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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 20, No. 1

The Lasting Influence of Piano Lessons

by Kristine Berey / September 1, 2014

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“Back to school” means going back to piano lessons for many young students in Montreal. Whether they choose to make music their profession or not, the experience will enhance their lives on many levels, far beyond the immediate musical context.

But sometimes, piano lessons can be serious business, as the play Two Pianos Four Hands demonstrates. Though hilarious, it chronicles just about everything that can go wrong during a young pianist’s formative years. Seeing the Centaur’s production last spring made me realize how lucky I was to have had the chance to work with Phil Cohen of Concordia University.

It was in the early seventies that I asked him to teach me and I really did not expect that he would agree. He was the founder and director of the university’s first music department and I was mostly self-taught at 22, with a plethora of bad musical habits. I had been regretfully told by a teacher after two lessons, “I can’t help you,” because I was too old and my hands were too small, leaving me devastated. But music is a fundamental need in everyone, I think, and my desire to play well outweighed my fear of asking. As I recall those years, this memory surfaces:

I am standing on the edge of a cliff so high there is only darkness below, knowing I must let myself fall, my sense of self-preservation pulling me back. I feel an almost imperceptible touch on my elbow and because of the absolute trust it inspires, I let go and feel myself drop into oblivion. I survive, landing not on rocks but on the opening chords of Chopin’s Black Key Etude, with the stunning realization that my small hands are not a lifelong handicap after all and will not prevent me from entering Chopin’s musical world. I am free.

This metaphor, perhaps a tad dramatic, accurately describes what Phil called “a breakthrough” during my piano studies.

I am sure I am not alone in feeling a tremendous gratitude for having had the chance to work with Phil Cohen. He had many students, including fully formed concert pianists, who carried battle scars from traumatic childhood musical experiences. He showed them that through paying attention to the music, the most crippling reflexes can be retrained and through patient, steady work, all obstacles can be overcome.

He accepted working with me on condition that I promised to practice. In time, I understood Phil’s definition of “practice” as in practicing medicine or another calling. While he asked for concentration, he eliminated struggle from all aspects of the musical experience. Mindless repetition was absent and heightened attention to the music maximized, imbuing the most minute musical phrase with meaning. We would build the piece layer by layer as a conductor or composer might, from within. The focus was never on competition, but on cultivating the capacity for joy, to create a life in music. He began working with you wherever you were in your musical journey and he spoke to you as to a fellow artist, recognizing that the quest for beauty comes from somewhere very deep, within all of us. He said talent was just a facility and spoke of being more or less experienced, rather than talented. He showed that sometimes a small shift of your centre of gravity can miraculously and instantly alter your technique.

I recall being amazed that, with his back turned to me, from the other side of the Loyola Chapel, he would comment on the fingering I used in a certain passage, recognizing it just from the sound. When he played, demonstrating a part of the piece we were working on, I remember feeling as if time stopped, and sensed that true musical experience was limitless.

Unlike the protagonists of Two Pianos Four Hands, I have no regrets about my musical life, because it is not in the past. Like C.S. Lewis’s magic cupboard, it remains an open door to an enchanted world, a colour in the rainbow of my life, without which everything would be much less bright.

Phil often said he did not follow any “method.” Rather than “teach” or “develop”, he harnessed the musical energy in each student. He addressed everyone as if they mattered, not only as human beings but also as musical beings. He spoke to the part of his students they valued most about themselves and expected a response on that level. He inspired by being inspired.

That approach went beyond the piano into the classroom as well. In one of his classes (which were extremely popular with all music students), there was one young man who could only be described as a heckler. He asked a “question” that was clearly an attempt to challenge the teacher and disrupt the class. Phil’s response was an enthusiastic, “That is a great question!” to which he then improvised a truly great answer, capturing the class’s attention. The heckler seemed to swell with pride and became sincerely involved in subsequent discussions.

I believe that musicality is one manifestation of Rachel Carson’s idea of the sense of wonder. It is innate; it is precious and infinitely vulnerable. As Zoltan Kodaly said, “There is no such thing as an unmusical child.” Being sung to and singing, attending concerts and listening to recorded music nurture children musically and awaken their desire to learn. Then, if they meet a sensitive and generous teacher, as I did, they will truly play the piano. Regardless of what else life has in store, it will be a gift that lasts forever.

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