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Remembering the Unforgettable Eleanor Sokoloff: The Longtime Curtis Educator Has Died at 106

It was 1931 when Eleanor Blum arrived in Philadelphia at age 17 to study piano at the Curtis Institute of Music—and she never left. "Mrs. Sokoloff," as she was known to students and educators alike at the storied conservatory, died on July 12, 2020 at age 106 of natural causes. She taught at Curtis, the place she called home, for more than 84 years, and was planning to teach this fall despite the pandemic.

Mrs. Sokoloff sat down with me in 2011 in her Rittenhouse Square apartment to share stories about her decades at Curtis (she was the school's longest-serving faculty member)and talk about the growth and changes she had witnessed over the years. At the time she was 97 years old. She greeted me at the door with an endearing smile, and not long into the conversation, she let go with her irrepressible laugh. She exuded a joyful gratefulness for all the students and all the music that surrounded her through the years.

Credit David Swanson
Mrs. Sokoloff waves to an applauding crowd in 2014 as she accepts a lifetime achievement award honoring her immense contributions to the school over more than three-quarters of a century.

Born in Cleveland in 1914, Mrs. Sokoloff also lived in Miami and Washington D.C. before entering Curtis to study with David Saperton. She delved into four-handed piano repertoire, and later in her life, formed a duo with her husband Vladimir Sokoloff, a faculty member at Curtis and the pianist for The Philadelphia Orchestra from 1938 to 1950.

When Eleanor Blum gave her graduation recital in 1938, it included a performance with her piano-duo partner, Vladimir Sokoloff. Their performance of Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56 was repeated for the Curtis Institute of Music's regular broadcast series on CBS Radio. The two were both teachers at Curtis at the time, and would soon marry.

Her first job at Curtis, which she secured while still a student, was to teach piano to students majoring in other instruments; she also taught privately and eventually became a full-time piano faculty member. Her students included Susan Starr, Lambert Orkis, Leon McCawley, Hugh Sung, and Keith Jarrett.

Mrs. Sokoloff serving tea to students and faculty at Curtis, a longtime tradition.

Below are edited excerpts from my 2011 conversation with Mrs. Sokoloff:

What it was like to be a student back in the early thirties?

"I was a student at the time that Mrs. Bok was running the school," she says, referring to Mary Louise Curtis Bok, who founded Curtis and named it after her father, publisher Cyrus Curtis. "Josef Huffman [pianist and director from 1926-1938] was there; there were great, really great faculty and everything was very formal. It is no longer formal."

How was it formal?

"Well, you had to follow certain rules and regulations, even in your attire. She was from a different era and a wonderful woman, so generous and kind, but she was not a contemporary woman. She was really from the 1800s. And now they wear sweatshirts and shorts and everything is very, very loose.

And students didn't have housing at Curtis. 

That has only changed a few months ago!  We now have places for them to live. But then, everybody had to find their own place. Now it's not difficult—there are places all around here in Center City for people to live. And when you're very young, you have your own parents. Somebody's got to be with you until you're 16."

How old were you when you came to Curtis and where did you live?

"I was 16!" she giggles. "Sixteen when I auditioned; 17 when I came. I lived in the Rebecca Gratz Club at 6th and Spruce streets. It was during the Depression. And it was $8 a week for room and board. I was in a room with two other people. I had a spinet piano. I couldn't have a regular grand. So it was hard for me to practice, but it was $8 a week. Can you match it room and board?"

"I walked back and forth from 6th and Spruce to Curtis in the morning —after I practiced a little—then I came to school for classes, and then I walked back for lunch, and then I walked back again in the afternoon for the concerts or classes, but that was some hike! We had many classes and I was quite busy."

"And I'd never been away from home, either. I came from Washington, D.C. I had never been away."

Was it exciting or scary or what?

"For me, it was exciting. For a lot of kids, it's scary. But for me it was really exciting, because my mother and father never let me go anywhere. I went to school, came home, got a snack and went to the piano. Then I had to do homework at night. So I never went anywhere."

