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Poignant Reflections: David Dubal on Self-Reliance and Why "The Piano Matters"

Written by  Kimball Gallagher
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"If you're an artist, the whole thing is: Are you remaining in love with your art?"

- David Dubal

Prolific writer, painter, pianist, radio host, educator at The Juilliard School, and mentor for hundreds of pianists, David Dubal is an artist of inspiration and wide-ranging diversity.  His books The Art of the Piano and The Essential Cannon of Classical Music are indispensible references.

For years classical music audiences have known the voice of David Dubal from his radio show, Reflections from the Keyboard on WQXR. Recently, due to shifts in management, the show was cancelled to the disappointment of thousands of loyal listeners. Happily, David Dubal has re-appeared as the host of The Piano Matters, also the title of an upcoming book. Listeners can find this on www.wwfm.org on Wednesday evenings at 10pm.

During his recent conversation with Notes On The Road, Dubal explored the nature of artistic pursuit, why it's important to pursue more than one mode of expression, how to cultivate inspiration, advice to young artists, and living a life "beyond success and failure."


So talk about your new show.

The new show, I'm so happy to call it "The Piano Matters." I'm writing a book called that very title and I want the piano to matter. I consider myself in my way a spokesman for this greatest of all instruments with the greatest literature of all art and my show had been taken off WQXR without any warning as they became a new type of station, a non-commercial station and I thought my radio career was over until I get a call from Alice Weiss Miller at WWFM and she says, "We hear your show is not on anymore and we were listening on the computer and we want to say that we want you." I went out there and started my first show, taped it, recorded it, it was based on comparative performance as the old one was, and it's going to just as good if not better. [Laughs.] I've taped some and I was really happy. 15 pianists in an hour.

They are a fabulous group out there, WWFM The Classical Network. And I want everyone that's reading this to please hear the show on Wednesday at 10 pm or on the .org, of course, wherever you are. It'll be in Beijing the next morning at 10 pm. It's the same time as it was on the New York station and it'll be repeated on Sunday morning at 11, which I'm excited about. And also, on their website it has a link that gives you the chance to hear it when you want. So that's even more chances than I was having at the old WQXR, which will never be again. Please listen to "The Piano Matters."

I will be listening, yes. It's such a relief that you have a new show.

It certainly is a relief. I wept at some of the letters I got. My shabby treatment was acknowledged by many people. We live in an age of shabby treatment, as you know, and we musicians have very little ability to fight for ourselves. But sometimes you get lucky and Mark Miller, Alice Weiss Miller's husband heard the show on the internet-you see what a blessing it can be.

Here I am! I'm back in the saddle again.

You've spoken with so many pianists throughout your life. What common threads are there? Are there any common personality traits with the greatest pianists?

All pianists have the same thing that are successful: continuity of practicing; year-in and year-out the ability to keep at it-some seasons are not good, some seasons are better, sometimes you have to accompany flutists, but the point is you're still doing it; but practicing is foremost. There can't be any lapse. You may learn how to work better and better and you certainly don't want to spend eight hours a day as an old person with a back that can't take it, but the fact is that they all practice. They have great discipline. That's the definite thread. And how do they have that? They love their art. Can't do anything like that without love. An artist is made of consistency, especially performing artists.

You have talked about pianists being their ideal selves when they play; like they step into the character of the piece and they can embody all of these ideal qualities. Where did that notion originate in your mind?

What I mean by their ideal selves is that all performers are in a sense, looking for an ideal. It doesn't much matter if you're playing Beethoven of Schubert. We've gone a little too far with this lack of integration of the personality and the music. This ideal of music as some sacred, outside thing comes because of the fact that music is immaterial, very immaterial. It's non-corporeal. It's in the air. It's the most difficult and the most mysterious art. So, if you say, "Oh, I'm just a servant to the art," you're losing the game. You take it for granted that you're not Chopin or Beethoven. But you're losing the concept that a performer has got to get on stage, put their make-up on, and become that role. No different than Olivier in Hamlet, or you in a Tchaikovsky concerto. Just the same. Your ideal self is always the performer doing his best.

