A passion for the piano

Nori Keston

April 22, 1993|By Nori Keston

MY MOTHER was my first and only childhood piano teacher. She was a professional and her teaching was a big part of my growing up.

We lived on a street in Albuquerque set aside for faculty members at the University of New Mexico. Every child on the block had a father who taught at the university (mine taught psychology). Every day, by the time I and my brother and sisters had come home from school my mother was usually teaching. We knew that my mother, who was gifted in many ways, was a slave to the large teaching chair by the piano, where she sat day in and day out, and that her life was painful and circumscribed. Perhaps that is why coming home every day and seeing the folding gray doors closed off between the reception area, where students waited for their lessons, and the living room, where my mother taught, made me feel so sad for her.

Yet there was also a sense of certainty about the arrangement. My mother was always there, always teaching. We would hear her voice. We knew she was pointing at music on the piano rack with the long wooden baton she used so she wouldn't have to stand up.

Whether she taught well, I still can't say. She was popular and kind, and children certainly didn't suffer under her. If they can't play the piano today, at least their memories of lessons and lesson days are probably pleasant ones.

I never practiced. My mother tried to teach me, but I couldn't learn from her. I'm probably the only student she ever had who always ended up in tears at lessons. Yet I wanted to play the piano. I wanted to play more than anything in the world.

My mother also taught my older sister. But since she and my mother didn't fight, Heidi learned to play. I remember listening to a home recording of Heidi playing "White Christmas" (my parents had bought a recording machine so that they could document students' progress and give the records to parents as Christmas presents).

I would listen to Heidi playing "White Christmas" over and over, awed by the beauty of her playing and the purity of her soul. But I couldn't get myself to practice. My mother either couldn't or wouldn't encourage me. She always said children who practiced had a built-in drive to practice. Whether this philosophy was born of wisdom or fatigue I've never been able to decide. My mother had a lot of unusual ideas, about piano and about life.

My father also taught piano. He took the overflow on Saturday morning. Actually it would be fairer to say that he slept. This worried me deeply. Something inside of me said that it was not right for my father to be sleeping through lessons.

So I took it upon myself to keep him awake, bringing him coffee every hour or so in the small music room at the end of the hall where he taught, standing beside him -- sometimes throughout a whole lesson -- to tap him on the shoulder whenever I thought he was about to doze off.

I never let myself think what would happen if I hadn't been there -- my father sleeping soundly, the little student sitting at the piano, waiting for him to pick up his head and say "Yup! Uh! Next piece!" and then dropping off to sleep again.

Yet throughout my entire childhood, and despite this involvement with my parents' teaching, my own musical life was non-existent, except for my desire to play. This went on until I graduated from Berkeley, with an undergraduate degree in French.

I still don't know why I chose a degree in French. A French degree was easy to get, especially if you didn't want to study, and I didn't. I wanted to play the piano.

I remember walking out of my last final, out of the building, looking out over the tennis courts at the big ball of red, setting sun. It was over. And all I could think was that what I really wanted to do was play the piano.

So I started. I went to Minnesota, where my aunt lived and where my cousin had just married a pianist named Sanford Margolis. Sandy taught me for a year or so, and when I returned to the Bay area I was accepted into a master's degree program in piano performance at San Francisco State University.

There are lots of details I haven't mentioned, of course, but basically I've been playing the piano ever since. And despite many gray moments and difficult problems, I've been happy. My former husband told me recently that some friends of ours from Oregon had asked about me and that he had said to them: "She's very happy. She's improving at the piano, and that's what she's always wanted to do."

Nori Keston is a graduate student in piano at the Peabody Conservatory.

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