Storytelling: The piano teacher who 'pulled music out of my fingers'
Our Storytelling series on favorite teachers turns to learning outside of the classroom (read earlier stories):
Pittsburgh pianist William Chrystal died on Aug. 29 at the age of 77. He played professionally throughout the city and, in his studio in Mt. Lebanon, he gave lessons to as many as 50 students a week.
I was one of those lucky ones.
When I turned 9, my mother started driving me to Mr. Chrystal's home in Mt. Lebanon. Mom would deal with the traffic on Banksville Road, park the station wagon on McCully Street, wish me luck and wait for me to climb the long stone staircase that led to his studio. I'd stand in front of his door with my fingers hovering over the bell.
On the other side of the door, I would hear the cautious tempo of the student before me. I imagined the silent disapproval that met each mistake, and heard the scratch, scratch, scratch of Mr. Chrystal's blue and red pencils as he circled mistakes the student had made while plodding through the music.
Eventually, I would muster up enough courage to ring his bell. He would answer the door, all smiles, and have me take a seat on the couch in his studio, where I witnessed the praise, the humiliation, the confusion, the triumph of the student ahead of me.
Mr. Chrystal was a taskmaster, a drill sergeant and a wizard pianist. He scared me with his stern voice and strict regimen, but I loved how he put ideas in my head and pulled music out of my fingers. It seemed a kind of magic.
Until I hit my teen years, I had been improving at a steady pace, playing in competitions and developing a small classical repertoire. But when I started junior high school, a terrible thing happened. The other kids made fun of me because I played the piano.
"Classical music," they said. "How queer."
After a conference with my parents, Mr. Chrystal began encouraging me to read lead sheets and chord symbols. He taught me how to do my own arrangements. He showed me how to quiet the adolescent noise in my head by writing innocent songs about growing up.
I went from being an angst-ridden nerd to being cool. At 13 that's far more important than a Bach Invention. Mr. Chrystal found a way to keep me playing the piano.
So I played and played and played. I eventually left Pittsburgh, moved to New York City, and carved a career for myself as a pianist, composer and writer of books about music. I never lived up to Bill's impossibly high standards, but, with the exception of Stephen Flaherty (who went on to a spectacular career as a Broadway and film composer), none of his students did.
I still wonder how far I might have gone if I had remembered to sit up straighter and curve my fingers a little more.
Hundreds of students passed through that McCully Street door. Bill taught his students to tame life's chaos by conquering the tricky musical passages he assigned to us. In our playing, he heard the sound of hope -- not the smooth-edged hope of easy optimism, but hard-earned hope, the kind that comes from determination.
Bill Chrystal taught me that music gives back whatever I put into it. Music is an art that cannot be mastered, but joy awaits anyone who is willing to try. Four decades after that first jittery lesson, I'm still reaping the benefits of his wisdom.
I live in Europe now. I'm a long way from home, but I still hear the musical voices of my childhood whenever I sit down and play. Every time I touch the piano, Bill Chrystal is there, reprimanding me for a careless mistake or sloppy fingering. His imposing physical presence at the side of the Steinway is a tiny voice in the back of my head.
Sometimes, not often enough, I catch myself playing a passage the way he would have played it, clear and perfect and full of life, and it takes my breath away. What a beautiful gift he gave me.
William Chrystal, a member of the Pittsburgh Symphony under William Steinberg, played with the Civic Light Opera, Pittsburgh Ballet and Wheeling Symphony and was a faculty member at Chatham and Carnegie Mellon. He is survived by his wife, Anne Traeger, a son, Scott Chrystal of Mt. Lebanon, and two grandchildren.
First Published September 5, 2008 12:05 am