World-renowned piano prodigy turns 90, remembers SIUE connection

Pianist Ruth Slenczynska has fingers that have touched the hearts of five American presidents and audiences across the country and the world.

Ruth Slencznyska, former piano prodigy and later an SIUE artist-in-residence, turns 90 this month. Photo courtesy of Lovejoy Library

The New York City resident, who turns 90 this month, was also artist-in-residence at SIUE from 1964-1987.

According to Slenczynska, her time in Edwardsville was a happy situation where she met many friends and political science professor James Kerr who became her second husband.

“You never know what lies ahead,” said Slenczynska, who began playing piano at age four. “It’s a wonderful place to grow and make friends if you’re prepared to grow and there are very special things you learn at SIUE [that] will be useful to you.”

The Lovejoy Library houses many of Slenczynska’s commercial and live recordings along with photographs, articles and reviews. Her memorabilia and information about child prodigies will be on display in the library this month.

Former musicologist Allan Ho said Slenczynska has been compared to Mozart and has had one of the longest active careers as a pianist.

“When she first started playing there was a famous music critic named Olin Downs who said she was the greatest piano genius since Mozart. Other reviewers started paraphrasing that,” Ho said.

According to Ho, at age five, she earned $2,500 from each concert.

Ho said she has an incredible work ethic practicing more than eight hours each day since childhood and added that she has a commanding technique and style.

“She‘s a very tiny woman with a gigantic piano sound,” Ho said. “The first time someone hears her they think how does such a very big sound come from a little body?”

At SIUE, Ho said Slenczynska was a wonderful colleague who brought in various foreign students when she toured different parts of the world.

Despite her celebrity status, Ho said Slenczynska remains humble without an ego.

Ho said Slenczynska would claim that anyone who worked as hard as she did could play that well; that what she accomplished was through hard work and not because she was born that way.

“She hates it when people make a fuss about her,” Ho said.

Slenczynska, native of Sacramento, Calif., said she enjoys making people happy.

“Learning and new knowledge throughout all your life — that’s what keeps you happy,” she said. “As you use the knowledge, you can use the knowledge in different ways like giving and giving [which] is what makes you happy. The more you give the happier you will be.”

Slenczynska said what she what she tries to do the on piano is impact her audiences by expressing various human emotions.

“All of the feelings of sadness, happiness [and] feelings of dance…,” Slenczynska said. “After people come for two hours to listen, and the music carries them I give this music in the form of [this] expressing.”

She added that you if you don’t speak through your fingers you are not an effective player.

Slenczynska said playing and teaching the piano gives her the opportunity to make new friends and she enjoys hearing from former students from New York and Edwardsville for instance.

“They still keep in touch with me [and] they take me out sometimes and I’m always happy when one of them calls me up and wants to spend time with me,” she said.

According to Slenczynska, a recent trip where she viewed the ocean was exciting and helped broaden her perspective on life.

“The ocean part is much bigger than land area. We don’t know a lot about life because we’re preoccupied with ourselves too much,” she said. “We should be thinking of the entire world–not me all the time. So, we have to give. It’s awesome to think about.”

Looking to her birthday this month, Slenczynska said cannot name her most memorable moment in her career.

“Maybe I’ll experience it tomorrow. Every moment is wonderful,” she said.

To learn more about Slenczynska visit the following Lovejoy Library link:

To hear her interview with former Dean Aldemaro Romero for the inaugural CAS Segue radio program which aired on March 6, 2011.


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