Steven Laitz arrived at Juilliard last year. Born in Minneapolis, when he was 13 he moved to Southern California, "land of smog and diminishing lemon and orange groves," eventually getting his bachelor's and master's in piano performance and composition from the University of California at Riverside. He got his PhD from Eastman, where he then taught for 27 years. His wife, Anne-Marie Reynolds, is joining the music history faculty this fall.
When did you become interested in music?
When I realized I couldn't do anything else, so probably high school. Piano and early music drove my interests: Rameau, the Couperins, and Domenico Scarlatti were front and center (I built harpsichords throughout high school).
How are performance and analysis linked?
They're inextricably connected, but to experience the connection one must be patient, for it's only after the basic structures and processes are mastered that more-subtle analytical techniques can be appreciated and applied to an artwork. Only then can the secrets of an artwork be exposed, and with that comes enlightenment, a sense of wonder, and ownership.
What are two key ideas from your teaching?
As Beethoven said, "Don't only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets; for it and knowledge can raise men to the divine." Knowing what common practice is and having that standard sensitize you to embrace the unusual musical events results in a penetrating, powerful, and unique interpretation of a piece.
A second is to have faith that the close study of a work's musical structure and process can take you further than the composer envisioned. As such, you're composing a performance, not merely rendering one. It's crucial to be an articulate advocate for your art, to put yourself in a new, if not ultimately dangerous, situation on a daily basis—the thrill that results is like no other. Music has a power that can change the way a person thinks and reacts to daily life, and I'm certain that changes the brain's chemistry. The performer holds the power to affect another person's life.
What's surprised you most about teaching at Juilliard?
The level of student curiosity, the students' tenacity to learn concepts and processes, their willingness to take chances, and their faith that these academic courses are crucial and will have an impact on their lives. I'm also in awe of the level of performance and of the vast amounts of time students spend collaborating with other types of artists at Juilliard.
Any advice for incoming students?
Artistry is both a gift and a curse. Students who have reached a level of artistry that gains them admission to one of the world's great arts institutions realize their extraordinary achievement, but with this comes the awesome responsibility to climb ever higher. Yet growth is subtle, even slow, and it requires faith and patience. The added pressure of arriving at Juilliard and making the transition from your former life as a "regional treasure" to being thrust into an environment where you are surrounded by utter excellence is simply daunting, if not debilitating: miraculous playing and singing, exquisite dancing, and acting that can bring you to tears by the utterance of a single phrase are all things you may never have experienced. But treat this as experience, a grand opportunity bestowed upon you, a gift. Simply be yourself, work hard, and be nice, and you will succeed not only at Juilliard, but also in the world beyond.
If you weren't in the career you are in, what would you be doing?
In music, I would want to be a collaborative pianist for singers. Outside of music, I'd like to be a psychologist (not psychiatrist; I'd screw up the medication dosing).
What would surprise people about you?
I had strange jobs to support myself in college: I worked at General Electric in the Iron Division where those things a few folks still use to press clothing were made. My job was in the foundry, feeding 40-pound chunks of aluminum ingots into giant vats of molten aluminum used for the base of the irons. I also taught piano and voice at a criminally insane unit of a California jail. I dreaded the iron door that slammed behind me each time I arrived. But there was some real talent there, such as the middle-aged man (trained in voice performance) with whom I worked up and performed Schumann's Dichterliebe. He simply had an issue that landed him in the maximum security section: hearing voices in his head that softly but persistently told him it was necessary to chop up his family.
What are your nonmusic interests?
Squash (as a sport, not as a vegetable), cycling, and edgy shows like Louis CK and Breaking Bad.
What are you reading?
I'm on a Pete Hamill binge—Snow in August, Downtown, A Drinking Life, and Forever—I gain a real feel for a great city by reading him.