A True Teacher

An assignment from Natalie Goldberg from Old Friend from Far Away

“Tell me about someone who was a true teacher for you. Don’t be sentimental. Tell it straight and plain: Who was this person? Go. Ten minutes.”

I walked into class that first day to find a scruffy middle-aged man with a muddy English drawl, the translation of which was further complicated by a mouthful of questionably clean and crooked teeth. His name was Mr. Pugh. He had been teaching honors English in my high school for many years. Both my older brothers had him and I had heard stories when I was much younger.

He was unabashedly eccentric. He explained to us the first day of class that if he woke up in the morning and the same pair of pants was still sitting on the floor from the day before, he would simply put them on again. When you had to get close to him with a question or to hand in a paper you quickly realized that although he had lived in the US for many years, he had not fully embraced our love of daily hygeine.

I would have him as a teacher all year, first for Great Books and then for Advanced Composition. He did not “mentor” me in any traditional sense. He was not the kind of teacher who would throw you accolades and be a cheerleader. He was grumpy, sullen, and antagonistic. He preferred his class to be full of lively discourse bordering on arguments. He wanted people to feel challenged.

And not just about the content of the books we were reading, but on every day topics. It was 1978 and teachers and school administrators were finally figuring out that a good portion of the student body was high during the school day. Someone had been taken aside by another teacher and accused of being high in class. The discussion in Pugh’s class that day about the incident centered on whether a teacher was in a position to unequivocally say whether a student was under the influence or not.

Being the outspoken girl I tended to be, I was arguing quite vehemently that there was no way a teacher could really know if a student was high.

Pugh’s response was straightforward and sarcastic, “Meckling, we always know when you’re high.”

I’m indebted to Mr. Pugh for my love of the following writers: Albert Camus, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Shakespeare. I’m indebted to him for honing my writing skills enough that I never felt the sort of panic that many people feel when asked to write, leaving me with a skill that lead to my pursuit of an English degree in college. I’m indebted to him for telling me I am a writer, for taking me aside and explaining to me that there would be jobs for writers in the real world. And although my adolescent lack of confidence in this arena did not allow me to really believe him at the time, I am forever indebted to him for planting that thought in my head. Clearly it stayed with me.

For the love of music

Part 3 of the piano bits

So how in the world did I get here? I now have ten students. Half of them piano students, the other half voice students. And me, a music teacher with no music degree.

the choir I currently sing with

If you’ve been reading my previous posts, you know that I began playing the piano when I was about 6. I took classical piano lessons most of my childhood.

And I’ve been singing for longer than that. In fact, I think I’ve heard my mother retell a story in which she claims she never heard a peep out of me as a toddler until she heard me one day singing “Over the Rainbow.” This might be one of those stories that is more myth than truth, but it sure sounds good doesn’t it? And if you know me, you are not surprised by the tale, tall though it may be.

I think my first singing role was in Hansel and Gretel at the age of 4 or 5 when my older sister and I shared the role of Gretel–she played it one night and I played it the other. I was bitten hard by the theatre bug and pursued roles throughout my youth. Hal McCuen was the director of that children’s theatre project in Mansfield, Ohio. He was a driven thespian who inspired me and many others in more than one generation in that little burg, and I am grateful for having been one of his protege.

 My first choir experience was in the junior choir at my church when I was in fourth grade. There, I learned that I am an alto and that I could sing harmony when most kids were too young to carry a tune while someone else sang something different right beside them. My sister and I held up the alto section together, in fact. There were probably twenty other kids singing soprano, and me and Sally and one other girl singing harmony . . . and being heard, mind you.

Our director for that little church choir of prepubescent was really fabulous. She was a very attentive and patient teacher, and an excellent director who could squeeze amazing subtlety out of a bunch of very young voices. I credit her with my being bitten by the choir bug and having spent the last thirty years participating in community choirs, symphony choruses, church choirs, and in choir leadership all my life. Mrs. Ransdell, I tip my glass to you, dear lady.

