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Piano Teachers, Students, and Reluctant Farewells by Shirley Kirsten
Photo of Lillian Freundlich, my New York City piano teacher
who was the Oberlin Conservatory roommate of Fresnan, Roselle Bezazian Kemalyan,
Class of 1933. The Bezazian Piano Scholarship is Roselle's cultural legacy to the school.
This is a dreaded topic with an overlay of foreboding.
For many piano teachers who've nursed along students from Primer toddlerhood to an Intermediate level confidence-climbing phase, through to the Advanced, smooth riding finish with flashy fingers, the pupil's farewell is an emotional event.
Of course, it depends on the circumstances of the departure and who is saying goodbye to whom.
I remember my heart wrenching farewells to two private music teachers going back a few decades. My mother as proxy delivered the news first to my violin teacher who taught me with great passion, but missed too many lessons to make my study meaningful. Frustrated by her absences, starts and stops, the only way I dealt with my anger, was to channel my musical sturm and drang (storm and stress) into the piano. But at this very time, my piano teacher who had been referred by the violin instructor, was giving me pieces so way over my head that I could barely come up for air. I would cry at lessons from my inability to play the Chopin Scherzo in Bb minor. Knowing on a gut level how the composition should sound, I had no technical skills or musical foundation to approach it with any degree of success.
A case of compounded frustration led to a double teacher firing.
For these instructors it was an emotional blow, and for me, the abandoner at the tender age of 12, I felt bundled with guilt and remorse, but I had to move on.
The piano teacher I left had been an impressive performer who played to applauding audiences and critics on the local New York concert scene, but she couldn't easily put herself in the place of a fledgling student and devise a stepwise, thoughtful approach to music study. The learning gaps were so immense that I nearly gave up the piano--hanging by a thread because I dearly loved the instrument.
Years later, the abandoned piano teacher had swallowed her pride in the wake of my departure and restored her affection for me by sending a congratulatory note after my Mozart concerto performance at the New York City High School of Performing Arts. By then, I was 15 and studying with my beloved, long sought after teacher, Lillian Freundlich whom I'd met through her nephew, Douglas Freundlich, a Merrywood Music camper (Lenox, MA)
As I had hoped, Mrs. Freundlich went back to the very beginning, awakened me to the singing tone dimension of the piano, and had me playing individual notes for the first weeks of study. In the process, I realized that the way I balanced my fingers with the relaxed support of my arms could create the resonating sound I had always imagined. Each lesson brought a revelation that compared to a child's first encounter with a sunset.
The sad part of my musical relationship with Lillian was its premature ending. No sooner than I'd set foot in her ethereal musical space with its ebony shining grand pianos, Persian rugs, and window view of Riverside Drive, I had to leave and make my rite of passage to the Oberlin Conservatory. That's where all signs led. No other destination was planned since Mrs. F. was an alumna and had carefully groomed me for this next phase of my life.
Teacher farewells usher in changes and new beginnings that are very much like marriage break-ups. They have a powerful impact leaving twinges of emotion that are re-awakened in the course of our lives.
If I listed all my teachers who came and went, it would be a laboriously long, drawn out epic, bogged down by burdensome detail.
My arrival at Oberlin, the "Learning and Labor" school with its formidable music conservatory, brought the antithesis of what I had grown to love about studying the piano.
Suddenly I found myself in an antiseptic, white structure stacked with tightly spaced practice rooms and paper thin walls. Far worse was the instructor who had students lined up at his door who were pumping out the same Hanon exercises. They played with arched hand positions and stiff wrists. It made me want to jump the next plane back to New York.
The only other option for me was to leave my teacher and request another in the piano department. Meanwhile, my dorm roommate, who'd been a Performing Arts High classmate, having left her studies with an inspiring Manhattan based instructor, Leon Russianoff to attend the Midwest Conservatory, had already packed her bag and was on her way back East to reunite with him. A hasty Oberlin based musical marriage break-up was followed by a second wind New York relationship.
Would I follow my bunk mate? Although, I wanted to go AWOL, contemplating a full separation from the "Con," I decided to tough it out with a string of teachers that finally produced a good match at the end of the ride. It was with Jack Radunsky, who passed away a few years ago. (Along the way, I had switched my major to violin to escape the first, didactic, soul absent piano teacher, and eventually swung back to the piano with renewed commitment)
Returning to the Big Apple after graduation in the embrace of my newly acquired Performance Degree, not exactly a job market titillator, I found myself re-united with Lillian Freundlich, who was by that time, blanketed with students from wall to wall. Nonetheless, I enjoyed rekindling musical ties with this former teacher before I headed off to California to start a career and family. Another heart breaking farewell.
The twist ending to this long winded story of coming and going teachers reads like a novel's denouement.
Once settled in the San Joaquin Valley, agriculture's heartland, I met up with Roselle Kemalyan, who was Lillian Lefkovsky Freundlich's roommate at Oberlin in 1933! Quickly, she became my musical surrogate mother as we looked back fondly upon our musical memories of Lillian.
Now that I've been a piano teacher for decades, I fully comprehend the emotional effects of students coming and going.
A two way musical journey can easily be interrupted by circumstances beyond anyone's control. Sometimes students choose to change lanes and seek other study options while at other times a teacher has to make the difficult choice to discharge a student who's not practicing for months at time or respecting studio guidelines.
Piano study is a metaphor for life, and the teachers, students we encounter along the way leave their indelible traces behind them. The collective path taken often comes with emotional highs and lows but just the same, it's worth the effort.