In early 2003, piano teacher Irena Orlov received a brochure at her Washington, D.C. studio for a new event – the Southeastern Piano Festival. She shared the information with her student Leo Svirsky who she felt would benefit from a week of study with a variety of teachers and time with fellow young pianists.
“Leo fell in love with the festival and never wanted to stop going,” said Orlov, who has taught at the Levine School of Music for two decades.
For three years Svirsky came to the festival, twice winning the second place award at the Arthur Fraser International Concerto Competition before taking the top prize in 2005.
Svirsky had such a positive experience at the festival that Orlov encouraged her other students to apply. In all, five of her students, more than any other teacher, have been accepted into the Southeastern Piano Festival. Along with Svirsky, her students Mariana Olaizola, Nicholas Biniaz-Harris, Alex Biniaz-Harris and Joseph Buser have attended and all have won concerto competition awards.
As a young woman growing up in the former Soviet Union, Orlov decided early on that teaching music was her destiny.
“When I was 15 it just happened,” she said. “I just somehow understood what I wanted to do.”
Although she admired her own piano teacher, “I promised myself at a very young age I will never teach the way I was taught.” Too many students are intimidated by their teachers, are afraid of not meeting expectations, and are constantly under stress.
“I try to be a friend to my students – not an authority,” Orlov said. “Everything is built around trust.”
When a student arrives for a lesson, she asks what they’d like to do. Sometimes this means a regular lesson. Other times they’ll read over pieces or discuss music in general. At times the lesson for the day might be talking about difficulties with parents and friends or even what to wear for a concert. This doesn’t mean she doesn’t challenge them. If they bring a particularly difficult work, she will simply ask them if they think they can really play it. Then together they’ll make that happen.
Her perspective on teaching may be a shock to other music educators: “I don’t teach them anything – I just happened to be next to them in the process.”
After studies at the School of Music of Leningrad Conservatory, Orlov taught at a children’s music school and performed in The Ensemble of Period Instruments. In the Soviet Union, Orlov and her family were friends and supporters of a number of dissident writers, mostly poets, and because of this she was allowed to move to Israel in 1980. She came to the United States in 1986.
Along with the many traditional students she has taught, Orlov has worked with people suffering from dementia and severe depression using music as therapy. In the U.S. Orlov’s students consistently win young musicians competitions and many of whom continued their education in leading conservatories of music of the world, including Juilliard School, St. Petersburg Conservatory, Royal Conservatory of the Hague and many others.
Most of her students have far surpassed her in their playing ability, she said.
“It’s a little intimidating,” she said. “I really don’t know how they do it.”