Never, ever touch the Maestro.

Studying with one of the greatest musicians in the world can be intimidating—but maybe not in the way you might think.

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generously invited anyone who wanted to learn to come to his rehearsals and attend his informal classes. Anyone. If you showed up, you were in. It was that simple. He was generous and asked for no payment. After I attended his daily classes at Curtis Institute of Music, Celibidache invited me to go to Munich to continue studying with him, which I did in 1986.

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Gasteig Philharmonie — where Celibidache rehearsed and held his classes.

One day, class began as it always did, with Celibidache asking a question: “Who can tell me what tempo is?” We all knew better than to blurt out, “speed!” Tempo is a more sophisticated concept than “rate” or “speed” as measured against an artificial clock — we all knew at least that much. But the seven or eight of us students preferred to keep quiet to avoid being criticized by the teacher. No one said anything.

Finally Celibidache turned to a student, Jim (not his real name), and said, “You! You’ve been coming to this class for seven years. Surely, you must know what tempo is by now!”

Jim replied calmly, “Maestro, I wouldn’t presume to know what tempo is” probably hoping to avoid scorn.

“Right,” said Celibidache. “You’d better stay another seven years, then.”

I thought it was funny, but the pall in the room suggested that the other students took it as a literal prescription. If they were lucky, maybe they actually would understand what tempo is after 14 years at the maestro’s feet.

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One of the many times Celibidache called me an idiot. He usually happened to be right and often this preceded me actually learning something. So, sure, it was worth it.

Speaking of feet. I usually sat on the floor next to Celibidache, who sat in his chair. His office in the Gasteig concert hall was devoid of all possessions. No books, scores, pencils, photos, or potted plants. Nothing but a piano, empty shelves and a couple of chairs. So, most of us sat on the floor.

I was in my usual spot when Celibidache was trying to explain how the brain has a natural, strong tendency to reduce multiplicity to singularity whenever possible. It was a key concept that pertained to every note and every phrase in a piece of music. The whole point of his approach was to structure the sounds to exploit this natural tendency. To make it easier or more likely that our brains would be able to synthesize or integrate multiple elements into a singular experience.

For some reason, however, the point wasn’t getting across and Celibidache was getting frustrated, as usual. Sitting right next to the maestro, I had an idea as soon as I noticed that his gray pants were a herring-bone pattern.

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Celibidache’s pants — up close.

I tugged his pants leg above his ankle and said “look at his pants! They’re grey, but they’re actually a combination of black and white threads. We don’t see thousands of individual, opposing elements. We see just one pair of grey pants because of the way the black and white threads are arranged.” It seemed obvious and to the point. And I thought it was a very helpful comment.

The students, however, were stunned, quiet and motionless, except for their eyes looking back and forth at me and then at Celibidache, waiting for his wrathful reprimand. But it didn’t come. Instead he said, “yes, that’s right,” and continued the lesson.

After class, we students were walking down the hall when they and made me stop with my back against the wall. I wondered what was going on. “Why did you do that in there?” Jim asked. “I thought it was helpful,” I said. Then he leaned in and warned me, “never, ever touch the maestro.”

I was rattled. Reverence seemed more important to them than learning, and besides, Celibidache didn’t reprimand me. I wondered if I, too, would become a revering follower at the expense of understanding. Celibidache deeply believed that anyone could learn to do what he did. That’s why he taught. So, I decided to trust Celibidache’s confidence in me and left Munich to return to America. I believed I knew enough to figure out what I didn’t already know. After all, as Celibidache said, “who says you can’t understand music as well as Mozart did?”

A few years later I went to see Celibidache backstage after his concert in Worcester, Massachusetts. He asked what I had been doing. When I told him I was studying the history of music theory, he scowled and yelled, “It will take you three hundred lives before you learn ANYTHING!” Finally, there is my reprimand, I thought. And it’s a much worse prescription than the seven years he gave Jim back in Munich. Fortunately, I don’t believe in reincarnation, and I do understand a bit about music.

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“Three hundred lives it will take you before you understand ANYTHING.” — Celibidache

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