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The come and go, passing through Age of piano study

It’s always nice to blog about a devoted cadre of piano students who show up each week prepared for their lessons, wanting to grow and develop in creative directions.

Such a pleasing landscape had been presented in REACHING BEYOND, a film tribute to Irena Orlov’s remarkably inspired piano teaching. Her students couldn’t wait to go on camera to bubble over what was given to them. Odes of affection resonated from the present and into the future. They revealed a lasting connection that even death could not defy.

At least a “life-time” relationship could be cradled, Orlov waxed poetically in an interview segment.


In a perfect world or Utopia, I might write this very ethereal script for my piano teaching colleagues all over the country who live in New York, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina and wherever else they had set up their private studios bundled in idealism.

But the sad truth is that some trends should be noted in this Age of Anxiety– oops, did I steal this from Leonard Bernstein? (his Second Symphony?)

Lenny may have had a heads up about what would reverberate into the present in many areas of life.

First, in this star-studded universe of the piano teacher, one needs to recognize the “come and go” piano student as a sign of the times.

As example, he might be a transfer student (having had a corridor of preceding teachers) who finally decides to buckle down and practice; play scales, arpeggios in a panoply of keys; fine tune his ears to the singing tone. He works assiduously, making great progress, and seemingly enjoys the musical journey with occasional “Star Wars” and other treats interspersed among the Classics. It keeps him and his family happy.

Everything is humming along through weeks and months, until the phone rings–and by its ring a very intuitive teacher knows that something is simmering, and it’s not chicken soup for the soul.

It’s Johnny’s mother canceling his lesson at the last minute. Something non-specific has come up and she’ll get back later…

Later becomes an eternity. The following week, no-show Johnny is all but a fleeting memory. Three weeks go by with no family contact so perhaps Johnny may no longer be with us. I hope not.

The dead-end truth is that Johnny is now a member of the come easy/go easy piano study society. There are many variations of this new, rising generation of ex-piano students.

I should have mentioned that Johnny was a teenager, and homework obligations got to him in the last analysis. He never resumed piano as far as I was told. He just dropped out without a rite of passage entitled to all piano teachers and their students.

Rite of passage:

When someone dies, there’s a funeral, or a tribute to their passing. At least a memorial.

When a piano student decides to leave, especially after a substantial period of study, one might expect not only advance notice, but a face-to-face reckoning of what has been accomplished and what bodes for the future. Not a text messaged, Hi/Good-bye.

Another disheartening case scenario: Where’s Waldo?

A transfer student enters the musical sanctuary, supposedly having taken piano lessons when he was five or six. He’d dropped out sooner than later. The former childhood teacher allegedly pushed his head into the music rack and otherwise screamed and yelled when he made a note error.

Understandably, “Waldo” needed to recover from the infliction of his abusive teacher. After a ten-year hiatus, his mom brings him and his younger injury-laden sister to resume lessons where they left off.

As it plays out, Waldo, comes to lessons less often than he drives away into the horizon of extracurriculars. He’s on the tennis team, debate, swimming, and takes tutoring for college prep exams. When he manages to practice, he begins to enjoy the fruits of his labor–especially when he works on “Liz on Top of the World” (his request) in the good company of Anna Magdalena Bach.

Mom has disappeared.

She’d made a formidable appearance at the exit interview, I mean the initial interview. Was I clairvoyant?

The kids are now driving to and from lessons, but mother makes a cameo drop-in by e-mail with a minute-before-lesson cancellation–another sign of the times in synch with the Age of iPad, iPhone, and text messaging. I note the time on the e-mail header. It would have otherwise passed me by. (philosophical implications?)

It reminded me of another no-show student who insisted that she informed me in advance of her absence. Did she mean by text? I didn’t even know how to access it on my Nokia Go Phone, a $25 flat rate per month, minimum option gizmo. The lesson came and went without a trace of her. Or what about the 11-year who braved the fog to walk under a tree to get to her lesson. She lived next door though over 50% of her lessons were missed, about which mom and daughter had no recollection.

But back to Waldo. Time was marching on and his sister subbed in for him on occasion though she was bogged down by the tennis team, an abusive coach, and church socials.

One day, Waldo virtually disappeared and never returned for lessons. I learned months later that he went off to college in Idaho without as much as a hello/goodbye.

It’s disconcerting that relationships forged in the piano teaching environment or elsewhere are taken so lightly.

Perhaps, it’s the right moment for a re-awakening of how time is spent and with whom.

Food for thought?


Piano Lessons: Skimming the Surface or Getting Deeply Involved


A Piano Teacher’s Worst Nightmare!


About student/teacher/parent relationships:


About Piano Lesson Dropout Rates:


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Appel Farm Music Camp and the Chicken Coops

Was I dreaming? Did I wake up in a chicken coop on a hot and humid July morning? The summer before I was a Merrywood camper, encapsulated in a forest of pines bordering Lenox, Massachusetts. A short journey to Tanglewood for a Sunday morning BSO rehearsal, was followed by a breakfast of sizzling waffles and maple syrup. It was a thoroughly New England experience.

