Some preliminary notes on

my piano studies 

I started on the piano in the fall of 1951, when I was seven years old. We lived in Karlskrona, a town in Southern Sweden. In Karlskrona there was a really good pianist and piano teacher, Bengt Utterström. He had studied with Sven Brandel at the Stockholm Conservatory. Sven Brandel's ideas about piano teaching were radically different from Boon's. I studied with Utterström until Christmas of 1955 when we moved to Stockholm.

Karlskrona had an active music life, and Hans Leygraf was a regular visitor. I met him once in Utterström's home when I was 8 years old and I got to play Bach's 8th 2-part invention for him.

I have a very high opinion of Utterström as a piano teacher. I can now, almost 70 years later say, that I learned more from him than from any of the much more famous piano teachers I had later. Technique was developed in a systematic way, with scales and other exercises, practised in different ways to get the best result. And sound quality, making the piano "sing", was important. My scales never got better than when I was eleven years old.

When we moved to Stockholm I auditioned for Boon. Lars Sellergren, a well-known Swedish pianist, was also considered, but Boon was more famous, and the fact that he did not pursue a pianist career of his own, also weighed in his favor.

Boon accepted me as a student, but he also told, that, in principle, he did not teach children. My mother asked him what he thought about my potential and I remember that she specifically asked: "Do you think, that he can reach the level of Hans Leygraf?" and I remember that Boon said something vague that avoided answering "yes" or "no".

I will now tell what it was like being Boon's student. When I studied with Utterström - from the age of 7 to the age of 11 - there was an even balance between sound musical expression and technical perfection. He told me, that in a good performance of a Haydn-sonata one could have at most 2 or 3 wrong notes. And I remember that I first tried to get under 10 wrong notes, and after succeeding, I was trying to get under 5. This type of "sports" stopped, when I started with Boon. In February of 1956, almost exactly when I started with Boon, I gave my first full piano recital in another Swedish town. The program, some 3-part inventions by Bach, a Haydn-sonata in e minor, Mozart's D major rondo, a Schubert-impromptu, Some Schumann Kinderszenen and Beethoven's f minor sonata op. 2 no 1. It was all carefully studied with Utterström, musically sound, clear passage work and very few wrong notes.

In the spring of 1956, I studied with Boon, a French suite by Bach, Mozart's sonata KV 570, Schubert's E flat major impromptu and I started on Mozart's concerto KV 459.

There was a very persistent pattern in how the lessons went. The first lesson on a new piece, Boon would be very harsh. Often it ended up with me trying to to play 2 or 3 notes in a satisfactory way. And Boon, complaining louder and louder: "As soon as you try to get some expression, your shoulder just jumps up (he made a vivid demonstration) and nothing happens on the piano".

The second lesson on the same piece, there would be very little criticism from Boon. I remember one student saying: Every other week I cry after the lesson with Boon, every other week I am happy. But Boon's harshness never bothered me in any deep way. I always felt - and I think most of Boon's students felt that way - that, deep down, he was very supportive.

In the Easter of 1956, I visited Utterström, and I remember playing the Schubert E flat major impromptu for him. I had not drilled the scales very much and I messed it up quite badly. But he was nice and did not criticize.

1956 was a Mozart year and in the spring a Swedish national Mozart-competition was arranged in three categories - piano, violin and woodwinds. It was for young players, if I remember correctly the upper age limit was 17 years. I competed with the sonata KV 570. I think that my phrasing had improved, since I had started with Boon, and I remember trying to express "joy" in some of the phrases. I had practised quite a lot, but it was not the systematic technical practise I had had with Utterström. So, my performance was less solid, than my best performances had been half a year earlier. But it was good enough to make me the winner in the piano category. My younger brother Hans made it to the final in the violin category, although he did not win. We played Mozart's E minor sonata together. Somebody told me later, that my feeling for chamber music - although it was not part of the competition - had given some support to confirm me as the winner in the piano category.