You never went anywhere, and then you come to Curtis and you're living by yourself and you're 17 years old!

"I let loose, and I was pretty, so it was a very dangerous situation!" She laughs. "No, it was fun. I had many protectors; they were all male, but they were protectors. They felt like I was a little sister to some of them. I studied piano with David Saperton. He was the teacher of Jorge Bolet. That was his great pupil."

And what happened when you graduated?

"I was very fortunate. I studied from '31 till '36; graduated in '38, but in '36 I joined the faculty. I taught supplementary piano for years and then went into the major department because I had so many gifted students. I really did. I had wonderful kids."

How did it feel to be teaching while you were still a student?

"Well, I was greatly honored, I can tell you. I know what happened. One of the teachers who taught supplementary piano—this is also to show you the difference in the times—she because pregnant.  And you just didn't show yourself to young students when you were pregnant.  So she had to take a sabbatical.  She never did come back in that job. I kept it." 

Credit Curtis Institute of Music publicity photo
Mrs. Sokoloff formed a piano duo with her husband, Vladimir Sokoloff. Here the pair practices together circa 1940s.

How many students did you have at a time?

"Oh, it was a long list of students. You see, they all had to—trumpet players, trombone players, singers, violinists, cellists— they all have to study the piano. It's the only complete instrument. Every one of them plays with a one line instrument. So a piano is part of their required study. So you see, I had a lot of students."

And you really had a sense of the whole school!

"Well, I had a sense of a whole school from the time I walked in the door," she says, laughing, "and I stayed there. This is my 76th year of teaching."

It's too big a question, I guess, to ask how it's changed.

"Well, how it's changed ... it's been so gradual, I haven't even noticed it. You sort of  change with the times.  But it's true that the dress is part of it, and also that the quality of pupils have also changed. The standards have gone way up from the time when I came. There were some really good people, but the requirements to get in have really ballooned.

Curtis has a very low student-to-faculty ratio and it really encourages mentoring, doesn't it? 

"Well, there are very few students compared to most schools and you're right, the ratio of student-to-faculty is quite wonderful."

"And I know with mine, first of all, I have the young ones: 14, I have one 10-year-old. They're remarkable. And their scholastic ability goes right along with their gift. Also, they work so hard!

This little 10-year-old, she told me she practices six hours a day. That's amazing for a 10-year-old! And it must have started when she was three or four. I don't know, because she doesn't speak English! She's Chinese, as are most of my students!" 

Have you seen the demands on the students change? Now, with Lenfest Hall and the recording capabilities, they're preparing students for a world that's very different from what it was 50 years ago. 

"Absolutely. Well, I think that's a great benefit; recording makes it much easier for the children to hear themselves. And the world is different. There's a lot of technical advancement. Music is different, the music that's being composed today, but we have to move with the times. We've been very slow to do that, but we're changing now."

"Everything is changing. The dormitory situation has changed, making it very posh for most of the students, I think. Where before they were isolated, now they're be able to be together. They have a restaurant there, where they can eat together. It sounds wonderful to me."

Pianist Hugh Sung interviewed his beloved teacher when she turned 100 years old:

So what made you decide to teach?

"What do you mean? What made me decide? I had no decision, it was such an honor to be offered this position. I taught a little bit before that. I had a few private pupils, so I knew what to do."

Well, it's a great honor and you're really shaping the next generation.

"At that particular point, I wasn't shaping anybody because this was a secondary situation. Piano is a minor requirement and most of the kids were not serious about this subject. They used to run the day before and get a practice room and go through what they were assigned. But some of them were fine pianists. And that was a pleasure." 

Do students still have to take piano? All of the students?

"Yes. Still a required subject. It's the only complete instrument beside the organ, but nobody takes secondary organ!"

So what was your favorite thing about teaching; what gave you the most satisfaction?

"Just the fact that I did teach. I took it seriously and the good ones I enjoyed teaching. [Even] the bad ones -- they used to come and make me laugh! I was very young. Make me laugh if they weren't prepared. That's what they do. Of course, I was wise to the whole situation. However, that's the way it is still today with supplementary piano."

