The Emotional Rhythm of Sophia Rosoff (by Sarah Deming)

Originally published in a shorter form in The Threepenny Review, Spring 2011

After hours at Klavierhaus, in a room behind the gallery of showpiece Steinways, Sophia Rosoff is teaching class. Nine of her students are here, amateurs and professionals alike, ranging in age from 20 to 80. Rosoff sits quietly while they play, head cocked, eyes huge, seeming to receive the music with her whole body. She never interrupts nor offers corrections. Technical perfection is of little interest to her; like her mentor Abby Whiteside, Rosoff deals in rhythm.

“Show Barry how we are learning fugues now,” she tells her student Fiona, who has just played a Bach prelude.

Fiona closes the cover over the keys. “This is soprano, alto, tenor, and bass,” she explains, showing us her hands and her feet. She taps out the rhythm of the first two voices with her hands. When the third voice enters, she stomps it out on the floor.

Like all Rosoff’s set-ups, this way of learning a fugue puts rhythm first, drawing focus away from peripheral concerns of fingers and notes. Students who walk into Rosoff’s book-filled Upper East Side apartment expecting a traditional piano lesson are in for a surprise. Depending on the day, she may have them balance eggs on a china plate, walk across the room like Groucho Marx, or dance and sing their Chopin mazurka.


“I don’t teach,” says Rosoff. “I explore. I clear the tracks so the feeling the student has for the music can emerge.”

After Fiona, the elder statesman Barry Harris takes the piano. He settles down onto the bench, which Rosoff adjusts to encourage connection to the instrument and balance on the sitting bones. The room fills with the sweet sound of his waltz “To Duke With Love.” Widely considered one of the greatest living bebop players, Harris is one of a long list of successful jazz players to have studied with Rosoff, including Fred Hersch, Walter Bishop, Jr., Michael Kanan, and my husband Ethan Iverson, who first introduced her to me as, “The marvelous Sophia, my white witch.”

“No fingers!” Harris announces at the end of the waltz. “I am a firm believer in Abby Whiteside, and I know you don’t play with your fingers. You play with your butt, your feet, your toes.” He shows us his forearms. “You know how sometimes you get pain here? Since I’ve been doing this, no pain. Believe it.”

Michael Kanan is another believer. The jazz pianist and vocal accompanist for singers Jane Monheit and Jimmy Scott came to Rosoff with an excruciating, twenty-year case of tendonitis. “When I walked in the door the first time,” he recalls, “Sophia didn’t say hello. She just looked at my arms and said, ‘It’s worse on the left side, isn’t it?’” After the first lesson, sixty percent of his pain was gone. His eyes fill with tears as he says, “My musical life can be divided into two parts: before Sophia and after. It’s like, come for the pain reduction, stay for the enlightenment.”

Rosoff had a long road to that book-filled, Upper East Side apartment. Born in 1921 in the small town of Amsterdam, NY, she was the third of six children to shopkeepers William and Anna Greenspan. The Greenspans were not a musical family, and Rosoff’s first sight of a piano came at age eight. “I knew right away, ‘I can play that,’” she recalls, “I signed up for lessons at school even though we didn’t own a piano, and my teacher never knew because I would practice on the little paper keyboard that came inside the music book. I woke up every morning at six, put the keyboard outside my parents’ bedroom, and sang and danced my lessons.” After a year of dawn recitals, the Greenspans broke down and bought their daughter a piano.

Young Sophia (whose name is pronounced So-FIE-uh) soon became known as a local talent. After graduating from high school at age fifteen, she stayed briefly with cousins in New York City and took lessons at Juilliard, but her parents were nervous and called her back home. “My father didn’t like the idea of me performing in public,” she recalls. “He wanted me to stay at home and be a writer.” She returned reluctantly to Amsterdam, where she passed the time playing benefit concerts and writing for her high school newspaper. (The paper also featured the column “Backstage With Izzy” by her neighbor Izzy Demsky, later known as Kirk Douglas.)

