The Keys to Success

Tatiana Roitman Mann is a powerhouse pianist, a University of Arkansas at Little Rock artist-in-residence, the wife of Arkansas Symphony Director Philip Mann—and living proof that working moms can indeed have it all

Her given name, common in her native Ukraine, twirls across the tongue like a lilting melody. Perhaps it was clear at birth that music would be her destiny.

Thirty-two years later, University of Arkansas at Little Rock professor and artist-in-residence Tatiana Roitman Mann has made the piano into more than her passion and discipline. It’s her lifeblood. “I don’t feel alive unless I am playing my instrument and working on something I will perform,” she says over lunch.

She is petite and stylish in a distinctly European way, wearing a thin gray cardigan over a ruffled gold shell with faded, straight-legged jeans and high-heeled boots. Her brown hair is pulled back under a black wool hat, which she whisks off as she enters the restaurant. Then she shakes her head to let her soft curls fall around her shoulders and begins speaking, with a faint hint of a Russian accent.

She started piano lessons at age 6, she says, “because we lived right across the street from the music school in town, and my mother thought it would be a good idea.” And given what the world now understands about the effect of music on the developing brain, it probably was.

For Tatiana, though, it was pivotal. She would eventually study under some of the finest teachers at some of the most distinguished schools in the world, ultimately earning a doctorate in performance and theory. Along the way she would also perform worldwide, from Sydney, Australia, to Oxford, England, to Tanglewood, New York, where she played alongside greats like Dawn Upshaw and Yo-Yo Ma. Her stirring interpretation of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” at Oxford in 2004 was extolled by the BBC as “formidable . . . with rarely seen joy.” When she performed it again at the Hot Springs Music Festival a few years later, the classical recording studio Naxos put it on one of its premier recordings.

Yet a few weeks ago, the Snow Fine Arts Center recital hall in Conway was less than half-filled when she and violinist Jeff Zehngut of the Cleveland Orchestra presented a brilliant recital of works by Mozart, Brahms, Shostakovich and Prokofiev. The program of this Vienna-quality evening had taken them many dozens of hours to practice separately and three full days to practice together, he on his handmade 1913 Scarampella and she on a magnificent Steinway grand.

Tatiana had also secured the venue and selected all of the works for this stellar presentation. She had fit all those hours of preparation in between her more visible roles in the community as wife of the gregarious Arkansas Symphony Orchestra conductor, Philip Mann; mother of their active 14-month-old son, Julian; and music theory professor at UALR, where she offers a graduate seminar on music and the brain. She has newly jumped into the role of facilitator with Artist Inc., a program that helps young artists learn the business, marketing and management skills to turn their art into a successful career. And she gives private lessons to a few exceptional students who can only dream of reaching the musical heights she has achieved so far in life.

She seems born to all this. Early in life she learned to work tirelessly, strike out boldly and take big risks, essentials traits when you’re climbing the ladder of piano performance with competitive auditions at every rung. She was only 13 when, just as the Soviet Union was collapsing, she, her mother and older brother, Michael, left their hometown of Fastiv, south of Kiev, and immigrated to Winnipeg, Canada, where the only person they knew was Tatiana’s uncle. Her father, an appliance repairman, stayed in Russia to care for his ailing mother, a move that tore the marriage apart and forced her mother to train as a nursing assistant to put food on the table. So Tatiana grew up surrounded by examples of courage and doggedness.

She was always a serious student, tenacious to a fault. At 16, she knew she wanted to attend a good university. But she also realized that key to getting into the best universities was attending the expensive private high school, an arm of the University of Winnipeg, across town. It was where all the wealthiest families sent their kids. One afternoon, entirely on her own, she took a bus there, marched into the dean’s office with all of her records and announced: “I would like to go to this school.” Ten minutes later she walked out with a full scholarship.

Her pluck and talent won her a scholarship to McGill University in Montreal, where she studied under a respected pianist from Russia until she heard about a more performance-centered program at Arizona State, where she could study under the renowned concert pianist Caio Pagano. When that program offered her a scholarship, too, she transferred.

Just watching Pagano was enlightening. “I could see that the most important part of playing was being able to extrapolate good sound from the instrument and control that sound,” she says. “I could see that it took a very special skill. But he could not explain it. He could not tell me how I could do it.”

It became her all-consuming quest. After graduation, she applied to the Manhattan School of Music’s master’s program to study under Marc Silverman, the department head there who was known for the impeccable authority with which he played the piano. She was sure he could help her.

“And he was very kind, very good to me and, I would say, brought me halfway [to the understanding I was seeking]. He told me I needed to strengthen my hands. He was a thin man with long, skinny fingers like mine,” she says, wrinkling her nose in a self-deprecating smile.

She did the exercises he prescribed, even repositioned her hands on the keyboard as he recommended, to extract more power from those fingers. That definitely helped, but she still didn’t have the sound control she wanted.

