(You can read more about my piano teaching elsewhere on this website. Here I just wish to reflect on my private teachers, as a way of thanking them.)
Classical musicians rarely mention all of their past mentors, instead just highlighting one or two. But I have been reminiscing about how much I learned from a broad array of studio music teachers, over many years and hundreds of hours of apprenticeship-style, individualized learning. They taught me to play the piano and more broadly to understand music, and they helped me to express both feelings and ideas in musical performance.
Flamboyant, captivating piano educator Guy Duckworth at Northwestern University in Illinois got me to dance to music, improvise at the keyboard, play in ensembles, and experience small-group learning as part of my earliest childhood training. He was like a cross between a refined stage actor and a zany psychologist.
Ruth Leffelaar (now Ruth Harris), also at Northwestern University, was a special teacher during three of my formative early years. I was entranced by her gentle Georgia southern accent, her ladylike demeanour, and her utter commitment to my music-making.
Herman Spier, of the American Conservatory of Music, was a highly regarded Chicago music theorist and piano professor. Cerebral, methodical, and slightly playful, he was both demanding and encouraging through my high school years.
Jeanne Kierman Fischer in Vermont embraced me with her kindness, supportiveness, and physically expansive, Dalcroze-flavored piano teaching.
Concert pianist Gabriel Chodos at Dartmouth College brought my playing into a larger arena of emotion and physicality.
Scholarly musicologist Ray McIntyre at the Vienna Conservatory helped me grasp the continuum of music history at the piano, and he extolled the special virtues of both J. S. Bach and Mozart. In his quiet, objective way he coaxed thoughtful and robust playing from me.
My year studying harpsichord with Hendrik Broekman on a Vermont mountain ridge accorded me some of the most insightful musical guidance I might ever have hoped to receive. Better known as a builder of historical instruments, he proved a superb teacher. A humanist, broad-ranging in outlook, encouraging yet uncompromising.
Sweet Mildred Waldman in New York City offered me the warmth of Robert Schumann’s and Domenico Scarlatti’s keyboard music, and the welcome of her Manhattan studio, in a grim and often daunting metropolis. Her teaching style was indirect, poetic, almost maternal – so different from what I was used to – and so helpful.
Lincoln Mayorga in Los Angeles was equal parts gentle, enthusiastic, and analytical. He was a busy working pianist/composer – recording film snippets in Hollywood studios one day, playing classical recitals the next, and jazz programs the day after – but he loved working with a few students.
Dapper, prominent Canadian pedagogue Earle Moss helped me to synthesize my piano skills upon my arrival in Toronto, and in a new land. He guided me through teaching and performance diplomas at the Royal Conservatory and later through a debut recital, and his wit and kindness went far beyond the keyboard. He was a real mentor and friend.
My own music teaching no doubt draws from all these individuals and others unmentioned, yet comes from elsewhere as well, starting with my becoming a piano partner to my singer mom in Danish folk songs and classical art songs when I was a kid. I spent two invigorating summers at Michigan’s famed Interlochen music camp during high school, singing in choirs, accompanying instrumentalists, and taking my first academic music classes. My several years roaming intellectually around the liberal arts in university (e.g., philosophy, religion, literature, musicology), when I could have been exploring more sonatas at a conservatory, surely contributed something as well.
But I must say that piano teaching simply felt right to me from the start. At the age of 22 I was suddenly handed a few private students in a small town in New Hampshire – some were children, some adults – and I did my best to connect with each of them, both musically and personally. As a bonus, I even got paid to do so.
Decades later I am still at it, and still nourished by it.