Immortal Fingertips: Music Teachers Live On Through Their Students

The death of a well-loved instructor leads a critic to reflect on how technique and style are passed between generations.

Comments: 20

  1. I started piano lessons when I was 7 years old, at one of those small town "mom and pop" music stores with cubicle rooms in the back. My teacher was Don Haas, a man of coolness and integrity. He trained me in the classics, but was tolerant of my dream of rock stardom! I grew up to have a successful career as a rock musician from the 70's thru the 90's, and am now a teacher myself. Mr. Haas has sadly passed on, but I know he would be proud to see that I am carrying on the tradition of passing my gift on to the next generation of young musicians!

  2. My piano learning experience was a little different from yours. I studied from kindergarten until the first year of college with individual teachers in Pasadena and White Plains, but I suspect that some innate inability on my part prevented me from excelling the way I'd hoped. I often wondered if the fact that Garrick Ohlsson's lesson time preceded mine had anything to do with my lack of achievement.

  3. Nice article.

    The scene and home you describe is so familiar with my Italian violin teacher - a pupil of Carl Flesch - and his French Piano playing wife. Their home was a true musical haven and heaven, with a violin workshop lined with violins hanging on the walls and ceiling in various states of repair and build - with the aroma of wood, varnish and rosin in the air - none of that electronics smell. And the music ... sweet! Regrettably I never even reached mediocrity after 15 years of hard study. I am a good listener, however, as a result of an amazing teacher that in retrospect I did not appreciate as a kid much as I do now.

    I like Heifetz, and he is technically superb, but too often he seems to toss off too many notes as if they do not matter because he can. Perhaps it is the influence of Ms. DeLay that many of her students are my favorites. Though European and Russian schools have certainly produced many of the best too.

    Listening to the current crop of virtuosos live - Hahn, Perlman, Mutter, Shaham, ... - compared to my efforts - they are true miracle workers.

  4. I studied with the stern and unforgiving Aube Tzerko, a Schnabel student. He's gone now, but he would have smiled to see me reflexively practicing my Pischna exercises on tabletops, desks, at restaurants while waiting to order. When I returned to piano lessons after several decades my new teacher praised my unusually strong fingers.

  5. I too had the privilege to study with Aube Tzerko, at the Aspen Summer Festival. What an inspiring musician! He would literally open for a student the great riches of the music literature, the intellectual depth and emotional intensity of great works. That surely came from the tradition of Artur Schnabel, his teacher. How often would he furiously erase some markings -- his own earlier ones -- in his scores, having discovered a new, better approach to a passage or an episode. After every lesson -- which often lasted several times the designated time (fortunately, I often was the last student for the day) -- one had the feeling of communicating with great art through the singular services of the high priest of music.
    Aube Tzerko did not teach in a famous conservatory, yet he was truly unique. A teacher in the most noble sense of the term.

  6. I miss my teacher every day, especially now as my performing career has evolved into a teaching career, at the school where I studied with her. I so wish I could ask her a million questions about teaching......but I do feel parts of her in me, and consequently in my students.

  7. I had a magical moment with a student a few weeks ago when a diction detail we had worked on came so beautifully into focus. I was so proud of him, but it was also a sad moment because the woman who had taught me this particular approach, a veteran diction coach, had passed away a few weeks prior. It was so special to hear her lessons living on, through my teaching and his singing. (And, if you're the LS I have a feeling you might be, then know that your own work with me--brief as it may have been--informs my singing and teaching even today.)

  8. This is indeed moving, but the message is not restricted to music teachers. This is what it means to be an effective teacher of any kind, or, for that matter, a parent. We can only live on in what we impart.

  9. Good teachers in ANY subject enhance the lives of their pupils for the rest of their lives. As a young person, I was lucky to have several wonderful teachers for my instrument, bass trombone. One of the best was John Coffee, a former bass trombonist with the NBC Symphony, Cleveland Symphony and Boston Symphony. I took lessons from John in his modest shop, across from Boston Symphony Hall. It was on the second floor over a drug store in a rather dilapidated building. This was the home of Coffee Music and John's studio. I wondered why he was satisfied in such a run down place. The truth was he just loved teaching! Where it was done was of little importance. And besides, the drug store down stairs served the hot dogs that he loved. (I was often asked to run down there and get him lunch, which I loved to do.)

