The Making of a Classical Pianist Begins in Worthington

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Mark Swartzentruber(Photo: Solo Records)
Mark Swartzentruber(Photo: Solo Records)

Does the sound of scales, up and down, on a piano remind you of your childhood?

Maybe your mom made you take piano lessons with a knuckle-swatting teacher, and even today you sweat when you see penguins or men in tuxedos. Or maybe you enjoyed piano lessons and aspired to become the next Van Cliburn.

Columbus’s Mark Swartzentruber knows what it takes to go from beginner to professional because he’s done it.

And though his journey was nurtured by some of the world’s greatest artists and teachers, it wasn’t easy.

So who unwittingly set him on a difficult career path for which many are called but few chosen?

“Oh, my mother, just like everyone else,” Swartzentruber laughed.

He took his first piano lessons when he was eight, a relatively late start in a world where five-year-old prodigies become marketing sensations. And he actually liked his lessons.

“It turned out that I found it a relatively easy thing to do compared to the people around me, and so it was fun to do,” Swartzentruber said.

But Swartzentruber really took off when he started learning major works by composers like Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin.

“When you start to play real Mozart sonatas, real Beethoven sonatas, then you get hooked on it,” he said.

Early on, he got especially hooked on Chopin’s graceful, dance-like music.

“I really remember Chopin, especially the Nocturnes and Waltzes, as being particularly fun to work on,” Swartzentruber said. “I would work on these pieces for months and months and months, finding a way of refining and getting more and more out of them.”

While Swartzentruber was refining Chopin Nocturnes, he also engaged in other musical pursuits. He played the trombone and the cello in school bands and orchestras.

He played with the Columbus Symphony Youth Orchestra, and also played keyboards in a garage band he formed with some of his friends from Worthington High School.

They played covers of Chick Corea’s Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy and music of YES and Weather Report.

But classical music won out when Swartzentruber went to Indiana University’s acclaimed School of Music to continue his training with the legendary English pianist John Ogdon.

Swartzentruber remembers Ogdon as a warm person and a musical genius who encouraged his students to find their own musical voices rather than mimic his.

After four years with Ogdon, Swartzentruber stayed at Indiana to study with Belgian-born Michel Block. Block refined Swartzentruber’s musical instincts and piano technique.

“He showed me how to practice, basically, how music is constructed of units, musical units, not of individual notes, but of musical words,” Swartzentruber said.

After two years, Block sent Swartzentruber to study with Maria Curcio, the Italian-born teacher of many of today’s elite concert pianists.

Curcio had lived in London since the mid-1960s, so Swartzentruber packed his bags for Britain. There his work really began. The tiny Curcio was a giant in the piano world.

“She was another tremendously strong musical personality,” Swartzentruber said. “The early lessons I had were sometimes four or five hours long, believe it or not, and it was working on three or four bars. This was going right back to ground zero, right back to zero.”

Swartzentruber says Curcio’s intense teaching style wasn’t a good fit for everyone.

“We all got destroyed by it, absolutely destroyed,” he said. “We had to build ourselves back from nothing.”

All of her pupils did. There were a lot of casualties, too. There were a lot of people who just quit because they just thought it was too much.

But Swartzentruber persisted, even becoming Curcio’s teaching assistant. Her approach helped him develop his own way of learning and interpreting a piece of music.

Swartzentruber’s six recordings of music by composers ranging stylistically from the early classical Scarlatti to Debussy the impressionist reflect an interpretive process that starts out somewhat vague and only over time grows clearer.

“In Scarlatti sonatas,” he said, “I will take one sonata and I will just start to play it over and over and over again and maybe after an hour or two hours or three, maybe after several weeks, suddenly a little idea might come in, and I’ll say Ah, maybe I’ll try this approach.”

Ironically, the one composer Swartzentruber hasn’t recorded yet is his first musical love: Chopin. He’s shied away from it because, as much as he loves it, Chopin’s music just isn’t his strong suit. He’s much more comfortable with the monumental piano music of Schubert and Beethoven, which he has recorded on his own recording label, Solo Records.

His recording of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata shows how easily he connects interpreting music with understanding broader aspects of the human condition.

“The F minor chords are very, very powerful at the beginning that come suddenly out of nowhere,” Swartzentruber said. “And probably, I’ve maybe imagined that they represent Beethoven’s frustration at going deaf at that time. But at the end those chords come in the major key, and this gives that element of hope: ‘I’m not going to give up. I’m not going to lie here in despair.’ That’s a good example of how to move forward in life, maybe.”

Running a classical music recording label today is no easier than becoming a top-notch classical musician.

But Swartzentruber is excited by the possibility that electronic media might actually be helping classical music find listeners, and vice versa.

“In the old days,” he said, “to buy classical music you had to walk into a shop and face, sometimes, a very snooty salesman who would say, Oh, don’t you know how to say Beethoven? So many people would be too intimidated to walk into a classical music shop.

“Whereas online, they’ll try everything. They’ll jump from Hip Hop to Beethoven’s Fifth. And so you get people downloading just one movement of a sonata. It makes it much easier for people to try new things and listen to new music and get involved in new styles.

“And getting involved in classical music can help people remember how they connect with history’s great musicians and great music. It’s an important part of our education. It teaches us about that continuity of human experience through the centuries.

“What I find really interesting it, you go to a piece of early music for example, you can listen to a piece of Scarlatti, a piece of Bach, a piece of Mozart and the entire range of human experience is there locked inside those pieces. . . . just waiting to be discovered.”

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