Piano teacher teaches thinking, gains friends for life

JACQUES KELLY

October 05, 1992|By JACQUES KELLY

In the afternoon, a little hand reaches for a doorbell on a Bolton Hill rowhouse.

After hearing one vigorous ring, Harold Stern opens on old-fashioned front door to admit a youngster. The boy carries a bundle of sheet music.

Before long, the boy's fingers are running through the scales on a piano that sits between two high windows overlooking the street.

This neighborhood scene has been repeated for nearly 40 years, the time that Stern has taught piano to children from Bolton Hill and other parts of Baltimore. He teaches about 20 students a week -- children and young adults -- mostly in the afternoons and evenings.

"They come here to learn how to play the piano but they wind up learning more about themselves," Stern said the other day. "Most of my pupils aren't prodigies. But they learn discipline and they think."

And when his pupils grow up, they stay in touch, even those who go away to college or move away permanently.

"I'm a listener," Stern says. "I become their confidant."

"I get their letters. They tell me things they can't tell their parents. They become friends for life," he says.

Over the years, Stern has become one of the city's most beloved private piano instructors, a Bolton Hill institution and a comforting presence.

"When I think of all the crime and trouble in the city and wonder why I live in this neighborhood, I think of Harold Stern and the way my sons can walk up the street and take a lesson," says a man who lives nearby.

Stern's studio is on the first floor of a cozy Bolton Street house. His piano sits a few feet from a white marble fireplace and a pair of owl andirons. There are framed prints and oil paintings on the walls and shelves full of books. This is clearly the chamber of a man who loves literature, art and music.

Stern cites two people who profoundly influenced him. One was Richard Goodman, another legendary Bolton Street piano teacher whom Stern fondly recalls.

"He was the man who introduced a sense of culture to me. I learned about art and music from him. His old house and studio were a revelation. Before that, I had other neighborhood teachers but they weren't much," Stern says.

Another influence on Stern is Agi Jambor, one of his Peabody Conservatory teachers, who played with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under conductor Reginald Stewart. Through her, he learned performance technique.

As for his teaching technique, Stern says that over the years he has mellowed.

"I was nasty in the beginning. I'd tell students, 'You're not playing that right.' I think I've learned to ease up and listen. It may seem funny, but sometimes I think I get more out of my students' playing than they do," he says.

Stern grew up on Holmes Avenue, less than a mile from his present home. "I could hear lions in Druid Hill Park roar at night," he says.

Just as many of his students do today to reach his home, he walked the streets of the Druid Hill Park and Reservoir Hill areas until he reached Goodman's home for piano lessons.

Stern is a longtime member of Chizuk Amuno Congregation on Stevenson Road, where he sings in the choir.

He is also organist and choir director at the Church of the Guardian Angel on Huntingdon Avenue in Remington.

"It's a small volunteer choir but we make it through each week," he says.

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