Piano Lessons with a Master


“If only I could have had piano lessons with Artur Schnabel, or some other great master. . .”

Who among us hasn’t had such a thought! Piano lessons with a great master—and getting tips and pointers in a few hours that could save years of futile practicing!

The truly inspired student pianist dreams of having piano lessons with a genuine master. And if he is passionate about succeeding, he will seek out the greatest of the masters, whomever that might be.

When he died, the legendary and inimitable Artur Schnabel, in addition to decades of concertizing and teaching, left a tremendous legacy of materials from which to divine the secrets of piano mastery—recordings, writings, etc.—not to mention the writings of his many students and disciples.


Schnabel also left behind legions of admirers, none of whom had piano lessons with him, but who have nevertheless spent a lot of time trying to figure out how he worked his magic!

I am one of these admirers. In fact, I have spent the better part of my adult life trying to discover something very elementary that has eluded theorists since the piano was invented, namely, the basic PHYSICAL COORDINATION for mastering the piano! We all know about Schnabel’s matchless musical eloquence and expressiveness. But his equipment was no different from ours—human arms, hands, and fingers (and feet!). How was he able to do what he did PHYSICALLY? Now, after many years, I believe I have found the answers, not just to the secrets of piano mastery, but also to Schnabel’s own incredible and seemingly unique style of playing.


This has not been an easy road. Artur Schnabel first came to my attention when I was fifteen years old. When going through my father’s record collection (this was in the pre-CDs 1950s!) one evening when my parents were out to a dinner party, I happened across a plain gray record album with no photo or picture on it, only a gray label in the center of the cover saying “Artur Schnabel, Schubert, Sonata in Bb Major, Op. Posthumous.” To this day I don’t know why I even bothered to take the record out of the album.


All I know is that after hearing the opening bars of that sublime creation, something came over me that was to alter my life from that day on. It wasn’t just the beautiful music: it was Schnabel’s playing of it. It was so serene, so timeless, so noble! I had never heard playing like that and, outside of other recordings by Schnabel, I have never heard any since. I think that if I had never heard recordings of Artur Schnabel, I probably wouldn’t have been as interested in the piano as I am. I simply would not have had any inkling that such playing was possible.

This epiphany was the beginning of a quest to discover the secrets of piano mastery in general—and the secrets of Schnabel’s own mastery in particular—that was to extend, off and on, throughout most of my life. In pursuit of this goal I was to read every piece of writing of Schnabel himself and nearly every piece published by his more illustrious students on the subject of his teaching. I even flew to Chicago on two occasions to hear master classes taught respectively by his most famous student, Leon Fleisher, and by his own pianist son, Karl-Ulrich Schnabel.

Most rewarding, however, were the three years of master classes that I attended of Aube Tzerko. Tzerko had been a student and assistant of Schnabel’s in Berlin in the 1930s and was now head of the UCLA piano department and a world-renowned piano pedagogue in his own right. In his classes Tzerko revealed principles behind the aesthetics of piano playing—phrasing, articulation, and interpretation—that I had always thought were the intangibles of talent. Much of his wisdom, as he himself said, came from Schnabel, but just as much, I am convinced, came from his own brilliant mind.

Together with his advice on practicing, his teaching of music making was so complete as to constitute a system for learning the secrets of piano mastery. When he retired in 1992, my notebooks were full of some of the most brilliant and eloquent quotations on music making since the aphorisms of Robert Schumann. I resolved to publish them one day under the title, PIANO SECRETS OF AUBE TZERKO. (His premature death in 1995 precluded any possibility of a collaboration with him on this project).

However, the one subject not adequately covered by Tzerko—or by Schnabel himself—was the actual mechanics of piano playing, namely, how the arm, hand, and fingers all work together to depress the keys. This subject both men left up to the “talent” of their students, who were always very advanced by the time they had come to study with the two masters. For the last ten years I have wrestled with this subject—with endless experimentation and much frustration—completely on my own.

Finally, in the last few years my efforts have borne fruit and I have discovered what I believe are the mechanical principles behind all great playing and even behind Schnabel’s own personal way of playing.

These discoveries on technique I have combined with Tzerko’s teaching on the aesthetics of music making into a single book, a book which in itself constitutes an apprenticeship of piano lessons with a master, SECRETS OF PIANO MASTERY: A BREAKTHROUGH GUIDE TO PIANO TECHNIQUE. In the interest of fidelity I have also included all of the best quotations of Tzerko verbatim from my notebooks, with all their original wit and wisdom intact. These quotes alone, and the secrets of piano mastery they reveal, many of which by Tzerko’s own admission derive directly from Schnabel, are a treasure chest of piano lessons worth many times the price of the book.