Thanksgiving for Sophia Rosoff

I started studying with Sophia Rosoff in 1996. It was a deep immersion. By November of that year I felt close enough to call her and wish her a happy Thanksgiving. She was devastated, for her husband Noah had passed the day before.

Sophia was a mystical creature. It only makes sense that she waited until exactly the same day Noah died, the day before Thanksgiving, to move on herself. She was 96.

The news is sad but also such a relief.  For a few years Sophia had been battling various health woes.  Still, she dispensed invaluable advice until the end, I’d hear tell of new students being stunned by her insight until just recently.

I was close to Sophia, For a time I was very close. When I started to write about music around 2005 I naturally thought about trying to profile my favorite teacher, but it didn’t feel quite right. Thankfully, my wife Sarah Deming took up the challenge and crafted a memorable essay that was printed in The Threepenny Review and found an online home here on DTM.

After I dropped out of college in 1993, I knew I should keep studying. I always liked Fred Hersch’s playing, especially that marvelous album Sarabande with Charlie Haden and Joey Baron, so I went to one of Fred’s gigs and got his number. Fred was the first person to show me anything about how to touch the piano, how to physically connect with what is essentially a block of wood. I worked hard with Fred. I was playing jazz but also found him extremely helpful when I brought in little European Classical pieces. At one point, at Fred’s suggestion, I played the first movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto not just in the given key of F major but in the keys of A major and D-flat major. He told me he got that invaluable exercise from Sophia Rosoff, and in time he sent me along to her. (Fred writes more about Sophia in his recent memoir, Good Things Happen Slowly.)

At the first lesson with Sophia I played Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in A Minor (BWV 944) (not a great piece but good for the chops) and Chopin’s easy Nocturne in B. By the end of the lesson I was in love. Sophia’s understanding of music seemed positively unearthly. Soon I was one of the close group of students who met every week to play for each other. I heard staples of the repertoire like Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy and Schumann’s Abegg Variations for the first time in a small room at the Diller-Quaile School of Music. This taught me there was no need to find a “best” recording of that canon. If you could just hear anyone play the pieces live, the message was legible.

Jazz musicians responded to Sophia because her emphasis was on rhythm. “Basic Emotional Rhythm” were her watchwords. In European Classical music you don’t play with a steady beat, and for jazzers that kind of perspective can be hard to learn. Sophia broke the music down into big beats so your heart and ear could follow the large-scale development of the sounds. She loved “outlining,” which in some ways bears a relationship to the wonderful theoretical work of Heinrich Schenker.

As a performer, it is your responsibility to project the emotional rhythm of any given composition even before you begin playing. I have never started a Bach or Chopin piece better than in Sophia’s apartment after her careful coaching. If I could play like that all the time, I’d be one of the greats.

Sophia was a Polish Jew. She moved to New York just in time to hear Rachmaninoff play in person. One of the most revealing lessons I had with her was on a group of Chopin mazurkas. She said, “Well, you have to figure out where you stamp your foot,” as if this was the most obvious thing in the world. According to Sophia, on some mazurkas you stamp on the second beat, on some the third. (Never on the downbeat, of course, that would make it a waltz.) Practical advice on how to create the right “feel” in European Classical music is usually hard to come by, but Sophia always had answers.

Sophia was also possessed of discerning genius in regards to piano technique. Her master was Abby Whiteside, and in fact Whiteside’s celebrated book Mastering the Chopin Etudes was prepared posthumously by Sophia and Joseph Prostakoff. The point is not use just the fingers to play the piano: One must use the big muscles to move the little ones. I know several pianists who were in pain before they worked with Sophia. Afterwards they had a new life at the keyboard.

Whiteside’s approach to technique shares much in common with that of Dorothy Taubman. These two powerful midcentury piano gurus didn’t like or learn from each other. As someone who has spent multiple years with disciples of both Whiteside and Taubman (my current teacher is John Bloomfield), I now think Whiteside understood the big picture best and Taubman understood the tiny final technical details best. However, either Whiteside or Taubman is an invaluable alternative to the old conservatory way of teaching of Carl Czerny and so many others, where you train your fingers to do the heavy lifting separately from the rest of the hard, arm, torso, back, and seat.

Sophia was a wonderful storyteller. In her heyday, New York City was a smaller town, and she met and heard everybody. Among other connections, her counterpoint teacher at Hunter College was Louise Talma. I myself met Talma shortly before she died in 1996  and was always interested in her music. Eventually I would help organize a concert of Talma, Vivian Fine, and Miriam Gideon at Weill Recital Hall with several fellow Rosoff students, John Kamitsuka, Hiroko Sasaki, Jeffrey Farrington, Gregg Kallor, and Jeremy Siskind. Talma, Fine, and Gideon were all Sophia’s friends and this concert had special meaning for everyone involved. (More recently I recorded the Fine and Gideon pieces for one of DTM’s academic essays.)

At the time of the concert I had been a diehard Rosoff student for over a decade, and sort of knew this was the “graduation exam.” Since then I have been much less in touch with Sophia and her circle, even though I always loved hearing about new students falling under her spell. A lot of the best younger jazz pianists have taken a lesson or two with Sophia, and a few like Mike Kanan and Jacob Sacks became noted emissaries of the Whiteside/Rosoff philosophy. I don’t think I can take all the credit for the mass pilgrimage to the apartment on 83rd street — in addition to Fred Hersch, Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan, and Walter Bishop Jr. all consulted with Sophia (incredibly, even Ran Blake was a recent student!)  — but I got there before most. If anyone asked me after 1995 about what I knew about music or what to study, I would always talk about Sophia Rosoff.

And now that she is gone, I will keep talking about Sophia Rosoff. Indeed, as is often the case, the passing of a great person brings their greatness into new focus. She was a rare and special soul, and everyone who knew her gives thanks.