Born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island, Jonathan Feldman (Pre-College ’69; B.M. ’75, piano) says music was “in the air” when he was growing up: his sister played the piano, and his brother, Ronald Feldman (Pre-College ’65), played cello. Music is still in the air at his house today. Feldman’s wife of 27 years is Judith LeClair, who’s been on the Juilliard bassoon faculty since 1983 and has been the principal bassoon of the New York Philharmonic since 1981, a year before she and Jonathan met through Philharmonic friends. And their son, Gabriel, who is 13, studies jazz piano. The director of the collaborative piano program at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, Jonathan also teaches at the New England Conservatory and has been on the Juilliard faculty since 1989. (Ronald, who retired from the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2001 after 44 years, is now the conductor of the Berkshire Symphony Orchestra at Williams College; he also teaches at N.E.C.)
When did you start studying piano?
I never remember not being at the piano. I started taking lessons from my brother’s cello teacher when I was 5. He would play a piece for me, and I would practice it and the next week, I’d play it back. But then one week he played the piece for me with a mistake. When I played it with the same mistake, he asked me what the correct note was, and I had no idea. So he kicked me out of the lesson because I couldn’t read music. Then I started taking lessons when I was 8 from a wonderful teacher in Farmingdale, and I studied with her until I auditioned for Juilliard Pre-College—which was then called the Juilliard Preparatory Division and was still uptown, on Claremont Avenue—when I was 10. My brother and I would schlep in from Long Island each week for our lessons.
How did you decide to become a collaborative pianist?
I didn’t actually “decide” to become a collaborative pianist; it was just something I did. I had been studying the solo piano repertoire and also playing regularly with Ronny. Having a collaborating partner in the family is a unique experience and was certainly a fundamental reason for my taking the path I took. I define a collaborative pianist as someone who plays the piano in non-solo repertoire. Sounds simplistic but we have no lesser ability to play the instrument than our solo colleagues; we just add different skills.
Which teacher most inspired you?
If I were to narrow my choice to one person during my earlier years, that would have to be Rosetta Goodkind, my Juilliard Prep teacher. She was a remarkable teacher who helped me understand the importance of committing to every note I play.
What was the first recording you remember?
This’ll date me: when I was a kid, my parents owned an old Victrola. It wasn’t one of the smaller ones, either. It was a piece of furniture standing about four feet high. We would crank it up and put on some 78s. My parents had all kinds of music: jazz, popular, classical, orchestral. I loved listening to singers and instrumentalists. I particularly remember the smell of the records.
What’s the most embarrassing moment you’ve had as a performer?
There are too many to single out any one of them and they aren’t too much fun to remember either. Thank you for asking!
If your students could visit any place in the world, where would it be?
Someplace quiet. You need to rest your ears, along with everything else. There is nothing like going up to Maine in August for the Perseid showers. Seeing these meteors can just take your breath away.
If your students could only remember one thing from your teaching, what would it be?
How much I love what I do—I hope that they can say the same thing.
How has your teaching changed?
My approach has become more concise and direct. The challenge is to be able to address each student’s issues with knowledge, imagination, and patience. I am happiest when we experience the “eureka” moments.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
At one time, I had a real estate license and was an active realtor in New Jersey. It was both a wonderful experience and a great education. Even though I no longer have my license, I am still very interested in real estate.
What book are you reading right now, or what CD are you listening to?
I have just reread To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Great characters and a fine story. I am now reading 1984. I hear so much music during my teaching and playing week that I need something other than classical music to listen to. When I put on a CD, it is usually jazz; give me Bill Evans, Coltrane, Stan Getz…
If you weren’t in the career you are in, what would you be doing?
I would have taken over for Johnny Carson.