A few years ago, I received an instant message from piano teacher, Gail Trattner Isenberg, a member of FACEBOOK’s Art of Piano Pedagogy group and an avowed blog follower. Though we’d been “distant” cyber contacts, linked by common URLs, Gail’s text that bubbled with enthusiasm in its introduction, had rapidly erupted into a full blown Shrinking Degrees of Separation blast from the Past. As segue way to a kickstart set of texts that increased in volume and velocity, Gail unraveled a bi-Coastal emigration that had both of us relocating in opposite directions. While I’d landed in Berkeley, having spent 30 native years in New York City, Gail had been comfortably nestled in “hometown” Berkeley before she and her family relocated to White Plains, New York. If such a paradoxical criss-cross of the map was enough to compel a deeper “bond” between us, what gushed out over weeks and months, was both daunting and ironic–drawing two lives even closer.
Gail, having the keen eye of a private investigator, had spotted her White Plains pal, Eda Friendlander Klinger on my Facebook Friends list, fleshing out still another common tie. Eda, who had been my sixth grade chum at P.S. 122 in the Bronx, appeared in my Class picture that I’d posted on social media.
“Jody Wise,” an Oberlin Conservatory classmate during my years as a Performance Major, was Gail’s duo piano partner in New York.
Through decades of private teaching, performing, and playing chamber music, Gail and I had shared a common journey with a steadfast devotion to mentoring. As a music educator, Gail taught piano at UC Berkeley’s Young Musicians outreach Program, serving talented, disadvantaged kids, and at the Hoff-Barthelson Music School in Scarsdale, New York.
A seasoned private teacher in White Plains, Gail’s sterling reputation had cloaked her for decades.
A biographical snatch:
Trattner Isenberg graduated U.C. Berkeley with two Bachelor’s Degrees: in English (Creative Writing) and Music. One of her teachers, Adolph Baller was Yehudi Menuhin’s accompanist, who often played without music. (Baller had fled the Nazi’s and eventually settled in Palo Alto.)
Here’s a 1947 performance clip of Menuhin and Baller.
Gail gave kudos as well to her teacher, Barbara Shearer, a Berkeley-based pianist who was married to composer and singer, Alan Shearer.
As an East Bay resident, Trattner Isenberg performed extensively as a chamber player, reinforcing her UC Berkeley bond with appearances at Hertz Hall.
Given Gail’s well-respected and enduring teaching career, I asked her to answer a few questions pertinent to the art of mentoring.
1) When did you start teaching piano? And can you describe your earliest students?
I began teaching at age 24 in Berkeley. My first students were very interesting, sophisticated children of university professors. I also had some graduate music students who needed secondary piano. I loved being part of a university community.
2) What is your all-embracing teaching philosophy? And what are your biggest challenges in the pedagogical cosmos?
I guess my all-embracing philosophy is that I do not use a cookie-cutter approach to students. I try to address their individual needs at all times.
My biggest challenges today are competing with the busy schedules of overbooked students almost across the board, as well as very little practice by many students. I want every student to feel she/he is progressing and I try to stay positive with each student. This is enormously challenging and can be frustrating.
3) What approach do you use for beginning students and what materials do you recommend?
For beginning students, I try to work on developing the ear and technique before plunging into reading. I like to begin with fingers 2, 3, and 4. This is something I have begun to do over the last few years and have been influenced by some fine teachers on the Facebook page “The Art of Piano Pedagogy.” It has helped me rethink the way I approach teaching beginning technique. I also teach rote pieces in the beginning, from Solo Flight by Elvina Pearce, and Little Gems for Piano by Paula Dreyer, plus other rote pieces I keep in a file. In the first few months I also do a lot of pre-reading from method books. I have the students improvise as well, although I do not feel this is one of my biggest strengths. I’m trying to improve in this area. I do not have a favorite method book series, but I tend to combine my favorite aspects of several methods and also teach landmark notes once the staff is introduced. I do emphasize reading in general, and try very hard to help each student become a good reader.
In conclusion, this posting must memorialize the two-way bi-coastal meet ups that eclipsed all social media interactions between Gail and me.
In June 2015, upon my landing in New York City for a family event, I had scheduled a side trip to Faust Harrison Pianos in New York to explore its rebuilding department. As follow-up to my Manhattan touchdown, co-owner, Sara Faust invited me to the factory and showroom in White Plains where I captured footage of the various stages of renovation.
Little did I know that the day I’d arrived by Metro in Westchester, I would bump into Gail with her brood of private students in recital at Faust Harrison. Naturally, a photo op was not squandered!
The opening header photo to this blog, captures our spontaneous get together here in Berkeley on Monday, June 25, 2018. (If home is where your heart is, then Gail might lay claim to an overlap of fondness for two “nesting” grounds)
It was uncanny that Gail had texted me, in a full circle impromptu recapitulation of our first meeting through Facebook. She had just made a stop-off at Hertz Hall during her East Bay visit,
…before she wound her way to bordering Albany. In a matter of minutes Gail was in my neighborhood sipping tea with me at Cafe Roma. (short notice, but it worked!)
With boundaries of cyber fading right before our eyes, we savored a delicious face-to-face conversation in real time without a hitch! Gail later texted me that we should do this more often. I couldn’t agree more!