POTSDAM — It was Philip Solomonick's fingers hitting the black and white keys, but his entire body up to his eyebrows was engaged in playing the Rachmaninov piece in front of an audience of about 70 people, including Grammy-winner Emanuel Ax.
Mr. Ax, who introduced himself to the crowd of mostly students as "Manny," spent about an hour Sunday morning working with two of SUNY Potsdam's approximately 40 piano students, offering suggestions and improvements on the two complicated pieces.
"It was so helpful. It opened up my mind; getting an opinion about how you need to play a Rachmaninov from a world-class pianist is a good thing," Mr. Solomonick said. "He gave me another point of view and that's always helpful."
Neither the 21-year-old Jerusalem native nor fellow pianist Dia Yi are strangers to performing; each has been playing piano for more than 15 years.
They auditioned to play in front of Mr. Ax during the first week of the spring semester and had been practicing their pieces for hours. Miss Dia, who is from Shanghai, China, has been working on the Chopin piece she played on and off since she was 16. Mr. Solomonick had been working on the Rachmaninov for about a month, he said.
"I didn't start being nervous until half an hour ago. Before that, I didn't even think about it," Miss Dia said. "I feel happy to hear what anybody has to say. As he said, there is no perfect performance. He's a master."
For both performers, Mr. Ax worked on volume variation to make the quiet notes softer. He rarely finished a sentence to either of the students without humming or singing a melody to them. Next to the concert grand piano they were playing was a baby grand, on which he occasionally played to demonstrate a concept.
During a short question-and-answer session after the two lessons, Mr. Ax said he rarely gets the chance to give master classes.
"They're quite fun to do, because you get to meet some very nice people," he said. "It gives people a chance to play, which is a good thing; getting to play these two very, very tough pieces is a very good thing."
Mr. Ax was brought to SUNY Potsdam through the McElheran Visiting Artist Series, which recently received a $1.6 million bequest to ensure the series' continuation. His Community Performance Series concert Saturday night at Hosmer Hall had about 600 people in the audience. He admitted to getting nervous before performances, but told the students at the class that performing makes them concentrate more on what is going on in a piece and changes the way they play.
"I enjoy the whole process of getting nervous and performing," Mr. Ax said. "I think playing for people is a very good thing; if you can drag your friends in to listen, that will be helpful. It's hard, but it's good for you."