Saturday, September 1, 2007

1964-1968: Teaching in Minneapolis

1964 Tony White & Christine Dahl, Schubert Club winners - Tied - Jr. Piano

From Christine Dahl: Tony White was studying with Mr. Lillestol when we tied for Schubert Club. Tony is older than I am, maybe two or three years. I was 15 and in ninth grade when we tied, and Tony worked with Mr. Lillestol at least until he graduated from high school. He may have attended the U of MN after that, but I'm not sure.

1965 Thomas Schultz, Schubert Club - Jr. Piano - Schubert Impromptu Op. 90, #3

1966 Tony White, Young Artist Soloist, MMTA Honors Concert - performed, piece?

1966 Christine Dahl, MMTA Young Artists Concert - performed, piece not listed; Thursday Musical - Jr. Piano - Haydn - Sonata in A-flat; Chopin - Etude, Op. 25, #7

From Christine Dahl: I was 13 years old and in seventh grade when I started working with him. I won a few MMTA, Thursday Musical and Schubert Club contests while with Mr. Lillestol. Even so, he managed to see me play in public only once. Apparently, he was agoraphobic, and joked that he'd be the one in the back with the paper bag over his head.

1966 August 10: Letter from Philip to Frank Trnka

1967 Christine Dahl, MMTA Young Artists Concert - Chopin - Berceuse; Minneapolis Music Teachers Forum (MMTF) Honors Concert - Chopin - Ballade in A-flat

1967 Frank Trnka, MMTA Young Artists Concert - Prokofieff - Toccata; MMTF Honors Concert - Copland - Passacaglia; Thursday Musical - Sr. Piano - Chopin - c-sharp Scherzo

Frank Trnka at Cambridge, Minnesota High School Graduation, 1967

From Frank Trnka: As I finished my junior year of high school in the small town where I had grown up, it had become clear that, if I was going to pursue a career in piano performance, I needed to find another teacher for my senior year in order to get into the kind of college program I desired. Louise Guhl (who lived far away) was the only other teacher I knew of. She did not have space, but gave me a list of three names in Minneapolis, saying that Philip Lillestol was the best I could get. I wrote to him my goals. He wrote back asking me to come play for him and that we should start as soon as possible, since a year was not a long time to make significant progress in piano. After hearing me, he accepted the challenge and off we went, beginning in late August, 1966. I know Philip had numerous prize-winning students over his teaching career and also his “bread and butter” students that he taught to pay the bills. I don’t know how my experience with him differed from others where he had more years to bring someone to their potential. I only know that he took the commitment he made to me very seriously and pushed me to my limits to get me ready for the challenges ahead.

The months from September to January were spent learning the repertoire I was going to need for a college audition and getting some of those pieces ready for competition. The goal was to unlock the emotional content of each phrase of the music and build an overarching structure of the piece as to how it all fit together into a satisfying whole. Technique was always at the service of communication, and not an end in itself. Never “See, I can play a flashy run!” but rather “Where is this run taking us and how can you use it to communicate with the listener?” He was clearly demanding that I open up my inner emotional life and share that with the listener. Sometimes we would spend a whole hour lesson on one phrase in the slow movement of a Mozart sonata -- a shocking commitment of time, considering all we had to get done -- but he believed that, if we could unlock that one phrase, I could apply that to the rest of the piece, and other pieces as well. His dissatisfaction and despair with my attempts those first months were more intense negative feedback than I had ever experienced before. He pushed until he found my breaking point -- a tearful outburst where I convinced my mother to call him and tell him I was quitting -- I didn’t have the courage to tell him myself. Fortunately, he wasn’t willing to let me get by with that, and insisted my mother put me on the phone -- where he convinced me that his goal was not to get me to go away, but to open myself up and let the music inside me come out. So, even though it wasn’t totally clear to me where this was all going, I agreed to continue working with him, and he now knew my limits and that I couldn’t go on indefinitely with only negative feedback.

