When a Dream of Becoming a Great Pianist Ended, a Music Educator’s Life Began: How a Gifted Musician Found Her New Meaning in Life

Elena Berman

Owner & Director of Nelly Berman School of Music

(Bryn Mawr, PA)

Elena Berman, the owner and director of Nelly Berman School of Music (NBS) was the very first friend I made after moving to Philadelphia a little over a year ago.  I had a really rough time transitioning to our new city and she was there for me from the beginning.  She was one of the first people I thought of when coming up with the idea of Project: Do What You Love.  Her passion for classical music education was extraordinary.  Her love for classical music was contagious. 

We took a nice walk in Chanticleer Garden in Wayne, Pennsylvania on a sunny October morning.  The garden was spectacular with colorful leaves and autumn blossoms.  After the enchanting stroll, we went to her house to do the interview.

Elena Berman at Chanticleer

Hazel:  Hi Elena.  So nice of you to introduce me to such a beautiful garden.  It was such a nice autumn day to be outside.  Let’s talk about how you got started as a music educator.

Elena:  All the women in my family are pianists for the past three generations.  This is true for both my mother and father’s sides for three generations. Some were outstanding. My paternal grandmother was a professor of piano for 32 years at the prestigious Stolyarsky Institute in Odessa, USSR, and my first cousin Faina Lushtak, a graduate in piano performance and composition from Moscow Conservatory of Music, is a chair of the piano department at Tulane University, in New Orleans.  Faina is very much in demand as both a teacher, performer, and an adjudicator at many international piano competitions. Growing up, from the earliest of age, I heard music from morning to evening, either my mother or grandmother practicing (we lived with my grandmother) or their students who would come to our home for extra lessons, and myself practicing many hours per day with my mother and grandmother.

Hazel:  Yes, and your mother being Nelly Berman, the founder of the school that you now own and direct, it’s no wonder you are such a big person in classical music education in our community.  But if I remember correctly, you started out aspiring to be a professional concert pianist.  I want to hear about how you became an educator.

Elena:  That’s correct.  Since I was very little, I only wanted to be a piano performer. I was trained to be a performer since the first lesson.  In Odessa, I was admitted to the Stolyarsky Institute for gifted students, which required a very rigorous entrance exam.  Most applicants were eliminated during the exam. 

I was not admitted at the first try, however, at 7.  Being Jewish and there being a Jewish student already at the class I would be assigned to meant I could not be admitted per 1% Jews per class quota.  My parents refused to pay a bribe to the director of the school.  On my second audition, I was admitted and was the only Jewish student in a grade of 41 students. The music study was an all encompassing and around the clock:  A 7 days a week ritual with 4 hours of lessons per week with a famous professor Serafima Mogilevsky at the Stolyarsky Institute and 4 to 5 hours of daily practice with my mother.

The school had a double curriculum – of all kinds of music subjects and academics, with the academics completely on the back burner.  Students at that school all were trained to become professional musicians.

After we immigrated to the U.S., I studied with Susan Starr in Philadelphia.  At 16, I started commuting to New York’s Mannes College of Music, where I studied with Professor Aronov, a brilliant former professor from the Leningrad Conservatory of Music.  After I graduated from high school, I was accepted as a full scholarship student at the Manhattan School of Music studying under Gary Graffman.  I was his very first student at the institution. 

Hazel: Wow, that’s a quite an achievement.  How long did you practice a day on average when you went to the conservatory?

Elena:  I practiced about 8 hours a day.  Mr. Graffman would see me every two weeks for a 2 hour lesson and he expected to hear a new program every time. 

Hazel:  How was that experience?

Elena:  I was exhilarated by my studies with him.  I was in elated by every single piece I learned and played for him.  The world didn’t exist while I was playing.  I was completely immersed in the music.

Hazel:  How wonderful!  Then, what happened?

Elena:  I was accepted to Santa Barbara Music Academy of the West.  Where Itzhak Perlman was performing and giving masterclasses.  Jerome Lowenthal was my teacher the first summer I was studying there. The second summer, I was there as a student of Gary Graffman, after finishing my first year of studies at Manhattan School of Music.  I was playing Beethoven Waldstein Sonata.  During a long and repetitive movement sequence, all of a sudden, both of my arms went numb while performing in front of a large audience.

Hazel:  Oh no!!  Were you seriously injured?

Elena:  I forced myself to play to the end.  Then, I left the summer program.   Mr. Graffman sent me to see his own hand doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital, as he himself had a severe hand injury.  His doctors there told me that I had a severe case of tendonitis.  They said I’d have to stop playing the piano indefinitely until I healed. But anytime I would try to go back to the piano, I would not be able to move my fingers without pain.  They also suggested that I get surgery.  At that point, I decided that I didn’t want to be a musician if I knew I could not be a world class performer. I did not think I would want to teach. I was too self-centered!

Hazel:  That is heartbreaking.  I’m so sorry about your injury!  But, knowing the end, when did you resume?