Now, as that happens, then you will integrate yourself to the spirit of the music more so, because you're free to enrapture it, instead of just study it. So it becomes a revelation instead of study, it's like when Wagner said he heard Liszt play the C# minor Prelude and Fugue in Book 1 of Well Tempered Clavier of Bach. I [Wagner] had studied Bach quite a bit, but I[Wagner] didn't understand  until I heard him [Liszt] play what the difference between revelation and study is. Revelation is everything.

So a performer's ideal self is to get up there, like a Horowitz would, and be prepared totally. Because as he said, you practice a hundred times, and then you practice one more time on the stage. What he did always, that's why he took that chance that he was a tiny bit underprepared. Maybe he didn't practice for 2 or 3 days before, who knows. Whatever he did to make that god of inspiration come out. And that god of inspiration must appear or the performance will be pedantic.

So how do you think pianists can experience more revelation and less study? Is study necessary for revelation?

Study is taken for granted. You're not going to play the Beethoven Sonata Opus 106 unless you've studied it real hard. And you know, a year later you'll find more things in it because the music is very great. If you're imitating a recording or a teacher or something like that then, you know, you're in trouble. You're sealing off your energy and originality. This must always be understood in our conservative time-playing music is a creative act.

You seem to be ‘on' all of the time. How do you cultivate that kind of inspiration?

I'm not on all of the time. When I'm home I'm alone, I'm sitting, I'm thinking. If you're going to have any inspiration, you have to have a great deal of rest. You have to be sitting there and thinking about nothing. You don't want to think about something. That's just chattering. So you try to make some sort of meditation out of it. When I practice I try very hard to have a good time with it as well, because I don't have to play a concert necessarily, although sometimes I really get that feeling that I'd like to do it, I'd like to bring it out.

But it's no different than when I start talking about music. I have to put myself into what any performer does, whether it's a comedian or a lecturer or whatever, so what do I do? I have to press the button. It has nothing to do with if I had a terrible day that day or I just lost every penny I have or my cat died or a thousand things. I have to press the button because the performer must at all times know, because that's what they're paying for, to see him perform, the show must go on. It doesn't matter if you're in TV, in radio, talking in front of 30 people, giving your home concerts, whatever it is.

If you have integrity and you know people have paid to see you, you've got to give them your best. Through that you develop a certain consistency. It's not that I'm on all the time. I don't question much anymore if I do a good job or not because that takes care of itself. You're going to do better than you would have if you didn't press the button. The show doesn't go on. People know that! It's like they know when the rhythm is off in a piece of music.

What do pianists have to learn from painters?

Von Sauer the great pianist was so stunned after he saw paintings in the Prado that he took a whole year off and just went to see paintings. All pianists are painters, so there's your answer. They have the only instrument that can paint. There is no other instrument like it. The piano is the only one where, as Liszt said, nuance is the artist's palette that can paint.

So do you feel for yourself that your own painting has informed your own writing or your playing or the way you understand music?

Like Schoenberg said, my painting, my teaching, my composing is all the same. The person that doesn't cultivate more than one thing is not using his forces and energy properly and the chances are his main powers will dry up slowly.

How do you reconcile that with the specialized nature of some music institutions? I told somebody I was going to go compose a piece and they said, "Oh! Are you going into composition?" And I thought, "What do you mean, going into composition?" I just wanted to write some music.

That should be a natural thing. For any true artist, there's the desire to create, there's a desire to teach, there's a desire to write. Berlioz was a great writer. Wagner was a great librettist and a constant prose writer.

When did you start writing?

[When I was] about 15 or 16.

What inspired you?

A teacher! By mistake-a teacher that I thought was a real tough, scary one, she called me up after class and I was a little frightened of her, Miss Maylin, long dead I'm sure, and we were not allowed to wear jeans in her class. She made you memorize poems. Things that are not done today; you can come in nude, you can do whatever you want. There can be no critiscism in this "violent" political correctness.

