My childhood “Fur Elise,” past teachers, yearbook entries, and present mentoring (Video)

I named one of my daughters, “Elise,” in honor of Beethoven’s famous composition.

That’s how much I adored the music.

A companion piece since childhood, I managed to squeak through the notes at age 8 when enrolled at a quaint music school off Kingsbridge Road in the Bronx.

Private lessons followed my two years of Music Appreciation classes.

At a parent/teacher conference my mother had been told that I excelled at playing the xylophone, marimba, triangle, psaltery and recorder, so I had a good enough ear to begin violin lessons.

But as a visually impressionable child, I really wanted to cradle a saxophone with its appealing shimmer and decorative display of key buttons.

As expected, my request was rejected by Mrs. Elston, an officious Director, who offered me piano lessons as a compromise.

My first mentor, Mrs. Vinagradov, was a soft-spoken woman with a Russian accent.

To reach her studio, I had to climb a steep staircase that led to an attic where a shiny old upright piano and bench took up the greater space. A pint-sized child, I sat comfortably snuggled beside my teacher as she brought simple two-note Diller-Quaille songs to life with resonating chordal accompaniments. Even “Ding Dong Bell” and other primer melodies were elevated to new artistic heights with her imbued singing tone.

But the honeymoon was short-lived. One day Mrs. Vinagradov vanished, and I was shuttled off to study with Emmy Schwed.

A German refugee, she was gruff and pedantic. With a hook nose and very short cropped hair, she looked like a bald eagle.

Lessons with Miss Schwed were barely tolerable. She compulsively beat out every quarter note through all my pieces, thumping loudly with her fists against the piano.

One day she went too far, applying her robotic beat to Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” though I ignored her, and spun, instinct-driven limpid phrases.

Before long, “Fur Elise” had become my signature piece, though I always played an incorrect number of E, D#s in the opening and throughout the piece. Miss Schwed failed to notice.

Years later, I gained a deeper understanding of the composition after attending the New York City High School of Performing Arts and Oberlin Conservatory.

I had learned that Ludwig van Beethoven composed during the Classical period of composition that followed the Baroque era, joining master composers Mozart and Haydn to produce sonatas, symphonies, and some choral works.

In “Fur Elise,” the very contagious opening melody had an emotional expressiveness that if taken too far, could fast forward a player to the Romantic period of musical composition where effusiveness was a characteristic of interpretation.

The piece had some of the markings of the Classical Mozart with its rolling broken chord bass and melody traveling through F Major on the second page of music. But the very lilting opening theme in “A” minor kept weaving in and out of contrasting sections, wooing the player to a Romantic boundary he had to respect.

Well into the third page, Beethoven separated himself from early Mozart and Haydn compositions by suddenly registering anger in a tremulous bass against suspenseful right hand chords. A bridge of ascending arpeggios and a wind-blown descending chromatic scale led seamlessly to the return of the opening theme, and its final melted cadence.

Recapitulation

When looking back on my early piano lessons, I rekindle a love affair with “Fur Elise” that sealed my engagement to the piano and kept it brimming with passion.

Recently, I stumbled upon an elementary school graduation album that had notes scrawled from my classmates and friends. Among these, one stood out. It was from Mrs. Geraldine Yudin, my Music Appreciation teacher.

In simple script, she wrote, ”To one of the few people who can make ‘Fur Elise’ sound like the Music Beethoven meant it to be.”

I don’t know how true it was, but it can be said that I will always treasure this piece from the deepest part of me, and with each playing, I will experience a new revelation.

***

Post-script:

Two of my El Cerrito piano students are studying Beethoven’s treasured composition. One a fifth grader, and the other, an adult both savor the journey.

In the attached video, an adult learns to sculpt phrases using a supple wrist and relaxed, flowing arms. My play-through follows:

About arioso7: Shirley Kirsten

International piano teacher by Skype, recording artist, composer, piano finder, freelance writer, film maker, story teller: Grad of the NYC HS of Performing Arts, Oberlin Conservatory, NYU (Master of Arts) Studies with Lillian Freundlich and Ena Bronstein; Master classes with Murray Perahia and Oxana Yablonskaya. Studios in BERKELEY and EL CERRITO, California; Member, Music Teachers Assoc. of California, MTAC; Distance learning and Skyped instruction with supplementary videos: SKYPE ID, shirleypiano1 Contact me at: shirley_kirsten@yahoo.com OR http://www.youtube.com/arioso7 or at FACEBOOK: Shirley Smith Kirsten, http://facebook.com /shirley.kirsten TWITTER: http://twitter.com/arioso7 Private fund-raising for non-profits as pianist--Public Speaking re: piano teaching and creative approaches
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8 Responses to My childhood “Fur Elise,” past teachers, yearbook entries, and present mentoring (Video)

  1. ramsnake says:

    Ok. So you have revitalised my interest in playing that piece which I thought I really was sick of hearing as I had only ever heard the theme. Your approach to the cadence at 3:21 was exquisite Beautifully crafted, so thank you!

    Like

  2. Thank you. And I’m glad you will revisit the composition.

    Like

  3. Terri O.A. says:

    One of my favorite pieces. Thank you for adding beauty to my morning 🙂

    Like

  4. Charles Feldman says:

    Please lete know when you attended the music school in the Bronx with Mrs. Yudin and Schwed. And more if you remember.

    I went there, I think, around 1960 or so. Thanks for the memory.

    Like

    • I would have attended the little music school on the Hill–off Kingsbridge Road in 1954-56.. Then the place moved but I don’t think Yudin and her mother, Mrs. Wachtel went along to the second not so memorable location. Mrs. Elston headed up the Kingsbridge townhouse and astonishingly I bumped into two women on Amtrak who lived right by the music school and knew Elston very well. We had a reunion on the train even though I didn’t personally know these ladies, but they were blown away by my remembering Elston. The conversation came up as I discovered the pair were from the Bronx, and before we knew it, my also being from the Bronx sparked memories…

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  5. Now there was a kid who Schwed taught who lumbered through Beethoven’s Appassionata… Very good-looking youngster, but sloppy player.. He was Schwed’s trophy student. I found her teaching to be quite below par.. From that situation I went to a worse predicament with a Mrs. Ethel Elfenbein, before I found the teacher of my dreams Lillian Freundlich. Did you attend the HS of Music and Art? I went to Performing Arts High..

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  6. Schwed had a short temper and was very unloving.. compared to Yudin who taught a group music appreciation class…

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