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Sorel's gift of a Steinway sparks fond memories at Fredonia State

The energy and elegance of Claudette Sorel seems to hover around the glistening concert grand piano on the stage of Rosch Recital Hall at Fredonia State College.

The sparkling Steinway is a gift to the school from the Sorel Foundation, named in honor of Sorel's parents and marking the heritage that the teacher, performer and friend instilled at the college.

Phyllis East was a student of Sorel. Now a professor, she considered Sorel, who died in 1999, a good friend.

East replaced Sorel at the School of Music when she retired from Fredonia, continuing the legacy of the world-famous teacher and performer.

Sorel was the youngest graduate of Juilliard School, completing her degree at age 9. Born in Paris, but trained in the United States, she performed with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall at age 10. The child prodigy graduated high school at 13 and went on to acquire a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Columbia University.

Sorel performed in more than 1,000 concerts, festivals and recitals. She was a featured performer with most major orchestras and recorded with RCA Records.

Sorel was also an author. In addition to several books on piano technique, she wrote a book on etiquette. "Mind Your Musical Manners: On and Off Stage a Handbook of Stage Etiquette," is still used today.

East smiled at the memory of Sorel's strict rules on manners, recalling that one of her guidelines included earrings.

"She warned us never to wear earrings that dangled for fear that they would fall off during a performance and maybe hit the keyboard," said East.

But East didn't believe earrings would come off. "Maybe I figured she wasn't thinking about pierced ears," she said.

However, East recalled playing in a recital when an earring fell onto her lap. "At the end of the performance I just reached down and scooped it into my hand," she said.

In the audience, Sorel was watching, and after the performance she commented that East started the performance with two earrings and left the stage with just one.

The wayward earring became a joke and fond memory.

A diminutive woman of high energy and passion for her work, Sorel is also remembered for her devotion to students and her ideas for teaching. East recalled late-night phone calls from Sorel.

"I knew if my phone rang after 11 p.m. it would be Madam Sorel, with an idea or thought," East said. "I learned to clear my voice and project that I, too, was awake and thinking. But in reality I was sound asleep, exhausted from taking care of young children and working."

When she joined Fredonia's faculty in 1969, Sorel was named a distinguished professor, one of only five at that time in all of New York's State University system. She was also named University Scholar and University Artist for the state.

The gift of the piano, which cost $89,000, is a touching reminder of her work at Fredonia. The Steinway was chosen by East and other faculty members, who traveled to the factory in Queens to test instruments that would be appropriate for the recital hall.

When the foundation approved the purchase of the piano, it also gave Fredonia $55,000 in music scholarships, since its mission is to "keep musical excellence alive and help stretch the boundaries for women in music."

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