Music Lessons

John at the piano, a few years before beginning lessons.
John at the piano, a few years before beginning lessons.

Music Lessons
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.

6 thoughts on “Music Lessons

  1. Oh wow…this was so moving to me. I am a singer and songwriter. I too took piano lessons at an early age. Mr Williams (Vanessa Williams’s) daughter was my teacher. I grew up just outside of NYC and my Dad and Mom always took us to see the Christmas Shows and Easter Shows at Radio City Music Hall. Every Sunday we awoke to Peter and the Wolf, narrated by Leonard Bernstein.
    My Mom was a singer and Dad a musical enthusiast. Although, neither of them would ever play an instrument, they played the radio and records all the time. I grew up listening to all kinds of 1940’s big band hits as well as show tunes.
    I,unlike you John, never really liked the piano. I was hooked on guitar and loved the Beatles and the Stones!! If I had to make a choice, the Beatles all the way. I was only three when I would first hear the Beatles, but I learned their songs and never forgot the words. To this day, I know mostly all the Beatles songs and the words….I learned them at such a young age that they are embedded in my subconscious. I had an older sister, much older, and she was into them. I listened and was hooked.
    My first performance was at three. My mom put me on stage and I sang with a band. I remember the song I sang and the way the audience responded to me. It was a thrill. They really liked me!
    I have singing ever since. Music has been a hero to me. It saved me really. It consoled me when I was sad and elated me when I was happy. It allowed me to feel deeply. It has a way of moving us into places, where in our everyday mundane life, we sometimes don’t get to go. Music can always take us there. It is my source and it comes from the source. It is a universal language and a universal talk.
    I too am so blessed to have music in my life. It IS a gift and I am so grateful for it.

    “At a movie you can feel it touching your heart
    And on every day of the summertime
    You’ll hear children chasing ice cream carts
    They’ll play it on your wedding day
    There must be ’bout a million ways
    To add some music
    To your day
    Add some music to your day
    Add some music to your day
    Add some music to your day
    Add some music to your day
    Add some music to your day”

    Brian Wilson

    Thanks for the post…



    1. Karen, thank you for sharing your glowing memories. You were indeed blessed with a musical childhood.

      I have to confess I liked the Beatles too. I was 13 when their music reached America. At parties, when not dancing, we boys would stand and sing along. I knew all the words. Even now I can’t explain why I pretended not to like them.

      The Stones, not so much. But I had a crush on a girl who loved “Satisfaction,” so of course I liked that one …



  2. …”[she] had not merely taught me how to play the piano; she had made me a musician.”
    That brings tears to my eyes. No finer praise for any music teacher.



  3. Postscript:

    If you enjoyed this post, I think you will also like my friend Melissa Smith’s blog, Diary of a Pianist. In it she reflects on the importance of music in our lives, pays tribute to her piano idols like Emanuel Ax and Sviatoslav Richter, and even gives practice tips. You will also find Halloween photos of Melissa and her husband David as the great forgotten composer Heinrich Flaustenbach and his assistant Igor. Check it out.



  4. John – what an adorable photo of you at the piano and inspiring post about music lessons. Since we are now linked, I must update my blog, instead of slogging through my endless email messages…


  5. It is always amazing what people, especially young people can create when they are let loose in a community that supports, and surrounds them with the tools to literally build their passion. Reading about your experience at International Music Camp really hit home with that. I hope that everyone, at some point in their life, can find them surrounded with like minded individuals that are equally, if not more passionate at whatever their chosen craft may be.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s