I have had many teachers throughout my life, but the one who looms largest in my mind is my first piano teacher, a quiet, elegant woman who lives simply and is, like many artists, frequently misunderstood (some might even say “eccentric”). Like countless people around the world, I began piano lessons as an eight-year-old child. This makes me extremely ordinary. But, in my memory at least, my teacher was anything but ordinary. Today, after years in the music profession, I look back on my lessons with her and feel nostalgic. And so, in this month of thanksgiving, I want to express my thanks to her by highlighting those qualities that made her effective as a teacher, qualities worthy of emulation. (I do so without mentioning her by name, since she has always been one who eschews the limelight.)
Her love of music was contagious. When I began lessons, I had an interest in music, but music was not my passion. She changed everything. She appreciated music more deeply than most, and she spoke about music with an understanding few possess. She enjoyed French music in particular, and her performances of Ravel’s Jeux d’eau and Debussy’s Clair de lune at annual recitals are permanent fixtures in my memory. Every time she played the piano, people were mesmerized by her exquisite artistry. Making music meant more than playing the right notes and rhythms—it meant understanding and internalizing the piece until it became your own. She loved to write and arrange music, too, and she found pleasure in its performance. I always marvel when her chord voicings and favored harmonic progressions appear in my own music, and I am grateful for her influence.
Her teaching seemed effortless. Music is difficult to learn. The grammar and syntax of music is complicated; practicing is done in isolation; and, the more advanced one becomes, the more effort it takes to reach the next level. Teaching music is equally difficult. She was a naturally gifted pedagogue. In lessons, despite all my mistakes, she was always calm. She understood each one of her students and adjusted her teaching to meet their particular needs. Long before individualized instruction was in vogue among professional educators, she taught that way. Every time I thought something was impossible, she would say, “Just do.” She knew this no nonsense admonition was exactly what I needed to hear. She was always prepared, never hurried, always composed. During recitals she would sit in the front row, ready to rescue students from those inevitable memory lapses. She was always patient and kind.
She modeled grace and humility. In the five years I studied with her (1985-1990), weekly half-hour lessons cost an unbelievably low three dollars—the price never went up! She lived in a humble house, dressed practically, and taught many children who took lessons only because their parents insisted. After I finished playing in one of her annual recitals, she whispered to my mother, “The student has surpassed the teacher.” Many would find it difficult to make such a statement. When I found a new teacher, she attended my recitals. She even took piano lessons with my new teacher. She was a lifelong learner, eager to develop and grow, always striving for more. She never concertized publicly, and her beautiful pieces have never been published. No one in the music industry knows her name. But, I do. And I owe her a debt of gratitude for graciously sharing with me her profound love of music.
© 2015 Timothy Shaw. All rights reserved.