weren’t sure. They murmured things like “repetitive stress syndrome” or “carpal tunnel.” They were very eager to experiment.

MO: Yes…

LF: I am sure they were aware of the side effects, but still. It began a very difficult time in my life. And it took about two years of … of a sense of despair and hopelessness before I began to realize that my connection to music was not just as a two-handed piano player. It was something more than that. And that awareness allowed me to begin teaching more seriously – to become a much better teacher I think. It allowed me to become a conductor. And most importantly, it allowed me to investigate the left-hand literature, which I had blocked, which I had refused to do. Because it seemed to me to be an admission that I would never play with my right hand again.

MO: So you thought at the time that…

LF: Yes, [that] I couldn’t use it to play. So I maintained my activity through conducting, teaching and left-handed repertoire, all the time searching for answers. I never gave up trying every day to look for any improvement or any kind of secret position of holding the hand, you know. And I tried everything, everything. Everything. From. A to Z, from aromatherapy to Zen Buddhism.

MO: So you are really an expert on all that?

LF: Oh yes, pretty much, pretty much. And then, about twenty years ago, I heard about Rolfing.

MO: How did you hear about it?

LF: I read about it. I was always investigating “What is there? What is there?,” and Rolfing came up. There are wonderful modalities out there… Alexander Method, Feldenkrais, you know.

MO: Yes, Pilates…

LF: Craniosacral adjustments, all kinds of things that can be very helpful and that we should look to before we look to drugs.

MO: Did any of these help you at least temporarily?

LF: No! Nothing, nothing. No. i tried the Rolfing70. At the time Rolfing was rather rigid in its approach. They had ten sessions. They did from top to toe, and that was it, you know? So it didn’t help at the time. But then, in the late 80s, early 90s, my wife found a Rolfer that she heard was a little more flexible and more willing to attack specific problems rather than just go through the ten sessions of top to toe.

MO: Yes, the method is evolving…

LF: Yes, yes of course. Like all good methods, they evolve. So, I started to see Tessy, Tessy Brungardt is her name, and she felt my arm and she said the muscles and the tendons were like petrified wood. They had become so contracted, so hard that she couldn’t make an indentation into them. So we worked twice a week for a year.

MO: Twice a week for a year?

LF: Yeah. Before she was able to restore the natural flexibility to the tissue. Which was necessary before anything could be done.

MO: Yes.

LF: And I find that [Rolfing is] in any case a very helpful approach for any kind of muscular, skeletal problems. Because I still see her. I still get rolfed as regularly as I can, anytime I am home in Baltimore. And it helped a little bit, because it took some of the contraction out.

It was finally [determined] what I have – [dystonia]; it’s a neuromuscular movement disorder, very much in the same category as Parkinson’s. And it comes from the brain, maybe; they don’t know what causes it and they don’t have a cure. But they have found something that helps alleviate the symptoms. They think maybe a certain kind of overwork, a certain bad kind of practicing [is a causal factor]. You know, young [musicians] today think if they sit four or five hours practicing that they are doing something good. The body is not meant to do that, you know? They need a teacher who tells them every forty-five minutes to stop and stretch. Nobody tells us to stretch, you know. We involve an extraordinary kind of neuromuscular control and nobody really tells us how to take care of ourselves. You go out to a football game two hours before the
game, and there are these people, who get millions and millions of dollars, stretching. They are stretching their muscles. Nobody tells pianists or fiddlers who hold this instrument in this terrible way, for hours a day, to stop and to stretch.

MO: That’s true. If you look at sports, it’s totally common.

LF: Yes, yes. There is now a subset in music, music medicine, which is a subset of sports medicine. That came about because of sports medicine – because people have invested very much money in sports teams, you know, so they want to know what’s going on.

So, to continue the story, a very good friend of mine in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins University, a great neurologist, Dan Drachman – who by coincidence is married to the daughter of Piatigorsky, the famous Russian cellist – anyway, they are friends of mine in Baltimore. And he told me of a program at the National Institute of Health near Washington, that dealt with musicians with these kinds of symptoms, with these kind of problems, and that they had discovered that minute amounts of Botox, Botulinum Toxin, Type A, if injected where the nerve tells the muscle to contract, helps take that message away, helps block the message, helps weaken a little bit the urge to contract. And that – together with the fact that Rolfing had prepared my muscles again, softened them and made them pliable, so that I could use them – allows me to play.

MO: When was the first time that you could actually play?

LF: That was, that was about ’97; ’96, ’97.

