Sunday, May 10, 2009

Choosing a Piano Teacher

At Interlochen (see New York City State of Mind, posted in March) piano students chose teachers individually. On one of the first days all the piano teachers held hours at their studios, located off of one great hall, in order to meet with students and sign them up for lessons. The more popular ones held auditions. I was new so I asked around for recommendations and promptly got myself on line for the most mentioned, a teacher I’ll call Maestro. While I was waiting I had someone hold my place so that I could go around and see some of the other teachers; I met a few, included a man who I think of as the Composer because he was one as well. I attended a performance he gave of some of his own pieces, which used hands and arms as well as fingers on the keyboard. A teddy bear of a man, he had a quiet but thoughtful manner. I returned in time to perform for Maestro, who listened to me play and then barked “I can fit you in on Friday at 8 AM”; I said yes of course. I felt quite honored that he would take me on, given all of his others students and that I was a new camper, too old to develop a years-long relationship with him. But I left with a bad feeling in my stomach. I knew that this would likely be my one summer in residence and I wanted it to feel right. So I went to Composer, signed up, came back and thanked Maestro but said that I had chosen to study with someone else. That summer was bliss; I was introduced to new composers and performed in a master class and was relaxed enough that I never worried about competition or whether I was progressing in any way beyond my own internal compass. This was a luxury that my friends in orchestra and band, who faced weekly seat challenges, could not afford. And it was going to be a way of life for those who aspired to professional careers in music; I already knew that was not compatible with my Jewish observance, but I also knew that I liked people too much to spend six hours or more each day seated at the keyboard. Freed from the yearning to “make it” as a pre-professional, I was able to absorb everything the place could offer me with fretting. Composer was true to his nature as a teacher: gentle, even–keeled, open in sharing his wisdom and guidance. No barking.
Towards the end of the season I ran into Maestro in a small clearing along one of the pathways near main camp. He acknowledged me, stopped and asked how my summer had been. I do not remember what I said, but I think that I smiled and assured him that it had been good as indeed it had been. I was trying not to gape; I had immediately understood that I was recognizable because I was probably one of the few (only?) students who had declined to study with him. The respect he accorded me as a result was a tremendous gift and mark of his greatness; I wish I could say as much of others I have disappointed or ruffled. To this day I wonder what, if anything, he learned from it. And I do wonder what I would have learned from him, even though I have no regrets about my decision.
Just over a year later I found myself auditioning again, this time for a piano teacher at college. I was a freshman just starting and I only wanted half-hour lessons to start, but I was good enough to be matched with a professor. He was fresh from completing his doctorate, sweet but quiet in a way that held little wisdom as of yet. One of the first pieces that he assigned me included a passage very difficult for my small hands (my span is basically an octave, a bit more if I stretch hard) and it was painful. Respectful of his methodology, I brought him a piece with a similar passage that I had studied with my childhood teacher back home and explained how we had adjusted the fingering for my hands. I asked if we could do so with this new piece as well. My teacher was non-plussed, laughed nervously and said that I should continue as set out originally. I quit lessons soon after and did not return to them ever again. For a long time I practiced on my own, but between the pulls of college life and the lack of a teacher or a professional goal, I found my interest atrophying. Those who knew me when I was young are sometimes shocked because they think of me as a serious pianist.
Growing up I had the great good fortune to have an amazing teacher at Hebrew Arts School (now Lucy Moses School:, where I took lessons, and two great teachers at Usdan (, an arts day camp on Long Island. All of them were assigned to me and all were demanding but they were also thoughtful and themselves open to learning new things. All of them understood me and knew when to push me and when to let me grow on my own. This post does not do them justice, so I will plan a revisit. But I need to add here that they set the bar extremely high and led to my being a very particular student. Perhaps I did not give the Maestro or the young professor enough of a chance, but I had little tolerance then for a teaching partnership that did not feel right. I also had more moxie and self-conviction. I still rarely practice piano, although over the years two of my old teachers have asked for me to play for them. I am too embarrassed, but I do hold onto the goal that one day I will be able to revisit those partnerships and again study music with them. I need to practice first…
© 2009 Leah Strigler


chayaruchama said...

Besherteleh nayner-

A very fascinating post.
I have to wonder why- now- this is surfacing...don't you ?

Also, your use of the past tense in describing yourself as 'having had more moxie'.

Why not now ?
Why now ?

Are you considering revisiting the piano ?

Perhaps, pondering why one reacts so viscerally to those who go against our instincts-
Even though they may have much to offer ?

Just a thought.

Ask Leah said...

I have been thinking a lot about music and it has been coming up in the writing on the blog so that is a major reason.
I think that I have had much less moxie in recent years.
And I did sit a keyboard this week for the first time in years.
Pondering - I think that I have and had very high standards for teachers and coaches. I hope to post more on this topic and will reflect further as I go.
In general I believe that when we find ourselves reisting or rejecting there is an important lesson to be learned and often a secret desire or fear to come to terms with.