Rosoff briefly considered marrying the one local bachelor who owned a Steinway. Her life might have been very different had her ninety-year-old friend, Dr. Julius Schiller, not driven her through a blizzard to hear the famous pianist Ray Lev in nearby Gloversville. After her concert, Lev listened to the eighteen-year-old Rosoff play a Schubert Impromptu. “You belong in New York City,” she declared.

Rosoff started saving her babysitting money. Six months later, she had $500 and announced her intention to take the train to New York City the next day. Her father had a fit, but her mother understood.

“I called Ray Lev from a payphone at Grand Central,” she says. “I was so scared she wouldn’t remember who I was, but when I said, ‘Ray, I’m here,’ she said, ‘Great. I’m playing a concert at the Metropolitan Museum tonight. You can turn pages.’” Soon Rosoff was moving into Lev’s suite at the Spencer Arms, a residence hotel on 69th and Broadway. The day she moved in, Rosoff remembers standing outside the door, rapt, as Lev played Chopin’s Piano Sonata no. 2.  She waited until the end of the piece to knock.

“Ray answered the door completely naked except for black stockings that tied at the knee. I was so shocked I didn’t know whether to run or to stay. Ray told me, ‘I’m so sorry. I forgot to tell you I practice in the nude. You’ll have to get used to it.’”

Rosoff spent the war years living with Lev and completing her music degree at Hunter College. She taught referrals from Lev and, while her mentor toured, tended to her two Steinway grands and smooth-haired fox terrier Puccini. “I had so much fun,” she recalls, “All the great artists would come to hear each other play in Carnegie Hall back then, and they were all so nice to me because I was Ray’s assistant. Everyone adored her.”

Lev had perfect pitch and photographic memory. In 1953, Rosoff remembers Lev being called as a last-minute substitute when pianist William Kapell was killed in a plane crash: “They called on a Sunday, asking if she knew the Hindemith Concerto, and she said, ‘No, when do you need it?’ They said, ‘Tuesday.’ She said, ‘Get me the music.’ I told her she was crazy. The music came at 2:30 and she sight read it, then gave me the music and played it through perfectly by memory. On Tuesday she played it at Carnegie Hall.”

Lev’s willingness to undertake such an eleventh-hour assignment speaks to how difficult it had become for her to find work.  Her outspoken leftism and public support of her friend Paul Robeson had led to her inclusion in the Red Channels blacklist of 1950, after which her manager dropped her and her concerts were boycotted. Although she was welcomed overseas, Lev’s career in America was ruined. She would commit suicide at the Spencer Arms in 1968.

Rosoff prefers to remember the good years, when Lev regularly sold out Carnegie Hall and entertained the likes of Isaac Stern, Leonard Bernstein, and Helen Keller. Rosoff still recalls the feel of Keller’s sensitive hands on her face and the way Keller listened to Lev play by laying her palms against the piano.

Of Paul Robeson, Rosoff says, “We tried to have lunch once, but I couldn’t find a restaurant that would give us a table. Finally I thought to call the Fleur de Lys across the street, and they said, ‘Of course.’ I had just seen him in Othello. [The 1943 production opposite Uta Hagen and Jose Ferrer, still the longest-running Shakespeare play on Broadway.]  I got to hold Paul Robeson’s hand. What enormous, warm hands he had.”

At a party at the house of Lev’s good friend Gertrude Berg, star of the Molly Goldberg Show, Rosoff met her future husband, Noah, a lawyer and confirmed bachelor fourteen years her senior. It was love at first sight, and the two were married on August 19, 1945, amid the general celebration following VJ Day. Their only son, Bill, came nine months and four days later, and was given the middle name “Lev” after his godmother Ray. When I ask if motherhood and marriage taught her anything new about the piano, Rosoff says sternly, “Music taught me about life, not the other way around.”