[Miss Maylin] comes in, and you know it could be something like this. I was already reading, you can't write unless you're a reader. Contrary to what many people think today and by the way, if you don't read, you don't live. If you want to talk about the world, it's not going to be learned from the ephemera of life. It's going to be learned from the study of novels. The novel is the thing, as D. H. Lawrence said. With Mahler, the symphony is the world. Getting back to Miss Maylin: After class, I go over to this already old woman, at least she seemed to be old to me-she could have been 30! And she says, "I read your essay on French poetry and it has many sentences that I think are mature and interesting." I remember taking that seriously-French poetry?! I remember going into the library and doing research and then writing the thing up. I didn't know anything about French poetry. And she says, "What are you interested in?"

And I said, "Well, I'm a pianist. I practice and I love to paint." She says, "Well, why don't you go to the Cleveland Orchestra and listen to a pianist and review the thing and if it's good enough, we'll publish it in our literary magazine called "Crest." And I said, "Gosh, OK." And I went to Serkin playing the b-flat Brahms concerto with George Szell and I wrote the thing and it was published. I put it away, I don't think I thought about it. But within the seeds of that, I was probably 16, within that nugget I started to think, "Hmm, this could be fun." I don't think I wanted to be a music critic. I didn't want to go every night to concerts but that was what started me in the writing.

When did you feel like writing would start to take on more and more? What inspired you to write The Art of the Piano, for example?

I think everything came out of some utilitarian thing. I got a call from Oxford University Press Editor and he said, "Would you like to do a book discussing pianists?" And I said, OK. They gave me a little advance and I started and then he left his post. I ate up the advance and then it was taken over by Haughton Mifflin and it never got done at all. During that time I got another call from another editor who had heard me on the radio. It was Ileene Smith. She said, "I love your interviews with pianists. Maybe we can put these together in a book."

Through this time I was working very hard at WNCN and trying to practice a little at night and the painting was slow-a year could go by with nothing, I would be tired. But I would always be writing some liner notes for Deutsche Grammophon or Sony. The years go quickly, you know, so I would write for the American Record Guide and that always gave me a thrill-publication. To this day, I can't bear writing anything that is not published.

For me, writing is a definite concept of publication. Eric Gibson, the editor at the Wall Street Journal asked me for an article for his Masterpiece Series on the Chopin Preludes, which was just published. I'm not writing for myself. I also recommend to young people to always have journals. That's a writing that can be helpful, but never should be published!

That's not what it's for.

No. If you know you're a great man and you know that you've already written great things, you're going to have an idea that your journals will be published and they're important. As Keats said, "How I wish I could have seen the position of Shakespeare when he was writing ‘To be or not to be.'" How he was sitting, how he was dressed. We're interested in everything about the Greats. With email and so forth you're not going to have many letters of the great artists of our time.

Do you think pianists can learn from literature?

We know that pianists can learn from literature. And they should. If they don't read, they're missing almost 80% of the way the world understands the world. It's all in reading. Nor can you ever read on the internet in the same way. You have to feel the paper, you have to know that: that paper is better, you have to see the print is beautiful, or it's not beautiful, it's too small. You have a pencil next to you and you write, you close your eyes in the middle of a sentence and you go to sleep. This is a credible thing. Reading is one of the great experiences of the world. You can never find any kind of consolation without it.

Today we are all cell-phone zombies. You can have a great deal of information, you can have fun with it but you cannot have that personal thing with the internet. Or the telephone. What does the telephone mean when I can look at your eyes and see your smile?

What are one or two of the most inspiring concerts you've ever been to?

I well remember Rubinstein with George Szell and the Cleveland orchestra, playing three concertos. The Schumann A minor, the Tchaikovsky, and Liszt E-flat. It was unforgettable. He was the greatest magnetism on stage. His last recital in '76 was the most inspiring. That's the one where he called me the next day. I was doing my radio show. I had stopped my comparative performance of Liszt etudes to just talk about Rubinstein's performance. I played his recordings of what he had played the night before, the receptionist sent the call to my office afterwards. It was a live show and she said, "Mr. Arthur Rubinstein is on the phone for you." I said, "Betty, come on, stop it, don't be silly." I was thinking she was joking and here he was on the phone. He said, "I never heard such an inspiring show. I get a lot of applause but I never had so much real appreciation. And you're right, I tell you, I played last night better than the recordings that you played. And I want you to come over and have lunch with me on Friday."

