Mind In Piano Study: An Interview With Sigismond Stojowski

Mr. Sigismond Stojowski, the eminent Polish pianist and composer, was found one morning in his New York studio, at work with a gifted pupil. He was willing to relax a little, however, and have a chat on such themes as might prove helpful to both teacher and student.

“You ask me to say something on the most salient points in piano technic; perhaps we should say, the points that are most important to each individual; for no two students are exactly alike, nor do any two see things in precisely the same light. This is really a psychological matter. I believe the subject of psychology is a very necessary study for both teacher and student. We all need to know more about
mental processes than we do. I am often asked how to memorize, for instance—or the best means for doing this; another psychological process. I recommend students to read William James’ Talks on Psychology; a very helpful book.

“The most vital thing in piano playing is to learn to think. Has it ever occurred to you what infinite pains people will take to avoid thinking? They will repeat a
technical illustration hundreds of times it may be, but with little or no thought directed to the performance. Such work is absolutely useless. Perhaps that is a little
too strong. With countless repetitions there may at last come to be a little improvement, but it will be very small.

“There is quite a variety of views as to what the essentials of piano technic are; this is a subject on which teachers, unluckily, do not agree. For instance, on the point of finger lifting there is great diversity of opinion. Some believe in raising the fingers

Sigismond Stojowski
Sigismond Stojowski

very high, others do not. Lifting the fingers high is not good for the tone, though it may be used for velocity playing. I use quite the reverse where I wish beautiful,
singing, tone quality. The young pupil, at the beginning, must of course learn to raise fingers and make precise movements; when greater proficiency is reached,
many modifications of touch are used. That the best results are not more often obtained in piano teaching and study, is as much the fault of the teacher as the pupil. The latter is usually willing to be shown and anxious to learn. It is for the teacher to correctly diagnose the case and administer the most efficient remedy.


“There is a certain amount of what I might call ‘natural technic’ possessed by every one—some one point which is easy for him. It Is often the trill. It has frequently come under my notice that players with little facility in other ways, can make a good
trill. Some singers have this gift; Mme. Melba is one who never had to study a trill, for she was born with a nightingale in her throat. I knew a young man in London who was evidently born with an aptitude for octaves. He had wonderful wrists, and could make countless repetitions of the octave without the least fatigue. He never had to practise octaves, they came to him naturally.

“The teacher’s work is both corrective and constructive. He must see what is wrong
and be able to correct it. Like a physician, he should find the weak and deficient parts and build them up. He should have some remedy at his command that will fit the needs of each pupil.

“I give very few études, and those I administer in homeopathic doses. It is not necessary to play through a mass of études to become a good pianist. Much of the necessary technic may be learned from the pieces themselves, though scales and arpeggios must form part of the daily routine.


“In keeping a large number of pieces in mind, I may say that the pianist who does much teaching is in a sense taught by his pupils. I have many advanced pupils, and
in teaching their repertoire I keep up my own. Of course after a while one grows a little weary of hearing the same pieces rendered by students; the most beautiful no longer seem fresh. My own compositions are generally exceptions, as I do not often
teach those. To the thoughtful teacher, the constant hearing of his repertoire by students shows him the difficulties that younger players have to encounter, and helps him devise means to aid them to conquer these obstacles. At the same time there is this disadvantage: the pianist cannot fail to remember the places at which such and such a student had trouble, forgot or stumbled. This has happened to me at
various times. In my recitals I would be playing ahead, quite unconscious that anything untoward could occur—wholly absorbed in my work; when, at a certain
point, the recollection would flash over me—this is where such or such a pupil stumbled. The remembrance is sometimes so vivid that I am at some effort to keep my mental balance and proceed with smoothness and certainty.

“Yes, I go over my pieces mentally, especially if I am playing an entirely newprogram which I have never played before; otherwise I do not need to do so much of it.


“You suggest that a composer may fill in or make up a passage, should he forget a portion of the piece when playing in public. True; but improvising on a well-known work is rather a dangerous thing to do in order to improve a bad case. Apropos of this, I am reminded of an incident which occurred at one of my European recitals. It was a wholly new program which I was to give at Vevay. I had been staying with Paderewski, and went from Morges to Vevay, to give the recital. In my room at the hotel I was mentally reviewing the program, when in a Mendelssohn Fugue, I found
I had forgotten a small portion. I could remember what went before and what came after, but this particular passage had seemingly gone. I went down to the little parlor and tried the fugue on the piano, but could not remember the portion in question. I hastened back to my room and constructed a bridge which should connect the two parts. When the time came to play the fugue at the recital, it all went smoothly till I
was well over the weak spot, which, it seems, I really played as Mendelssohn wrote it. As I neared the last page, the question suddenly occurred to me, what had I done with that doubtful passage? What had really happened I could not remember; and the effort to recall whether I had played Mendelssohn or Stojowski nearly brought disaster to that last page.

“As soon as my season closes here I shall go to London and bring out my second piano concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra, under Nikisch. I shall also play various recitals.”

By Harriet Bower

Zygmunt Stojowski (1870-1946) : Symphonic Rhapsody for piano and orchestra (1898) Performed By Jonathan Plowright:

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