By Stephanie Chase
Guest Columnist
New York, NY, USA

Robert Sherman is an award-winning American radio broadcaster, author, music critic, and educator, who is perhaps best known for hosting radio programs that include “Woody’s Children,” a program devoted to contemporary folk music, and “The Listening Room,” which were originally broadcast by the station WQXR in New York.

For more than forty years he has been an esteemed music critic and columnist for The
Robert Sherman
New York Times. Among the numerous books that he has written are two that he co-authored with pianist and comedian Victor Borge, and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Classical Music. As an educator, he has served on the faculty of The Juilliard School for nearly twenty years.

STEPHANIE CHASE: You have an extraordinary lineage – your mother was the famed pianist and pedagogue Nadia Reisenberg and your aunt was the noted thereminist Clara Rockmore, both of whom were born in Vilnius, Lithuania – and you have written books about each artist. But who was your father, and what was your childhood like?

ROBERT SHERMAN: My father was a businessman, with no musical training but he loved music, and he was enormously supportive of Mother. I had a normal childhood, except I was aware of the special nature of my family; we had famous musicians coming and going from home, Mother occasionally performed at my public school, and there were house chamber music parties.

Nadia Reisenberg

STEPHANIE CHASE: Did you take piano lessons from your mother?

ROBERT SHERMAN: I did take piano lessons from Mother, which was probably a great mistake because she didn't scare me, so I didn't feel I really had to work hard and I'd argue back about things like fingering suggestions. I also hated to practice – though I loved to play my few party pieces, over and over again – and would studiously avoid learning anything difficult.

STEPHANIE CHASE: When I first started doing recital tours – back in my teens – one of my pianists, Judith Olson, had been a student of your mother at Juilliard and spoke of her with great reverence.

ROBERT SHERMAN: Mother used to joke that I should never tell anybody I studied with her, because I wasn't typical of pianists in her class.

STEPHANIE CHASE: The ability to practice well is one of the great challenges of being a successful artist; sometimes it feels like a struggle between the analytical side of the brain and the side that connects with the emotional content.  Each is important and needs equal recognition when learning a new work.  I find the initial part of this pretty vexing, but it is so important to practice carefully, otherwise we are practicing mistakes.

The instrument played by your aunt, the theremin, is probably little known to the Stay Thirsty readers. Would you please describe it?

ROBERT SHERMAN: You can find much more educated and reliable accounts on Clara's CDs and even, these days, online. You might also check the website I set up for Mother and Clara: the quick way to get there is "". Basically, the theremin is a mechanism for emitting radio waves, which are interrupted by the players' hands; like the electric eye that opens doors, except with sound. The right hand controls the pitch, the left hand the volume.

STEPHANIE CHASE: I believe it was created in the 1920’s, not so long after the invention of the radio. As a musical instrument, is there something special about its sound and the kind of music played on it?

ROBERT SHERMAN: Most players slide from pitch to pitch – wherefore the frequent use of the instrument to portray alien beings or psychotic minds! – but Clara developed a finger technique that allowed her to avoid such portamenti and produce staccato figures when called for. As you may know, Clara was a concert violinist and been a student of Leopold Auer in Russia and at Curtis here before a hand injury forced her to stop. Much of her theremin repertoire involved pieces originally scored for strings.

STEPHANIE CHASE: I have at least one of her recordings, and her playing of “The Swan” by Saint-Saëns – which must have been one of her violin pieces – is breathtakingly beautiful and a great inspiration. Incidentally, the instances in which the theremin was used to depict aliens and psychotic minds include the films The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Lost Weekend. And, apparently, the old Beach Boys’ song “Good Vibrations” uses a relative of the theremin.

Clara Rockmore with Leon Theremin

Its inventor, Leon Theremin, was a distinguished Soviet scientist who also devised one of the most successful [acoustical] eavesdropping systems of its time, which was placed in the United States Ambassador’s residence in Moscow in 1945 and not discovered for seven years! How did your aunt meet him, and why did she find this electronic instrument so appealing?

Excerpt from "The Swan" (Clara Rockmore - Theremin)

ROBERT SHERMAN: She met him while he was demonstrating his instrument in New York [in 1928], tried it and found she had an innate ability to control it. She turned to it as a substitute when she could no longer continue playing the violin.

