A Life at the Piano


August 14, 1993|By GLENN McNATT

The great names of the piano world are household words even among people who don't know very much about music.

Everyone has heard of Horowitz, Rubenstein, Van Cliburn. These are the superstars of the music business, and their careers are the stuff of legend. Yet great talent doesn't always guarantee what is called in the business a ''big career.'' In fact it almost never does.

Consider that every year some 15,000 young pianists are graduated from the nation's music schools and conservatories. Obviously only a tiny fraction of them will ever be able to pursue performing careers -- not because they lack talent but because the music business simply can't market them all profitably.

Perhaps that sounds crass, but it is nevertheless true. The ''music business,'' one quickly learns, is not at all the same thing as the business of making music.

So why, given the odds, do young people keep spending hours at the keyboard practicing scales, etudes and sonatas in hopes of one day walking out on a stage and sharing their gift with an audience?

Recently I put the question to Ann Schein, the esteemed pianist and teacher at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory:

''I tell them not to even look at the market,'' Ms. Schein said. "They come here to learn to make music, not a career, which is something I can't tell them how to do anyway. But I do know that it's different for every person, and each person has to find his or her own way.''

For Ms. Schein, music-making is a privilege to be shared with othersfor its own sake -- for love, not money. If that makes her sound old-fashioned, well, perhaps she is a bit. She embarked on a promising career in her youth, then married and raised a family, and still later devoted many years to teaching her art to a new generation of young musicians. Toward all these accomplishments she adopts an attitude of unassuming modesty, a truly lovely thing in this era of superstar hype.

Like many outstanding performers, Ms. Schein came from a musical family, where her talent was recognized early. ''I don't know if I was what you would call a prodigy,'' she said, ''but from the very beginning I was was dealt with completely seriously. My first recital [at age 7] had Bach, Schumann, Scarlatti -- serious music from Day One.''

By the time she reached her teens Ms. Schein, whose family lived in Washington at the time, was journeying to Baltimore twice a week to study at the Peabody under the renowned virtuoso Mieczyslaw Munz. At 17 she embarked on her first European concert tour and within a few years had made several recordings, debuted at New York's Carnegie Hall and become a protege of the great impresario and music agent Sol Hurok.

Though her career never quite reached the stratospheric heights of a Horowitz, Ms. Schein has seen quite enough of the music world to know that pluck and serendipity play at least as great a role in the making of stars as talent. This is a lesson she endeavors to pass on, in her own gentle way, to students.

''Schools like the Peabody are there to give these young people a place to gain confidence and enthusiasm for what they do,'' she said. ''We can help them develop good work habits, values, relationships and discipline. What we do here is really a miniature of life. If they can get the idea that the values they learn here are good for making their way in life as people as well as musicians, they will have learned along with their teachers something about what makes life tick. That's about all we can do, really. We can't catapult their careers.''

Like many teachers of serious music, Ms. Schein is concerned about the long-term effects of rock and pop music on young people. But she understands that it fills a need created by the stresses of adolescence. ''Rock music does create obstacles for young people in the appreciation of classical music in the sense that it can become a substitute for deeper reflection. Still, it serves to release tension and it can also be a great source of


On the future of classical music, Ms. Schein is hopeful yet realistic:

''It's precarious,'' she said. ''Also the piano doesn't hold the same place in people's houses as it once did. Today Americans have TVs and stereos instead of pianos. But I still see hope in other places, like the Far East and Eastern Europe. And people will continue to make music with their friends at home, just for the love of doing it. That is my mission. I believe this is the only way we are going to survive with the great tradition in this country.''

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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