    John was one of the best brass instrument teachers who ever lived and best loved people I ever knew. To anyone who was younger, they were "kid" and treated with fatherly regard. Everyone loved John. At times it was difficult to get a full lesson with him, as visitors dropped in to say hello and share musical news and views at any time. Professional musicians were coming in all the time. He never turned anyone away.

    Needless to say, my life was greatly enriched by teaching music, playing in orchestras, bands and brass groups for 50 years. I owe this to my great teachers, John being the best. Many other brass players of my generation would say the same.

  10. As a school p.r. person in the town where my kids went to school K-12, I was rebuffed by the administration because I wanted to do a press release celebrating a retiring music teacher. I understand why they felt that singling out one teacher might seem offensive to other retirees, but I still argued that this one man had touched the lives of every single student in the school from grades K through 4, and he'd done it well.

  11. Over the years, as I have taught my own students, I have often reflected on this notion of eternal pedagogical life. It has been a deep and poignant joy to pass on the lessons of my childhood teacher, Dr. Leslie Mackett, a faculty member at the University of Redlands who took me on for several years in the 1980s-90s. Vivacious and kind, his warmth permeated his own musicianship and his teaching style. The simple ways in which he appealed to my young imagination to help me connect with the classics -- allowing me to make up preposterously silly words to the subject of a Bach fugue; teaching me to waltz along with my first Chopin; talking about the feelings that might have elicited a "sigh" like the ones in a Mozart sonata -- taught me that music lived, danced, breathed, and wept. His little tricks have been just as effective across generations, as I have seen my students learn not just to connect with the old masters, but to recognize in music a companion: something with which to engage with all one's heart. He kept me on even when my parents could no longer afford to pay, and when he died suddenly and prematurely in 1992, I sobbed for the sweet man who had opened up a whole realm of beauty and possibility to what had been -- and would continue to prove -- an early life often fraught with dysfunction. It is an honor to honor his legacy by passing along such simple, but essential, gifts.

  12. I've certainly observed this among my fellow-flutists -- in the U.S. we're largely "descended" from William Kincaid, and through him Georges Barrere. I've noticed that this extends to recordings as well. I loved the playing of the flutist Elaine Shaffer who died in 1973, just about the time I began to be serious about pursuing music. It was a few seconds of a recording of Telemann that "hooked" me on her playing; her playing in the upper octave sounded so beautiful that I wanted to do that, too. Had she lived, I would have tried to find a way to study with her.

    She premiered the Copland "Duo for flute and piano" and I purchased a copy of her recording made with the composer. It was her final project prior to her death from lung cancer months later. There are a number of things I dislike about the recorded sound; I don't know who engineered it, but it ended up sounding as if Ms. Shaffer were playing directly into a microphone that was literally placed at her lips, and that Copland was on the other side of the room, but I listened to that LP repeatedly. When I learned the piece, I refused to listen to the recording, but I have played it a number of times over the years. I heard a recording of my most recent performance, and was surprised to hear how much it sounded like that recorded performance. So I was indelibly imprinted by a musician I never even met.

  13. While it's important to recognize what a good music teacher gives to their students who go on to become professional musicians, that insular perspective promulgates the misguided notion that appreciating and understanding music is some kind of mystical gift that's passed on only among the lucky chosen ones. This reverence of a bloated notion of "greatness" has been (and continues to be) unhealthy for music as both an artform and a profession.

    One needn't be a teacher at a major conservatory to be a great music teacher; nor should all music teachers be judged solely by how many professional musicians they train and/or how famous their students become. An elementary school music teacher who instills understanding and appreciation of music in future doctors, lawyers, engineers, politicians, bus drivers, etc. is just as important (if not more so) than Eugene Phillips and Dorothy DeLay!

    As Kodaly put it: "It is more important who the singing master at Kisvárda is than who the director of the Opera House is, because a poor director will fail. [Often even a good one.] But a bad teacher may kill the love of music for thirty years in thirty classes of pupils."