Well, it sure was great. And I left him at the elevator-he was blind-and he said, "We'll be friends forever." I remember Gilels concerts when he first came to America. I was just a kid. But I remember the grand manner. I remember the Tchaikovsky concerto with Cliburn before he won the Tchaikovsky. All the Horowitz recitals. I remember a tremendous violin recital with Zino Franciscatti, and many with George Szell.

What's it like to hear so much piano music all the time?

I love it! I've been asked that question and I say-funny thing is, I learn even from bad performances. But most of all: I love them! I love them! How can I hear enough Kriesleriana or-I don't mean in the normal sense that at the end of the day I don't want to hear [it], give me a string quartet please. But no, no, no, you can't say there are enough Carnivals in your life. It's awesome! With recordings you can hear such a variety.

How do you describe yourself? When someone asks, "What do you do?" what do you say?

I often say, Or anything that comes to mind. I like to lie so I tell them I was a minor league baseball player. Anything I want! Shura Cherkassky the great pianist used to say, "I'm an astronaut!" Now nobody could ever look more unlike an astronaut than him, but he loved it, you see. If you're imaginative, you never want to be too prosaic. We live in a world of prose, not in a world of poetry.

I say I do five or six things and I do them all with passion. "Oh, well, what are those?" Well, I teach and that's the most important thing in the world to me. I have to teach. I teach privately if I want to give a lesson or I teach my classes, which I really love to do because that's true show business and I can have influence over more than one person at a time. I hope I can influence them properly and rightly. And help them stay in music. Then I paint and draw. Yesterday I finished a drawing which I like. I don't know that it will live on for all time but I loved doing it. Everyone should draw as much as possible.

I'm want the action of creating. Gershwin said his painting was as important to him as his music. Yet his music is certainly better than his paintings. Schoenberg-the same thing

I heard you say once, "No man is a hero in the home." What did you mean by that?

If you're a piano player or a painter or a composer, you're never going to be able to give your all to a household or a family, so a woman, says to you, "You don't spend any time with the children." And the guy says, "I'm sorry darling, I need to be doing my work. I'm a painter, I'm a composer, I'm a sculptor, I'm a writer, I'm a piano player, I'm a violinist. That takes a lot of time and I'm tired. The baby was only for you, my darling, so please, do your best." And that's true. The man who wants children is a man who should be a good father and get rid of the work ethic. He should be a hedge funder or a shoe salesman and bring in the money. And if the woman is a harpsichordist or a violinist, she should be given the same rights as men have always taken. I don't think Martha Argerich, if she wants to practice, has to fight for it.

What kind of things do you do on a daily basis to pace yourself and have enough energy for everything you want to do?

If you're unblocked, you have a great life. The unblocked person, let's say in my case, I get up and if I'm unblocked that day or for five months in a row or over a good stretch of time, I say ‘OK, I'm not in the mood of course to go to school, because believe it or not every classroom you walk into is also a performance and you just may be not in the mood to see the kids that day. The students, the pianists, they're all great pianists.

As I said the show has to go on, but the unblocked day is oh-that is great. My energies are high, I'm going to really try my best to instill something or make sure that they've heard a recording that they've never heard, or give them something. Give them their money's worth. Then I will go home. Let's say if I'm really exhausted, there's no chance to do anything else. I'm like a zombie. You have to accept that. You can't push yourself. So maybe the next morning I have three hours and I go to the piano and I'm unblocked and I am able to practice. As a pianist, if you haven't practiced, you feel you haven't brushed your teeth. Soul is lacking.

So if you're unblocked, you sit down-my god, you just practice. You come home, you're unblocked. You have to be unblocked. Oh, there's a piece of paper sitting there. Real, wonderful 8" x 12" and that hand-that hand goes. What's so wonderful is to find out that your hand has an intelligence of its own. Its own brain. You're not creating paintings or abstracts or line drawings with your brain. Your hand is doing it. The brain may be hiding it very well with the conception, but it's unbelievable, that hand. People don't get the thrill of the hand on the piano. It's the seat of our humanness, right? That's why we're not an ape. Maybe an ape can do an abstract painting, but an ape can't play the Liszt sonata!

