It was November 1, 1979 – I was just 6 years old – when my father took me to a little apartment in the next village over to meet a Jewish gentleman originally from New York City. He was a skilled artist and a professional, an educator and an entertainer. He would become my mentor in the ways of the piano and life for over 9 years. The going rate? $4 for 30 minutes.
I had other piano teachers over the years and had the opportunity to even (much later) play professionally with two different organizations. But none taught me as much as this one. We eventually went through the basics. Like all students just starting out, I simply wanted to learn to play. There is more to playing the piano than simply plinking out notes. First, the posture.
Proper posture is a part of technique that is critical. After all, serious musicians may practice several hours a day (eventually) and, well, sitting on a wooden (padded or otherwise) bench for that long with poor posture is extremely dangerous in the long term.
After spinal posture comes finger posture. Curled with the butt of the hand near the keys. Of course, the average 6-year old is unable to reach a full octave anyway, but the hand positioning is key to maintaining firm pressure and speed on the keys. This ensures even flow and articulation across the instrument.
I think it was about 15 minutes or so into our first lesson before I played my first note. And putting my feet on the floor or touching the pedals? Not with the height I inherited from my parents!
So, after my first lesson, I continued with Alan for 9 years. For several of those years, I was privileged to be his only student. I was also given the wonderful opportunity to learn jazz from him, including the wonderful art of ‘faking’, or using chord symbols and melody only to play with a band in such a way as to convince an audience we knew the song.
Only one other educator with whom I studied ever had that lesson to offer. His name was Joe and he played with Count Basie , Duke, and Monk. And he called all of us “cats” and encouraged me to play that flourish like “my dear friend, the Count”. To know both of these men as mentors and friends was truly a gift.
Aside from what I learned from Al and Joe (real names – and they reek of “jazz” when you say them right) on the piano, I learned a lot about how to treat others. They both had different backgrounds than me. While Alan was Jewish and came from the city, Joe was a distinguished black gentleman. They both were professional musicians and educators.
And they both exemplified grace in how they taught their students and spoke to us as friends, whether one or thirty at a time. And, no, those of us working with them didn’t always figure it out on the first try – despite the level of talent in my peers. But there was always time for learning and telling and, best of all, showing.
To this day, I don’t know if either of them knew Jesus (Al is still alive and Joe has been gone for nearly 10 years now). But they had something in their hearts that makes me believe they at least understood some of His teaching. That is to love others. They both did this well. And I’m honored to have worked with both of them and called them both friends.