An Interview with Fernando Laires

From the Autumn 2003 issue of Keyboard Companion magazine

by Helen Smith Tarchalski

We are privileged and pleased to share a conversation with Fernando Laires in which he offers a rare glimpse into the exceptional life of an extraordinary man and musician. In this interview, we learn how many of Fernando Laires' perspectives developed and evolved. Although some of his experiences were clearly opportunities that helped to shape his career, others were challenges that he turned into opportunities and life lessons.

Fernando Laires lives by his precept that "piano teachers are more than piano teachers, they are music teachers and tutors about many things, including life itself." He closes his comments by answering a decades-old musing by members of the piano pedagogy field: How do artists of the stature of Fernando Laires and Nelita True co-exist in the career of music while maintaining a deeply devoted marriage?" His advice is simple, and proves that his philosophies and approach to musical and teaching perspectives are indeed inexorably intertwined with his approach to life.

His fascinating story is rich in examples of how we can use our own experiences as "life lessons" that mold us into stronger human beings with a deep sense of mission and artistry.


The Interview

What are your memories of your early years at the piano?

My mother wrote in her memoirs that I was three years old when I began playing. She enjoyed singing and playing the piano, and she taught a few neighborhood children. She and her brother, an amateur violinist, made music together when they visited. There was always music at home and in the neighborhood. The neighbor women sang during the day, keeping their apartment windows open.

I repeatedly asked my mother to teach me how to play. She did not want to teach me because she felt that I was too young. But one day I cried so much about wanting to play that she finally put me on her lap, played each note while singing "Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Si," and also slowly played some short, easy compositions. I played the melodies that I heard. At the age of four, I was instinctively harmonizing every melody that I played. I learned to read music before I learned to read Portuguese, my native language.

How long did you study with your mother, and how do you believe that your very unusual life experiences impacted your career?

I studied piano with my mother until the age of twelve. There were no schools in the tiny towns where we lived abroad, so my mother taught me academic subjects as well until I went to school for the first time at the age of nine. She had taught me well; I was placed in the grade that corresponded with my age. When I was six years old, my father, who was a Navy sergeant, was sent on a mission to Mozambique, East Africa for six years. It was my very good fortune that my mother and I were allowed to travel on his ship often, which gave me the opportunity to experience unforgettable moments of danger and delight with the oceans, storms, uninhabited islands, and much more. I grew up in situations that gave me a deep sense of adventure. When we arrived in Mozambique, my parents bought a piano for me to play, but the climate was too hot and uncomfortable to spend long periods at the piano. My primary interests then shifted to my new environment: hearing the lions roaring around the house at night, sleeping under a mosquito net, being awakened by a wild monkey jumping into my bedroom in the middle of the night, seeing sharks swimming close to the beach, being able to catch small fish from a window of our house, and seeing a whale suddenly coming out of the water not far from where a young friend and I were rowing a boat. That experience scared me to death. I was told to avoid walking under trees because snakes could bite me on the head. Many more adventures took place during those years that kept me fascinated with wildlife and the planet.

I learned to face danger and to be willing to take risks. All these early experiences helped me later in life, for example, to control performance stress, to take risks in performance, and to cultivate my imagination. Perhaps it explains my courage to leave my home country of Portugal with a wife, a young daughter, and another child on the way. We were traveling on plane tickets purchased with borrowed money, and I did not have a job waiting for me in the United States. I would like to add that learning how to adjust to very unusual life circumstances is a highly valuable skill for a performer, because that is what a life in music is all about.

Yes; we have heard many gifted pianists whose performances are flawed by the inability to quickly and effectively cope with an unfamiliar hall, lighting, acoustics, piano action, audience, noises - myriad "obstacles" that can energize someone filled with a sense of, and comfort level with, adventure.

The development of my own courage and decision-making also resulted from witnessing the dangers and adventures that my father faced in Mozambique. I saw him risking his life to save the lives of two men. He would not think twice about doing what was right, regardless of the consequences.

When I was twelve years old, we returned to Lisbon from Mozambique; at that time my mother enrolled me to study at the National Conservatory of Music. I obeyed with trepidation, because I felt that the piano would take over my life. I began my serious piano studies at that time.

At age sixteen I had committed my heart and soul to the art of piano playing. My father became worried about my future and talked to me in earnest about it. He believed that I should go into the diplomatic service. I was moved by his concerns, but said to him that I would take full responsibility for pursuing my goal of a life in music, regardless of the outcome. That talk has remained deep in my consciousness, and I admire him for not bringing up the subject again.

