Quit Your Day Job

Quit Your Day Job: Bell

Brooklyn BTW Olga Bell has a new single out in March via twosyllable (7″/digital) and a number of shows at SXSW, but between band activities, she also has piano lessons to teach. A bunch of them. Her students range in age from three to somewhere in the 60s. She’s all over the place, noting that she teaches one student in Park Slope, the rest on the Upper East and West sides, and that “a lot of the lessons happen at a private school near Columbia.” Learn what a standard lessons entails as well as Bell’s thoughts on pianists from Liberace to Glenn Gould after the jump. After our discussion, you can listen to “New Bridge,” which she wrote as part of a campaign fundraiser for Obama.

STEREOGUM: How long have you taught piano?

OLGA BELL: I think I was about twelve when my piano teacher had a surplus of students and asked me to teach a brother and sister who were only a few years younger than me. I did a little teaching on and off through middle and high school, then I taught about twelve kids on the weekends in college. Now I teach about thirty-two lessons a week … so in total I guess thirteen years? Yikes.

STEREOGUM: Can you describe your own formal training?

OB: Like an old friend, and with intensity.

STEREOGUM: Any favorite past teachers?

OB: All of them. From age seven until I finished high school I studied with Svetlana Velichko, who is also from Moscow (she was a student of Samuel Feinberg, who studied with Scriabin, who influenced Messiaen and Prokofiev and Stravinsky and as far as I’m concerned was one of the most glorious and underrated composers of the early 20th Century…or maybe the whole 20th Century.) My last piano teacher was Patricia Zander, who used really rich and unusual language in her teaching — “generous” phrases, “blue-green” harmonies, “responsibly” accented notes, and where Bach indicated slurs or tempos in the music she would write in big letters JS BACH WAS HERE, because he very rarely did that — … she passed away last fall.

STEREOGUM: How many students do you work with at any given time?

OB: One.

STEREOGUM: How often?

OB: Once a week.

STEREOGUM: Each once a week … So how many separate lessons in one week?

OB: People occasionally cancel because somebody’s got a soccer tournament or is getting braces, but on average there are about thirty-two separate lessons per week.

STEREOGUM: How advanced are the students?

OB: My most advanced student just finished a Prokofiev Tarantella and is beginning work on the first Beethoven Concerto.

STEREOGUM: Can you discuss a basic class/lesson?

OB: Everything varies according to what people are working on, whether something is ready for performance or more in the learning phases. Typically a student plays through their piece (or a piece of the piece), we discuss the mini-performance and then go through the music again. More advanced students have technical exercises (scales, arpeggios, blah blah), so they begin by running through those. The last ten minutes of each lesson are equally divided between a theory/composition portion where students take dictations or where we work on pieces they write themselves, and an ear-training portion where they have to name intervals or sing back melodies or do some kind of clapping/stomping pattern.

STEREOGUM: What are some of your favorite songs to teach?

OB: “Trumpet Man” is a big hit (especially the “Doo-WAAAH”), and there’s another song in the beginning book where the kid gets to do a little knock knock on the piano cabinet … but I’m happy to help with anything, especially music I don’t already know.

STEREOGUM: Any songs your students frequently request?

OB: I can’t think of any overwhelming requests, but I once transcribed a Hannah Montana song for somebody on the condition that she would also learn a Mozart Minuet.

STEREOGUM: Who are some or your favorite pianists?

OB: Martha Argerich, Yefim Bronfman, Pierre Laurent-Aimard, Vladimir Horowitz, Glenn Gould, Mitzuko Uchida, Sviatoslav Richter.

STEREOGUM: What is it you like about them?

OB: Richter once said that one of the things he despises most in the world is analysis. They’re all really good, I like that. I like Bronfman playing Shostakovich, any of Argerich’s recital and Prokofiev recordings, Uchida’s Mozart, Gould playing Bach (duh). I think Horowitz played everything well but he was especially awesome at very fast things, and Pierre Laurent-Aimard is very good at — wait for it! — French music.

STEREOGUM: Thoughts on Liberace?

OB: All I really know about Liberace is that he performed in sparkly costumes, which I wholeheartedly support.

STEREOGUM: Have you avoided watching The Piano Teacher?

OB: Is that a movie? Or maybe it’s a show?

STEREOGUM: It’s a book by Elfriede Jelinek that was made into a film. Maybe it’s a good thing you haven’t read/watched it.

OB: Yeah maybe if a piano teacher watches a movie about a piano teacher it might result in some Malkovich-Malkovich funny business … and then I wouldn’t know how to get back to Brooklyn from the New Jersey Turnpike, and I’d have to call you for help, and I’d be crying into that loden-green towel.


You can see Olga’s piano skills firsthand 2/19 when she plays the Mercury Lounge with White Rabbits. Until then, here’s “New Bridge”:

Bell – “New Bridge” (MP3)

[Photo of Olga playing her keyboard @ the Gummy Awards by Ryan Muir]

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