Boon did not think that it was a good idea to let a talented child have too many public performances. He thought that it would be bad for the development of the child as a musician, and thought that one should be quite restrictive. He thought, that one should get through a big repertoire at a young age, and at a more mature age, work on this repertoire and perfect it.

The prize for the winners of the Mozart competition was a two week trip to Salzburg and to listen to the events at Mozarteum. We also gave a concert there. I was asked to write to Boon and tell about the concert. I really did not want to do that, being aware of Boon's skepticism to public performances for young musicians, even if it was obvious, that the Salzburg concert could not be harmful to my musical development. So in an attempt to downplay the concert I wrote to Boon, that we had given a concert "for a small audience of 200 people".

In the years 1956-1960, the repertoire, that I got through with Boon, grew at a quite fast rate. It included most of the Beethoven sonatas up to no. 15 (Pastoral) plus the G major op. 79. The two "easy ones", I had already done with Utterström. Beethoven's two first piano concertos. 5 Mozart concertos and a third of Mozart's piano sonatas. Several Haydn sonatas. Some French suites, English suites and partitas by Bach and quite a few preludes and fugues from Das wohltemperierte Klavier. Most of the etudes op. 10 and op. 25 by Chopin, all his preludes op. 28, several of his ballades, impromptus, scherzi, waltzes, mazurkas. Several Schubert sonatas and most of his impromptus op. 90 and 142, Moments musicaux. Brahms' early ballades and a substantial part of the piano works op. 76 - op. 118. Schumann's Faschingsschwank, Papillons, Phantasiestucke. Several preludes and the suite Pour le piano by Debussy. Sonatina and Jeux d'eau by Ravel. Rondos, Romanian folk dances and suite op. 14 by Bartok. A few small pieces by Mendelssohn and Liszt. This list, of course, reflects much of Boon's preferences and I will comment on that.

First, the fact that I got through quite a bit of repertoire with Boon, was part of his strategy, that one should get through a big repertoire at a young age. Also, his way to be very harsh on the first lesson on a piece and then have little criticism on the second lesson was consistent with this strategy. Often I would leave a piece after the second lesson, even if it really required quite a lot more work. I think that the strategy worked well in most cases, but for technically more demanding pieces, like Chopin etudes, I do not think that it worked very well. It would have been healthy if I had spent a lot more time on i.e. Chopin etudes, than I did.
When I came to Boon in 1956, he had stopped using special exercises for technical development, and used just the technical difficulties in the compositions that the students were studying. I understand that he had earlier in his teaching career used special exercises for technical development. I think that this was in line with, what I feel, was his stronger and stronger focus on letting there be a direct connection between the pianist's mind and the keyboard - in principle nothing physical in between. I remember, that he told me - some time in the early 1960:s - that he had simplified his system in this way: Earlier he had had the pianist's fingertips as a station between the pianist's mind and the keyboard and that he now was getting rid of that station in between. (I will write more about this later).

I did not choose repertoire to play in the first years with Boon and the relatively few times I did it later, it was absolutely no problem with him. I all the time loved the pieces that he suggested and for me it was always a great feeling to start to work on a new piece. Beethoven had a special place in his heart, but also the other great classical composers were favorites. There was little 20th century music in the first years, it increased somewhat later. I think that his preferences well reflected his personality. That was not only his musical preferences but also his prefences in literature and art.

I think it is fair to say, about Boon's preferences, in music, literature and art that he preferred nerve and intensity and was less enthusiastic about the more intellectual and speculative. Among 20th century composers he liked Bartok, Shostakovitch and Prokofiev (and several more) but was less enthusiastic about i.e. Hindemith. We never discussed avant-garde music. My impression is that he had a fairly neutral attitude to such music. I do not remember him making either positive or negative comments about such music in general. Here he differed from i.e. Bruno Seidlhofer, the famous Austrian pianist and piano teacher, whom I several times heard making negative comments about contemporary music. When it came to musical performances in general (I am not talking here about piano) the picture what he liked and did not like was much more complex. Among Swedish authors, Strindberg was certainly a favorite, among the contemporary he preferred Vilhelm Moberg above Harry Martinson. He was an art collector and the walls in his home were covered with art. In the music room, where the lessons took place, the walls were covered with impressive work by Helene Schjerfbeck.

