My graduate school piano teacher has passed away.
I remember meeting her for the first time. My soon-to-be graduate advisor was taking me around campus for a tour one Friday afternoon. I was coming in as a Kodaly-centered Music Ed masters student. I would take voice lessons and maybe piano lessons as part of my degree. Voice was technically my major instrument. Dr. Lee had lined up a meeting with Dr. Tsai for me so that I could play a little for her and see if perhaps lessons would be a possibility.
He walked me up the staircase to the landing by her office door in the little conservatory building. He knocked on the door, said, "Well, don't be too scared. She's intimidating, but she's terrific!" and then high tailed it down the stairs! He was gone in 30 seconds. I was standing there by myself waiting for this person I'd never met . . . feeling rightly nervous.
She opened the door to her sunny studio and invited me in. She was a little lady with a bright smile. She told me exactly where to sit, inquired about my repertoire, explained her strict expectations for her students, and listened to me.
She was brutally honest, always. It terrified me, but I liked her.
I already knew I wasn't bound for a performance career. Not even close. But I loved to play the piano and I told her that I wanted to improve my scales, my sight reading, and my confidence. I told her that my goal was to be a worthy accompanist for my own students. She liked those goals and agreed to be my teacher. When I came to school in the fall, I became her student.
My lesson came right after her lunch break, once a week. I would come into the studio and find her there, drinking green tea at her desk. She was incredibly demanding. She was never satisfied with anything I played . . . not until I played a few of Tan Dun's pieces. She chose them for me one semester and they seemed to fit my too-small hands just right. She allowed me to choose most of my other repertoire myself because the assumption was that this would be my last opportunity to have lessons like this - weekly lessons in a studio full of other committed students. I always chose repertoire that was too difficult. But I had this bucket list of pieces I wanted to play . . . the Sonata Mozart wrote when his mother died, Chopin's Op. 10 No. 3, all the Brahms I could get my hands on! She would tease me - "Don't complain about how hard the music is when you chose it yourself! I didn't give it to you!" She'd say it with a smile on her face.
Master classes and studio classes were terrifying to me. All the other students easily surpassed me. I wasted a lot of time focusing on a feeling of inferiority . . . and this whole time, my teacher was trying to get me to wake up.
I constantly failed. I never had a perfect performance. But my scales got better and better. My sight reading improved by leaps and bounds. I slowly became used to the mistakes and I no longer stopped for each one. She told me, "Forgive yourself as soon as you make a mistake. You have to practice self forgiveness if you want to perform. Make up your mind before it happens - say, 'I'll keep going because it's ok.'"
She marked up every score I brought to my lessons. They were covered in her delicate handwriting by the time juries rolled around each semester.
She asked me to keep a practice journal. You couldn't get away with lying in your journal. We all knew it. She required a certain amount of practice from each of us each day . . . and when we fell short she didn't yell and shake her fists at us . . . she looked in our journals and listened to our work at the keyboard . . . then she would say, "I see that you didn't manage much practice this week. Some of those mistakes should go away with more consistent practice. We won't waste our time with them today. We need to look now at the phrasing."
In fact, she once called me out for being afraid of her. She asked me if I was still scared of her. I told her that I was. She explained to me that she wanted to help me to grow and that our work would never be finished - she said that no musician should ever think of his or her work as finished. She told me not to fear my journal. Not to fear the days when I couldn't make the practice happen. The journal was meant to provide reinforcement . . . better practice would lead to more progress, and we would see it in our journals, and we would remember it . . . and eventually that would start to motivate us. That practice journal changed my life.
I want to tell her.
I would love to tell her that it all did make a difference. I would love to share with her how much I've thought of her over the past several years. I regret that I didn't write to her more often, that I didn't drive downtown to visit her when I could have. The thing I wish most, though, is that I could go back and tell my pre-grad school self: "This teacher will be different from all the other teachers you've had. You should not be scared at all. She's going to encourage you to make loud mistakes. She's going to demand discipline, but from a place of such love. She's going to launch you into your life as a completely independent musician. She's here to help you get over the fear you've carried around since your Beethoven memory slip. It's going to happen." Because, friends, like so much in life? I didn't understand the significance of what was happening in those lessons until they were almost over.
This past week I told two of my former teachers that I loved them.
I will do so even more often now.
Dr. Tsai - I would give anything to have you correct me one more time. I wish you could have met my son. I hope you knew how much I loved you and how much you helped me. I wasn't your best student, but you made me believe I was worth the time. You and I used to talk about teaching and how unique it is to watch a student grow. You once told me you thought I'd be a good teacher. You told me you thought I'd be a good teacher.
Tomorrow morning I'll go to school and meet my students and I'll try, again, to be the good teacher Dr. Tsai expected me to be.
I love you, mighty little piano lady. You were the embodiment of the word "fierce." Cadek Conservatory will be strangely quiet without your foot fall on the stairs. I know the sunshine comes brightly through the windows in your studio even today . . . but there's another light none of us will see there again, and we'll miss it.