So if you're unblocked, then you sit down and you have a book to write and you write and-my God! The day is going and nothing but wonderful things are happening. The writing, the teaching, the painting, the reading. Reading. You have to be unblocked to read well. And you have to be in great shape to read well. When you're not used to it, you're not reading well and you can't read by skipping, by saying "Oh, this looks boring." You've got to read every word. That's part of discipline.

You have mentioned the book Beyond Success and Failure by Willard Beecher. Can you talk about it?

In the 70's when I felt I was in psychological trouble, an announcer at WNCN, Bob Adams, a great announcer, he said, "Why don't you read the book Beyond Success and Failure by Willard Beecher?" I said I will and I did that night, and it changed my life. And so I came to work and I said, "Bob, that book is incredible." Bob said, "Why don't you go see him?" I said, "See him?! He's here?!" You never think of someone right next to you. He said, "Yeah, he's in Chinatown. 170 Park Row." He was an old man at that time and I went and he just changed my life. And the book. You know, we live so much in the realm of success and failure but there is no such thing and of course there is not. And no artist thinks of themselves as successful, unless they have a big bank account, I guess. But that's not what success for an artist is. Willard Beecher was a student of Alfred Adler and it changed my life because it's based on personal initiative, his concept of psychology. If you don't do with yourself as you wish, no one's going to do it for you. You can't wait, in this society, for someone to say "You're going to be taken care of."

What advice would you give to younger pianists about thinking about beyond success and failure?

If you're an artist, the whole thing is: are you developing? Are you getting better? Are you remaining in love with your art like a Rubenstein at 90 who was playing with a freshness that was... Are you able to rejuvenate yourself constantly, especially during mad or depressed periods? I'm not speaking of the depressiveness of getting some pharmacological sweet beats and taking your little pill. I'm talking about the natural and correct depressiveness before-you know-a burst of activity or whatever. A creative person does not just live on some high plane every minute. They have to have rest and they have to have entertainment and they have to be able to clean their psyches.

Sometimes you have two -three years [where] you don't even want to hear a certain composer but it comes back because he's great. The kids "Oh, I don't like Scriabin any more." Well, then you're talking about yourself. You can't not like Scriabin. You can't not like Schubert or Beethoven. You're talking about yourself. Something is wrong with you because they remain great! At all times. It's your problem. And we do have problems! Chopin I mean, my God, he's helped my career like everyone else and every pianist and so forth but there were three years, I couldn't bear one piece. Now I can't live without him again.

Last modified on Tuesday, 20 November 2012 14:20

7 comments

  • Comment Link Lemuel Monday, 04 February 2013 22:05 posted by Lemuel

    Great article, exactly what I wanted to find.

  • Comment Link music Thursday, 06 December 2012 05:29 posted by music

    My spouse and I stumbled over here different web address and thought I might check things
    out. I like what I see so now i'm following you. Look forward to going over your web page yet again.

  • Comment Link JF REGAN Thursday, 20 September 2012 12:09 posted by JF REGAN

    .."from the keyboard" was one of the most important programs I heard each week...delighted to finally know you are on Wed. at 10pm. However, as a high-school teacher, I arise at 4 am to go to work. Listening at 10 pm is off the radar for me. Can you advise how I can hear your show? (also have xm radio which is how I heard your show originally since I'm in Miami, FL!) Need an easy way. Blessings!

  • Comment Link Eileen Pollock Saturday, 23 October 2010 16:22 posted by Eileen Pollock

    What wonderful thoughts and ideas Mr. Dubal communicates. And the love of music and artistic purpose! How ironic that all this is on the Internet rather than on paper one can touch and feel and keep. I look forward to reading The Piano Matters.

  • Comment Link Steinway grand Monday, 20 September 2010 23:56 posted by Steinway grand

    He always brings such color and fun to whatever he does. A great guy for the piano world.

  • Comment Link Elizabeth Wolff Tuesday, 14 September 2010 23:11 posted by Elizabeth Wolff

    Thanks David. I needed this.

    Liz

  • Comment Link Deborah Khoshaba Monday, 13 September 2010 09:54 posted by Deborah Khoshaba

    So nice to find out about David Dubal. Thank you. His idea that artists transform to an ideal through music is wonderful. Love the personality and music integration. Thank you again, Deborah Khoshaba, Clinical Psychologist

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