On previous piano teachers

[POI: discussing performances at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage]

My little brother performed at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage a week ago. My father decided to play his quintet’s (gorgeous) rendition of Schumann’s E-flat to accompany our après-dinner scoops of Talenti blood orange. The performance was livestreamed–in impeccable HD, as my mother noted no less than four times–and archived here, for three whole years.

Three years have also passed since a piano teacher of mine–let’s call him Dr. M–died. I remember the evening precisely. I was sitting in my freshman dorm room, procrastinating on Instagram (old habits are born early, it seems). I scrolled past an old nemesis’ photograph of herself, at the piano, the lighting a muted, comforting amber. She and I both studied under Dr. M–she exclusively, I partly. The caption was strange, almost eerie–half-obituary, half-flowery, cliché-d gushing about x inspirational person of the day. Only after a few screenshots and some virtual scoffing to a mutual friend did I abruptly realize it was 100% obituary, for Dr. M.

I was never supposed to study with Dr. M. It spelled more time, more money, and more feuding with my current piano teacher, to whom I was only just starting to warm up, after no less than six years of weekly lessons. He has all those YSM [Yale School of Music] connections, my mother would constantly remind me. You need him to win your competitions and get into Yale was another one of her favorites.

All nagging aside, I genuinely liked Dr. M. He was kind. He listened, really listened, not only to what I played, but what I had to say. Multiple sets of ears seemed to bud anew and attach themselves to corners and crevices whenever he was in the room. He was patient, and he cared. His eyes bore the darkness of early-onset cataracts, but they still gleamed when he smiled. He never once raised his voice with me, yet I always knew when I had disappointed him. He did not have to earn my respect; his mere presence demanded it. He laughed the way every prototype grandfatherly figure cast in a sitcom does: warmly, robustly, with luminosity.

And so, even though I wasn’t supposed to, I studied with Dr. M for two years. He could improve a phrase as easily as he savored his (and my) favorite cheese, camembert (with a side of bordeaux, of course). He doled out performance anxiety advice as if he were running through the day’s grocery list. Every Liszt number (a Dr. M specialty) he touched morphed from frazzled étude into profound benediction. He never told me to do anything; he would guide me towards realizing his vision for myself. In a sense, he set me free. I had always believed playing the piano was the epitome of constraint, but Dr. M was the first to show me that it could become whatever I wanted. He did help me win competitions, for sure, but he hardly batted an eyelash when I delivered the news each time. He did not care in the slightest.

Dr. M only attended one public performance of mine: a short sweep of the keys with Debussy’s Feux d’artifice prelude, at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. I was shaking, I was rushed. It was hardly what I’d call expressive. Still, Dr. M beamed as he wrapped me into a hug. He said very little beyond, “I’m so proud of you.”

Three years ago, mere months after that congratulatory hug, he died of a heart attack. He was eighty; I was a month from eighteen. I can still scarcely fathom it.

I never said goodbye to Dr. M. We never even officially ended our lessons. They simply stopped, the way waves seem to decide where on the sand they wish to draw a line. I can still hear the yawning creak of his stairs that signaled his arrival, still smell baked camembert wafting from his kitchen.

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