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May 16, 2008

Renaissance Man: The Piano Teacher

Bosendorfer piano


Conde Nast Traveler stuntman Mark Schatzker is on a mad quest to make himself into a modern-day Da Vinci during a month's stay in Europe. So far, Mark has "mastered" golf in Scotland, "excelled" at gardening in England, and "ruled" the kitchens of Paris. His next task: playing the piano in Vienna.

Everybody, meet Albert Frantz.

When Albert was in kindergarten, his mother went to pick him up one day and the teacher asked, "Where did Albert learn to play piano?" It was a strange question, considering that Albert was five and the only thing in his life that he had truly mastered was using the potty. And yet, when the principal would play something on the school's battered yellow upright piano, Albert would head on over, sit down at the bench, and play back what she played.

His parents, naturally, arranged for lessons. After Albert's first-ever lesson, his brother slammed Albert's fingers in a car door. (It was claimed to have been an accident.) That ended that. There was another round of lessons, and on his way to his second one the car was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer. (No serious injuries.) Despite the obvious Gypsy curse that had been placed on their son's piano prospects, Albert's parents found a third teacher. Among her many unexpected qualities, this teacher possessed the gift of frankness. She told Albert's parents that they should take the money they were paying for piano lessons each week and just throw it in the garbage because Albert Frantz was never going to play the piano.

Albert Franz
Albert Frantz.

And he never did. Not until the age of 17, when a friend started playing jazz guitar. Duly inspired, Albert decided to take a piano lesson, and in the course of a few hours he fell in love with the Gershwin songbook. Two months later, Albert announced to his teacher that he was going to play Rhapsody in Blue, which is kind of like a beginner Latin student announcing that he is going to translate Virgil's Aeneid. The teacher lectured Albert. The teacher told Albert this was a big, serious concert piece, one that it took years of training and practice to master. And yet, less than a year later, Albert played Rhapsody in Blue. In front of a live audience. They gave him a standing ovation.

Fast forward some 15 years. Albert is living in Vienna, the pulsating epicenter of classical music. He's been here since 1998, after winning a Fulbright scholarship. Simply put, he's in the minor leagues, a solid triple-A prospect. He hasn't hit the big time yet--he doesn't get flown around the world to play concertos with symphonies, lap up the rapture, then fly out the next morning--but one day he just might. He's still learning. He's been studying with luminaries like Paul Badura-Skoda and Roland Batik. (Pianists all have brainy Old World-sounding names. This is one of the few aspects of classical that bodes well for me.) He also teaches. Some of his students come from as far away as Japan and South Korea. Others are local Austrians.

His most recent student has traveled all the way from Canada, but not before playing golf, gardening, and cooking for five days--or was it eating for five days?--in Paris. We spent most of the first lesson  talking about the philosophy of music, about how the mind hears music and how the body attempts to reproduce it. He told me that modern audiences have a fetish with theatricality, and so a lot of modern pianists like to wave their arms around in an attempt to look passionate and brilliant all at the same time, and that this is leading to bad-sounding music.

The "Renaissance Man" demonstrates the theme song to "The Sting."

We talked a bit about music theory, too, that the inversion of a major sixth is a minor third, that the A above middle C vibrates at 440 Hz, although the Viennese like to tune it just a tad higher. (Those wild and crazy guys.) I came to the abrupt realization that in a funny way, music is just math you can hear.

It was my turn. I sat down on the bench, placed my hands on the keyboard of a $280,000 Bosendorfer. I fought my way through the first few bars of Franz Schubert's third Moment Musicaux, left hand only. It's a simple run of notes, the musical equivalent, you might say, of two plus two. The only problem is that when played by me, it did not add up to four.

<< Why the Piano Tops the Tapeworm | The Vienna Philharmonic Gets Ugly >>


Great article, I'm really enjoying your blog.

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