What Makes a Great Teacher: Interview with William Fitzpatrick

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Welcome to LivingPianos.com, I’m Robert Estrin. Today I will be talking with William Fitzpatrick about what makes a great teacher. I’ve had the good fortune to study with great pianists John Ogden, Ruth Slenczynska, Constance Keene, and I started my piano studies with my father, Morton Estrin. I want to talk a little bit about our guest. William Fitzpatrick was the founder and first violinist of the New York String Quartet. He has a dual career in France and the United States. As a matter of fact, he was the director of chamber music at The American Conservatory in Fontainebleau, France. Long ago, he graduated from The Juilliard School, where he studied with the seminal teacher, Dorothy DeLay. Most recently, he held the esteemed Temianka Chair as professor of violin at Chapman University Conservatory of Music. He’s now living in France.

I want to introduce to all of you someone who’s very close to me, William Fitzpatrick.

Robert: William, welcome to LivingPianos.com. It’s great to have you!

William: It’s great to be here, Robert. Thanks for inviting me.

Robert: We’ve been great friends for years, and I want people to understand our connection, which is my daughter, Jenny Estrin. When we moved to Orange County, she was trying to find another teacher because she had started violin at the great Indiana University Young Violinist program. We figured in Southern California, there had to be good teachers. We went through so many people until we finally found you. You were life changing for Jenny, your whole concept of teaching. I want you to talk a little bit about your feelings about teaching. Why don’t you tell people a little bit about your background and your ideas about teaching. I think it’s unique the way you approach students, and I think people would really be fascinated to learn more about that.

William: The way I approach students is sort of a reflection on how I was taught by Ms. DeLay. One of my friends said it very well: “When you talk to a bunch of DeLay students, it’s like talking to blind people around an elephant. They’re all touching the elephant, and they’re going, ‘Oh, that’s an elephant.’ And somebody’s touching the tusk going, ‘Oh, that’s an elephant.’ Everybody’s got their take.” The reason for that is that she was different with everyone. She really tried to understand and zone in on the needs of that individual, with what they needed, and where they wanted to go. For myself, I felt like that was just incredible. For me, it was really helpful. I try very hard to reflect that in the way I look at the students who come to study with me.

I don’t have a cookie-cutter kind of methodology about teaching.

I try to figure out the best way to get them to understand the information from their point of view. And I think that’s one of the most important traits of a teacher. It’s not about giving the information. It’s about how you give that information so that someone understands and believes it. It’s them that have come to those decisions, because that’s the only way they’re going to do it.

Robert: Watching you teach Jenny was really an enlightening experience. Sometimes you would say things that almost sounded like riddles, getting her to think—not feeding her the answers, but getting her to realize these things herself. Interestingly, I come from a different background. My father was really not that type of teacher, and yet he was a great teacher. I think his methodology of teaching comes down to the fact that he didn’t have his first good teacher until just before his 18th birthday. So everything he really learned on the piano, he learned as an adult. As a result, every aspect of piano playing and music theory he figured out step by step in a very logical fashion. That’s the style of teaching that my father had, and I embrace that style of teaching as well. Certainly, with the violin, there’s an order of steps from how to hold the instrument to tone production and intonation. How do you reckon with this duality of having the lessons tailored to each person and having a regimen of steps involved in mastering the different facets of the instrument? How do you come to a balance between those two elements?

William: For me, I think it goes back to when I started teaching in France. First off, my French was awful. But somehow or the other, I managed to get a job. It was difficult because it was a language that I didn’t know at the time. And certainly, attitudes towards music, towards this whole thing of playing the violin were very different. What happened for me was that I had to interrogate myself. How did I learn something? Because I couldn’t translate it into French until I knew exactly what I did. It turned out that I never had really done that. For me, a lot of what I did was very intuitive as a player. So I didn’t question it; I just sort of did it. But to teach it, I had to know why and how I got to that point.

Robert: There are so many virtuoso pianists, violinists, and other musicians who grew up as child prodigies with a great deal of natural ability. Of course, they put in hard work. But you think of somebody who’s playing on a concert level of performance as a young child. As an adult, how could they possibly relate to the average student? I wonder how people like that approach teaching. You mentioned that things came very intuitively to you, and you had to break it down at some point. How many teachers actually go through that process, particularly ones who were child prodigies?

William: I sort of put myself, as a teacher, in a place where I wanted to prepare students to be able to deal with teachers like that, knowing that that teacher probably wasn’t going to do the rudimentary work. It was more about this feeling, this flow, but if you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s very difficult to react, to respond, and to do what that person is saying. So my feeling was always, how do I get them to a point where they can actually deal with that?

Robert: At the conservatory level, many of the teachers are really more coaches than teachers, as you describe. You need somebody in the trenches with you at some point in your development, showing you step by step how to practice, how to learn music, how to assimilate things, how to produce tone, and all of that. And then you can be enriched with different flavors of interpretation, sound production, and rhythmic feel. I was very fortunate to have a phenomenal French horn teacher, Hugh Cowden. He had played in the Chicago Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and the Boston Symphony. But this was at a point later in his career when he was a freelance New York musician. He was a mentor to me. He made me do things that I was convinced I couldn’t do!