In high school I tried out for parts in practically every play our school put on. I played Abigail in The Crucible, the maid in The Miracle Worker, Snoopy in You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, and other roles I can barely now recall. I thank Bill Asher for generously casting me in things that gave me an opportunity to try to act and to sing. Bill was a bombastic thespian: every word he ever spoke and every move he ever made was played for the deaf audience member in the back row of the theatre. Bill helped me figure out that I might be more than just a ham, and that gave me the crazy idea that I might pursue theatre in college.

So off I went to college, spending two years pursuing a theatre degree doing mostly musical theatre. Kept singing, got some voice lessons, and got stronger. But I slowly began to see that a theatre degree was not the most practical route to take in college, so I switched to English.

Then in my third year, I met a merry little band of folks who I thankfully still count as my dear friends today. And this is when my musical education was renewed.

I was living with my girlfriend Cindy when, one day, two people came knocking on our door looking for her. She had met Jim and Kathy at the local diner where they discovered they might have some mutual musical interests. Specifically, they wanted to recruit us to come sing some choral music with them. Jim was the Music Director at the local Unitarian Universalist fellowship. He sang bass, Kathy sang soprano. My voice was low enough to sing tenor, my girlfriend sang alto. Together we began working on Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus, Bach’s chorales, Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium. We became inseparable friends and collaborators. I learned so much from singing in a small intimate quartet. Being able to work more intensely with each other on our sound, being sensitive to one another, listening to each other, working hard to blend—there isn’t one of us who wouldn’t tell you that it was a magical time in our lives and that we have not captured the same feeling singing with anyone or any group since.

Besides those glorious years expanding my classical singing repertoire, my friendship with Jim gave me the gift I had wanted as a child and been discouraged from pursuing. That gift—playing the organ. I had expressed interest in playing the organ to my piano teacher as I was growing up and her response had been, “You don’t want to learn that thing. Nobody plays that anymore.” Unfortunately, I never mentioned it to my mother or anyone else at that time.

But I had always loved listening to the pipe organ at church and now I had a dear friend who played it beautifully and loved it. Jim helped me wrap my mind around teaching myself to play the organ and, with his guidance and encouragement, I dove in with both feet, literally. I’ve never thought of myself as anything more than a “hack” at the organ since I am mostly self-taught, but I learned to play well enough to land the Music Director’s job in Florida, so I guess I did okay. Furthermore, being able to play music with both your hands and your feet at the same time is probably the coolest thing ever. Thank you, Jim. You inspired me then and I am happy to still call you friend.

Those years spent playing and singing with close friends at the Unitarian Universalist fellowship in Kent, Ohio set the stage for the next 30 years of singing in choirs, playing in churches, directing choirs, singing in a jazz ensemble, playing in a folk group, and teaching other people piano and voice in the hopes of passing on the love of making music to others.

So when potential students or students’ parents ask me what qualifies me to teach, I tell them, “a lifetime of playing piano and singing and a belief that being able to make music is the most valuable, spiritual, and inspiring gift you can give to yourself or your kids.”

I am blessed to be able to have a hand in that process in anyone’s life. And I am incredibly grateful for the teachers I have had all through the years that helped me improve my techniques, inspired me, and helped me foster, cherish, and never forget the gift of music in my own life.

With a little help from my friend

Part 2 of the piano bits

When I first went to Block Island to work in the summer of 1982, I rented a room from a woman who owned what used to be an old hotel that had been cut up into small dorm-like rooms. Carrie and her husband rented the rooms to kids who came out to work for the summer. No kitchens, shared bathrooms, but at least it was a bed to sleep on.

Southeast Bluffs of Block Island on a hazy summer day

I didn’t stay in the room long, but it’s a small island and I kept in contact with Carrie over the years I summered there. By the summer of 1986, Carrie and her husband were running a bicycle, moped and car rental business. When a friend of mine who was visiting decided to stay for the summer, the decision was facilitated by Carrie who gave her a job and a place to stay for the summer.

Carrie is, to me, a larger than life character. She is incredibly generous, kind, smart, fun, and very driven. She plays piano and is the primary piano teacher on the island with over 40 students. In addition, she is always running at least two small businesses, being a house mom to her summer workers, principal organist/pianist for the largest church on the island and accompanist for the island’s community choir.

