I've been blessed to have had several influential teachers in my life, including parents, dance instructors, college professors, internship mentors and a very patient coach during a stint at tennis. Some are memorable for what they taught me. Others, for what they didn't. A couple I remember because of how they shared their expertise.
One who stands out is my former piano teacher, Elaine Baker Young of Wheeling, W.Va. For six years before college, I took weekly lessons at her spacious home perched atop a winding hill, a challenge to navigate in winter weather. But like the U.S. Postal Service, neither rain, nor wind, nor snow stopped piano lessons.
"Just bring some boots and walk up the hill," Mrs. Young would say. Thankfully, my mom's van was equipped with four-wheel drive.
Inside, the house was as interesting as the petite, gray-haired woman who resided there. Books, knick-knacks and black-and-white framed photos dotted the shelves. In the lesson room, two grand pianos were positioned back-to-back at one end, occupying only a fourth of the beige-carpeted living space.
Mrs. Young hadn't always lived in Wheeling. She was born in Baltimore in 1919, with periods spent in cities across the east coast and Midwest. After graduating high school at 16, she studied at Ward-Belmont Women's College (now Belmont University) in Nashville and later performed as an exhibition ballroom dancer in New York City. She also attended West Virginia University and Chicago Musical College, where she earned bachelor and master of music degrees.
Stories from these earlier days regularly infused her musical instruction. Sometimes she'd share photos from when she was a contortionist, remarking once in her 80s that she still maintained some of her flexibility. On other occasions she'd reminisce about living in New York and the snippy saleswomen and the don't-trust-them-too-quickly men she had encountered there.
"Watch out for those kinds," she warned before I moved to New York City for college.
Lessons typically consisted of a review of scales, chords or arpeggios, followed by a run-through of the selections that had been assigned the previous week. When a new piece of sheet music was introduced, we'd sit side-by-side on the black leather bench and play through it slowly, she executing one hand while I tackled the other.
To help familiarize my ears with a new song, sometimes she'd pop a recording of it into a CD player, and we'd listen to the soundtrack of some distinguished musician performing it. She often complemented this with a story about the composer.
When teaching Beethoven's "Fur Elise," she commented on his promiscuity -- and the role it might have played in his writing it.
"Beethoven was a player," she once said, matter-of-factly. "He was always jumping from one relationship to another, trying to woo young ladies. That's why he wrote 'Fur Elise.' He composed it for a young woman he admired named Elise."
I remember her standing up from the small table across from the piano, where she jotted down critiques in a red notebook, and buttoning the jacket of her gray pants suit as she continued.
"It's true. I believe he put so many chromatic scales in this song so Elise's diamond rings would sparkle in the candlelight when her hands raced up and down the keyboard."
Like her stories, recitals weren't typical, either. Although there was a formal performance each May at a church in Wheeling, others were more festive. A Halloween-themed showcase would take place at her house for her younger students, who were welcome to dress up. Older students were invited to play at an annual Christmas tea.
Mrs. Young had a collection of a couple dozen tea cups in varying patterns, and students could pick which they wanted to drink from for the afternoon. (I always eyed a stout one with an orange-and-pinkish floral pattern with gold trim.) Her daughter would help her prepare hors d'oeuvres, and the aroma of cookies, pizza bagels and other goodies would waft from the kitchen and smell so good as we took turns performing.
Later, we would be treated to a music-themed movie, as well as a game of "pass the present." She would wrap a gift 30 or more times and then pass it around the room so each guest could take a turn removing the paper. The person who removed the last piece would win the surprise inside.
Students would bring her presents, too, and she'd express her gratitude with a "thank you" card hand-written in elegant cursive that detailed her favorite parts of the gift, what she planned to do with it and even how much she liked a particular design or color of the gift wrap or bag it came in.
This holiday season, many pianists came together again because of Mrs. Young. But only the memories of her were there this time. The gathering was a memorial tribute to Mrs. Young, who passed away last month at 93. She retired from teaching just three years earlier.
I may not remember all the songs she taught me or which composer penned what score and when. But I remember other things: Pay attention to details when writing "thank you" notes; they make them more personal and meaningful. Wear blue to auditions -- judges tend to be male and like that color. Live life fully, but keep your heart safe from the Beethovens out there. Share your home and your passion in life with others.opinion_commentary
Sara Bauknecht is a staff writer and online editor for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-3858).