Educating the Audience How to Listen and Appreciate: A Concert Pianist’s Mission to Discover and Introduce Unfamiliar Compositions

Ronaldo Rolim

Concert Pianist/ Piano Teacher

(Philadelphia, PA)

One of my favorite recordings of Ronaldo Rolim’s performances. He is playing the Mozart Concerto No. 17.

On a chilly November Friday late morning, I picked up Ronaldo from Ardmore train station.  He came to visit my neck of the woods from Center City.  While preparing the tea, I asked him to try out our piano and he did to my joy.  It was so delightful to stand by the stove waiting for the water to boil while I heard him play.  I had seen Ronaldo perform three times at public concerts and his music was always so colorful, soulful and lyrical.  He knew how to sing out his heart through his fingers.  When I was finally done, we sat at the dining table sipping tea, munching on some snacks and chatted. 

Hazel: How did you get started in music?

Ronaldo:  I come from a musical family.  Several of my relatives are/were musicians.  My mother is a pianist and was my first piano teacher.  She has devoted her entire life to teaching. 

Hazel: How old were you when you started playing the piano?

Ronaldo: I know for a fact that my first public performance was given when I was 4, but things started earlier than that.  Apparently, my mother played the piano the most when she was pregnant with me – or at least so she says – and, as far as I can remember, she was always teaching me and others.  When I was one and a half, she held her annual student recital and, at the end, I went up to the piano and started to doodle on it – I know this happened because it was captured on video and I watched it when I was older.  So it’s not crazy to say I’ve been with music since the very beginning.

Hazel:  That is early!  Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to be a professional pianist? 

Ronaldo:  Actually, I didn’t decide to become a pianist until I was 17.  As a kid I’ve always loved improvising and playing by ear but really hated to practice.  My mom had to serve as a sort of daily practice coach, otherwise nothing would get accomplished!  By the time I turned 11, I started to have epic fights with her over the time spent at the piano, particularly when there was an upcoming recital or competition.  In fact, in one of these competitions I was noticed by the director of the Magda Tagliaferro Foundation in São Paulo, a school specialized in piano training.  After hearing my competition performance, she encouraged me to apply to her school.  A few months later I was admitted on a full scholarship.

Hazel:  So you started to have a teacher other than your mom at 11.  How was that?

Ronaldo:  It was a dramatic change. It came at a perfect time, because I was getting to the tipping point: either I took things seriously or rather quit altogether.  It all came with a big toll: every week my parents would give up a day of work just to drive me to São Paulo for lessons.  All of a sudden, music became a serious business, and I had to step up my commitment to piano to match my family’s efforts in providing me such opportunity. Every Wednesday, my parents would pick me up at my regular school and we would drive 2 hours to São Paulo.  My musical day would start at 4pm with an hour-long ear training session.  I then would have a 2-hour break (which I would most likely spend practicing) and finally would have my own piano lesson after. Fortunately, the teacher I was assigned to was godsend.  She was the most dedicated, patient, and honest teacher I’ve ever met.  She was a beautiful human being, already in her 70s, very unassuming and diligent.  At first, the lessons lasted one hour, but eventually they became much more. We would first have about 90 minutes of lesson time, then took a snack break and have at least another hour of lesson time after that.  The snack breaks were seriously epic. My teacher would always bring a couple of bags loaded with food, and anyone who was still at the school this late was welcome to join: my parents, some other students, teachers and staff.  The snack breaks became a tradition and became one of my fondest memories of young music student days.  These breaks were a crucial nurturing moment during which we would have lots of fun and absolutely wonderful talks about music.  Afterward, we would be back to the studio for more work!  We wouldn’t leave the school until way past 10pm, sometimes even past midnight.  We would still have to drive back home and wake up at 6am for regular school the next day. When things got serious, with competitions looming over us, for instance, we would follow this routine 3 or 4 times a week… It got to a point in which my teacher would even go to our hometown and stay with us for a few days, just to work with me.

Hazel:  Wow… So it’s true that it takes a village to raise a musician.  Your parents, your teacher and you were all so dedicated!  It’s a big blessing when you meet teachers like her and have parents so devoted.  Then, what happened?

Ronaldo:  Despite all these developments, I somehow could not see myself being a professional musician just yet. I loved music, and wanted to continue studying it, but by the time I went to high school all I could think was keeping up with my academic coursework and trying to get into college majoring in journalism.