By 1987, I had already spent part of a winter on the island: I joined the community choir, attended Scottish country dancing sessions, and lived with and cooked for the island’s 94-year-old matriarch. As I became more a part of that small community, I was getting to know Carrie and other islanders more intimately.

It wasn’t long before Carrie found out I played piano. Carrie practically pounced on that little tidbit of information and asked me to come play a four-handed piece with her. I had spent some time teaching myself to play organ while I was in college, and had played some piano at the U.U. Church in Kent, Ohio, where I went to school, but I had not done a lot of piano performing outside of that.

And the truth is, I had never played four-handed piano pieces with anyone. When I first sat down with her, I was like, “No way! I don’t know if I can read two treble clefs at the same time.”

Carrie was undaunted, “Of course you can. You’ll pick right up on it.” Carrie has this way about her that challenges you in a way that expresses absolutely NO DOUBT about your abilities or hers. Suddenly you are whisked into this world in which all things are possible and we simply barrel ahead through whatever challenge lies before us.

So we played Dvorjak’s Slavonic Dances, Gottschalk’s La Gallina, Faure’s Dolly Suite. And we prepared them for her recitals. Oh yes, that little dickens had ulterior motives all along. We were always preparing something for her student recitals so she could end the recitals with a bang. All I can say is, I never knew what hit me. I was challenging my abilities in ways I hadn’t in years. And having a ball doing it.

I learned so much playing with Carrie. She’s a very strong piano player with very strong hands, like her personality. The only formal lesson I have had in years was when she invited her piano instructor, a piano professor from Brown University, out to the island to critique us and give us a lesson on one of our 4-handed pieces. The content of that lesson still informs my playing even now, and that was 25 years ago.

Long about 1989, the time came for me to leave Block Island. My mate and I had decided to move to Florida. I was looking for work in the Fort Myers area where an old friend could put me up until I got an apartment. I was getting the Fort Myers newspaper delivered to me on the island, and lo and behold, one Sunday there was a classified advertisement for a Music Director at the Unitarian Universalist Church there. I had already been associated with the U.U.s while in college at Kent State. My friend, Jim was the music director at the U.U. Fellowship there. I had performed with him, singing in a quartet, playing piano in ensembles, singing in his small choir and learning to play the organ in the warmth of that fellowship.

And by the time I was conducting this job search in order to move to Fort Myers, I had performed organ and piano in various places on Block Island, filling in as organist or pianist at the other smaller churches on the island, accompanying soloists for charitable performances, playing in chamber ensembles, as well as continuing to sing in the community choir.

The advertisement was for a Music Director, someone who would play organ for the hymns, play other music as needed for the service on piano or organ, and direct a small choir.

Still, as I said in a previous post, I did not major in music in college. So I’m thinking to myself, I’m probably not qualified to take this position. Yes, I’ve played in churches, accompanied plenty of folks, and I have sung in countless choirs, small ensembles, and as a soloist my entire life. Still, I thought, what qualifies me to be a Music Director in a church?

I took the question to Carrie (thankfully!). You can guess what Carrie’s answer was.

“Of course you can do this, Maggie!”

“But I’ve never actually directed a choir before,” I said in my self-depracating-ness

“So?! Oh, there’s nothing to it. I’m doing it at the Old Harbor Church. If I can do it you can do it. And I don’t have an accompanist; I do it while I’m playing the piano. You can do it.”

This is why I love this woman.

So, I made a tape (yes, it’s when we still had cassette tapes) of myself playing organ and piano and sent it off to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fort Myers. And after a couple of telephone conversations with a congregation member and the minister, I landed the job.

I think there are people with gifts so great, energy so powerful, faith so magnanimous, who are so fully engaged in a forward motion in their own lives that they literally propel whoever comes into contact with them forward also. Carrie is one of those people. I am very thankful to have her as a friend. And this was not the only time in my life that she helped propel me through my own self-doubt. More on that next time.

