Column: Players

by flaunt

Lessons From the Blind Piano Master
[Editor’s Note: There are many stories on how legendary piano teacher Lev Shorr lost his sight. One, which was told to the author as a little girl, was that there was a problem with the heating vent in his room at the Palace of the Czar when he was a young man—the toxic fumes asphyxiated him as he slept and his optical nerves were damaged. When Shorr immigrated to San Francisco, he became a patient of Dr. Max Fine—a pioneer in corneal transplantation. Shorr’s surgery was a great success and his vision was restored for a number of years before glaucoma set in. Another student maintains that Shorr did not lose his sight until 1952, one year before our story begins.]

The year was 1953. I was seventeen and had been studying the piano since the age of four. Through the referral of a friend, I was offered the privilege of studying with Lev Shorr, a renowned San Francisco pianist whose protégés included Hephzibah Menuhin, Samuel Lipman, Leon Fleisher, and Stephen Kovacevich. Back then, I was the shy, coddled product of a private convent school and although the good Sisters had been providing me with more than adequate musical training, I was spectacularly unprepared to enter the intimidating and all-consuming Shorr Studio where the rigorous standards of this dynamic Russian taskmaster were legendary.

There was another unsettling issue. Mr. Shorr was blind. At first I wondered how he would go about instructing me or how much nonsense I could get away with. My schoolgirl illusions that some careless slip of a minuscule grace note would go unnoticed were quickly dispelled. He missed nothing and was even able to write his own unique fingering on my music. I worked diligently, determined to satisfy his unrelenting technical demands and prove myself worthy of his guidance. Every lesson presented a new challenge; his interpretations were continually changing. Just when I felt that I had mastered a difficult passage, he would require a totally different attack. But he soon became my friend. In addition to keyboard matters, I was intrigued by tales of his life as a young man living in the Palace of the Czar. He delighted in sharing stories about his studies at the Petrograd Conservatory, and his wild antics with his adored friend Gregor Piatigorsky were something else again.

At the time, our family piano was a battered A.B. Chase upright, and Mr. Shorr suggested to my father that I would benefit from a more formidable instrument. One afternoon, the two of them went shopping and returned with a signed receipt for a new Steinway Model B! It is still with me and I will be forever indebted to my devoted teacher and my generous parent for this magnificent instrument.

Lev always spoke highly of his former students and was especially proud of Leon Fleisher who made his first public appearance in San Francisco at the age of eight and went on to take the concert world by storm. Hardly a lesson of mine passed without Lev making some reference to Leon’s fabulous career. Totally star-struck, I scraped together an impressive $2.38 and bought myself the 12” LP of my hero playing the Brahms D Minor with Szell. When it wasn’t on the turntable, it was under my pillow.

Then, the entire musical world was stunned and saddened to learn that at the age of 36, this consummate artist was suffering from a mysterious neurological condition affecting his right hand and threatening to destroy everything he had ever worked for. With incredible courage and amazing resiliency, he succeeded in keeping his career intact while playing the left-hand repertoire, teaching and conducting. Finally after years of varied, intense therapies, Leon Fleisher returned to Carnegie Hall where he played a thrilling two-handed recital, his first in three decades.

When Fleisher’s deeply moving autobiography My Nine Lives was published, I couldn’t wait to read it, never dreaming that I would find the very first sentence of Chapter One utterly devastating.

It read: “For Mr. Shorr, it wasn’t a good lesson until he made me cry.” What? My own dear, wonderful Lev? My initial outrage was short-lived as I read on to learn that the little fellow was treated to a post-lesson lamb chop lunch! I quickly arrived at the humbling realization that my own comparatively unimpressive pianistic skills would never have warranted such delicious drama.

In 2011, I subscribed to the San Francisco Chamber Music Spring Concert series. The soloists were all brilliant artists, and when I looked through the list of performers, one name leapt off the page! Leon Fleisher! The prospect of seeing him and hearing him play after his incredible recovery was exciting enough. But the actual date of his coming appearance took my breath away! It was scheduled for April 9th. On that afternoon, he and Jaime Laredo performed a program of exquisite Schubert before an adoring audience.

Afterwards, there was a CD signing and I stood in line holding a box in one hand and my copy of My Nine Lives in the other. When I offered him both items, he looked somewhat surprised. As he was autographing the book, I asked if he knew what day this was. He shook his head “no” so I reminded him that on another April 9, seventy-five years earlier, he had stepped out onto a San Francisco stage at the age of eight to perform his first public recital. But not before his mother reached over, and as he writes, “whipped the glasses from my face.” As I stepped away, I handed Mr. Fleisher my small “anniversary” gift, the disk that I had copied from the only 12” LP ever recorded by Lev and his brilliant violinist wife Frances Weiner in 1955. With a throng of eager fans urging me to move along, there was no time to speak of tears and lamb chops. As I grasped his powerful right hand, he smiled and thanked me. I would have liked to tell him that Lev Shorr had never made me cry, but that on this glorious April afternoon, his own playing had.

Written by Norma Logan