Sometimes a huge setback can fuel your greatest success. After two surgeries on her hand, concert pianist Isabelle Jeannet was forced to put her performance career on hold. During this time, she intensely studied hand movements of many great piano masters. What she learned dramatically transformed her concept of playing piano, and formed the foundation of her current teaching method.
Today this native of Switzerland teaches advanced piano students and performs all around the world. She performs solo works, accompanies singers, and is a featured performer in chamber ensembles, choirs, and orchestras. Isabelle Jeannet shares with us her story and her secrets to turning any setback into success.
Our Interview with Isabelle Jeannet
What defines your teaching method with your advanced-level students?
1) It’s all in the hands. When you are watching Horowitz, Cartot or other great artists it always looks completely effortless and relaxed. In my playing or teaching, I have that ideal in mind. I concentrate a lot on relaxation. I combine flat and round fingers, and the thumb hangs below the keys when not being used. Playing a melody with flat fingers completely changes the sound.
2) Phrasing and expression. What we receive as a beautiful, rich sound often has to do with the lengths of a particular note, the breathing in between two or more notes, or a phrase and the freedom of a well-chosen rubato. The agogics are highly important to create a vibrant performance and it’s the instinct of a good teacher guiding a student here.
3) Focus on the whole person. Teaching my advanced-level students is the most fun, deep, close and emotional experience for me. I love creating an atmosphere of trust, which helps the student to bring out more of their abilities, their personality and also their fears. If something isn’t working in the playing, it’s always deeply connected with the whole person and I see myself there as more than “just” a piano teacher.
When did you start studying music? How did you know you wanted to be a concert pianist?
I got my first piano lesson at the age of eight. My parents would often listen to classical music and there was never a doubt that I would choose the piano as my favorite instrument.
I loved practicing but didn’t have a career as a wonder child, nor was I forced by anyone to sit at the piano. Everything I did, I always did out of free will. To become a pianist was a dream I had since I was a child. At the age of thirteen, I increased my practicing so I could enter the University at the age of seventeen.
What have you noticed about the differences in your audiences?
In Dubai people didn’t mind talking on their mobile phones while I was performing. Then I played in a jail and it was so emotionally intense you would have heard a pin drop. It depends very much on habits, social dynamics, environment, and country. It all matters.
What stays the same if I’m teaching or performing is the emotional language of the music that touches on the level of the heart. In general, any audience that is educated in classical music is usually listening with intention.
How do you manage your scheduling as a performer?
Until now I have done all the scheduling and booking on my own. As teaching has always been an important part of my work, I haven’t had room in my schedule for numerous concerts. The concerts I’ve played have largely come through personal connections. Also, when I’ve had the chance to meet somebody important, I also get the concert.
The recent economic downturn has changed the situation with agencies dramatically. We used to have a list for agencies all over Switzerland and about two thirds of them have completely vanished. I do believe in a good online presence today and I’m also convinced that I’ll find somebody helping me with the booking soon!
How can musicians eliminate distraction?
Playing classical music requires a lot of time. Classical music was composed at a time when people in general had less distraction in their lives. As our world gets faster and faster, I think it’s important to create islands of silence and freedom. I know how fast one can get lost by multimedia, etc.
What is your dream?
My vision as an artist is to “infect” my audience with my love for the classical music. It’s so important that this music be kept alive! I would love to show that classical music is something very sexy and passionate and to find ways to attract a younger audience.
I have a dream about a different furnished small hall with a touch of an elegant bar instead of a usual concert hall—a modern version of a saloon when Chopin used to play his works for the first time.
Inspiration for Good
Few things in this world are as inspiring as watching a concert pianist perform. Among her many influences, Isabelle Jeannet sites Alfred Cortot, Vladimir Horowitz, Clara Haskil, Martha Argerich, Joseph Hoffmann, Edwin Fischer, Claudio Arrau, and Peter Feuchtwanger, with whom she is also friends. She received her teaching and concert diplomas at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Bern.