The joy is in the practicing

 I’m sitting at the computer, writing and listening to Keith Jarrett on Pandora. Keith Jarrett is a jazz pianist who has a unique style and voice (he sometimes can be heard audibly scatting while he’s playing even though he is not a singer). His style varies from contemporary jazz to traditional to avante garde improvisational with a mesmerizing or hypnotic quality at times.  Check him out doing Autumn Leaves at the Blue Note: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=io1o1Hwpo8Y

One of the first guys I dated in college, a music student by the name of Kevin, turned me on to Keith Jarrett. Kevin and I met when he approached me in the lobby of my dorm where I was playing the grand piano that sat there. Kevin was mean and self-centered and was probably bipolar, like so many of the people I attract like a magnet. We dated only a couple times, but my appreciation for Keith Jarrett has continued through the years.

I love the piano. I have played it all my life. I love to listen to piano music. I particularly admire jazz pianists like Oscar Peterson, Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, Diana Krall. But I have an undying appreciation of all accomplished piano players and will listen to piano music any time. When a pop singer hits the scene whose main instrument is piano, I tend to have a special affinity for him or her, Ben Folds, Alicia Keyes, Bruce Hornsby, Ingrid Michaelson, Nora Jones. God bless Pandora, because I can listen to any pianist I want day or night.

I am not half as accomplished at piano as some of these folks and I did not major in music in college. Still, it is my beloved avocation. I have played piano professionally, accompanied soloists, played in ensembles, and I have taught piano to adults and children.

I have my mother to thank for this. I grew up in a house where it was simply understood that you would learn to play an instrument, and taking piano was mandatory before you could move on to any other. Out of five siblings, I’m the only one who stuck with piano as my primary instrument.

I was having lunch with my mom yesterday and she told the man I’m dating this story: I was only 7 or 8 years old and had not been taking piano for very long and I performed Fur Elise at my piano recital to the amazement of everyone in the audience since I was such a young girl and a relatively new piano student.

Having an aging parent is such a blessing (my mom is a spry 83), because they possess this big trunk of secrets and memories. And all the wealth and richness of their lives and of your own life comes percolating out of them when you least expect it. Like that short little vignette of my life as a young piano student.

I suddenly remembered how driven I was to learn that piece, Fur Elise. I just loved it so much, I wanted to be it. It never occurred to me that I might not have enough knowledge as a young piano student to play it. The thought never crossed my mind. And even though I was a typical student who complained about having to practice all the time, practicing this piece didn’t feel like practice. I just decided I was going to play this piece and did. It was exhilarating. Of course I could only play the first movement, but learning that piece made me feel like I had flown to the moon and back.

I haven’t changed all that much from that driven, giddy little piano student. I still get a hold of a piece and don’t’ let go. Of course, some of the pieces I pick up take a hell of a lot longer to master. And many of them I never master. I’ll play Clair de Lune my whole life and never play it worth a crap. The arpeggios in the middle really hang me up. I’ve been playing Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata for years. I play a sloppy first movement and a halfway decent second movement, but can’t bring myself to try the third, knowing how fast it’s supposed to go.

Last year I learned the Prelude from Grieg’s In Holberg’s Time, a Suite in Antique Style. I’m still having a little trouble with a couple of places in it, and I will probably never play it up to speed. But when my dear friend, Carrie, told me one of her high school piano students was playing it, I got a little competitive and decided I had to learn it. It’s been a year and I’m still working on it. Maybe I’ll move on to the other movements, maybe not. The joy is in the work!

Even when I am playing piano by ear, finding a popular piece that I like to sing and figuring out an accompaniment so that I can sing it without the record, I still operate in the same way I did those many years ago when I learned Fur Elise. In these cases, when it’s an Ingrid Michaelson song, or a Dolly Parton song, or a Patti Griffin song, or a Cheryl Wheeler song, I usually sit down at the piano with the recording nearby and work out the entire song in one sitting, repeating it over and over and over so I don’t forget it. Then I know it’s in there (my pea-sized brain) and I can pull it out any time I want.