Elena:  For seven years, I didn’t touch the piano.  I’ve always loved French culture and literature and was accepted to University of Pennsylvania to study French Literature.  After graduation, I worked for ICM Artists, the music management who represented some of the greatest in the classical music world such as: Isaac Stern, Moscow Philharmonic, Leningrad Philharmonic, Evgeny Kissin, Gidon Kremer, Yefim Bronfman, Lazar Berman, Stanislav Bunin (1st prize winner of the Chopin Competition), the Russian diva Elena Obraztsova, and many more great musicians.

Hazel:  Amazing!  What role did you play for ICM Artists?

Elena:  I was the assistant to the President of the organization., Lee Lamont. My job was to be present at all the most important concerts in NYC and to help the prominent artists who were performing there.  I also was interpreting for many Russian artists, traveling with them to other cities, countries.  I attended meetings with Presidents of Sony/RCA Records and Deutche Grammophone.

Hazel:  I can’t believe you got that job coming out of college.  How did you do that?

Elena:  I knew everything about classical music, I spoke the Russian language fluently, and loved and felt honored to be translating for the great musicians.

Hazel:  Pretty amazing!  Then, what happened?

Elena:  Due to the nature of my job, I was hearing great music every night and I realized how much I missed performing music, immersing myself in it personally.  Therefore, I moved back to Philadelphia and got into Temple University on full scholarship to study with Harvey Wedeen.  While getting my master’s degree there, I had a chance to teach non-piano, college music majors how to play the piano to fulfill their major requirement.  That’s when I discovered that I was a gifted teacher.  I prepared my students exceptionally well to the surprise of the jury who were evaluating their progress every six months.

Hazel:  So cool.  Teaching music was in your blood.  What pieces did you teach?

Elena:  I taught serious pieces from composers such as Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Chopin, J.S. Bach.  I also taught scales and arpeggios.  I graduated with master’s degree in piano pedagogy and performance.  At the same time, I started teaching at NBS for my mother.

Hazel:  What was that like, working with your mom?

Elena:  I discovered that she and I were symbiotic in our passion for pedagogy.  We inspired each other on all levels.  For example, we were passionate about discovering  and realizing talents in children and believing in a child’s inherent musical gift and bringing it forth by teaching them very specific skills such as the physical touch with an ultimate goal to create beautiful sound and emotional understanding of the composer’s intent.  We loved assigning music to students that would awaken their emotional sensitivity and motivate them to enjoy performing music.  My mother and I both loved the very detailed work of teaching, working on the students, note by note, phrase by phrase, measure by measure, idea by idea.  We were thrilled to teach kids the physical skills to bring every intent of the composer to come to life.

Hazel:  So… this is what I’ve always wanted to ask.  When you audition a kid, can you tell their potential right then and there?

Elena:  Yes, I can tell from the first five minutes of meeting them.  I evaluate them by having them sing, show them a very short melody and have them play it in a different key and to see if they could understand patterns.  I also test their ability on finding correct pitches on the piano and repeating a rhythm.  I assess how fast they are able to copy the notes, rhythm, as well as copy my hand position, including short or long notes, and sometimes children can even repeat the way I show dynamics, which happens very rarely, with only very musically sensitive children. 

Hazel:  How did you learn to assess kids this way?

Elena:  This is how they assess kids in Russia during auditions for special music schools for children. As lessons were free, children were chosen based on their musical abilities.  Not everyone could study music just because they wanted to.  The same rule applied to being chosen for ballet schools, sports schools, math and physics schools, foreign language schools, etc.  Children who showed precocious abilities in a specific endeavor were put into specialized schools with like minded children, and given possibilities to realize their potentials. The teachers were highly trained for these gifted students and the students were given rigorous coursework.  It produced great results in music, ballet, sports, and sciences.

Hazel:  I think you’ve mentioned that NBS’s core values derived from the Russian methods.

Elena:  Yes, my school models after the Stolyarsky music school method. But this way of studying music is not for every child who comes to the school. There are children and families who want just a little bit of music, and are happy with whatever their child achieves, as long as he/she loves music. That is very important, too.  To love music and enjoy learning it with a good teacher.  As long as the teacher knows about pedagogy and specific technical skills to impart to each child, every child can benefit from learning an instrument, even if he/she has one 30 minute lesson per week.

However, for those children who show an uncanny interest and talent in music, I believe in giving children 2 lessons per week, 2 hours each.  We even have a student who has 3 hours of lessons on piano and 2 hours on violin. She is 12 years old and has achieved so much in music already.  She is also an intellectual and loves listening to music, watches ballets, operas, and masterclasses by famous musicians to learn about their techniques.  Kids like her are not fine with only 30-minute weekly lessons.

Hazel:  That’s some dedication.  It’s so hard to follow through though especially when we have to juggle so many things nowadays.  I think a lot of families would also have a hard time financially to afford all the lessons.