Twelve months later, I was sweating bullets in south Jersey, not too far from Philly. A town called Elmer had a rusty sign pointing to a music camp down a bumpy road.

How did my mother manage to find this place owned by Albert and Claire Appel? Was it a real farm with goats, cows, horses, hens, etc. or a dignified place to make music?

Flashback to Age 6:

Mother loaded me on a train bound for Camp Northover, located in this same God forsaken state of New Joisey. It felt like a punishment for being bad, answering back, wolfing down a dozen Dugan’s muffins on the sly before dinner. Or all of the foregoing.

Joanna, my best friend, who’d coined me “shrimpy” because she enjoyed an extra two inches of height, was my traveling companion and bunk mate-to-be. Together, we boarded a New York Central passenger train feeling like orphans, clutching our pink metal lunch boxes, packed with Super Coolers, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and two hostess cupcakes. It would be our last decent meal before treacherous Northover grub was spooned out in a musty recreation hall. I nearly gagged when something resembling vomit passed off as creamed pork rinds with mushrooms.

For three tormenting weeks, I muffled my nocturnal cries of loneliness in my pillow without a friend nearby to cushion my sorrow. Joanna was placed in another bunk, sobbing the night away, I was told. Then came an onslaught of termites that landed on my cot in a curious fall from the wood beams– followed by a full blown lice infestation that produced rows of kids, tortured with metal combs pulled through their knotted hair in front of our bunk. I was at the head of the line. More screaming, sadness, homesickness all bundled into one unique camp experience.

The total summer was well described in a particular field artillery song, verse 3, that we sang on hikes to nearby swamps where we stopped for picnic lunches.

From, “As the Caissons Go Rolling Along” by Major Edmund Grubs:

Was it high, was it low, Where the hell did that one go?
As those Caissons go rolling along!
Was it left, was it right, Now we won’t get home tonight
And those Caissons go rolling along!
Then it’s hi, hi, hee, In the field artillery
Shout out your numbers loud and strong,
Where’er you go, You will always know
That those Caissons go rolling along!

Appel Farm, 8 years later.

While the chicken coop accommodations were a close match to living in Northover’s godawful bunks, there were redeeming features of the Farm experience. First off, as introduction, I hardly recall a big display of animals on the vast spread of sparsely treed acres. Perhaps one pig, a handful of goats, a small parade of ducks, and a few strutting roosters sauntered the property. The conspicuous chicks were incubated by the “coops,” where we resided.

Faculty from Temple University’s Music Department (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) lived on the grounds, a considerable distance from the chicks, and nurtured young chamber musicians along.

Since pianists were not overflowing, I felt predictably outside the mainstream. What else was new? We piano players had to fend for ourselves and scope out our own chamber music to study. Otherwise we were doomed to be loners.

Being creative, I found the score to Mozart’s G minor piano Quintet which I learned to performance standard, and foraged around for a few campers to fill in the missing string parts. Among the players, was Toby Appel, the camp Director’s son, who eventually became an esteemed concert violist with many performance credits and recordings.

The late pianist Natalie Hinderas, an Oberlin grad, strolled by one afternoon and performed the rip roaring Chopin “Revolutionary” Etude that opened my ears to a remarkable display of shimmering sonorities interspersed with clearly defined passage work. This extraordinary musician played in the camp’s one ultra modern space, custom designed by the Appels for concert appearances of this kind. The abstract, angular structure with a touch of Frank Lloyd Wright’s influence, was an architectural departure from the chicken coop quarters and other barn-like structures on the property.

My shining light of summer was dance instructor, Audrey Bookspan.
(Our musical study was enriched with allied arts activities)

A remarkable performer, once married to the late Micky Bookspan, principal percussionist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, she nursed along campers enrolled in modern dance classes, imbuing them with the Eastern, Zen way of “being,” and a good dose of Jung’s Yin and Yang. Her movement was so impeccably fluid, that I could watch her rehearse alone in a second floor barn space for hours at a time. What an inspiration! I remember how Ravel’s string quartet in F Major wedded with Audrey’s mellifluous movements

The Bookspan name also carried an association to Martin Bookspan, the resonant radio voice of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who provided a more pleasant listening experience than Milton Cross’s squeaked out commentaries from the Metropolitan Opera each Saturday afternoon on WQXR F.M. (Texaco sponsored)

Not to forget, the many rumored love affairs that spiced up life at Appel Farm. I won’t go further, except to say, that an extremely thin, eccentric Arts and Crafts teacher who wore a goatee disappeared with an attractive faculty member, both having gone AWOL. The biggest mini-crisis of the summer, it was still no match for the day I got grounded in a chicken coop for hounding a concert violinist’s autograph during a field trip. The buses were backed up for over an hour.