Without all this music running around in my head, I fear I would be very lonely and bored. Thanks, mom, for making me take piano lessons. Sorry I complained so much about practicing.

Who told you life was gonna be fair?

Union members and supporters outside Ohio Statehouse 2/22/11 waiting to be let in to hear testimony on S.B.5

Today I stood shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of Ohio’s unionized state workers, teachers, firefighters, and F.O.P. members as we listened to the introduction of S.B. 5 by one of its co-sponsors, a bill that seeks to completely eliminate collective bargaining in the state of Ohio. Our numbers—which some estimate to be as much as 1500—filled the chambers of the Senate Hearing room at Ohio’s Statehouse, overflowing into the hallways, packing the atrium, and filling several secondary hearing rooms into which they had to pipe the audio of the hearing’s proceedings so the multitude of concerned workers could hear every word uttered in the hearing.

For those who may not know it, last year’s Ohio election mirrored many others in the country, turning over many state offices previously held by Democrats into the hands of Republicans. And as one of their first orders of business, the now Republican majority seeks to bust the state workers’ union and every other union in the public sector in this state with the sole intention of disarming the unions in order to take back the White House in 2012.

Needless to say, having two union teachers in the family and two family members that work directly for a union, I stand with my union brothers and sisters for their right to have a place at the table to collectively bargain their work contracts with the State of Ohio.

But my support for the right of workers to bargain collectively is not something I came upon late in life, or even as a young adult. I was 11 years old and in the sixth grade when the teachers in my school district went out on strike. It was during this strike that I learned about the right of workers to organize.

I got the sense from my mother that some kids’ parents were very upset about the strike. Many had vowed to cross the picket line and teach in order to keep the schools from shutting down. I don’t remember who’s mother taught our sixth grade class, but my mother crossed the picket line to teach first grade, and my younger sister had to endure the trauma of having her mother for a teacher.

What I remember most about that week is recess. During recess, a handful of other students and I walked around the perimeter of the school (the picket line) with Mr. “E.”, which was our nickname for the gym teacher, Mr. Elias.

Mr. E. gave us an education I have never forgotten. He talked to us about fair wages for teachers. He talked about the personal hardship involved in being on strike, not just for him but for others he knew that had families and were now on strike. He talked candidly and openly, not lecturing, not proselytizing, not angry. He answered our questions and then signaled when it was time for us to go back into the school. And with his answers, I began to understand that working people sometimes had to fight in order to be treated fairly.

Other similar thoughts started to occur to me around the same age. I had been placed in the “gifted” program in both 5th and 6th grade. In each of those grades, we had three classrooms of kids. One out of the three classrooms in each grade was designated as “gifted.” The majority of the kids in each of those classes came from our school, but in each class there were two or three kids who were bused in from other elementary schools on the north end of town. I knew it was not possible that out of all those schools on the north end of town, there were only a handful of kids who were as smart as the 50 of us that came from my school to fill those two classrooms.

And it started to register with me that the schools north of us were in poorer school districts. My elementary school sat squarely in between poorer neighborhoods and more affluent neighborhoods to the south, which most assuredly had their own “gifted” classrooms. But the schools on the north end didn’t have gifted classrooms. And even in my young mind, I knew that it simply was not possible that these two girls—for their were only two girls in my 6th grade class that came from other schools—were the only smart kids in 6th grade at their schools. And why exactly wouldn’t they have their own “gifted” class at their schools?

I began to ask questions that lead me to understand that school funding in our state was (and still is) dependent upon property taxes and that the property taxes in poorer school districts simply wouldn’t afford those schools the same advantages that we had.

So 6th grade is a crucial time for a lot of reasons, I guess. It’s the year that I became aware of class issues even within the middle class, aware of how working people have to fight to be treated fairly, even if they are college-educated, and aware of how some kids will never have the advantages I have had, no matter how smart they are. My father had often defused us kids when we were complaining about this or that by saying “Who told you life was gonna be fair?” At age 11, I was beginning to understand exactly what that meant. And by the same token, I was beginning to understand that life was gonna be a little fairer to me than it would be to a lot of others.