I think that’s a sign of a great teacher—somebody who enables you to do things that you didn’t think you were capable of doing.

I’ve worked with a lot of teachers, teaching them how to teach. My father taught me how to teach, and he taught my sister how to teach because we assisted him in his teaching when we were both in high school. But you brought up getting inside somebody’s head so that you can reach them where they are. Can that be taught?

William: How much of teaching can be taught? That’s a really tough question. It begs of someone to be willing to trust the journey, to have a journey, to make a decision about where they want to go and what they want to do, but not be so bound and myopic in that vision that they can’t open themselves up to going to the left instead of the right.

Robert: I think it’s kind of like musical talent. There’s a certain amount of natural ability that people have. It could be kids who are at an intermediate level. One or two of them will play perfectly fine, and then one of them plays, and everyone in the audience just gets this rush of emotions. Can that be taught? There’s a certain amount of innate ability that people have in reaching people on an emotional level as a performer, and as a teacher being inspiring.

I think, to a great extent, it comes down to really caring about the student.

I won’t mention any names, but one of my teachers was not particularly emotionally supportive, but was a great teacher nonetheless. If I had had that teacher from my formative years, maybe it wouldn’t have been the best fit. But as I was already an accomplished player, I took the criticism well. It was a growing experience for me. So I think finding the right teacher at the level that you’re at is really important. Whether it’s a teacher who is going to show you the fundamentals and help you grow into an accomplished musician or somebody who’s going to do the refining and the fine touches. I think a lot of the university and conservatory teachers are really of that latter style. They really aren’t great teachers of the fundamentals, but they do that honing and refinement. Those are the teachers who get noted for all the contest winners because their students come to them already at a high level. They get to do that final polishing, which is an enviable position to be in!

William: Something you said brought something into my mind, which is that, in terms of looking at myself, it’s important to understand that I really sucked as a violinist when I was a kid. When I was 16 years old, a Handel sonata was like a mountain for me. And for me, getting to the top of the mountain didn’t mean it was good. It just meant I got to the top of the mountain. So I’ve always had the attitude that every child has talent. The deal is to help them find out how to channel the talent that they have.

Robert: That’s exactly right. You know, with piano playing, there are so many different skill sets, and nobody’s got every single one at the top level.

You have to work with students to develop their strengths and mitigate their weaknesses.

I won’t mention any names, but one of my teachers was not particularly emotionally supportive, but was a great teacher nonetheless. If I had had that teacher from my formative years, maybe it wouldn’t have been the best fit. But as I was already an accomplished player, I took the criticism well. It was a growing experience for me. So I think finding the right teacher at the level that you’re at is really important. Whether it’s a teacher who is going to show you the fundamentals and help you grow into an accomplished musician or somebody who’s going to do the refining and the fine touches. I think a lot of the university and conservatory teachers are really of that latter style. They really aren’t great teachers of the fundamentals, but they do that honing and refinement. Those are the teachers who get noted for all the contest winners because their students come to them already at a high level. They get to do that final polishing, which is an enviable position to be in!

William: Something you said brought something into my mind, which is that, in terms of looking at myself, it’s important to understand that I really sucked as a violinist when I was a kid. When I was 16 years old, a Handel sonata was like a mountain for me. And for me, getting to the top of the mountain didn’t mean it was good. It just meant I got to the top of the mountain. So I’ve always had the attitude that every child has talent. The deal is to help them find out how to channel the talent that they have.

Robert: That’s exactly right. You know, with piano playing, there are so many different skill sets, and nobody’s got every single one at the top level.

You have to work with students to develop their strengths and mitigate their weaknesses.

No two people have the same strengths and weaknesses. The other thing is being willing to let the student guide to a certain extent. Right now I have a student, and he was working on some literature that was pretty basic classical repertoire, not intermediate, but then he wanted to do some Ravel. And I said, “If you really want to do it and your heart’s in it, let’s see what happens.” Next week he comes in, and he’s got more than half of the Ravel Sonatine, one of the movements, going just beautifully. And I’ve had students in the past who jumped from levels that they shouldn’t have been able to do. If somebody’s heart is really in it and they have embraced the methodology of how to learn music, which is what I teach, sometimes they can go from here to there. So many teachers are so methodical in their repertoire. I think going with the natural inclinations of the student is best, as long as they’re not trying to play pieces that are just completely above them, which naturally is not in anybody’s best interest.

William: Like I said, when I was 16, Handel was an issue. I went to college when I was 17. When I was 17, my big accomplishment was Beethoven’s Romance in F, which, in fact, your daughter did. I had difficulty even playing that. Now, what’s really fascinating to me is that when I was 19, I got into Aspen Music Festival. I was playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto. I had the luckiest thing happen because my teacher, Stephen Clapp, was open to what I wanted to do. He knew what I needed to do, but he allowed me to get there. He didn’t try to harness me; he just allowed me to roam. I remember once I went to his studio and I saw Galamian’s book on the principles of violin, and I started reading it. I saw this thing about bow grips. He walked in, and he said, “William, you found this book?” “Yes. Mr. Clapp. And you know what? I’ve decided that I want to hold my bow this way.” I was mimicking what I was seeing in the book. Stephen didn’t say, “No, do it my way.” He was not only encouraging me but also helping me find out how to do what was in the book. He had spent a year trying to get me to hold the bow one way, and here I’m doing it another way, and he’s helping me to do it! To me, that’s really somebody who has the student at heart and will allow that student to go as far as they can go.