The Memorable End of Camp

A concluding concert was scheduled as the culmination of our 6 weeks of music making, but an intruding epidemic of food poisoning zapped the event.

Laid up in the infirmary with the runs and high fever beside rows of cots with ailing camp mates, I fainted just as my parents arrived to pick me up.

It had to be one of my most unique summers with its stunning highs and lows, but nothing compared to “Camp Nowhere,” and “American Pie, Band Camp.”

Finally, here’s a riveting quote from the Appel Farm Alum Facebook Page that amply enriches my narrative.

“This is the group for those crazy people who made art in a fire-trap barn, made theater in a sinking building, lived in a chicken coop, and survived the vagaries of the fastest gossip chain known to man. By that, I mean those who attended Appel Farm. It takes a special kind of person to subject themselves to that, and only Farmers can truly understand it.”

By the way, if you are out there, Audrey, Warren, Gloria, and Marvin, please get in touch.


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The iPhone Invades Piano Lessons

Monday, Jan. 24th, was a first! Esmeralda, a retired attorney, who’d been taking lessons from me for a year, entered my El Cerrito piano studio with a bright red iPhone as a sign of the times. A dangling rectangular prism packed with limitless software had replaced her simple gold cross. This latest “look” included a top-heavy accoutrement of questionable value in the piano learning environment.

No sooner than Esmeralda began to play her five-finger warm-ups in parallel and contrary motion, she had requested that I borrow her iPhone to “record” the tricky staccato phase of the exercise (crisp and short articulation) She wanted to take the digital sample home and use it as a crutch. By re-playing it a zillion times, she believed that she would master scales at break-neck speed!

If unsuccessful, she could simply tap the iPhone metronome and watch an animated pendulum, turning herself into a piano-playing robot. If nothing else, she could induce a hypnotic state and toss aside the beat counter.

Esmeralda requested a second sample from me a week later, but not the blood type. She had already done her good deed earlier in the day and was racked with upper back pain from the lengthy drawing at the local Red Cross. I was sure the baggy, top-heavy iPhone draped around her neck had probably made things worse. Nonetheless she took a brief lesson break and did some body gyrations on my J.C. Penney, wine colored, tufted bench. This was another first!

After she reluctantly trudged back to the piano bench, I agreed to dish out a performance of Alexander Tansman’s “Arabia” only if she promised to internalize my phrasing, and not upload the recording for profit. While this was the farthest thing from her mind, she realized as an attorney that my TOS had to be met.

All this technology was dizzying.

I was born of another generation. Growing up listening to great opera singers, violinists and pianists on 33 LPs and occasionally on 78s, I knew nothing of analogs, MIDIS, DATs and the rest, and as a student at the New York City High School of Performing Arts, I was sent off one morning to the WNYC F.M. studios to record one selection for broadcast. A reel to reel tape recorder grabbed the lion share of space behind the glass as engineers tweaked it.

All I can remember was having played like an ice-cube. Stricken with performance anxiety, my Chopin Nocturne died on the vine without even a whimper. Perhaps a modern-day note splicer would have eradicated the occasional clunkers, but what about the emotionless reading. Was there a 21st Century remedy? I would e-mail “support@…” for an answer, or text message on the ride home from El Cerrito.

Decades earlier, before I had entered the Oberlin Conservatory as a Freshman, my piano teacher, Lillian Freundlich, had helped me put together my audition tape using her reel to reel that captured the Schubert Sonata in A minor with gorgeous definition. Who could ask for more?

In 1992, KVPR, our local PBS radio station brought the double cylinder monsters to Northwest Church where they recorded soloists who had performed on the esteemed Keyboard Concerts Series. From my standpoint the results were crystal clear, though the sworn techie groupies would argue that digital, mp3, MIDI, and DAT were the winds of the present and future.

I recalled an ancient New Yorker Magazine cartoon depicting a classroom with 25 tape recorders of the old variety and one lonely teacher gazing upon these from behind her desk. George Orwell couldn’t have illustrated it better in 1984. Now well into the Millennium, technology had taken over, and learning by iPhone, import, plug-in, or download had displaced the well schooled, hard-working instructor at the head of the class.

Sometimes I felt like a teacher put out to pasture. My students could log onto You Tube and watch an amateur type out Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” on a 61-key bell and whistle type keyboard, with a blown up graph showing how many times “E” was played in the course of a musical page. Or better yet, they could download an animated piano that hummed along at programmed frequencies. You could tap your way to pianistic perfection with a “PLAYING The PIANO in a FLASH” DVD.

I decided to go with the flow, and allow my students their iPadian idiosyncrasies. If they wanted me to record a few snatches on the iPhone, or transmit whole pieces of music to them as zip files I would get with the times.

Otherwise, I would stick to my principles and lead a monastic life of pianistic purity. I’d never even allow myself to steal an iPhone, or sneak it into the concert hall to record a full length recital of my favorite pianist, no matter how great the temptation!