In the summers 1955,1956,1957 and 1958, I attended summer schools in piano at Viggbyholmsskolan near to Stockholm. It was attended by an elite of approx. 20-25 young pianists(mostly 20-30 years old) from the Scandinavian countries. The teacher in 1955 and 1956 was the Austrian piano professor Bruno Seidlhofer and in 1957 and 1958 it was the pianist Albert Ferber from the UK. Some focus with Seidlhofer was Bach, Haydn and Mozart, some focus with Ferber was impressionistic music.

Boon never objected to me taking part in these summer schools, but he did not think that they did any good to my piano playing. I remember him asking me at the first lesson in the fall of 1957: Well, what did you learn? A correct answer should have been the following: "I have been exposed to the music of Debussy and Ravel like never before, I have gotten a feeling for how they "paint" with different sounds and a feeling for how I should try to play such music." But the tone in Boon's question did not encourage me to give such an answer. So I just told him about some of the "warm up" exercises, that Ferber had recommended. And Boon gave a dry comment: Well, That neither adds anything nor takes anything away.

In Swedish: Det där gör väl varken till eller ifrån.

At that time, Seidlhofer had a high opinion about my potential and tried to convince my parents that I should finish school and come to Vienna. He would make me "A new Gulda" (Seidlhofer's famous star student). But my parents thought that I was too young for that.

In 1957, Ferber had also a high opinion about my potential. He several times said, that he liked my finger work (something that I had from Utterström), I especially remember him praising the way I played the finish of Beethoven's Pastoral sonata.

In 1958 it was very different. Ferber did not think that I had made progress since the year before and that I had lost my good finger work. He did not let me play at the final concert at the end of the school. The other pianists told me that Boon could be good for older students who had already developed their technique enough, but that he was not good for me (at all these summer schools, I was the youngest student). In my attempts to defend Boon I was told: "I guess you have gotten Salvation from Boon."

Boon himself had been a student a the great pianist Artur Schnabel. I think it is fair to say, that much of Boon's teaching was to systematize Schnabel's ideas about piano playing. Schnabel represented a break with the 19th century direction for pianists, to be more and more virtuosic. Schnabel was especially famous for his interpretations of Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and Brahms. In mechanical skills on the piano he could not compete with the virtuosi of his time. There could be occasional nasty comments like: "Schnabel had no fingers." But his way of forming a musical phrase was often astounding. I remember that my uncle had an old recording of Schnabel playing Beethoven's second piano concerto and I heard it for the first time when I was 10 years old. And I felt that I never had heard so beautiful piano playing as Schnabel's opening phrases.

Boon would make negative comments about almost every pianist, but never about Schnabel. When it came to be expressive on the piano without getting tense shoulders Boon could say: As Schnabel said, "the expression sits above the eyes".

In books about Schnabel, there is a famous story about his teacher Leschetitzky (one a the great teachers of the 19th century and early 20th century) saying to him : "You will never be a pianist. You are a musician."

I will now break the chronology, make a big parenthesis, and tell about some more recent things from my own musical life.

I have evaluated and reevaluated my studies with Boon, several times in my life. And it has ended up on the good side.

I was never able to duplicate the success I had with my first piano recital, when I was eleven years old, and just were about to start studies with Boon. And the reviews I got over the years have been a very mixed bag. But over the last 35 years, there has been a slow but steady improvement. Nine years ago, in 2012, I met the Bulgarian conductor Svilen Simeonov. He liked my playing, and we have cooperated since then. On one of our first concerts together he introduced me to the audience by saying:" There are many pianists, but few musicians." I asked him afterwards, if he knew about the Leschetitzky-Schnabel story, but he said, that he had never heard of it.