By that time she had met Philip, who was one year behind her at Arizona State, and they were dating seriously. But he was on his way to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. So when she heard that the Royal Academy of Music in London was auditioning in New York City, she tried out, never imagining she had a chance. She was quickly accepted.

“And I thought ‘Wow, okay!’” she says, her green eyes dancing.

Soon she was on her way to England to study under another Russian teacher, Tatiana Sarkissova, who finally explained to her how to control a piano’s voice.

Sarkissova remembers their first meeting well.

“I saw her as a talented young pianist with good musicianship and great potential. I also noticed a great love for music and a determination to learn,” Sarcissova says. “Moreover, she was very charming—and my namesake as well.”

Tatiana remembers the audition differently. This world-renowned teacher, small in stature and with similarly delicate fingers, exploded when she saw Tatiana opening her hands to make her finger muscles work harder: “What are you doing with your hands?” Sarkissova said, scowling. “Have they not taught you?”

The woman rolled up her sleeves and, for the next two hours, showed Tatiana the elusive technique.

“It’s all in the bum,” Tatiana says, laughing. “The strength you direct to your hands comes from your center of gravity, and for a woman that’s in her bum. She can use that control to make the sound big and powerful. Or for expression, to add emotion.”

She teaches that to her own students as soon as they come to her so they don’t have to spend the years she did trying to figure it out. Better to use that time to stretch themselves, just as she did to get the coveted fellowship at Tanglewood in the summer of 2006. She had spoiled her first try, a friend told her afterward, by performing a piece the judges surely felt was too easy.

“Pull out the biggest, meanest piece you have and put it out there, guns blasting,” he told her. She chose “Rigoletto Paraphrase” by Franz Liszt.

“It’s very big and very mean. It seemed to do the trick,” she says.

She wondered then, and wonders still, if she could ever make it into what she calls “the top 5 percent.” She thinks of that more wistfully since she took on the role of mother and conductor’s wife, which will always entail a certain amount of moving. She asks, as so many talented women do, if she can have it all.

When she went after her doctorate in 2004 at the University of Minnesota, her intent was to pursue something stable to support herself through the ups and downs of performance opportunities. Philip had not yet asked her to marry him, though that summer before she headed off on her doctoral studies, he invited her to Paris where he popped the question.

Looking back on those three years in Minneapolis, under the tutelage of Alexander Braginsky, another lionized concert pianist who helms from Europe, she likens the workload and stress to that of new motherhood. Braginsky had been trained by Alexander Goldenweiser, a classmate of the great 20th century Russian composer/pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff. The pedagogy that experience provided, however, is paying off now.

“I love teaching,” she says of her music-theory classes. “I love to train their ears to intervals and chords and rhythms, so they can learn music easier.”

Her private piano students love her, too. Her high expectations and insistence on excellence make them want to work hard, they say. They learn by her example, too—her indefatigable will to get things perfect, as she showed with violinist Zehngut, working those solid days and far into both nights before their recital together at the University of Central Arkansas. Granted, she kept her eye firmly on the baby monitor as she practiced until 2 a.m. And what she learned is that Julian, who will have no choice but to learn piano as well as Russian so he can visit his mother’s homeland some day, much prefers the music of Brahms over Shostakovich.

Phil Horlings, a former student of Tatiana’s who is finishing his degree in musicology at the University of California, Los Angeles, says her influence extended beyond the notes on the page.

“I came to her for piano lessons and she taught me how to live,” he says. “She taught me there is no magic fix. You have to put in the work. I see that as a metaphor for life.”

These lessons are again on display one Saturday morning in her West Little Rock living room as she strikes a serious pose behind student Olivia Robinson, who is seated at her teacher’s 1926 Steinway B. Olivia, a home-schooled high school senior, recently won in a statewide competition the opportunity to perform with the Arkansas Symphony. Tatiana was exactly Olivia’s age when she played Saint-Saëns’ “Concerto in G Minor” with an orchestra for the first time.

Tatiana knows this work in measure-by-measure detail.

“I want to hear every note,” she tells Olivia of one two-handed run up the keyboard, humming the tempo softly. “Now stay steady, steady. We want to hear the conversation. Ahhh, now let it fly away. Wonderful. That was wonderful!”

And yet, as exhilarating as it is for Tatiana to watch her students respond, it is coaxing that beautiful sound out of the instrument herself that still thrills her the most. Her friends and mentors know this to be true.

Kristina Marinova, a contract accompanist for the UALR music department who occasionally joins forces with Tatiana in a two-piano duo, marvels at her friend: “I say to her all the time ‘Tatiana, I don’t know how you do it.’ I see her with the baby, and there is so much love there. Then I think about the schedule she keeps. She is just amazing.”

Braginsky is not surprised. He says he took Tatiana under his wing because he saw her as “very much her own person, very talented, very determined and very persistent. I cannot imagine she will ever give up her aspiration for great performance success.”

“My music is like a powerful addiction to me,” she says. “After all of that practice, every ounce of me is in it. I cannot do it halfway.”

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