Elena:  This is why when my mother and I saw a child was gifted in music, we’d give hours and hours of free lessons on top of the paid lessons to bring out the best in them. 

Then, our school grew and we had to bringing in some exceptional teachers from Russia to continue our tradition and carry on our mission on a bigger scale.  We couldn’t give out free lessons any more because the teachers had to be paid.  My mother and I would start sharing our students with these high- level teachers when the kids were ready to bring out their greatest potential.  I don’t think any music school does that around here.  Teachers don’t share students as we do. 

My mother was so generous and she would host these Russian teachers at her house to help them get settled in the new country.

Hazel:  Giving out free lessons?  Wow.  How generous.  What drives you to be so passionate about teaching music to children?

Elena:  I think that music enriches human beings.  It makes them look at life from different perspectives.  It allows young children to explore different facets of human condition to which they would not be privy to otherwise.  Playing music written by master composers connects kids to history that came before them and shows them that life is not just about now but there were great human beings that came before them and their magnificent creations deserve to be honored and brought to life.  They wanted to leave their legacy and make their lives significant.  The great composers poured their soul, passion and philosophy of life into their music.  Performers, by playing great music works, experience what the composers felt in expressing such complicated ideas as sublime beauty, elegance, laughter, sarcasm, death, sublime rapture, or majesty of being. 

Hazel:  What a beautiful way to describe what music means to humanity!  On a separate note, it was must have been so hard to lose your mom in 2015.  What she has started still lives on along with her name.

Elena:  My mother had an amazing heart and soul.  She loved children and believed that music studies were the one thing that made children grow up to be better human beings.  She also expected parents to value a serious music education, sit at the lessons, video tape lessons, and follow through with what she showed to her students at every lesson.  She was upset at parents who did not care about their child’s progress, or those who would let their child stop learning an instrument when the child would say they were no longer interested.  She believed in working through the difficulties with the child and never giving up.  She was one of those teachers whose students, after growing up, would be grateful to her for not letting them quit music. 

Hazel:  I wish I could have met your mother.  I admire her passion as much as I do yours.  What is your ultimate goal for NBS and your career?

Elena:  NBS’s model is not to produce professional musicians.  In Olympic games, the athletes have to be amateurs to compete.  They have to go through tedious and extensive training for pure love of their sport.  I want our students to really love music and experience great satisfaction from the skills they acquire at the school. I envision for them to be learning to play music for the process and not necessarily for a goal to be a professional musician.  My goal for the school is to foster children and young adults who love music, performing music, and learning the musical language.

I hope to see our students reach such high level of playing that classical music traditions will continue living through them. I want our students to inspire future generation of young music students. 

There are different levels of children’s capability and not every student is destined to play at a very high technical and musical level.  There are various paths for each student, depending on their abilities, their ambition to achieve and even parental support.  My job is to pin-point the strengths of each child and find for them the right teacher, as well as a program of study to produce optimal results.  At NBS, we design the paths that are right for every child. 

I really believe in having different teachers come in at different stages of a child’s musical development.  This can add depth to layers of knowledge a child can be exposed as no one teacher can know everything there is to know about music. 

Hazel:  What is one thing you are the most proud of achieving in your career?

Elena:  I am extremely proud of the scholarship program that my mother and I started 30 years ago.  We give financial support to kids who are musically gifted to maximize their musical potential.  We currently have 40 students receiving scholarship towards their second lesson per week, which is absolutely indispensable to be a high achiever in music performance.

Hazel:  That’s amazing.  How do you come up with funding for the scholarship?

Elena:  It is a mission of the school, to raise money for scholarships. Gifted students attract gifted teachers, who are interested in imparting their skills to their students. NBS would not be the same school unless we had this serious music component to our program.  Teachers are thrilled when they can teach their student twice a week, as they see immediate results.  All of our concerts are fundraising events, both students and faculty concerts. We have an auction, where local businesses donate to our cause and the proceeds from the sale of these items goes into our endowment.  It is a lot of work to put together an auction!  We also receive gifts from generous donors who believe in NBS’s mission in musical excellence. 

Hazel:  Any last thoughts you want to share before we wrap up?

Elena:  I really think music education is a great thing for all kids.  Highly trained musicians who are used to many hours of daily practice go into all different fields of study and occupation and become great professionals as well as more complex human beings.  They know what it means to work hard, pay attention to details, and possess grit.

Thanks to their training at NBS, our students have been accepted to some of the top universities in the U.S. including the Ivy League schools. Some have received scholarships to colleges, where they pursue double degrees.  Having learned the skill to perform in front of a large audience make kids believe that they are capable of doing anything they put their mind to.  I’m so extremely proud of current NBS students and alumni. 

It was a true privilege to be able to interview and photograph extremely talented, charismatic and beautiful Elena Berman.  As a classical music lover and believer in music education for kids, I am thankful that there are people like Elena who spread the joys of classical music to children, their families and the community.  I wish Elena and NBS the best of luck in their continued success in producing exemplary human beings through love of music. 

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