End of the parenthesis

I do not know about technical exercises in Boon's earlier teaching career. But from the time I came to him, there was just one recipe to solve all technical problems: From the mind directly to the piano keys (possibly through some feeling in the fingertips). For passage work, he never suggested that one should practise by stopping on every 4th note or use any lifted fingers. He sometimes with dismay referred to some investigation, where somebody (I have forgotten the name) had investigated which muscles a pianist was using when playing. There was never any suggestion to make a movement with the elbow, or occasionally use a high wrist or a low wrist to make it easier to play some phrase. The philosophy was, that all the physical things would take care of themslves, if one just was relaxed and focused on the end result - what happened on the piano.
I remember that at some occasion I was asked how much I used wrists, elbows and shoulders for octave playing and I had no idea what to answer. With Utterström, I had not yet gotten to practise octave playing.

I will give a description how I studied Chopin's revolution etude, op.10 no. 12 with Boon. When the left hand goes up and down in c minor after the dramatic introduction measures, I should "create a revolution" with my left hand. This was not so difficult, since these left hand passages lie quite well in the hand. But somewhat later in the piece, the music modulates from g# minor to d# minor to f# minor to c# minor and the left hand is considerably more tricky. This I played very sloppily, but Boon let it pass and after a few weeks I started to work on some other etude.

Among the works I studied with Boon in the year 1958-59 was Mozart's 27th piano concerto in B flat major. The emotional second movement was a special focus. Schnabel played this in a slower tempo than other pianists and I was told to do that, too. I had no problem agreeing to do that, I thought that the slow tempo combined with a low-key but intense expression made the music very beautiful. Boon told me, not to just work on this at the piano. He told me to also sit in a chair and play the emotional music in my mind. "It is written by a man who, just 35 years old, has come to an end of his life."

For me, this type of influence from Boon has been very important and, in the long run, very valuable. Music should not be played just with some standard, generic phrasing and expression, it has a deeper meaning and one should try to communicate that deeper meaning.

In 1958, the book "Music and Musicians" by the great conductor Bruno Walter came out (perhaps before, but in that year it was translated into Swedish and got attention in the Swedish musical world). Boon was enthusiastic about the book and recommended that I should read it, which I did. And for me, it has definitely been one of the most important books, that I have read.

Yesterday, I got in the mail from Dorette Leygraf, the two DVDs "Fundamental piano lessons" with Hans Leygraf. When I have arranged the technique and watched them, I will probably be able to make more comments, but since I studied all the pieces, either with Utterström or Boon, I cannot resist already now make some first comparisons.

DVD 1. The Chopin C-Minor prelude I did with Boon, in 1958, with Boon's standard recipe for solving technical problems. So, the armweight was never mentioned. I think, though, that, in this case, using the armweight came (at least to some extent) automatically from just relaxing and focusing on the powerful sound in the first measures of the piece. The shifts in sound quality in the soft parts were important.

The Bach inventions I did with Utterström (however, the D minor was just before some break, so that was never completed). Hand position and finger activity were important, even rhytmical ways to practise the F major invention. I do not remember (and I do not think) that armweight and armmotions came up in his lessons on these pieces.

The Chopin preludes E minor and B minor I did with Boon (also 1958 when I did all the preludes). To play the left hand chords in the E minor prelude in a tight way - and even to be able to do it without using the pedal - was important and done in the standard way. Obviously, no mentioning of combining hand and forearm in an efficient way.

For different types of accompaniments and also melodical flows, Boon often stressed that one should keep the total harmonies in the mind. In that way, one could get a good balance between melody and accompaniment. To keep the total harmonies in the mind also applies also i.e. to situations when a melody (in principle in quarternotes) is played by repeated triple eighth notes (like some places in Schubert's impromptu op. 90 no 1).

Even if a more systematic use of forearm and hand could be advantageous in such situations, I do not remember that I have felt that the Boon way in these particular situations was deficient.

(to be continued)

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