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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The relationship between a teacher and a student can be transformative. It's a particularly important relationship in classical music. A teacher is part mentor, part manager, even a parental figure. One of NPR's music experts, Anastasia Tsioulcas, recently had a unique opportunity. She sat down with two piano legends who shared their reflections on the teacher-student dynamic. And she is here to bring us some of that conversation. Hey there. Welcome to the show.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, what made you start thinking about this in the first place, this whole teacher-student thing?

TSIOULCAS: Well, Rachel, I cover classical music for NPR Music, I trained as a classical musician, I have a young child who studies violin now. And I find myself in the position where people ask me all the time what's a good teacher, what's a good relationship, how did they get their kids to enjoy music. So, I thought I should go to some real experts on this topic.

MARTIN: Experts who know what it means to have a healthy, productive musical relationship.

TSIOULCAS: Absolutely. People who could talk about this from having been there on both sides and emerged in a very good place. So, I invited two of the world's greatest pianists, two artists from different generations, to come into the studio and tell me what makes for a good teacher and what makes for a good student. One was the Chinese dynamo Lang Lang, who's become a superstar around the world. And here he is playing Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "PIANO CONCERTO NO. 1")

LANG LANG: (Playing)

TSIOULCAS: And I also invited Gary Graffman, one of the great American pianists. He just turned 85. And in his prime, he made a couple of dozen really excellent recordings. And whether or not you know his name, you very well might have heard his music. It's his performance of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" that we hear in Woody Allen's film "Manhattan."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "RHAPSODY IN BLUE")

GARY GRAFFMAN: (Playing)

TSIOULCAS: And Graffman knows more than a little something about good teachers himself. He studied with greats like Vladimir Horowitz, Rudolf Serkin and Isabelle Vengerova, who is the same teacher who trained Leonard Bernstein. So, Graffman later became a teacher and then president of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, which is arguably the greatest music conservatory in the world. And Curtis is where Graffman taught Lang Lang, starting when Lang Lang was just 14 years old.

MARTIN: And this is something musicians don't often talk about, right, the intricacies of this particular relationship between teacher and student in classical music. What kinds of insights did these two musicians share with you?

TSIOULCAS: There is a misconception that classical musicians have, or maybe should have, very severe and forbidding personalities. And that maybe to be teachers, they should even be kind of scary. And both Lang Lang and Gary Graffman told me that this couldn't be farther from the truth. And it seems like what they have to say about that process, about teaching and learning, could really be applied to many different areas, many different fields - not just music or the arts. And Graffman says that these are things he learned in his 20s from Vladimir Horowitz.

GRAFFMAN: Horowitz would criticize me on the basis of what he thought I was trying to do, not necessarily the way he would do it. Much of it is subjective. It's personal. And if somebody makes a convincing case out of something quite differently than what I did, I might make suggestions, of course, and even say here's another way of doing it. But I wouldn't say it's wrong, you have to do it, you know, the way I do it, or something.

TSIOULCAS: And so Lang Lang was telling me that it was during his very first lesson with Graffman, just after he came to the U.S. when he was 14, that he realized that he had just now found the teacher who would change his whole perception on how to learn music. You know, back in China, Rachel, Lang Lang's teachers and his father had pushed him very, very hard, and they defined success in a very specific kind of way. And within their very first lesson together, Gary Graffman managed to turn all of Lang Lang's notions upside down.

LANG: He broadened up the whole orchestra in front of me, so piano became the entire orchestra, rather than piano itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LANG: (Playing)

So, this is even just after the first lesson, you know. I'm like, wow, I need to think much bigger picture here. I felt, wow, this is a totally different game.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: OK. So, that's what makes a great teacher; someone who's encouraging, someone who's not chastising a student all the time. But this is a two-way relationship, right? This is a two-way relationship.

TSIOULCAS: Oh yeah, of course. And Lang Lang emphasized that really great teacher-student relationships very much depend on what the student's willing to bring to the table - not just in terms of raw talent, but definitely attitude as well. And he had some very interesting things to say about that.

LANG: For students also, we need to understand what teacher's trying to inspire you. And we need to, also, to broaden that idea. Basically, to make that idea very personal to yourself. And you really need to work hard to deliver what the teacher is trying to teach you.

MARTIN: So, you were made privy to this very unique relationship, Anastasia. What did it look like, the teaching dynamic between these two men?

TSIOULCAS: So, Rachel, one of the interesting things is that no one had actually interviewed the two of them before together. So, I felt like I was witnessing something really special. And they told me this great story about working on some solo piano sonatas that Sergei Prokofiev, the great Russian composer, wrote during World War II.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TSIOULCAS: And this is not a world that Lang Lang as a young Chinese musician had much insight into. But Graffman not only had such a feel for the music, of course, but he's from a Russian Jewish family, and he could explain the culture and the circumstances in which this music was written. And Lang Lang really tried to soak up that heritage.

LANG: He showed me here's the highlight. That's the turning point of the war, that needs to be exploded.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRAFFMAN: They're the "War Sonatas." To understand what was going on, I mean, the 900 days of the siege of Leningrad. And there was no heat, of course, and the windows were blown out by the bombs. And then there'd be dead, frozen bodies on the street. I mean, that was normal. I mean, it was that kind of life. I think students should know what was going on historically.

MARTIN: So, Lang Lang then tried to integrate this into his own music, this kind of context?

TSIOULCAS: Well, he's definitely tried, Rachel. Lang Lang's newest album is something of an homage to his teacher. On it, he plays Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic and conductor Simon Rattle. And that concerto was one of Graffman's own signature pieces.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "PIANO CONCERTO NO. 3"))

MARTIN: Anastasia Tsioulcas writes about classical music for NPR Music. You can find more of Lang Lang and Gary Graffman's conversation on the Deceptive Cadence blog. Thanks so much, Anastasia.

TSIOULCAS: Thank you, Rachel. It's a real pleasure.

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