The Promise of The Stecher and Horowitz Foundation
Music Teachers National Association
January 14, 2012
By James Litzelman

In the community of piano teachers, one would be hard pressed to find two people who are more committed or passionate about nurturing young talented pianists than Melvin Stecher and Norman Horowitz.

Through their 60-year careers, these two men have become synonymous with the best our profession has to offer, and significantly, they have achieved this in large part by their endeavors in educating young people. Indeed, one could argue they have done more to foster the development of young pianists than anyone of their generation. Through the New York International Piano Competition they founded, which is part of the Stecher and Horowitz Foundation, they are providing a unique opportunity for future artists to develop their craft in ways that are very different from the traditional piano competition.

Many readers will be familiar with Stecher and Horowitz as an internationally acclaimed piano duo who began performing in 1951. As one of the leading piano-duos of its time, Stecher and Horowitz performed for almost 50 years, delighting audiences worldwide with their innovative and imaginative programming. Some readers will be familiar with the Stecher and Horowitz Piano Library, a comprehensive teaching series published by G. Schirmer. Indeed, Stecher and Horowitz served as educational consultants for G. Schirmer for many years, producing numerous fine pedagogical volumes for pianists. Other readers will be familiar with Stecher and Horowitz through their “fourth career”-the New York International Piano Competition.

But how many of us know them as the committed and passionate educators that they are? In a recent phone conversation I had with Stecher and Horowitz, it became even clearer to me how decidedly passionate they are about the education and training of young people. Their name recognition and international reputations make them particularly qualified to be able to make a real difference in the profession. And given the success and rising stature of the New York International Piano Competition, it appears they are succeeding wonderfully in their fourth career.

To appreciate the depth of their commitment to education, one needs to go back to around 1960. At this time Stecher and Horowitz were heavily immersed in their performing careers, traveling worldwide and receiving international acclaim for their duo-piano concerts, as arrested by a Newsweek magazine feature article in 1960. While touring in Costa Rica, Stecher became ill, and they realized the necessity of establishing other professional activities in case they weren’t able to tour as a piano duo. Fortunately, that never happened, and the Stecher and Horowitz Duo continued performing throughout much of the world for almost five decades!

Turning to educational endeavors was the obvious choice, as both of them had already worked as music counselors at summer camps and particularly enjoyed their interactions with young musicians. Their performances across the United States allowed them to meet many local music teachers, and they became keenly aware of the necessity of improving music educational standards in this country. Consequently, a music school was immediately seen as the most viable way of effecting these changes. But where and how could they begin this endeavor?

In December 1959, a builder informed them of an old farmhouse in Cedarhurst, New York, that he was going to tear down to build two new homes. Stecher and Horowitz persuaded the builder to show them the property as they thought it might be a possible venue for housing the community music school of music they were eager to start. They were able to persuade the builder to sell them the property and succeeded in getting him to serve as general contractor for the necessary renovations to the building. (This gives us an idea of how persuasive these gentlemen can be, and, I believe, has played a significant role in their continued success and longevity in such a competitive field).

In January 1960, Stecher and Horowitz purchased the property for $10,500, completed renovations on the house by June of that year, and in September 1960, they opened the Stecher and Horowitz School of Music with 40 students. Three years later saw the first expansion of the school, and in September 1963, they began the academic year with 110 enrolled students. In 1975, the Stecher and Horowitz School of Music became a non-profit foundation and the name was permanently changed to the Stecher and Horowitz School of the Arts. Before being closed in 1999 to make the transition to the Stecher and Horowitz Foundation in New York City, the school was to see two more expansions-in 1988 and again in 1993, having a faculty of 25-30 members, with more than 15,000 students attending the school during its 39 year history. That in itself is an amazing accomplishment.

When Stecher and Horowitz first opened their music school in 1960, there seemed to be a real hunger for these kinds of community schools. There were other such schools at the time, to be sure, but Stecher and Horowitz were especially interested in creating an environment that would enable students to develop a lifelong commitment to music. Doing this meant they had to find teachers who shared their commitment to education.

They found that hiring qualified and effective teachers was quite a difficult task, as most people at that time believed that if they had had piano lessons as a child, they were qualified to teach. Despite the many advances that piano pedagogy programs throughout the country have afforded our profession over the last 30 years, Stecher and Horowitz believe there continues to be those who think they’re qualified to teach piano simply because of their childhood lessons. Sadly, perhaps some things will never change.

To get an idea of their commitment to finding appropriately qualified teachers, Stecher and Horowitz interviewed 15-20 candidates for each piano teacher they hired. They frequently found the younger teachers/pianists ultimately made the best teachers, as these people were eager to learn the art of teaching, and, perhaps more importantly, were young enough to be able to adapt their approach to teaching and learn from the experience of Stecher and Horowitz.

By starting the music school they were not only training the young people, but also serving as a kind of pedagogy institute for the teachers who taught there and, in the process, helping to raise the standards of the independent music teacher. Stecher and Horowitz said another important reason for starting the school was to get teachers to join MTNA, attend workshops and conferences and, thereby, improve their credentials as teachers.

In 1960, perhaps the most widely used piano method was John Thompson’s, and while many fine pianists have undoubtedly received their early training through the John Thompson method, it is to the credit of Stecher and Horowitz that they realized the need for higher quality pedagogical resources. And of course, this is long before piano pedagogy programs were in existence. With the typical methods of the day offering little, if any, instruction in sight-reading, music theory and ear training, Stecher and Horowitz searched for better materials to educate the young people in their school. Finding precious few, they began to create their own resources, and this was part of the impetus for the numerous pedagogical materials in the Stecher and Horowitz Piano Library published by G. Schirmer.

