Finding One’s Voice at the Piano
An interview with Juan Lázaro
8/25/2021 • Reading Time: 4min
About Juan Lázaro
Pianist Juan Lázaro has been playing the piano since the young age of four. Born on June 9, 1993, in New York, Juan’s talents were discovered by the Bulgarian pedagogue Boriana Savova and began performing at the age of six. In 2006 Juan entered the Mannes College Preparatory Division and began an extensive study with Irina Edelman.
An active performer, Juan has given numerous solo and collaborative recitals in New York concert stages such as Steinway Hall, Yamaha Hall, and Weill Recital Hall. In 2015, Juan graduated from his Bachelor of Music degree studies at the Juilliard School under the tutelage of Jerome Lowenthal. In 2019 he graduated with his Master’s Degree in Vocal Collaborative Piano from Manhattan School of Music under Thomas Muraco. As a vocal coach, he was admitted to the Aspen Music Festival as an Opera Fellow and more recently the Music Academy of the West. Juan also works extensively with Bulgarian bass and pedagogue, Valentin Peytchinov. He will pursue his doctorate at Manhattan School of Music in the fall of 2021 and continues to study piano privately with Edna Golandsky.
Interview with Juan Lázaro
1. I remember listening to your performance of Liszt’s "La Campanella" years ago and I very much enjoyed it - and at only seventeen years old! Tell us about the development of your early piano studies.
Until the age of 13, I had studied with the same teacher, Boriana Savov, who had allowed my technique and facilities to develop quite naturally on their own. At 13 I began studying at Mannes pre-college and it was there that I began working with Irina Edelman, who I can say is at the base of everything that I do and believe in musically and pianistically. She taught me to be unforgiving of any type of sloppiness and to discern what kind of touch was necessary for a full ringing tone regardless of the dynamic or articulation. She was the daughter-in-law and pupil of Alexander Edelmann, who had been a colleague of names such as Neuhaus and Bloomenfeld in Ukraine/Russia. I feel lucky to this day that that tradition has been passed to me.
Although my studies with her were not early on, I cannot fail to mention the impact of Edna Golandsky. I came to her at 23 to reevaluate how I approached the piano and I continue to benefit from her knowledge. To put it simply, studying with her has allowed me to do as I wish on the instrument without complication or mystery.
2. What are some early collaborative experiences that inspired you towards your Master’s?
It is of no coincidence that I was immensely fortunate to have a singer as my first piano teacher. When my facility became adequate enough, Boriana Savova had me learn some of the arias that she was working on. She stressed two things that I used until this day: breathing and being equal to but never louder than the singer while playing simultaneously. I even played at the age of 10 for her voice teacher, Valentin Peytchinov, who later became my close mentor.
I really dipped my foot in collaboration with singers and instrumentalists when I attended LaGuardia High School. The programs there are quite large and they were always in need of a pianist to help with group voice lessons, show rehearsals, competitions, and even full orchestral performances. I remember playing piano 1 in a full production of Carmina Burana. That was one of my favorite moments at the high school which I consider “paradise on earth” to this day. It was there that I realized that there is nothing more rewarding than having a rare chance to play with a good singer.
After attending Juilliard for solo piano (curiously enough, always keeping with the company of singers), and having some time off for an artistic crisis, I remembered my original curiosity and decided to try voice lessons. Under the mentorship of Valentin Peytchinov, I realized that coaching and playing with singers was the direction that I wanted to take the professional aspect of my musical career. While still maintaining progress as a solo pianist, I decided to go for a master’s degree in vocal collaboration at Manhattan School of Music. There with my professor Thomas Muraco, I filled in the necessary gaps in my knowledge of language and interpretation. Every year Professor Muraco would stage an entire opera and he required his students to reduce the orchestral score into a two piano arrangement. I rely on his knowledge every time I engage in a new project and I am thrilled to say that I will return to his studio in the fall to begin a doctorate.
3. You’ve had the unique experience of studying with the highest regarded pedagogues in both piano & voice. How do the teaching approaches of either medium differ?
I would say that each contributed to my understanding of the other. Irina Edelman, for example, always stressed that at the very base of piano playing, the quality of sound should always ring and project regardless of dynamic and articulation. The word “sing” was always pelted at me in lessons. When I began my vocal work with Valentin Peytchinov (though I will not call myself a singer), I then understood Irina’s way of thinking. When a voice isn’t properly trained, it will not project or produce the necessary overtones. Trying to phonate when you are choking or “collapsed” is as if I were to smack the keys of the piano when trying to play forte or simply press the left pedal to play softly. Neither will cut through a theatre or have any expressive value. I really then understood why musicians of the past took the human voice as the main model.
Working with Edna Golandaky and Valentin also taught me how necessary it is to demystify the concept of technique. Though I understand that it’s not a popular opinion, the voice, like the playing mechanism, works like a machine with set rules that are rooted in biology. Both teach approaches that ultimately make music making easy and most importantly, predictable.
Their very technical approach made me rethink my idea of individuality. When we understand the basic functions of our bodies, which work nearly the same for everyone on earth, and apply them to what we do, the qualities that make us unique most naturally show. Two people of completely different shape and size have the same breathing mechanism. Both can be trained in the same way and yet their voices will never be a copy of each other. Likewise in piano playing. There lies the difference between a teacher diligently training what’s given to a person by nature, versus trying to manipulate it to sound a certain way.
4. One more question: what’s it like to coach a singer from the piano?
First of all, I have to clarify that as a coach, I am only responsible for aiding the singer musically and linguistically. I am very adamant that vocal matters be left solely to the care of their respective teachers. This is very important because perhaps the singer is not technically able to realize a particular detail. If I insist, I run the risk of causing harm.
Secondly, I have to make clear that I’m still borderline young by musician’s standards and at MSM I am coaching people that are near my age or younger. My musical learning adventure is ongoing and often the people I coach will get a random call or text message with something new I’ve found.
However, I’ve had the luck of having mentors (Valentin Peytchinov and professor Muraco in particular) who are very strict on the subject of notation and score reading. I am very insistent that there be a strict adherence to written score so that later the creativity revolves around what the composer put on the page. For example, there are a hundred ways to interpret the emotional intensity of a non legato or a tenuto marking, but first, the singer must know it is there and respect it. I would say the same thing about the basic rules of language diction. By imparting tools regarding musicality and language, I could become less and less needed and future musical work would be more about sharing ideas and points of view.
About Maryam Raya
Maryam Raya is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning concert pianist based in New York. Praised for her “Dynamic Stage Presence” by the Union of Excellence, Maryam has performed recitals worldwide, in countries including England, Spain, France, Italy, China, Estonia, Latvia, Finland, and Dubai and has performed at renowned venues across the United States including multiple appearances at New York’s Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, The National Opera Center, multiple international embassies, among others.
Described as a “Complete Artist of the 21st Century” by Info Music France, she has been featured in countless international art, fashion, and music magazines across Europe as well as American news outlets such as CBS news. With an extensive and diverse repertoire, including numerous solo programs and over thirty concerti for piano and orchestra, Maryam is passionate about bringing classical music to younger audiences through her captivating performances and lectures.