Bob Laudon responding to Frank Trnka: Your story of studying with Philip is remarkable. Some of that he probably got from Earl Rymer and the ideas of Olga Samaroff Stokowski. I got through 2 lines of a Beethoven Sonata at my first lesson with Earl (Earl only got through 2 measures with Mme.) The idea was to make the student independent, capable of working alone after intensive work at lessons. I spent 6 months unraveling how to control dynamics.

When February rolled around, he was ready to turn me loose on the world, and from then until mid-June I performed or competed almost every weekend, achieving all the goals I had set for myself the year before.

There was never any question that he was a coach as well as a teacher. He had an innate skill in knowing how to prepare someone for a performance so that they didn’t burn up all their intensity in the warm-up period, but built during that time so the intensity came out in the performance.

I paid for a one-hour lesson per week, but depending what was going on, had as many as 4 lessons a week, plus a warm-up session/pep talk before important competitions or performances.

At the end of May, when the competitive season was over, he set a challenge for me just so we could see what I could do -- from scratch, learn and memorize the Prokofieff Toccata in two weeks and perform it at the MMTA Young Artists recital. This happened. It was certainly not one of the best performances of my career -- and one of the other “technique is everything” teachers made sure I knew how outraged he was by my somewhat high strung performance. But both Philip and I knew that wasn’t the issue in this case -- it had been a private challenge between the two of us, after all the events with long-term consequences were over, to test my limits in another way. The MMTA audience simply got to witness the outcome.

In addition to my successful audition at Oberlin Conservatory, the next few years he also sent a student to Oberlin (Christine Dahl, 1968 and Thomas Schultz, 1970), so that at one point he had one of his students placed with each of the top three piano professors there -- a noteworthy accomplishment.

After my years at Oberlin, I returned to Minneapolis and resumed studying with Philip, as well as doing some graduate studies at the University, including Piano Pedagogy with Louise Guhl. That spring, with a new Mozart concerto in my repertoire, we entered the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) college division competition and Philip ended up having both the high school (Paul Halvorson) and college winners in the state competition that year.

The enduring legacy that I carried away from my years of study with him is the centrality of communication as the goal in performance -- giving vent to emotions one may not be able to express in any other way, and an absolute intolerance for performers whose fingers do not seem to be connected to their hearts!

1967 Thomas Schultz, MMTF Honors Concert - Chopin - Etude in E 10 #3

1967 Brenda Good, MMTF Honors Concert - Mozart - Sonata in D K311

1968 Christine Dahl, Young Artist Soloist, MMTA Honors Concert - Chopin - Barcarolle

1968 Thomas Schultz, Young Artist Soloist, MMTA Honors Concert - Brahms - Rhapsodie 119 #4; Schubert Club - Sr. Piano - Brahms - Intermezzo 118 #6

From Thomas Schultz: Thinking of Mr. Lillestol: his limitless generosity, his wit, his special insights into music, literature, art, his holding us (sometimes frustratingly so) to the absolute highest of standards. I remain especially grateful for his teaching of the music of Bach, Mozart and Schubert and for his open-mindedness about 20th century music. It's particularly interesting that he was able to craft such a distinguished career as a piano teacher - a profession so closely bound to tradition and to traditional measures of accomplishment - and, at the same time, able to provide a model of a life lived according to values largely different from those of the mainstream culture. I think of, among many other things, his wall of books, the modern paintings on his apartment walls, his old Steinway (which he told me had "once been a noble instrument"), his mentioning to me of his feelings of "deep antipathy" for Richard Nixon and, after his trip to California, his lamenting the absence of an urban culture in that part of the world (in comparison with NYC and Paris). Then there was the time when he gleefully told me of how he declared himself an atheist at the age of ten!

After leaving Minnesota I would visit him on return trips and, so, was an occasional witness to the changes that took place as he aged, changes that were, at times, puzzling. Certainly, I was a beneficiary of his particular fate and can only think back, remembering the contradictions of his personality and the intensity of his living.

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