Noah’s charming young wife quickly became a favorite with his celebrity clients, including Sita Devi, the Maharani of Baroda; fashion designer Hubert Givenchy, and Artie Shaw, the notoriously suave clarinetist and bandleader. When Noah died in 1996, the eighty-six-year-old Shaw finally saw his chance. He called Rosoff and said, “If you hadn’t been married when we met, you would have saved my life.”

“Artie,” she replied, “you would have ruined mine.”

“We have twenty good years left,” said Shaw, “Let’s not waste them.”

“And what did you say?” I ask her.

She shrugs. “You’ll notice I didn’t move to California.”

Throughout their fifty-two years of marriage, the Rosoffs traveled frequently from New York to Paris, where Noah kept a second office on the Champs Elysée. During one of these trips, Rosoff got a call from her friend the Maharani of Baroda, who had received an invitation to call on Princess Grace of Monaco and wanted Rosoff to join.

“Princess Grace was a wonderful hostess,” says Rosoff. “She said to me, ‘I have a new Steinway and nobody has ever played it except Lenny Bernstein.’ I played her excepts from the Davidsbündlertänze of Schumann and a Scarlatti sonata. As we were leaving, I heard someone playing a Chopin étude next door. Grace said it was 
Artur Rubinstein, that their houses shared a connecting wall. I said, ‘It can’t be. He’s 94. Nobody can play that fast at 94.’ Then he stopped and corrected himself, and I knew it was he. Now I know that if you’re playing properly, remaining physically and emotionally available, you can play as long as you live.”

During her late twenties, however, Rosoff was increasingly uncomfortable at the piano. At a rehearsal in 1948, she complained to Artie Shaw that her joints were feeling tight. Shaw recommended she see his friend Morton Gould’s teacher, who was supposed to be a genius.

“I’ll never forget my first lesson with Abby Whiteside,” recalls Rosoff. “The skies opened up. I went back to when I was eight and what it felt like before the overlay of all those teachers teaching finger strength. It was good, though, that I had the experience of the bad teaching first, because now I know what my students are dealing with when they come to me in pain.”

Abby Whiteside had come to New York in 1922 and studied the performances of great artists of all genres, including the Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel and the great actress Sarah Bernhardt. The element they all shared, she concluded, was a basic emotional rhythm. When asked to define this rhythm, Rosoff cites Virginia Woolf’s famous letter to Vita Sackville-West:

Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it. (Letters 3: 247)

Whiteside observed that this continuous, horizontal rhythm was at odds with the way sound was generated at the piano through vertical depression of the keys. This placed the pianist at a certain disadvantage vis-à-vis string players or singers, whose means for generating sound (bowing, breathing) were more innately horizontal. Traditional instruction in finger strength worsened this problem, as did a note-wise, rather than aural, conception of music. Whiteside taught that the whole body plays the piano. The upper arms move, like the music, in a horizontal fashion, originating from the fulcrum on the seat.

“The only way that playing happens horizontally,” Rosoff explains, “is when they produce sound where the hammer hits the string, rather than pushing to the bottom of the key. The rebound is very important. The key comes back on its own if you stop pressing against it.”

Classical pianist and educator Robert Hallquist came to Rosoff in 1982 with a right thumb so overextended that by the end of a recital he could barely play an octave. “She didn’t even look at the thumb,” he recalls. “She went straight to being connected to what I was doing, in a way I’d never been taught before in ten years of conservatory and doctoral training. She had me do very simple things with the keyboard, tracing out patterns, and soon I was doing things I had never been able to do before. Then she looked down and said, ‘So what’s this problem with the thumb?’ It was simply remarkable. Sophia works with the way you perceive things, the way you see patterns, the way all of you works together to create a musical statement. It took me by storm.”

Abby Whiteside’s way of finding the music was to outline first. She had students play only selected notes of a piece, following the musical and rhythmic highlights.

“Outlining creates a musical statement that the composer heard,” Rosoff explains. “It gives you shape and direction, a sense of the whole, which is greater than the sum of its parts.” In order to coordinate breath with music, Rosoff expanded upon outlining by adding “rhythm talk,” in which the player speaks a repeated word such as “little.”

