In his early 30s, Matthew Harre felt disenchanted with his piano technique. So this graduate of composition from American University and a teacher of adult pianists enrolled himself in adult piano lessons. Over the course of his 14 years of study, Harre hammered together the foundation of the teaching practice for which he is revered today.
In what ways did your lessons impact your teaching style?
It’s the only reason I know what it feels like to take lessons as an adult. The going back to earlier pieces, the humiliation! It’s often crucial for adults to study easier pieces, so they can work on elements of instruction they might have missed at a younger age. This way they can work on those without being overwhelmed by note difficulties. But a lot of times adults don’t want to do that, and at first I didn’t either.
Tell us about your teacher, Alexander Lipsky, who was not only a prominent teacher but also a composer.
He lived in New York City, and every other weekend he took the train down to Washington DC and taught 30 to 40 students on a long weekend from Saturday through midday-Tuesday. Mrs. Lipsky was not terribly pleased with this arrangement, I fear. His students held him in high regard. They really admired him. He had enormous integrity.
How did you find out about Lipsky?
For years, I had heard that he was a very dictatorial teacher. He would make his students write his fingering in the music and follow that fingering, and he had a reputation for treating his students like marionettes.
I had a teaching colleague who studied with Lipsky. My friend could do things I couldn’t technically. But it wasn’t very musical. All of a sudden, my colleague started playing with much greater musical sensitivity.
I left my first lesson with Lipsky feeling more relaxed at the keyboard than I had ever felt at the piano in my life. You know, Lipsky was very warm. He said, if you’re a tense pianist you will choose fingering that maintains that level of tension. He focused on keeping the hand contracted, without overstretching. Think of it as watching an athlete who’s graceful. They’re obviously working very hard. But they’re not using one extra muscle.
Tell us more about what you learned.
Lipsky taught me that playing the piano has empirical aspects of physics. If you hit the piano key hard, you’re going to get a sharp spike in the sound, which will quickly drop, producing a harsh, unpleasant sound. But if you avoid that spike, you will avoid the initial percussive part, and then get a flatter sound that helps create the illusion of a fuller, richer, more legato series of tones.
He also had a set of exercises using arm motion. Getting the sense of the feeling of the heaviness of the arm and the shoulder is what produces a lovely tone. Think of how many people are always holding their shoulders up. It’s a form of tension. Well, that keeps the weight of the shoulders from getting into the keys and being part of the piano technique.
Really it was from Lipsky that I learned the technical approaches to playing the piano that are most important to me.