Anna Shelest: Building A Repertoire Towards Dreams

by | May 23, 2011

Anna Shelest taught her first piano lesson at age 15, when she moved with her family from Ukraine to the United States. Now a graduate of Juilliard and a concert pianist based in New York City, Ms. Shelest’s practice has expanded to include students of adult piano lessons.

In this exclusive interview with GRAND PIANO PASSION™, she describes her approach.

You are known as a concert pianist who is actively interested in teaching students of adult piano lessons. How did this part of your teaching practice develop?

I had a studio for 10 years in northern Kentucky, just outside of Cincinnati, where I taught children. A couple of times their parents would start to take lessons. It was kind of on and off, they would come for a year, then take some time off, so it was not as structured. Now in New York, I have kids as well as adult students.

For some of my adult students, this is their first introduction to the piano. And then I have two more advanced students, a mother who wants to come back now that her daughter is taking lessons and another student who played when he was a child up to college.

A lot of adult students come to their lessons with strong opinions on the music that they would like to study. How do you respond to their interests?

I’m always very interested in what kind of piece they want to work towards, such as a Chopin Ballade or a Beethoven Sonata. I feel that if you want to play something, you will be more motivated to practice. I build the repertoire towards what they really dream of playing.

For example, say the student wants to play the Rachmaninoff Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 3, No. 2. The opening part starts with a multiple chord progression, with many sharps in the key signature. It can be useful first to learn Chopin’s Prelude in C Minor, Op. 28, No. 20, where the chord progression is simpler, but one can still get used to the chord technique. The Rachmaninoff Prelude’s middle section will appear more friendly if the student has gotten very comfortable with the first movement to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, which also has broken chords in the same key.

What about technical exercises, fondly considered the bane of adult piano lessons?

Often technical exercises are not the favorite thing to do, but if you know that it will help you accomplish your goal, it becomes easier. For example, scales were something I always played. In Ukraine, I attended the Kharkiv Special Music School, and there we had special exams just for scales and the Czerny etudes.

Often when a beginning adult student sees more than three sharps or flats in a piece’s key signature, they immediately feel that the music is too hard. It will not be so if beforehand you learn that scale. In adult piano lessons, we don’t have so much time for theory, but when you learn the scales, you learn all of the keys. It’s a foundation.

Do any of your adult piano students perform?

I require my young students to perform in the recital, but with adult students, I give them a choice. Only when they feel that they are ready, then they can perform. For adults, it’s very individual because the students that I teach are very accomplished in their professions. I feel that when they perform in public, they need to be comfortable and confident in their skills.

In the performance setting, of course, your concentration needs to be much more than in a lesson. When you study something for a long time, and you perform it, you take the music to a different level. I have an adult student, who works in finance, and he is going to give a recital at his home. He’s going to do the pieces that we worked on throughout the year, about seven pieces, and it’s something I suggested to him.

Any closing words of advice?

It’s never too late to start. Even if you have listened to music for many years, when you start to learn to play an instrument, you have a different perspective. You understand what it takes to make the sound.

Here is one of my favorite YouTube videos of Gilels, also a Ukrainian, playing the Rachmaninoff Prelude discussed by Anna Shelest in this interview, followed by Anna playing Rachmaninoff Etudes Tableaux, Op. 39, Nos. 2 & 3:


  1. Ulrick St. Amand

    I am a retired person sitting at home,a member of Leschetizky Association
    interested i pursuing better skills in piano performance. I have been
    referred to you by Ms. Robin Green. Hoping you can fine the time to
    give me some assistance.



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