Charlotte Selver
Charlotte Selver

The World Opened Up for Me

A conversation with Sophia Rosoff

New York City, June 15, 2008

At age 87, Sophia is still active and sought after as a piano teacher. She took the first workshop with Charlotte in 1948, which makes her the earliest student I have been able to interview to date. Here she talks about how she met Charlotte and what working with her meant for her piano playing and teaching. (In this excerpt, you will hear Sophia say she met Charlotte in 1968. This error was corrected later in the interview.)

Listen to the excerpt

SR:  The first time I went to Charlotte I went because I had had a piano teacher who was a great pianist.  She got me to New York because she heard me play.  And I was about nineteen years old then.  But she didn’t really know how to teach; she knew how to play.  But I was her only student and I lived with her.  And she was just so – everything was so tight, and my joints got so tight, and I just couldn’t get free.  And then one day I was accompanying Artie Shaw – I don’t know if you know who he is.

SLG:  Oh yes.

SR:  He was a friend, and I was accompanying him.  We playing doing Schubert. And I said afterwards, “Artie, you know, my playing feels terrible.”  And he said, “It sounds all right, but what’s the trouble?”  I said, “My joints are all locked.”  So he said, “I’m going to see Morton Gould for dinner tonight, and I hear he’s got a genius of a teacher.  So if you promise you’ll call tomorrow, I’ll get the number for you.”  So that was Abby Whiteside (??), and he got the number for me, and I called her the next day.  And I got my playing back, and the skies opened up, but she said, “You know, you’re right. Your joints are tight.  You should see someone.”  And Miriam Gideon was going to Charlotte.  She’s a composer.  Charlotte loved her.  She was great.  She died a few years ago.  But so she said, “Come with me to see Charlotte Selver.”  And I went.  And Charlotte was saying, “How do you feel insidely?” and how is this, and the answers sounded so funny.  I thought “Everybody’s crazy!”  (Both laugh)  And I didn’t really know what they were talking about.  But something caught my attention, and I went back, and pretty soon I got it.  And the world opened up for me.  Everything changed.  I was married at the time.  I had a child.  My husband was a great man.  My child was wonderful, and nothing wrong with him.  But my piano had been stuck, and I just couldn’t play the way I used to.  And I kept thinking to myself, “I can’t stand this anymore.  Is this the way it’s gotta be forever?”  And then when Charlotte took hold, all the magic came in.  And I would hear music; I would hear particularly the low sounds I would hear as I’d never heard them before, and I’d listen to Toscanini and it was a miracle.  And I was terribly shy, and I found myself standing behind a man at a drugstore and he was paying his bill, and I was right behind him.  And they said the bill is 3 O whatever, it was $3.04, and he started fusing around in his pocket.  And I heard myself – I didn’t know him – I heard myself saying, “I’ve got four cents.”  And everything changed.  So that was the beginning – that was 1968 I think [it was in fact in 1948].  And I’ve been with her ever since.  And then when she went to California I was terribly upset, but I went to Carola Speads.

SLG:  Oh you did.

SR: I did.  Go to Carola.  Because I’d miss the work.  And Carola was very different.

SLG:  Yes.

SR:  But she was – uh, you know, she was a physical therapist and it was more.  It was wonderful work.  It wasn’t the magic work.  It wasn’t just finding out what was it your own self wanted to do.  That was new to me.  And that really is the basis – well, Abby Whiteside, who was my genius of a piano teacher is the basis, but Charlotte is there all the time.  The way she experienced things is how I experience them at the piano since working with her.  And that’s how I work with my students.

SLG:  Oh, wonderful.

SR:  I just – I don’t really teach them.  I sit there and I clear the – help them clear the tracks, so that what they feel and what they personally have to say about the music can come through.

SLG:  How do you do that?  Clear the tracks.  How do you . . .

SR:  Just get rid of the things that are taught at the conservatories.  Exercises – I don’t do exercises.  I don’t do anything mechanical.  It’s all connected with music.  And for me it’s very important that they find their emotional connection, which gives them the rhythm with which to move.  How they’re feeling.  But this all comes out of Charlotte’s work.  It’s been one of the most important things in my whole life.  The piano has been there all them time, and it’s terribly important.  So it really translates itself into the way I work at the piano.  But that was Charlotte.  And oh God, she was so funny.  Because we had another one of those small classes, and when we were coming to standing, she said, “Who felt they could come up easily?”  And my hand shot up.  So later she said, “Sophia, you weren’t really telling the truth.”  (Both laugh)  And I said – I thought for a minute and I said, “Well maybe you’re right, Charlotte, but it certainly felt better than it’s felt before.”  But I’ll tell you the thing that she really taught me was really don’t make talk.  Just say what you honestly experience.  And that’s helped me in my teaching too.  And knowing what my students honestly experience.  That’s a very important part of my work.  Then Charlotte and I did a workshop at NYU, Charlotte did the sensing and I did the music.  And I was scared to death.  There were 250 strangers.  I didn’t know what I was going to say.  I just was terrified.  And Charlotte looked at me and she said, “Sophia,” there was a terrace there, and she said, “come outside with me.”  She said, “What a beautiful day.  Just be yourself.”  So she did her part and I did my part, and afterwards we had a meeting and, I’ll never forget this, she said, “Sophia, I wish my students would learn to talk in their own voice.”  And I use that, and I thought immediately, “I want people to play music in their own connection with it.”  Not in anybody else’s.  Not to superimpose what even the editor has written on the page.  How do they feel about it.  That’s clearing the tracks too so they can get to it.  But that’s – that’s Charlotte’s work.


Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book Project
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