“It changed the way I feel rhythm in jazz,” says Michael Kanan. “For years I was struggling with trying to get a propulsive sense of swing. When I started doing rhythm talk, suddenly it felt much easier to play anything I wanted. She also had me dance, putting my feet on the first and third beat and my hands on the second and fourth. That has to do with big bands, because in early swing bands the bass would play on one and three and the piano, guitar and high hat would play on two and four. So you are representing the whole rhythm section. Then I would just hear the harmony in my head and sing the melody. I was representing the whole piece of music in my body, just by singing and dancing.”

The prominent jazz pianist and composer Fred Hersch has studied with Rosoff for thirty years. When asked to explain why Rosoff attracts so much jazz talent, Hersch says, “It’s the emphasis on rhythm. The classical players love her, but she is so different from what they’ve been trained in – fingers, strength, power. Also, Sophia has never been a self-promoter, never affiliated herself with a conservatory. She always stresses that it’s not a technique or a method. It’s all about connection.”

Hersch finds outlining particularly relevant to the jazz player, and he teaches it to his own students at the Juilliard School and the New England Conservatory of Music. “Jazz is outlining,” he says. “The chord changes are your outline. I tell my students that the changes are a glass bowl, transparent yet solid, and you can put rocks or water or goldfish in the bowl. It will look different depending on what you put in it, but it will not change its shape – just as the form of the tune will retain its essential characteristics. Sophia’s been an influence in terms of letting the student make a mess, letting them hang out in uncertainty for a while. There’s not one right way to outline, just as there’s not one right way to play ‘Autumn Leaves.’”

This comfort with uncertainty may be another secret to Rosoff’s success with jazz players, who must be open to the vulnerability and imperfection inherent in improvisation. The teacher, too, must improvise. Once Rosoff walked in on an argument Whiteside was having with a student.

“But last week you told me to play it that way!” he was protesting.

“Last week I thought that was right,” Whiteside retorted. “But this week I know better.”

In addition to informing her teaching philosophy, Whiteside also helped hone Rosoff’s natural gift for physical diagnosis. She sent Rosoff out to concerts, asking her to report back on what made them good or bad. To this day, going to a concert with Rosoff is an educational experience, as she sounds the alarm at any whiff of artificiality or disconnectedness. “Look how he’s leaning back from the piano,” she complains during a virtuosic Carnegie Hall recital. “Would he hold his child like that?” At the gig of a jazz legend, she shakes her head sadly: “He stops and starts too much.”

Whiteside, whose own work had been shaped by her studies with Ideokinesis founder Mabel Todd, recommended Rosoff do some movement work in order to get her joints free. Rosoff’s sister-in-law, the composer Miriam Gideon, was going to a class taught by Charlotte Selver, and Rosoff tagged along. Selver would become Rosoff’s second great mentor.

Selver (née Wittgenstein – the philosopher was a first cousin) taught classes at the New School in a modality called “Sensory Awareness,” an outgrowth of studies in her native Germany with Elsa Gindler and Heinrich Jacoby. Initially Rosoff was nonplussed by the scantily-clad students following Selver’s instructions to “come to sitting” and “come to standing” over and over again. “I thought they were crazy,” Rosoff says, laughing, “But I kept going back.”

Selver taught that freedom could be achieved through consciousness of what really was, without adding anything. Selver once said to Rosoff, “Sophia, I wish my students would learn to live in their voices.” To anyone familiar with mindfulness practices or gestalt-oriented psychotherapy, transcripts of Selver’s classes will seem simple almost to a fault, yet the work must have been astonishing in 1950, when body-mind approaches were not widely known. Selver influenced a whole generation of educators, artists, and psychoanalysts, including Erich Fromm, Fritz Perls, Shunryu Suzuki, and Alan Watts, who called Selver’s work “The Living Zen.” A typical moment, from a class in Los Angeles in 1961:

I would like you – very gently, very gently – to place the palms of both your hands on the upper part of the chest. Very gently. And you just feel what happens underneath your hands…And then you go very gently away – without disturbing the process, and see what you can feel without touching… Could you be so that you are not “doing” your breathing anymore, but that you allow yourself to be breathed?