Hazel:  What made you change your mind?

Ronaldo:  It happened unexpectedly. I kept attending competitions in the meantime, and eventually I found myself in a watershed. When I was 17, I played Beethoven’s 3rd Concerto in the final round of the Nelson Freire Competition in Rio. The performance was going well until I had a memory slip in the 3rd movement.  I thought I was finished.  But, after the last note, the audience rose from their seats, roared madly, and clapped enthusiastically.  Even Nelson, from the jury stand, was on his feet with a big smile.  That moment changed my life!

Hazel:  Did you end up winning?

Ronaldo:  Yes, I did and was awarded a chance to play with the Brazilian Symphony, besides starting to receive invitation for concerts around Brazil. That was the ultimate breakthrough. I simply couldn’t run away from it, and I just had to be a professional pianist.

Hazel:  What a story!  How was your experience like playing with the orchestra?

Ronaldo: It was at the Rio Opera House, with over 2,000 people in the audience. Every single seat was taken and it was quite overwhelming! But it felt so good to be on stage and performing for that warm audience. After a standing ovation, I received a plaque in which O Globo, the main newspaper in Rio, acknowledged me as “the newest talent of Brazilian music.” The next day, the same newspaper had a great picture of myself with the conductor. A few weeks later, the concert was broadcasted on TV and the radio. A few months later, I was on a very popular talk show on TV. Basically my life turned upside down.

Hazel:  What an amazing experience for you!  So what happened after this?

Ronaldo: A few months after the Rio saga, I won yet another competition that as a prize offered me to spend 2 months at Oakland University, Michigan, in January and February 2005. It was my first international experience, and the first time I was actually away from my family. Initially, I was shocked by the cultural differences and super cold weather.  Nonetheless, the experience was extremely enriching, and I enjoyed it very much.  For the first time in my life I felt the true joy of practicing. I would practice for at least 8 hours a day and really loved it.

Hazel:  Amazing!  In regard to practicing, what finally made you like it?

Ronaldo:  I think it was the awareness that music was my chosen path in life. I felt that I owned the opportunity I’ve got and I felt responsible for it, and that’s probably why I was so motivated.  At the end of the two-month period, I was given a full scholarship to study at Oakland, starting in Fall 2005. However, I had to go back to Brazil for 6 months and in the meantime figure out a way to pay for room and board at Oakland, since the scholarship wouldn’t cover that. Fortunately, the Magda Tagliaferro Foundation found donors to finance it, and thus in September 2005 I moved permanently to Michigan and started as a freshman at Oakland. When I arrived, my teacher there, the Brazilian pianist Flavio Varani, told me he was going to retire at the end of that school year. It turned out he actually lined up my time in Michigan with his own retirement plans, with the premise I would spend one year at Oakland and then transfer to another school. He was a wonderful mentor in that sense, having thought about my stay in the United States as a long-term project. He was incredibly generous as well, to the point of personally driving me to the several different places where I auditioned. Months later, I got acceptance letters from some schools but unfortunately I couldn’t go.

Hazel:  Why is that?

Ronaldo:  Well, my professor assumed that I applied for financial aid simultaneously as I was auditioning but I didn’t know I had to apply for that so early on. I simply didn’t quite realize how the system worked. So when I got the acceptance letters, I couldn’t attend any schools because I would not have a way to pay for it.    

Hazel:  That’s too bad. Then, what happened?