    Idolized conservatory teachers churning out dozens of prodigy students won't save classical music from its current downward trajectory. Rather, we need to give more respect to great public school music teachers who train future audiences of music-lovers; they're the ones who'll save classical music from dying off.

  14. This made me think of my bass teacher at Juilliard, Homer Mensch, who died in 2005 or 2006 when I was 16. I don't think he became one with the Force... he was the Force!

  15. what a wonderful article! my husband Alexander Petruska was a pianist/teacher who had the attitude that to play Mozart, you had to listen to his operas. this idea that you should look at art, read and explore the world was just as important as learning the repatoire. I am an artist and we had a great mix of art and music in our lives for 40 years until he passed away in 2014. Jane Petruska

  16. my favorite music teacher was not a classical musician of great reknown, nor did he have students reach great heights in the world of professional performance. instead, he was a high school band director in denton, tx. his firm but fair methods, his positive encouragement, inspired me to perform several levels ABOVE my natural skills. unlike the typical lackadaisical teaching and my own laziness which made my high school years boring, i made an effort for Mr Mc and was rewarded with three years of happy accomplishment, and learned lessons lasting far beyond english tone poems.

  17. I was 15, and was raised to love music in every way by my parents, who were both music teachers. But band was the last straw. We were awful - a small-town high school band with 30 members and no sense of the one unit we were supposed to be. And then my high school band teacher came along.

    He only stayed for two years, but in those two years we were taught how to do more than play the notes on the page. We learned to be musicians, to know what we were playing and why and how a change in dynamics can transform a good piece into one that makes you cry. How a piece can mean something when you're playing for someone who's just lost a close family member.

    In those two years, I grew more as a musician and a clarinet player than the previous 5 years I had played. I learned that band could be a place where we could excel and be great and go beyond what was expected of us. And the person I have to thank for that is a music teacher. Not a professor at a conservatory, but a brand new teacher who proved that you can truly be great if you choose to care about a bunch of rowdy high schoolers who just wanted somewhere to belong.

  18. Dorothy Bjarnason, my flute teacher when I was growing up in Seattle, taught me and many others that music is an essential part of any civilization worthy of the name; that anything worth doing well is worth working hard for (and will probably be harder than you thought, and will still be worth it); that skating along on talent is an unworthy use of that talent; that there is no end to the mysteries of the human heart, but music is an equally endless means of exploring them; that friendship can be lifelong (ours started when I was 11, and still hasn't ended even though she died in 2002. I don't expect it ever will).

    And she taught me how to play the flute, although she was such a subtle teacher that I almost never caught her doing it.

    As a musician, two of my proudest moments were in my freshman year of college, when my famous-conservatory teacher told me I was one of the best-prepared students she'd ever had; and decades later, when one of my students was told the same thing by her new teacher in music school. "Mrs. B" was responsible for both of those.

  19. My double bass teacher at Yale in the mid-1980's was Homer Mensch, who also taught at Julliard and played in the New York Philharmonic. The legend among his students was that he had played the Jaws theme on the original soundtrack, and I can recall him telling me, "Those horror movie scores have some quite challenging bass parts." Although I never reached the heights of achievement that many of his other students did, I remember how he taught me the value of systematic practice and patient, long-term development of precision and artistry. He gave me a lesson in his New York apartment--across the street from the Julliard School--during one winter break, and he let me play his Amati, the double bass equivalent of Stradivarius violin. The instrument seemed to know the way to the notes by itself, and the feel of that instrument was amazing. I will never forget the privilege of having this experience, nor of learning from such a kind, gentle master of the bass.

  20. I am a conservatory-trained pianist, and I've thought about this subject so much over the years... especially when my beloved childhood piano teacher passed away in 2011. I have researched and made elaborate "pedigree" charts of each of my major teachers. The teacher I feel has given me the most of himself is Stephen Drury. Steve studied with Claudio Arrau, who studied with Martin Krause, who studied with Franz Liszt, who studied with Carl Czerny, who studied with Beethoven. Talk about six degrees of separation! The feeling I get sometimes when I play (especially Beethoven's works), like I'm embodying what I've been taught, is very intense -- very hard to describe. I was truly thrilled to read this piece in a major newspaper!