Your work with Winfried Wolf of course places you only three musical generations away from Liszt because of his studies with Liszt's student, Emil von Sauer. Your studies with Philipp, because he studied with Georges Mathias, place you only three generations removed from Chopin. How was the teaching style of Philipp different from Wolf, and what were the differences in their approaches to Romantic traditions?

Teacher-trees are important, because they reveal generations of great teachers' and pianists' performing art experience. Winfried Wolf was an important teacher of German Romanticism. I am grateful for what he taught me. I learned through his teaching how the Romantic piano literature was understood and heard through Germanic eyes and ears, and how the piano was to respond to it in sound, structure, and projection.

Philipp did not begin our lessons by coaching me on how to play pieces. Instead, he guided me to a deeper understanding of how to play the piano - how to control and create its sonorities, resonances, vibrations, and the use of pedal. It astonished me how my sound became my own voice, my musical personality, and my creative spirit.

In the Romantic tradition, the piano was understood to be a singing instrument, not a percussive one. Pianists were expected to play with a personal sound, and to use that sound to express music in a personal way. To be able to play cantabile as divas sang was a trademark of greatness. Philipp taught me to know my hands and fingers better than I had ever experienced. He taught me more than about the hands, but it became clear to me that the miraculous hands we are born with, being the point of contact with the keyboard, and consequently the sound, had to be trained in depth. Philipp's teaching opened a new world to me and deepened my relationship with the piano. After that phase of work, we began the study of repertoire, beginning with the Mozart Concerto in F, K. 459.

Because of my curiosity about artistic backgrounds and influences, I occasionally played the same works for teachers of different cultural roots to learn from their reactions. Their ideas were contradictory at times, though based on sincerity and conviction. It was an extremely valuable lesson to see how performance is transformed into an art of many possibilities. This is the way it should be, because the art of music invites strong convictions; but, on the other hand, it is also an elusive and fascinating imprint of human imagination and experience that continuously seeks new perceptions. Art cannot be right or wrong. It can only be good or bad, which demands for its training and knowledge an orientation unlike the one required for a scientific or scholarly education.

You have mentioned a few key points that you believe have led you toward your musical, pedagogical, and general life ideas. Your upbringing and career are obviously very different from the norm, but your reactions provide an opportunity from which all can learn. You have said that piano teachers are more than that, including tutors about life itself. Can you summarize general advice for other piano teachers and students based on your experiences?

Each individual has different life experiences that result in different convictions. Ideally, we should not force our ideas about performance on our students, because it is extremely important that they be guided to learn how to learn. To teach a student to become a replica of the teacher is a great disservice to the student. We must accept that we are all limited to what we have learned and have become through the process of our own development. Students must be guided toward a high level and clear understanding of technical development. Students who are not taught to pursue this objective, or simply are not interested in it, will not be capable of developing their personal musical voices and ideas.

Since technical development is primarily measured by time and speed, it is a simple way to evaluate progress for a student. However, relaxation must be understood before the student begins to exert extra effort in pushing for more sound or more velocity. Students must understand that relaxation simply means that the energy coming from the muscles, and movement, must flow freely to the fingertips. If the muscles tighten up, the student must learn to recognize it, because that is what causes tension. The energy must always flow freely, even when playing fast and loud passages. But the students have to be reminded, repeatedly, that performance relaxation does not mean lack of energy, it means free flowing energy that is never blocked anywhere.

My mother exposed me to a rich cultural environment. She always nurtured my natural instincts, and first took me to the Sao Carlos National Opera House when I was five years old. Students should hear professional performances often and early in life.

I had teachers who were not afraid to take chances; teachers who were not too concerned about the path that would be easiest at making them "look good," rather, what choices would be the most enriching developmental experiences for the student. My teacher at the National Conservatory of Music in Lisbon, Lucio Mendes, told me that I had to do something of importance to launch my career. He asked me to choose from among the entire output of Chopin or Schumann, the 32 Beethoven Sonatas, or the Well-Tempered Clavier of J.S. Bach. I was astonished to hear what he thought I was capable of doing, but accepted the challenge to perform the "32." I marvel at my teacher's courage. Most teachers would be afraid to accept such responsibility.

I was fortunate that all of my teachers protected my own musical nature, in spite of the wide differences in their backgrounds and nationalities. Not one tried to shape me into his musical point of view. I try to offer the same type of relationship to my students.

Perhaps I should say that the same principles apply to my marriage with Nelita True. We do not interfere, advise, interrupt, suggest, or criticize each other. We each respect the other's artistic integrity and background. And we gain from our diversity, because it stimulates and enriches us.