In time, this led to the development of a comprehensive curriculum that encompassed six or seven years of piano study, complete with 60-70 repertoire pieces at each level from which the teacher could choose appropriate repertoire for their students. From the initial stages of the school, students had separate theory classes two times per month and were required to perform at three recitals each year, with all music being memorized. Additionally, Stecher and Horowitz conducted twice-yearly examinations in scales for all of the students, and those examinations were administered by Stecher and Horowitz themselves.

One may wonder how they found the time to be so intimately involved with the day-to-day operations of the school with such a busy touring schedule. Their management agency, Columbia Artists, was very cooperative in this regard, and touring was arranged around the demands of the school. This meant spending holidays on the road-Christmas and Easter breaks, for example-so they could limit the amount of time they were away from the school. When on the road performing, Stecher and Horowitz would often drive all night to get from one city to another for the next concert, with one sleeping and the other driving. Regardless of what was happening on the road, they called the school every evening at 6:00 P.M. to check in on the day’s events. Three times each year, Stecher and Horowitz arranged their touring schedule so that they could be present at the school for two weeks prior to student recitals in order to personally hear each and every student. Parents of the students enrolled in the school received written progress reports three times each year, keeping them appraised of their child’s development.

In the 1970s, students often had a commitment to music study that lasted many years, and Stecher and Horowitz said they regularly had students who attended their school for eight to 10 years, with many of them returning in the summers to take refresher courses. But by the late 1990s, as students became more involved with other activities, it became apparent that Stecher and Horowitz would need to move on to the next chapter to continue their commitment to educating young people.

They realized the next logical outgrowth of the school of the arts was to find a way to mentor young pianists and provide them with extra-musical skills that could greatly enhance their chances of succeeding in this business. We all know that developing a career as a classical pianist requires many things. While first-rate training is certainly a pre-requisite, that alone cannot even begin to ensure a successful performing career. For that, one needs much more than a good pedigree, as legions of would-be concert pianists can attest. To make it in this highly competitive world, one needs many things in addition to great training- performance opportunities in important venues, contacts with important people in the business and a certain amount of knowledge about how the business works are just a few things that come to mind. Music schools and conservatories have always done, and continue to do, a wonderful job providing the necessary musical and pianistic skills to young pianists. But I believe many of these same schools fall woefully short in providing their students with the business acumen necessary to succeed in this field.

Stecher and Horowitz embarked on what they refer to as their fourth career, and moved the foundation to New York City, establishing the New York International Piano Competition in 2002, open to pianists of all nationalities, ages 16-21. Stecher and Horowitz found the perfect vehicle to further their mission of educating young musicians, and it is through their flagship program-this unique biennial piano competition-that they have been able to continue their mentoring and development of outstanding young pianists from around the world.

In these times when piano competitions proliferate, it is important to understand the unique character of this piano competition. As the focus and mission of the Stecher and Horowitz Foundation is not merely to discover remarkable young pianistic talent but to mentor these young people, it was necessary for them to come up with a competition structure that would enable them to realize their vision. When the decision was made to close the Stecher and Horowitz School of the Arts, the two men spent a full year and a half researching and evaluating every piano competition that they could find. They were interested in devising a structure that was not only different from every other piano competition, but one that could benefit young pianists in ways that other competitions failed.

Consequently, they came up with a structure in which 22 pianists are invited to New York, and once there, no one is eliminated. This is a unique concept and, I believe, the only piano competition that follows this format. Once a young pianist is invited to New York to participate in the competition, he or she will play in all four rounds of the competition, and therefore benefit from all that the competition environment has to offer, regardless of the final results. In this sense, each and every competitor goes home a winner, because each one has the opportunity to perform multiple times, network with other young pianists, exchange valuable information about the field and cultivate a support system that will carry them through their pre-professional years and beyond. One could argue that the competition feels more like a festival because each contestant participates in seminars and master classes with some of the world’s great pianists and pedagogues who serve as jurors for the competition. This is a further example of the commitment that Stecher and Horowitz have toward providing artistic development for these young pianists.

Selecting the 22 candidates for such an event is obviously an important responsibility, and each student DVD submitted is listened to in its entirety and evaluated by three screening jurors in addition to Stecher and Horowitz. Normally, Stecher and Horowitz have listened to the DVD three or four times before evaluating them with the screening jurors. Once selected, pianists are required to perform the repertoire that was submitted on the application with the DVD, and no repertoire changes are permitted.

One of the more visible programs of the Foundation is the Documentary series, consisting of three documentaries – Speaking With Music, Beyond the Practice Room and On a Personal Note – that have aired on PBS stations numerous times. Each of these documentaries tells a story about what it means to get to the competition and goes to the inner core of who the performer really is.

I have long felt that one of the greatest rewards of being a teacher is the opportunity the teacher has to make a difference in a student’s life. I’m sure each of us has at least one teacher in our past-music or otherwise- who seemed to take a special interest in us and really made a difference in our lives. Perhaps the commitment Stecher and Horowitz have to teaching and educating young musicians can be best summarized by two things they said in an interview for this article: 1) Even when they had more than 400 students at their school, each student, regardless of who their teacher was, was also a student of Stecher and Horowitz. Once the student came in the door, they believed it was their responsibility and obligation to nurture that student and to keep him interested in music. And 2) They never gave up on anyone. Sometimes a student who struggled in the first three or four years would suddenly blossom and excel in the fifth year. If only we all that kind of commitment to our students.

What an astounding gift that Melvin Stecher and Norman Horowitz have given to their many, many students throughout the last 50-plus years. That gift continues through their tireless devotion to mentoring and helping young pianists with the New York International Piano Competition. Bravo to Stecher and Horowitz!