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Master class at Shepherd hits all the right notes

November 09, 2008|By JOSHUA BOWMAN

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.VA. - It wasn't the 100-plus people in the audience that made Patrick Weikle nervous Saturday as he sat down at the piano.

It was the audience of one sitting beside him.

Weikle, a senior piano major at West Virginia University, was one of three students who participated in a master class with world-renowned pianist Leon Fleisher at Shepherd University.

"I was terrified. I never get nervous for performances, but when I walked up, my knees were literally shaking," Weikle said.

Weikle quickly learned, however, that Fleisher was not going to be the knuckle-rapping, fire-breathing instructor that Weikle feared he might be.

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"A lot of great teachers are frightening people to learn from. That was not the case at all with him," Weikle said.

Fleisher spent about 45 minutes with each of his three students Saturday.

He was critical without being harsh and often exclaimed "That's it!" and "Beautiful!" when he heard things he liked.

Fleisher, 80, kept a large audience engaged-and his students relaxed-with lighthearted stories and frequent jokes.

When his second student, Amy Kriewaldt, a teacher and pianist from Frederick, Md., was a few minutes late, Fleisher noted that it seemed to be the first time he had scared away a student.

He passed the time in conversation with the audience.

"Anything you might like to discuss?" he asked. "The recent elections, perhaps?"

Fleisher did not play any pieces but sat next to the students as they played, often tapping out melodies on the high end of the keyboard.

While working out a difficult passage with his first student, Jason Solounias, a senior performance major at Shepherd University, Fleisher recalled a piece of sarcastic advice from his old teacher, German pianist Artur Schnabel.

"He used to say, 'All our problems would be solved if only we had three hands.' The music is accessible to us," Fleisher said.

For 30 years, Fleisher played with only one hand after his right hand was rendered useless by focal dystonia.

He wrote several left-handed pieces and began teaching more before, in 1995, with the help of massage treatments and botox injections, he was able to use the hand again.

His instruction Saturday was tailored to his students. After listening to each player perform a piece, he asked them one question: What did they want to improve?

Weikle told Fleisher he felt he had gotten somewhat detached from the piece he played, Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 3 in D minor, since learning it in March.

"I guess you could say I've lost that lovin' feelin'," Weikle joked.

Fleisher responded by asking Weikle to play an eight-note passage of the piece over and over again, focusing on each note and urging Weikle to add more variety in his tone color.

When Kriewaldt said she had trouble keeping a consistent tempo, Fleisher set the pace by tapping a key.

Fleisher ended the master class with a story about his one and only meeting with composer Sergei Rachmaninoff.

When Fleisher was 5, his mother took him to a Rachmaninoff concert and, after the concert, took Fleisher backstage.

Fleisher said he remembers staring up at Rachmaninoff.

"He looked down at me and said, 'You, pianist?' I nodded. He said 'Bad business. Bad, bad business.'"

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