By John Unger Zussman
Last month, I wrote about a misguided art lesson that undermined my creativity as a child. Here I recall my early music lessons—with a decidedly different result.
“Sing!” commanded my piano teacher, Mrs. Maas, at my very first lesson. Even at seven, I understood that she did not want me to vocalize along with those first simple explorations of the notes around middle C. No, she meant make the piano sing. But what did that mean? And how to do it? I had no idea, and apparently it was too obvious to ask.
Whatever she had in mind, I somehow had a talent for it. I practiced diligently and progressed quickly, encouraged by the lavish praise of my parents and teachers. At my first-year recital, Mrs. Maas practically had to drag me off the stage as I played, from memory, every piece in the Bernice Frost first-year method book. A year later, I performed a Diabelli sonatina at a school assembly, ignoring the applause at the end of each movement to plunge into the next. The next year I mastered my first Beethoven sonata, and the year after, a Mozart piano concerto. My lessons, and my daily practice regimen, grew from thirty minutes to an hour and then to two. Sometimes it took coaxing or even threats to pry me off the baseball field, but once I sat down at the piano, I stayed willingly.
At 13, I went to National Music Camp at Interlochen. It was a revelation to find a whole crowd of kids who, unlike my peers at school, shared my preference for Chopin and Mendelssohn over the Beatles and Stones. I was also exposed to a range of musical experience beyond my acquaintance. Mrs. Maas had little regard for 20th century music and scorned pieces by composers more contemporary than Brahms. At camp, enchanted by works of Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Copland, and Shostakovich, I could learn them on my own.
I quickly realized that, for all the praise and encouragement I had received, there were young pianists at camp more talented—and more diligent—than I. I had neither the chops nor the will to compete at their level.
During those summers, I also learned to appreciate different varieties of classical music, beyond solo piano and orchestral. A cabinmate was in the chorus, and I used to listen to the last ten minutes of their rehearsal before we walked to lunch together. Their sound was enthralling; something magical happened when their voices blended. I wanted that.
So, in my third summer, I supplemented piano study by joining my first chorus. It comprised 500 singers of all ages, a huge unwieldy group that the director somehow wielded into vague coherence. We sang Handel’s Messiah and then, the last week of camp, Te Deum by Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly—with Kodaly in the audience. It was exhilarating. I was hooked.
I finished high school as a pianist, continuing lessons with Mrs. Maas and culminating with a final recital, performing Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto to her accompaniment. But when I got to college, without a piano of my own, I joined the chorus. I joined another in grad school and later, with my wife, a community chorus. We began voice lessons and soon “graduated” to the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, where we had the chance to sing choral masterpieces to packed houses, backed by a superb orchestra and under the baton of the world’s finest conductors. It seemed a long journey from that first piano recital—yet really not so far.
Through it all, I kept in touch with Mrs. Maas—I now called her Mary—who was retired and living in Palm Springs. I sent her recordings of some of our performances. “But Johnny,” she would say after patiently listening to my latest choral accomplishment, “what are you playing?” Even when one of those recordings won a Grammy award, her eyes—and ears—were only for the piano.
But my piano teacher had not merely taught me how to play the piano; she had made me a musician. And I still think of her often, though she’s gone now, as I follow her very first direction—as I sing! in chorus or at the piano—and silently thank her for her great gift, a soundtrack to my life.
Copyright © 2011, John Unger Zussman. All rights reserved.