STEPHANIE CHASE: She must have been a remarkable violinist as well, and I wish I could have heard her play. 

A number of years ago I saw an American documentary on Theremin, which was fascinating – after having lived in New York from the late 1920’s into the late 30’s he abruptly disappeared without explanation, returned to the USSR, and was forced to work in a laboratory for nine years, where he worked on bugging devices. 

Did you ever aspire to become a professional musician?

ROBERT SHERMAN: No, as I said I hated to practice and knew I didn't have the discipline for any kind of real performing career. I was good enough, talent-wise, to fool people into thinking I was a real pianist – quite a few times as a matter of fact – and given a month or two I could probably play the one Mozart 4-Hand Sonata I know – treble part only; I don't read bass clef very well – and fool them again. Just don't ask me for anything else. I loved to be around music, though, and finally settled on radio as a way to be involved with it that didn't involve practicing.

STEPHANIE CHASE: So how did this aspect of your career begin?

ROBERT SHERMAN: Well, I wanted to do something in music, other than performance, and since I grew up listening to the radio, in particular WQXR, I applied for a job there, while l was still in the army. Truth in advertising: a little nepotism was involved. Mother had performed on the station many times, and the Chasins were family friends. Abram [Chasin, a former concert pianist and professor who was music director of WQXR starting in 1946], in fact, probably alerted me to the opening, and probably put in a good word for me. In any case, I had learned to type in the army, and thus began as a clerk in the music department.

STEPHANIE CHASE: That startles me – that your typing skills got you started at WQXR!

Over many decades, your illustrious career in television, radio and print, includes hosting music programs and as a classical music critic for the New York Times. I would think that music criticism is an especially challenging job; would you please describe your own approach to reviewing a concert?

ROBERT SHERMAN: I don't really have an approach. I'm basically easy-going, because I know that even the worst pianist in the world plays 100 times better than I do. So I just listen, and try to recount how the performances moved me, or – as a reporter – how the audience reacted or what a new piece sounded like.

STEPHANIE CHASE: On behalf of the many performers who have both respected and feared concert coverage by the Times, I want to say how grateful I am for your attitude! My husband used to know an American music critic who covered New York concerts for a prominent British publication, and invariably he would nitpick his way through each concert and make lots of negative comments, which could be quite destructive on many levels, whereas the British-based journalists had a much more positive viewpoint, as if they really liked music and enjoyed their work.

You have undoubtedly witnessed many outstanding concerts, particularly in New York. Are there any that you recall as truly memorable events – and why?   

ROBERT SHERMAN: [There are] too many to conjure up at this late date. My most memorable, perhaps, was a New York Philharmonic concert when Mother introduced the Kabalevsky Second Piano Concerto, a delightful score, and I've never understood why it is not played more often. What made the event memorable, though, was my first in-concert hearing of the Beethoven Fifth [Symphony]. Astonishing piece when you encounter it fresh – I was 13 at the time.

STEPHANIE CHASE: I first encountered it at the same age, during my first year at the pre-college division at Juilliard. We probably played it rather bombastically. Incidentally, a few years back I attended a rehearsal, at Carnegie Hall, of the El Sistema orchestra conducted by [Gustavo] Dudamel. I’ve never seen a larger orchestra onstage, but they were able to play [this Symphony] astonishingly softly at times, and the string players used unconventional bowings that worked great.

So, some classical musicians are, to put it kindly, rather eccentric. Did you ever have a radio interview go really, I mean really, wrong?

ROBERT SHERMAN: Quite a few, but I'd rather not name names, to protect the guilty. One was a distinguished composer who referred to various conductors with such obscene comments that our chief engineer rushed into the control room, waving the FCC regulations at me. Or the famous instrumentalist who described a colleague having cut off a finger in an accident, and proceeded to joke about it. Or the Met Opera singer who, in a master-class situation, terrified a student – before she had sung a note – to such an extent that she broke down in tears. Or the celebrated actor who referred to an equally celebrated conductor as "turning everything she touches into S..t." Yes, live broadcasts are fun.

STEPHANIE CHASE: And you as the host have to maintain your decorum while inside you must be screaming.

When I was perhaps 20 years old I played a live recital for a New York station, WBAI, and vividly recall warming up in a small soundproof room and witnessing a fist fight right outside through its window – I think an engineer suspected another guy of messing with his equipment. There was literally blood on the wall!