Credit Richard Kraemer
Mrs. Sokoloff with former student, Susan Starr, and director of Curtis, Gary Graffman, in a panel discussion in 2001.

"But I had wonderful private students, little ones who played with The Philadelphia Orchestra. They were very, very good. And they eventually got into Curtis. My first really good, wonderful student was Susan Starr. And she came in second in the big [1962] Tchaikovsky Competition. Susan got into Curtis when she was seven years old. And then I had Lambert Orkis, and then Lambert got in. You see, you have a few good students. [Rudolf] Serkin was very helpful. He's the one who put me in the major department."

I get the sense that it's a small place. It's a selective place. And people become like family.

"Exactly. It's a warm, wonderful place. And we had alum week, last week. And all of these people remember everything that happened to them when they were at school. Everything about the Curtis is remembered. People are contacting you all the time, no matter where you live, because everybody moves around traveling the world and they meet Curtis students wherever they go. "

So you keep in touch with your friends through the years?

"Yes, all my students I've had through the years, even the supplementary people keep in touch. I have more students than anybody else because of that class. I love the Curtis Institute. It is my home."

You also have a story about Keith Jarrett.

"Keith Jarrett was a private student. When he was nine years old, he used to come to my house for lessons on Delancey where the Kimmel Center is now."

"As a matter of fact, when he came to perform in Philadelphia and he gave a recital in  Kimmel, it was filled. He's amazing. He's a wonderful pianist. And he made an announcement at intermission to the whole kit 'n caboodle that he feels like he's in my living room, because this is where he came to take his lessons every Saturday. And he mentioned my name."

[She wasn't at that performance but loved the story. "So when he came back the following year, I bought a ticket - $76 - the last seat in the house. I thought he was marvelous.  I tried to go backstage to see him but they wouldn't let me go back, even though I said I was his old teacher."]

She  shares another memory, when the grown Keith Jarrett later reminded her of a time when he had come to her house to say hello. "I didn't recognize this middle-aged man standing at the door. He said, 'My name is Keith Jarrett, do you remember me, Mrs. Sokoloff?' And I said, 'I'm sorry, I don't remember you.'" 

She laughs at herself. "Can you imagine?!"

When you were teaching, did you also play duo repertoire?

"Oh yes. My husband and I. My husband was a wonderful pianist. He was a really well-known accompanist. That was his field. We were in two separate departments at Curtis. He was in the accompanying department. And after a while he was the head of the accompanying department, and I was in the piano solo department, which is different. We played four hands, everything. We had no favorites. We played a lot of Schubert, Schuman, Beethoven. We played Mozart, Debussy, Ravel, everything for four hands."

"In the old days, there was no way of listening to things other than live performances. And people used to give four-hand recitals. And even for fun, they used to do this. This was great entertainment. So, there's a lot of four-hand literature; there's more four-hand literature than there is for two pianos. Who could afford two pianos?

 So, anything else about Curtis? Do you like the new building?

"Oh yes. I'm thrilled. And I think it's wonderful that Roberto [Diaz] had this vision and this really determination to get it done,  and I'm grateful, of course, to Mr. Lenfest."

On the way out, she shows me some of her photos.

"Now, Jenny [Chen].  She's 16 and she just won a big prize in the Liszt competition." 

"Here's Gary and Naomi [Graffman]. This is Craig Shepherd. He's head of the piano department at University of Washington." 

'That's Leon McCauley. He's going to play with our orchestra in February. He lives in London.  And that's Lambert Orcas. He has a Grammy. He's holding it in his hand. And Jorge Bolet's picture is back there with my husband and me. Can you see it?  He was a great pianist, Jorge. "

"And Lang Lang in the back. I'll show you Susan Star. She's out here on the wall, when she was six? five?  Here she is. That's when she was a baby." She beams.  "These are all my children."

https://vimeo.com/122922577">Mrs. Sokoloff from https://vimeo.com/user6355683">D'Arcy Marsh on Vimeo.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.