MO: You could actually sit down at the piano?

LF: Yes, and I did. And it was, it was almost immediate.

MO: Really, when you started with the injections?

LF: Yes. It was really quite amazing. I had been testing it every day. There wasn’t a day that went by in thirty-five years that I didn’t try to play. So when the urge to contract no longer was there, controlled by the Botox, I played as though nothing had ever happened.

MO: After all these years?

LF: Yes.

MO: Botox is known as a nerve poison, where you hesitant at all?

LF: No.

MO: And what did you play the first time? Did you just practice or. ..?

LF: Well, I played Brahms’ First Piano Concerto in D-minor. It’s one of my favorites.

MO: You said that there is no cure, but do you feel that it’s still improving?

LF: No, no.

MO: Or is there a certain level that you have reached now?

LF: Well, that level constantly changes because I need injections. The injections last about six, seven, eight months. Then I need to get new injections. And it never just stays at the same level, it kind of goes up and then it starts to go down and then I have to get another injection.

MO: Quite a difficult process.

LF: Yes.

MO: In Germany, in Berlin and Hanover, we have started institutes for. .. they call it musicians’ health. But in general, it seems that there is a tendency for musicians and even music students to shy away from the subject. If they experience some health problem…

LF: They deny it. It’s unfortunate to find it among students. You find it among professionals, because if it gets out that they are having difficulties with their – in America we say with “their chops” [both laugh] – then, you know, they are not going to get jobs. Their livelihood is threatened. So they say, “oh … back ache” or some other, you know. .. they try to simulate.

MO: Yes.

LF: With young people it is denial. Part of my job now [is with] an organization in the States called the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation. There is a group that belongs to that called Musicians with Dystonia, and I am on that board. I go around the world and I address teachers, because it’s a problem with teachers too. Teachers are still teaching [students] to play piano like hammers, which is biomechanically stupid. It’s incorrect. You damage yourself if you do that. The fact that there are not more people who are damaged does not meant that as a technique it is good. It’s just lucky that there are enough people who can resist the failure. I go around to medical conventions, because focal dystonia is not well known yet. They have only diagnosed it in the last fifteen years, it’s been twenty years.

MO: And before they just thought it was?

LF: They just thought it was something else. So that’s part of my responsibility now. I go around, l address medical conventions, like teacher pedagogy, organizations as well as students. And I emphasize the importance of a correct physical approach to the instrument, a way of taking care of one’s body by stretching, by exercising. Many students still think that if they sit five, six, seven hours a day and practice that it’s only good. They feet very virtuous. And it is really very stupid.

MO: Yes, it’s dangerous, I guess, too.

LF: Yes.

MO: In your own teaching do you use this new approach?

LF: Yes, absolutely, absolutely.

MO: Let’s talk about the left-handed repertoire you mentioned. I saw you perform Hindemith’s concerto.

LF: You did? Really?

MO: Yes, that was great. Were you involved in the process? You also commissioned works, I think?

LF: Yes. I have commissioned – or, or organizations have commissioned for me, because composers have to be paid and performers are not that well off. So, like the Boston Symphony commissioned a concerto for me from one of our most important American compsoers, Lukas Forth; a wonderful concerto for left hand. Gunther Schuller, William Balkum, Leon Kirchner, George Pearl – these are all American composers who have written for me. And f am very proud, because that has enlarged the repertoire.

The story of the Hindemith concerto is now, I think, well known. For years, there was the rumor that it existed but nobody knew where it was. Nobody had any idea. And then Paul Wittgenstein’s widow died two years ago. [Wittgenstein was a concert pianist who lost an arm in World War One and continued to perform, developing a left-handed repertoire.] She lived on a farm in Pennsylvania. And the children came in after her death and they opened the windows, unlocked the closets and the drawers and there, amongst the memorabilia (that included a lock of Beethoven’s hair), there was the Hindemith concerto. Hindemith’s publisher is Schott here in Frankfurt. They got in touch with me and asked if I would give the world premiere. And I am doing that now, I think in December as you know, and after the world premier, the American premiere. I am doing it in Amsterdam and in Frankfurt; I am playing it in many places.

MO: Do you understand Wittgestein’s decision not to play it at all. I mean, he was pretty critical,

LF: Wittgenstein was a difficult man. He was an unhappy man. The family – thank goodness they were well off. He had the money to commission Ravel and Prokofiev. None of these pieces was he really happy with. He had a big fight with Ravel. He never played the Prokofiev. Never. He had many siblings…

MO: Ludwig is very well-known here as a philosopher.