To change the subject: in this administration, government support for the arts is likely to end – at least, how we have known it – which will affect the NEA, NEH and NPR, for example. Would you care to comment on this?

ROBERT SHERMAN: Government officials who have no respect for the arts, which really define our civilization, should be thrown out of office. Or impeached, as the case may be.

STEPHANIE CHASE: I’m also feeling dismayed about it. I think the arts have a great power to unite people, in so many ways, and enable us to express our humanity. To allocate so much money for military efforts but so little for supporting artistic creation would seem to bring us down several notches as a civilized nation.

But let’s go onward: What advice would you give a talented young classical musician who is hoping to embark on a performing career? 

ROBERT SHERMAN: Learn how the music business works: what a manager does and, more importantly, doesn't do, what a good letter should include, how to write an effective bio, the best way to handle an interview, etc. etc.

STEPHANIE CHASE: That’s excellent advice – I think artist managers are under a lot of pressure to provide good “entertainers” rather than good musicians, which is part of the problem. And we can’t count on them to write our material well, or effectively. But it also seems that many performers are broadening their ideas about repertoire and what constitutes a performance; if this is done with integrity then it can be artistically stimulating and wonderful for the audience.

Your career has been immensely varied and you have many admirers throughout the US. What fact about you would surprise them the most? Personally, I am surprised that you began your career as a typist!

ROBERT SHERMAN: That I'm basically shy and uncomfortable in most public social situations, that my most frequent question, actually plea, to my partner at such occasions is "can we leave yet?"

STEPHANIE CHASE: That is surprising, given your ease and experience in so many settings. What are some of your current and upcoming projects?

ROBERT SHERMAN: Aside from the usual – preparing my weekly Young Artists Showcase and the contemporary folk show Woody's Children, for WQXR and WFUV respectively – my summer plans include hosting a panel for the Heifetz Symposium at the University of Connecticut, interviewing Elaine Malbin for an event at the Paley Center, hosting an Oscar Brand tribute at the Clearwater Festival, narrating Patrick Burns'  "I Loved Well Those Cities" with the Westchester Symphonic Winds at Caramoor, hosting panels and narrating "Peter and the Wolf" for the National Orchestral Institute at the University of Maryland, and narrating Stravinsky's L’Histoire du Soldat with DeCoda [a New York based chamber orchestra] at Skidmore College.

STEPHANIE CHASE: That’s an impressive lineup – I guess you don’t take much vacation time!

ROBERT SHERMAN: The biggie in the fall is the 40th anniversary of the Young Artists Showcase, to be recorded in the Greene Space [in the WQXR building] on October 24th. The program includes a world premiere of a piece by William Bolcom and John Corigliano's “Gazebo Dances” in new transcriptions for brass quintet. I'm hoping both composers will be there for early celebrations of their 80th birthdays. As you can tell, I love being retired.

STEPHANIE CHASE: Congratulations for this anniversary! You have accomplished so much during your career and, personally, I am very grateful for the support and exposure you gave me as a young artist through my appearances on WQXR. Are there additional projects or accomplishments that you want to mention?

ROBERT SHERMAN: What I am very proud of is the work I've done to see to the reissuing of virtually all of Mother's and Clara's recordings, including previously unissued performances. The most recent CD [on the Romeo label] has live in-concert performances of chamber music with the Davids Glazer and Soyer, the Budapest and Galimir Quartets and even some solo pieces I recorded at home before you were born.

STEPHANIE CHASE: Along with your mother and aunt, these are some of the most distinguished musicians of the 20th century and I look forward to hearing these – and your solo pieces! Thank you so much for the privilege of our conversation, and for providing so many years of artistic inspiration and enjoyment.



Stephanie Chase
Stephanie Chase is internationally recognized as "one of the violin greats of our era" (Newhouse Newspapers) through solo appearances with over 170 orchestras that include the New York and Hong Kong Philharmonics and the Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta and London Symphony Orchestras. Her interpretations are acclaimed for their "elegance, dexterity, rhythmic vitality and great imagination" (Boston Globe), "stunning power" (Louisville Courier-Journal), "matchless technique" (BBC Music Magazine), and "virtuosity galore" (Gramophone), and she is a top medalist of the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. In addition to her concert activities, she teaches at New York University and Vassar College.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.