by James Boyk
Aube Tzerko As I Knew Him
Copyright © 1996,1998,2003,2004,2007 James Boyk. All rights reserved.
by James Boyk
Once, he electrified a room full of students by his playing of a single note. Impossible; but I was there, I saw it, I was electrified.
Another time, he played the first phrase of a mazurka, then played to the end, visibly deciding at the end of each phrase whether or not to continue. It was rare for him to play anything through; and on this day his playing had a quality of reminiscence so tender that by the end, we were in tears.
A young woman who studied with another teacher wanted to audition for Tzerko's summer class at Aspen, and I drove her to his house. The door was unlocked on teaching days, and we entered the beautiful big living room while a lesson was in progress. Just as we came in, he began playing the variation movement of Beethoven's Opus 109. His playing was so deep that the sound seemed to reverberate in our souls. We stopped in our tracks, the visitor's mouth dropped open, and she simply gaped.
He was my first teacher whose playing I could not imitate at once, but he would patiently repeat his demonstrations until I had figured out what he was doing. Once, we had a non-verbal lesson: I played part of a piece; he stopped me by knocking on the piano case; he played a phrase a different way; I played it after him; he played the next phrase; and we went back and forth, communicating by playing.
Physically, he was compact, virile and stylish, with beautiful silver-gray hair which two female students told me they always wanted to reach out and stroke. Sometimes bothered by my six-foot-six height, he would say, not entirely joking, "Sit down, James, you make us short people nervous." Though his fingers were a full joint shorter than mine, his palms were fully as wide, so he could address five adjacent keys without spreading his hand.
Musically, he was the enemy of affectation. "Subtlety in the service of simplicity" might have been his motto, as everything was subsumed to a lucid musical narrative. His interpretations started from his strong sense of rhythm and dance, were informed by equally strong senses of melody and harmony, disciplined by close study of the score, and refined by a passion for precise expression. He showed me how the interpretation of an entire work can be based on the simplest material the composer uses--a rhythm, a melodic interval, a turn of harmony--but always used to the hilt. "Milk the harmony, taste it," he would say.
Sometimes his focus on the music was so intense that he forgot who was at the other piano. Once he interrupted my playing with, "Don't you understand, Lincoln... Edward... Misha... Gabriel...Victor?" He stared at me and demanded, "Who are you?" "Jim," I replied. "Jim! Don't you understand, Jim...?"
Away from the piano, he was affectionate and open, with a rowdy sense of humor: the artist relieved of his passion. He would speak with cheerful authority on subjects of which he knew nothing; computers and wristwatches are two I remember. But when the sitzfleisch touched the piano bench, then the air of authority was justified, and then the raw nerve of artistic sensitivity was uncovered. Then came the drive, the single-mindedness; and then, too, one couldn't help feeling, came the pain.
For studying with him could be painful. One summer I learned Beethoven's Opus 111 sonata on my own while he was away. When he returned, I played it for him. You can't even attempt to perform this sacred work without opening yourself up completely. But toward the end of its 24 minutes, while I was joining Beethoven in opening the gates of Heaven, Tzerko was walking around the room trying to light his pipe.
I finished playing and sat, utterly drained from my first performance of the piece for another human being, and he came back and said, "Well, that's very good, Jim, (puff, puff) very good indeed -- digitally." I said, "Digitally?" in a strangled scream, utterly outraged. But then.... But then he sat down at the other piano and took me through the piece phrase by phrase, and every note was a revelation. I don't know how long we were at it; but at the next lesson, my playing of the sonata was a completely different story. And every piece since then has been a different story, because of that one lesson.
I returned from a competition once and called to report, "I won second prize." His only response was, "Why not first?" This kind of reaction, repeated a hundred times, gave me the idea that he regarded students as extensions of himself, and that the way he treated us at lessons was the way he treated himself every minute.
The positive side was that he took you seriously and opened his mind to you. The negative was that approval was rare, and always qualified. Lessons could be full of devastating personal criticism, especially if anyone else was present. "You know everything, you just don't know how to do," he might say; or, when your playing wasn't passionate enough, "What's the matter with you, man; haven't you got anything between your legs?" Ironically for this master interpreter, it could seem at times that his passion for the ultimate interpretation was powered by a fear of musical inadequacy.
Of course the "ultimate" changed from moment to moment, as it should. At my first lesson on Beethoven's 3rd Concerto ("A great work. Let's see what you bring to this piece, Jim"), he told me that the third phrase of the piano part should be played in either of two ways, both different from what I was doing. I pointed out that my way was implied by the tutti, the orchestral introduction, but he was adamant.
In my practice over the next week, I decided he was right; so at the next lesson I played it one of his suggested ways. "Don't you understand?" he immediately complained. "The tutti shows how the phrase is divided. You have no choice. You must copy the orchestra." When I pointed out that he had opposed this very argument the previous week, he said dismissively, "That was last week."
Whether you call this kind of teaching dialectical or opportunistic depends on your point of view. But it did force you to be aware of what you were doing, interpretively. And I'll take it any day over the approach of the New York teacher with whom I had a lesson before coming to Aube. She simply said, "Louder here, softer there; faster here, slower there," while marking my scores with red crayon. No explanations, no reasoning from the music; no revelations, and not even looking for them.
The only time I ever scored verbally with Aube, we were playing the Emperor Concerto at two pianos when he yelled, "You're so busy playing the music, you haven't got time for the notes!" Of course he meant to say the reverse. Taking advantage of the slip, I pounded on the piano case, looked him in the eye, and said, "That's right, and don't you forget it!" He did a double-take and grinned sheepishly. "Well, it's very good; but play the passage this way, it'll be 89 times better." It was always "89 times"; I never found out why.
When Tzerko's former students get together, the conversation always turns to him, just as siblings talk about their parents. A parent is like a book which the child understands only in part, but takes that part for the whole. So was Tzerko to us.
I can't be objective about him, not when I bought an MG automobile the same color as his; took my car to the same mechanic; bought shirts from the same shirtmaker; lived on the same street (where I could hear the applause from the Hollywood Bowl); even ate at the same delicatessen.
Six months after he died, twenty-four years after my last lesson with him, I dreamed twice in one night about wanting his approval and not getting it. Five years before, when I had visited his piano class to present him with my latest album, and showed him the dedication to him, his sole response had been, "Let me see. I love to see my name in print."
Finally one had to go one's own way, even while still studying with him. And sometimes the approval would come; but never to your face. "You should be like Boyk," another student told me he exhorted a class. "He comes to a lesson and there's nothing he doesn't know about the piece. It's memorized, the technical problems are solved, he's ready for a lesson!" This was the week that he said disdainfully to me, "You! You think sitting at the piano six hours a day is going to make you a musician!"
But no matter what else is true, I've found few people who understand that to make music is to work out one's destiny; and this understanding, Aube Tzerko and I shared.