By allowing the free play of sensation, Selver believed it was possible to transcend conditioning and reclaim the vitality of youth. She practiced what she preached, judging by her happy marriage, at age 100, to a sixty-year-old man. Rosoff studied with Selver for thirty-four years, until Selver’s death at age 102, and reports that “Charlotte’s last class, at 101, was the best she had ever taught. If she and Abby were alive today, I’d still be studying with them.”

After Whiteside’s death, Rosoff and her colleague Joseph Prostakoff wrote “Mastering the Chopin Études” based on a note Whiteside had sent Rosoff on Op. 10, no. 7.  They also founded the Whiteside Foundation, of which Rosoff is President, which sponsors a yearly concert series at Weill Recital Hall.

In 1970, Rosoff made the acquaintance of the psychic Joan Grant, author of the surreally beautiful bestseller Winged Pharaoh.  Rosoff and Grant became best friends, traveling together throughout England and Scotland, visiting haunted houses, working on Grant’s memoirs, and having improbable adventures. Grant left Rosoff a trunk of her unpublished writings, which Rosoff co-edited with Nicola Bennett and Jane Lahr and released in 2007 as Speaking from the Heart.

As an outgrowth of her work with Grant, Rosoff was asked to play on an early 70s BBC radio broadcast. The scratchy tape of the Satie, Chopin, and Beethoven she played that day documents a beautiful, singing sound and an undulating rhythm.

“When I play that tape for my students, they look at me differently,” Rosoff says. “Sometimes I feel sad that I stopped performing.” She speaks of an offer to play at the Champs-Elysée Theatre and of the two concert gowns her friend Hubert Givenchy made for her. “But Noah wasn’t well at that time,” she concludes, “and there are a lot of people who can play the piano but not a lot of teachers who love what they do and make a difference.”

It is getting late. All the students at Klavierhaus have had a turn, but Rosoff doesn’t want class to end. Like most great jazz musicians, Barry Harris showed up late, so he missed hearing her youngest student play.

“Would you like to play again, Jeremy?” she asks. “Let Barry hear you.”

“The Debussy?”

“The jazz.”

Jeremy Siskind goes back to the piano and reprises his deconstructed version of “Take Five.” Rosoff looks back and forth from her young protégé to her old friend, twinkling. At the end of the song, she asks Harris to play again, too.

“What should I play?”

“Play anything. Play ‘Liza.’”

Harris replies cryptically, “The last time I played that, someone came to the door.”

“Liza” was Noah Rosoff’s favorite song, and Harris would always play it when Noah came home during a lesson. A week after Noah’s death, when Harris was playing a Chopin étude, he and Rosoff heard a key turn in her lock. They looked at each other in disbelief, and Harris started playing “Liza.” Rosoff rushed to the door, but nobody was there.

Harris walks to the big Steinway and plays a haunting ballad that no one knows. When we ask what it is called, he changes the subject:

“I just bought a new piano. A Petrof. It sits way up high. I can hardly see the keys.”

“You don’t need your eyes,” Rosoff says. “Use your ears.”

“It really has a spring to it. You know how the keys come back naturally and you’re supposed to let them do that on their own? Well, this one really does that.”

“It has an accelerated action,” she says.

Then class is over, and I help her gather up the dark chocolate and homegrown cucumbers her students have brought her – everyone always gives Rosoff gifts; the Maharani of Baroda gave her 107 saris – and she lets me hold her hand as we walk out into the night.

Sarah Deming is an essayist and author of the children’s novel Iris, Messenger.  She blogs at The Spiral Staircase.

Sarah took the following photo of Sophia and Ethan in 2010.