LF: Yes. He had two other brothers who comitted suicide. It was an unhappy family. Why he never played the Hindemith, I don’t know. (He paid $1,000 for it in 1923, that was alot of money because the mark was worthless at that time.) There are many octaves in it. Maybe it’s for a younger [musician]; I feel that it is for a younger man than I am. [Both laugh.]

MO: Well, it’s a beautiful and very emotional piece.

LF: Yes. There was only one composer who really made him happy.

MO: Who?

LF: That was an Austrian composer named Franz Schmitt.

MO: I haven’t heard of him.

LF: He wrote four symphonies. And everything that he wrote for keyboard he wrote for Wittgenstein, for the left hand. He wrote three chamber music concertos – very interesting, very nice – three piano quintets. I recorded one of them, with Yo-Yo Ma and Jaime Laredo, for Sony. And he wrote a piano concerto, a big piano concerto. His music sounds a little bit like South Pacific. It’s kind of chromatic, very tuned, very nice. That he loved.

MO: But not Prokofiev.

LF: Not Prokofiev, not Hindemith, no.

MO: Tell me more about your teaching. You said that two years after the point when you first were not able to play, you somehow managed to convinced yourself to do something else. That must have beet difficult.

LF: Since I couldn’t push the student of the chair and say, “This is the way I thin) it should go”, 1 had to start really thinking about what I thought the music needed what it said, and how to express it it words, because I couldn’t demonstrate it. So I became far more accurate, far more precise, and I really began to investigate all that – that dimension which really is not suceptible to words, because music is quite transcendental, quite lofty. Somehov I found a way to be able to communicate that. So actually it made me not only better teacher of piano, but it also helper my conducting, because eventually what you do with an orchestra when rehearsing is teach them.

MO: For a journalist, always the hardest thing is to describe or write about music Do you write about music at all?

LF: No,I have developed certain concepts certain ideas about the music that we make meaning Western European music. It basically has three elements: there is melody there is harmony, and there is rhythm. For me rhythm is by far the most important But also, you can almost reduce the job o the performer to a kind of simplistic three elements, three rules:

1. You have to decide how to attack the note (how to put the note down on the piano o attack it with the bow or blow with you breath);
2. you have to decide how you are going ti support that note, to keep it going. And,
3. you have to decide how you are going ti stop the note.
That’s all, basically.

MO: It sounds simple, but of course [laughs]…

LF: It’s all we are doing. But if you have 17,482 notes in ten minutes, it’s a lot of decisions to make, you know. [Both laugh.]

MO: So how do you teach that to th students?

LF: [laughingly] That’s my job, that’s my, job….

MO: I know you were taught by Arthur Schnabel, who is a very well-known renowned teacher himself.

LF: Oh, yes. He loved to teach. And I think I have taken that from him. It gives me much pleasure. After I played in Munich, I had a free day, so did some practicing. And a former student of mine teaches at the Hochschule, so I went and gave a class [there]. I enjoy it very much.

MO: So how often do you play now?

LF: We did a couple of days in a row. And we have tonight in Dusseldorf, tomorrow here in Cologne. I have a day off before Berlin, and then the next day I go to Paris and then play in Paris…

MO: Oh, I didn’t read that…

LF: Oh, at Fontainebleau.

MO: I read an review in the New York Times of your playing at Carnegie Hall. The reviewer said he wondered if your playing has reached this level because you didn’t play for such a long time. How do you feel about that?

LF: That’s his idea, and you know, he gets paid to write and he is a very intelligent writer, he’s a wonderful writer. As I say, I continue to try to play every day, so I just didn’t sit there and ripen to the point of turning rotten. [Both laugh.] Everything is interconnected, everything is related, you know. And I think once one realizes that, it gives you a certain perspective.

MO: For me personally, it’s very impressive how you kept on.

LF: I must be obsessive compulsive… or stupid … or, I don’t know…

MO: Or you just love what you are doing.

LF: Yes, music is very much my life.

MO: Thank you.

LF: Did this answer your questions?

MO: Yes, it was very interesting. It will definitely be printed in the Rolfing publication.

LF: Yes well, the Rolfing for me is absolutely indispensable.

MO: You are still getting treatments?

LF: Yes. I have asked Hubert Ritter to see me, because I haven’t seen [Tessy] in almost three weeks.

MO: Again, thank you.

LF: Not at all, thank you.

To have full access to the content of this article you need to be registered on the site. Sign up or Register. 

Log In