My mother was a classically trained pianist and, later, organist. She had begun piano lessons at a very young age and she was excellent. She could play the speed of Chopin, the intricacy of Bach, the power of Tchaikovsky, and the sensitivity of Debussy. Even with all my problems in life with her, I wish I could hear her play again. It was as if all her demons were put to rest when she played the piano.
The real fun was watching Dad and Mom working together on musical projects. He leading the choir and she accompanying them on keyboards.
I can recall, as a little boy, hearing my mother playing the piano and seeing this thick, old and tattered book of classical piano pieces. The cover had fallen off the book but she still kept it and would hold it to the book with a big rubber band when the book was not in use. It was like the old cover had become some kind of monument to the music held within the pages and the faces on the front cover were her inspiration.
When she stopped playing, I would ask “Who is Choppin’?” She would laugh and correct me, “SHO-pan.” At five years old, I knew that C-h-o-p-i-n was not pronounced like SHO-pan. “His name is French,” she explained, “although he lived in Poland.” Hm. “What about WAG-ner?” I would ask. “That’s VAHG-ner,” she would answer. “Is he from France, too?” “No, he was German.” “Pader-OO-ski,” was next. “Pader-EFF-ski,” she corrected, “also from Poland.” I shook my head. “Why don’t these people learn to spell?” She laughed out loud and told me, “They do know how to spell! You just don’t know how to pronounce French or German or Polish names yet.”
I liked it that she said “yet,” inferring that someday I would know these things. Then, at nine years of age, I began to learn these things and more. My first teacher was a real lover of classical music and she was brilliant at teaching music theory. I was only with her for my first two years but she shaped my music education and set a high standard for any teacher who followed after.
Let me conclude this with just one little story.
When I was 16 years old, the piano teacher I was with retired. He was a very good teacher. However, I had to begin hunting around for a new one. I went to one teacher to speak with her and she asked which composers I enjoyed hearing. I said, “Well, sure, Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. But aside from the obvious ones, I really like Sibelius… Rachmaninoff… Schubert… and even though he’s a creep, I like a lot of Wagner.” She tilted her head like a puzzled puppy and said, “You mean WAG-ner?” I'm not saying I ended the interview right then, but I had made my decision.
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