Ronaldo:  I was forced to go back to Brazil for a sabbatical year and prepare for another round of auditions in the States the following year. Once more, I applied to several schools around the country, but this time I truly wanted to focus on possibilities in the East Coast. Fortunately, the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore accepted me and gave me some scholarship money, but I was still about $20,000 short in order to cover the remainder of the yearly expenses. My family could not support me in any way, so I had to look for other ways to secure the money. Again, the Magda Tagliaferro School interceded and I eventually found very generous private donors that would cover the remaining expenses, but by the time my first semester started the money was only promised, not yet certain.  The lack of financial support didn’t stop me, though.  For some reason, we Brazilians are stubborn enough to think that things will always be alright, and with such spirit I flew to Baltimore with $1,000 in my pocket, without knowing for sure if donors would fully commit or not.  Since I was supposed to live in the dorms for my first year, I had to pay for the room and board in full before the beginning of the semester. But with the money I had I could only afford a mere few weeks.  As I did my check-in upon arriving at Peabody, the dean of student affairs said: “If by the end of this time period you don’t pay the remainder of your balance, I will have to kick you out.” I could not sleep properly for weeks – and meanwhile I frantically corresponded with family, friends, prospective donors, with no clear solution in sight.  Time was ticking away, and it sounds crazy, but only at the due date, when I was already thinking about what to do if I were kicked out, I got a message from one of the donors finally confirming his support.  I could finally sleep again and focus on my musical path.  Being a Peabody student was another wonderful experience, and I remained in Baltimore for another 6 years, first for the bachelor’s degree, then as a master’s degree and finally as an Artist Diploma (AD) candidate.  As time went by, the school offered me a chamber music scholarship and finally a full scholarship during my two years as an AD candidate. After my master’s degree, I realized I had to show to my donors and to myself that I could be financially independent by performing and winning competitions.  Since then, I was fortunately able to support my own life as an AD and eventually a DMA (doctoral) student at Yale.

Hazel: You are nearly done with the DMA, right?

Ronaldo:  Yes, I have only a final recital and oral exam left to do in early December. I’m finished with everything else. It’s been a rigorous journey: the first 2 years were devoted to coursework, comp exams and dissertation; the next 3 years in career-building efforts, with performances around the globe; and the final year, still in course, is the capstone, with the graduation recital and oral exam.

Hazel:  Sounds like a very full schedule.  I’m sure you learned a ton.

Ronaldo:  Yes, obviously I learned a lot with the overwhelming amount of reading and studying every week, but also in a strictly pianistic sense as well. Because I had so little time, I had to practice very efficiently. I would establish specific goals and accomplish them every time I sat down to practice. It really worked!

Hazel:  I know your dissertation topic was on the Polish composer Szymanowski’s compositions as you shared that fact at the last concert I saw you in.  Can you tell me what made you choose him and his music?

Ronaldo:  Before my early 20s, I marginally knew some Szymanowski works – only some of his mazurkas played by Rubinstein.  In 2008, I was in Vienna browsing in a CD shop and saw a disc of Krystian Zimerman playing the Franck Sonata with violinist Kaja Danczowska.  I immediately bought it, because at the time Zimerman was one of my favorite pianists (he still is in a way), and I wanted to hear absolutely everything he recorded.  The thing I didn’t realize initially is that the work pairing the Franck in the CD was Szymanowski’s Mythes, which up to that point I hadn’t ever heard of.  I put the CD on and was delighted with their interpretation of the Franck.  But then Mythes started, and I was instantly hypnotized.  It was utterly enthralling.  I just wanted to play that music immediately. Sometime after that, I realized that Szymanowski also wrote two piano cycles in a similar vein: Métopes and Masques. All three cycles, I eventually learned, were written during World War I and based on ancient mythological sources.  My doctoral thesis topic was thus chosen, years before I actually started a DMA at Yale.

Hazel:  What aspect of the compositions drew you to them in particular?

Ronaldo:   The thing that immediately caught me was the amazing variety of colors.  Of course, I was already familiar with other colorful music – Debussy and Ravel, for instance, emanate similar colors in their music.  But Szymanowski was different.  His music had more urgency, more yearning.  I found Szymanowski’s music to have the post-Romantic intensity of German music while using the colors more commonly associated with French and Russian music.

Hazel:  Frankly, your concert was the first time I heard about the composer.  And I listened to you play one of his Masques at the concert and it was striking!  Why do you think he didn’t get as much spotlight?

Ronaldo: Szymanowski is without a doubt one of the greatest composers of the first half of the 20th century, and that’s how several of his contemporaries saw him.  After his death, though, his music fell out of fashion for some reason, and only recently it started to see the light of day again.  I feel honored to be one of his advocates, since I truly believe it is music of the highest caliber, and more and more people need to know about it.  Great music and musicians will always get the attention they deserve and be appreciated at some point, sooner or later, even if “later” means posthumously.  Bach, for example, only became the towering figure he is almost a century after his death.  There are so many great musicians out there.  More often than not they don’t have a shot at a major career but, if they are truly great, stick to their art and stay unconditionally committed to music, they will be eventually recognized and appreciated.