Robert:

It’s a real balance that teachers have to have with guiding students but not pigeonholing them into one way of playing.

For example, when I studied at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, I had a French horn teacher there who was an absolute virtuoso, magnificent player. But he would teach every single student how to play the Mozart Horn Concertos note for note, phrase by phrase, exactly the way he played them. There are a lot of teachers who do that. Now, I will say that sometimes on the very elementary level, if a student has no clue how to craft a musical phrase, you can spoon feed them note by note so they understand the architecture, and at some point they’ll get it. But when you get to the conservatory level, you have to let the student’s own inclinations come through.

William: This brings up a story of a student. I assigned a student a new piece of music at the end of the lesson, and the student looked at me and said, “Could you play it for me?” And I was really sort of surprised and asked why. They said, “Because I want to know how it sounds.” So I said, “Just go around the corner; there’s a music store with a bunch of records. You can buy a couple and see.” They said, “I don’t have that much money to do that.” So I said, “Oh, okay. Well, if you go to the library, you can just listen to everything.” And the student finally looks at me and says, “Oh, I get it. I’m going to do everything, and you’re going to do nothing!”

Robert: They have to discover for themselves, don’t they?

William:

Ultimately, I don’t think you can surpass what you hear.

So you’ve really got to open up. If I can do something as a teacher, it’s to open that aural horizon so that they can hear what goes on. Another story comes to mind. I had another student who came in, and they held their bow in a funny kind of way. But I knew that they had studied with someone who held the bow correctly, so I thought it wouldn’t be a problem. I’ll get them to go back to what they did. But they didn’t want to. They kept saying they liked the way it sounded that way. And we fought for three years! I realized I let my ego get in the way because I wanted to have that student play this way. I didn’t listen to what they wanted to do. In fact, if I really wanted them to change, then what I needed to do wasn’t to show them or try to get them to do this or that, but get them to change how they heard it. Get them to listen to things, and in their effort to try to make that happen, they will come to their own conclusions about what they need to do to make that happen.

Robert: Exactly. It’s all about listening. That’s the key. Along those lines, for a lot of my students, I give them a piece of music, and the first thing they do is latch on to some performance on YouTube and listen to it incessantly.

When I learn a piece of music, I purposely don’t listen to anyone until I have it on performance level.

Then I go crazy and listen to every performance, and drive my wife, Florence, crazy!

William: My wife knows a lot about that!

Robert: I encourage my students and any of you out there, if you’re learning a piece of music, do yourself a favor and come up with your own convictions first. It’s really hard, once you become highly influenced by hearing it from somebody else, to come up with your own impressions.

William: I played a concert when I was in France at the American Church in Paris with an organ. They had just had this beautiful organ installed. I was so happy. But I listened to the recording the next day, and I went, “Oh, that really sucked.” I had this long conversation with myself, and the brunt of it is I decided I needed to change. So for a month I would move this, I would do this, and finally I found a position that was helping me to do what I wanted to do. I listened then every day to Rabin playing Bruch Scottish Fantasy, and I tried to emulate it. That’s what I did for the next month. I didn’t look at the music, I just, you know, from ear tried to sound like him. I remember about a month and a half later, I was doing a festival, and I was sitting in a room practicing. I started to play Scottish Fantasy, and I said, “You did it. That sounds like Rabin!” And I remember sitting down and I said, “Cool. Now you can sound like you.” I needed to understand physically what was going on. The goal was not to be Rabin. My goal was to be me. But I wanted to understand another perspective on how to do that.

Robert: If you want to be able to produce a tone that you imagine in your head, to emulate somebody where you can quantify that you can do that process is a perfect study.

William: Right, but you don’t want to be that person. It’s not about that. I mean, I’ve loved Perlman all my life. He’s been such a model for me, but I don’t want to play like Perlman.

Robert: I listen to the unbelievable performances of Horowitz, but nobody can play like Horowitz. It’s futile to try!

You have to find your own voice, your own physiology, and your own psyche.

That’s really what it’s about.

William: For me, that’s what a teacher can do. They can help the student identify how to do those things.

Robert: That is a beautiful statement because that ultimately is the ideal of teaching—helping each student find their own voice. And if you can do that, it’s the most gratifying thing in the world.

William: I could not agree more.

Robert: Before you go, I just want to thank you for taking the time from your busy schedule to come join us here at LivingPianos.com.

William: Thank you very much.

You can find more from William Fitzpatrick here

Thanks again for joining me, Robert Estrin, here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource

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Contact me if you are interested in private lessons. I have many resources for you! Robert@LivingPianos.com

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