Every Wednesday afternoon beginning in sixth grade, I stepped out of my mother’s car and crossed the sidewalk into a wondrous world. Climbing the front steps into the vestibule of a big, old house, I could peek into the doorway that opened into many other rooms full of stillness, heavy decor, and a pleasant woody aroma. Behind one of these doorways was a lovely grand piano, but each week I settled myself onto the bench of the white student upright situated on a converted front porch. It was here that I, shy and acutely awkward, spent years learning piano (and indeed, life) lessons from one of my most memorable teachers, Louis Myers.
He was tall, gregarious, quick-witted, and had perfect pitch. When I knew him, he was probably in his sixties and seventies but still actively playing in bands and for events. In his youth he resembled George Gershwin, whom we both admired, and he frequently recounted the tragic tale of George’s untimely death- an event that occurred in his lifetime. It seemed to me that he was a link to a past that was more sophisticated and urbane. He was a devoted fan of his hometown baseball team, the Cleveland Indians. As I grew older, I often wondered how this Jewish man ended up in my small, predominantly Catholic, northern New York town.
What he may not have known was that I had begged my parents for piano lessons for years. My parents were careful with their spending, so my mother gave up her lessons so I could go. Week in and out he pulled up a chair next to the piano bench and we pushed on through drills, scales, music primers, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Cole Porter, Paul Simon, Mozart, Carole King, Rogers & Hammerstein, and Gershwin himself. Some days were laborious, and others were lilting. No one had to tell me to practice because I loved everything about it. I loved the instrument with its dark chambers inside the weighty wood, hammers striking strings, ivory and ebony under my moist fingertips. I loved the music, the tones, the trills, the emotion it evoked. And the music became a voice for my quiet, anxious, unpolished youth. Mr. Myers taught me to play the notes with my soul as well as my hands. He told me that I played with emotion, something that could not be easily taught.
That would have been enough, but it’s not all that I learned from from him. We covered the history of music and composers and as I blundered through adolescence he tossed in some practical advice. Sit up straight. Don’t pick at the blemishes on your face. Carry yourself like a young lady. Have confidence in yourself. And when I started driving myself to piano lessons he counseled, “A car is a weapon.” Most memorable was the constant reminder to treat others with respect. “Good and bad people come from every race, religion and color,” he would tell me. “People shouldn’t be picked on for their race or religious beliefs.” By high school, I realized that he had been alive during World War II and had lived in the reality of a world where 6 million other Jews were put to death.
It was his elegant wife, Nimi who caused Louis to spend most of his adult life in rural New York. With his talent and love for music, I’m sure he could have ended up in a metropolitan environment where there were more opportunities. Her family was Lebanese. Louis never told his mother that he converted to Catholicism to be with Nimi. Pictures of the young couple revealed a striking pair; both of them tall and dark-haired. I learned years later that Nimi used to sit quietly in their living room during my lesson so she could hear me play. I wasn’t that great, but I loved the music and it was flattering to think that this polished woman set aside time to listen to my progress.
When high school ended and I was getting ready to move on, the time came for lessons to end.
For weeks afterward, I cried quietly every time I sat down at the piano. I missed this man who had taught me so much about music and life. For 30 minutes almost every week, year after year, his example, encouragement, admonishment, and experience spoke into my life and added to who I am. I practically grew up at his piano.
In a time when we are hearing almost daily about people who abuse others’ trust- adults and children, teachers and students, spiritual leaders and followers, I cling to this example of someone who gave so much more than what he was paid for and did not violate faith. His encouragement to be a good citizen, to work hard, to be respectful, to laugh once in a while, and to play music with emotion are qualities he assisted my parents in imparting to me.
In this current world of selfies and social media rants where everyone wants to be heard and seen, I think about my teacher, long since passed away, and how he quietly changed my life.
He consistently showed up, every week. He held me to a standard, but took the time to show me how to reach it. He expected good things from me and treated me respectfully- even at my most awkward times. He did not violate trust.
I wonder how I’m doing at showing those qualities to the people in my life. Am I adding something positive to the family, friends, and coworkers in my path, or just trying to be heard above the clamor of life?
Even now, decades later, when I hear certain songs- especially Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue”, I remember the legacy passed to me by my teacher. What will people remember about me? Whose trust will I keep intact? To whom will I impart a legacy of goodness?
Copyright June 2021, all rights reserved.