Hazel:  I like your positivity!  What do you think is the most important mission for a classical music performer?

Ronaldo:  The most important thing for a performer is to understand that music is a language.  And any given language generates content.  Content brings meaning.  Musicians are messengers and storytellers.  Our job is to tell a story with as much clarity as possible.  Music has meaning and that meaning has to be understood through the musical score and other relevant information such as the composer’s biographical background.  There are many different ways to tell the story, however. 

Hazel:  Yes, I understand.  What do you think is the biggest challenge as a performer?

Ronaldo:  I think it’s capturing the audience’s attention and interest, especially when presenting unfamiliar works. Performers must try their best to persuade the listeners to receive the message from the composer. The big issue, though, is that audience sometimes confuses art with entertainment, and even though there may be some overlapping, they are fundamentally different. In classical music events, many concertgoers expect to be entertained, but in fact the primary goal of a concert is to present art, not entertainment. The main difference between the two is simple but critical: art requires an active audience, while entertainment doesn’t.  Many people go to classical concerts only to listen to tunes they are already familiar with, or at most tunes that “sound” nice and feature a familiar musical language. For them there is no need to actively listen to the performance. It’s enough if their ears are pleased with “beautiful” music.  When a piece of music doesn’t please the ear, most listeners shut themselves off, and dismiss it as dissonant, disturbing, or simply ugly, when in fact we performers need the audience more than ever in these pieces.  Art is not always supposed to be beautiful.  Sometimes it is meant to be disturbing, complex, ugly, puzzling, and all these sensations can ultimately bring a compelling and powerful message.  But that message will never be delivered if a listener doesn’t want to receive it.

Hazel:  How do you go about persuading people to open up their hearts to new compositions?

Ronaldo:  Today, unless you are in the very top tier as an artist, you must reach out to the community and engage with them. You have to go to schools, retirement homes and talk about what you do, and also perform in informal settings, such as house/salon concerts. Not until Liszt invented the recital as a new concert genre, piano and chamber music performances were mostly heard in a private setting. So it’s absolutely natural for us, in the 21st century, to go back to the origins of the genre and engage with our audience in that way.  As a concertgoer, one needs to experience both formal and informal settings. They complement each other. In informal settings people realize that classical musicians are not untouchable and unapproachable. The audience has the chance to meet and interact with artists and might even have a drink with them in the reception after the concert, and the experience as a whole is very human, one-on-one. But that doesn’t mean the concert hall experience should cease. There’s something so thrilling about attending a live concert, the sheer fact of being with hundreds of other people for 1 or 2 hours in a space specifically conceived to present the miracle of live music. And even if the audience doesn’t have a direct contact with the artist in the same way it would in a private concert, a first-rate performance is enough to transform a concert hall into a living room.

Hazel:  I love intimate concerts but nothing can really replace the experience of watching Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 being performed with a full orchestra.  So yes, you are so right that you need both informal and formal concerts.  Are you concerned at all that classical music is shrinking and dying out?

Ronaldo:  It is true that the new generation does not receive adequate music education at school in the U.S. Essentially, they don’t know how to listen.  The generations that grew up in 1950s and 1960s were the last to have a serious music education in this country.  That was the time in which Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts aired on TV.  The series were live broadcasts of classical music concerts from New York. They were so great.  People who grew up in that era are the ones who make up the majority of the audience in classical concerts today.  But, despite the lack of initiatives of similar scope nowadays, I’m not too concerned. In the future, maybe the way people hear and understand classical music will change, but, as long as there are people that care deeply about it, it will never die.  The American pianist and essayist Charles Rosen once said, “The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition,” and I think there is so much truth to that.  Can you imagine a world without Michelangelo and Shakespeare?  Nope.  Likewise, I cannot conceive a world without Beethoven.

I really do sincerely hope that Charles Rosen is right.  I do think artists like Ronaldo Rolim will greatly contribute to the preservation of the place classical music has in our society and even more importantly educate the public about how to go about listening to classical music, especially the compositions that are less known and novel.  If it took J.S. Bach a hundred years to be discovered and now worshipped as one of the greatest composers who ever lived, it might be just a matter of time when all other obscure greats and theirs works to be found and appreciated.

Since the interview, Ronaldo successfully defended for his doctorate at Yale! To find out more about Ronaldo, please check out his website:

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