The Page Turner

It's called The Green Room. It's big. The kids looked really tiny. The girls were wearing fancy dresses. Jacob was wearing a seersucker suit. Beyond adorable.


It was my student's Mother's Day recital. Somehow, though the room is big and they are tiny, the children played like real musicians. They bowed and smiled and even enjoyed themselves. There were challenges: a forgotten chord or two, a bra strap slipping slowly down an almost teenager's arm while she played something fast and flashy, a teacher (that would be me) who had a little trouble remember the first section of an accompaniment to a piece that she wrote a two weeks ago. (So many notes in this head by now.)

They were wonderful. Such an array of personalities.

After the student recital, I played a recital with my friend, the soprano Julia Hunt Nielsen. She was glorious. I was just fine. Together we were pretty spectacular. There is something to be said for just making the music myself instead of always trying to get someone else to do it. I love to teach, don't get me wrong, but sometimes it's nice to get rid of the middle man and just play. No nerves any more. Don't have time for any of that nonsense. Enjoy the music and the chance to share it. Life is too short for anything else.

This was the first time my daughter, Evie, was able to turn pages for me for a recital. She's ten now and quite a seasoned performer herself. The San Francisco Girls Chorus will do that to a girl. It felt like a rite of passage: I'd never let myself hope that she would be such a fine a musician that she could turn pages not only for songs (the lyrics help keep track of where you are) but for a Russian etude by Liapounov. Lots of very black notes flying by like lightning. It was impressive. The page turning, I mean.

If you're feeling like a guilty pleasure, try watching the movie The Page Turner. It's a 2006 French film about a young girl -- just about Evie's age, who becomes obsessed with a concert pianist, infiltrates her life and ruins her career. It's a revenge movie about a ten-year-girl. No, I am not worried about Evie and me.  There's room for both us both. But I'll be extra nice to her, just in case.


Kudos to Iliana, age five, who apparently performed under duress. (She ended up in the Emergency Room with a 104 degree fever and pneumonia.) The things we do for art.

The Good Ones are Allergic to Garlic

They're both allergic to garlic: Bebe and Dave. That's Bebe Neuwirth and David Kessler. Yes, that Bebe Neuwirth. And yes, well, that David Kessler. Probably. (There's another one who you might have heard of, but this one is more important.) I didn't know he was important when we met.

He showed up at my door like any other piano student, a stunningly grey-haired-dignified-yet-hip Robert De Niro. Dave played some Bach for me. We spent most of his first lesson discussing ornamentation. He knew more than I did. He still does. He needed me, though. I play better than he does. I could help him make the music he could hear in his head come out of his hands. That was twenty years ago.

Over the years, I became more than fond of Dave. I started to love him. I think the love started in 1999. He had taken time during a trip to Paris to visit a designer boutique. He brought me back my favorite baby gift. It was wrapped in an oh-so-French-baby-blue cake box. Inside was a delicious three-piece ensemble sewn of a mother's dreams of her adorable, perfect, baby boy.

Dave was a good sport a few years later when said boy, then a 3-year-old, ran into the room during Dave's lesson, picked up an end table and hurled it across the room. It just missed Dave.

His comment:

"Well, I didn't think I was playing that badly."

We continued the lesson.

We started to have my adult student get-togethers at his beautiful Victorian home. Tidbits of information trickled out. He was a forensic psychiatrist. Sometimes he would come straight to his lessons from visiting an inmate at San Quentin. Most of his cases involved murder. No wonder he wanted to play some Brahms.

I broke my rule; I went to his house to give him his lessons. He had gotten a rare form of leukemia and his immune system was compromised. I couldn't imagine him coming to my home: land of child-born germs and table-throwing.

He recovered completely. He resumed coming to my place.

The movie Milk came out. Dave started telling me about his life in the 70's in San Francisco. He had known Harvey Milk. In fact, he had spoken at Harvey's memorial service at the Opera House in San Francisco.

The prosecution had asked Dave to testify as an expert witness in the trial of Dan White. Dave had declined because he was afraid the defense would have said that his objectivity had been compromised. He wonders to this day if the trial would have ended differently had he testified. The Twinkie Defense wouldn't have held up. I'm sure of it.

This week, on Dave's 80th birthday, twelve of Dave's closest friends surprised him with dinner at Masa's.  Dave loves good food.

For my second course I had:

Composition of Early Spring Vegetables

roasted purple and white cauliflower, cipollini onions, brussel sprouts,

baby spring leeks, rapini, maitake mushroom "cream", pine nut "dust"

But I digress.

Dave's cousin, Helen, brought along a copy of a People Magazine article from May, 1979.  It featured Dave, then 48. His coming out made history. He was the first president of Bay Area Physicians for Human Rights, the nation's first formal organization of gay doctors. If any of you are relieved that being gay is no longer classified as an illness, thank Dave.

I showed the article to my daughter, Evie.

"Mom," she said. "Can I have this? I want to put it up on my wall."

I love that she's proud of him. I am too.

A River Runs Through Musical Fossils

I loved the movie A River Runs Through It. Really loved it. It made me cry. It made me laugh. I was convinced it was the best movie ever made. As I walked slowly, sobbing, out of the movie,  I told my husband how I was feeling.  He was very kind.

"Di, I know that you really liked it, but some people might not find quite as much to relate to in it as you did."

"What do you mean?" I bit back. "There is no one who wouldn't appreciate that movie," I stuttered through my tears.

"Well," he said, "Not everyone is just like you. You kind of have a lot in common with the characters in the movie."

"Like what, exactly?"

"Well, you come from a family where your father is a protestant minister, you have a brother, and an aging father who used to love to fly fish. Not to mention that your Uncle Pete was one of the most famous fly fishermen ever."

He had me. I had to admit that that movie resonated with every inch of my minister's daughter, younger sister, fly-fishing niece soul. At the risk of recommending a website with the fervor I once recommended A River Runs Through It, I feel certain that Musical Fossils is a wonderful website.

Some adults can already play the piano. A lot more adults wish they already could; Some of them are doing something about it. Sometimes they come to me.

I love to teach adults. First, they can read. Second, there's no chance that their parents are forcing them to take the lessons.  Third, they are  grateful for someone who takes their learning seriously. I do.

 Musical Fossils  is a site about adults learning to play the piano. The founder, Matthew Harre, teaches adults and seem to feel quite a bit the way I do about it. I am particularly fond these articles:

What I Learned About Teaching Children From Teaching Adults

An Appreciation of Adult Amateurs

There's a lot more on the site to appreciate. Whether you teach adults, are an adult, or plan on being one someday, (that about covers it, right?) there's lots to learn. And if it's not your cup of tea, then you might not like A River Runs Through It a whole lot either.

Flying Kites in the House

I have a new student. She is six years old. Her name is Eva. (Pronounced Ava, and not to be confused with my daughter, Evie. Or Anya, whose babysitter is named Eva - pronounced EEva.  There was one year when I had three girls almost the same age named Elisa, Elise and Aliya. They all had long, gorgeous red hair. I think my tombstone will say, "Never called any one of them the wrong name. But I digress.)

Eva is in the Piano Town Primer. I turned the page to the piece, Kites for Sale. She immediately grabbed a pencil, jumped off the bench and started running around the room "flying a kite" using the pencil as the string. When I finally got her back on the bench, she was very interested in the art. It shows a man selling kites for $2 each.

She eyed the man suspiciously.

"Only $2 for a kite? Those won't be very good kites," she said. "Because you really get what you pay for, and that's not enough to pay for a good kite. You should pay more, like maybe $10 or $20."

I reassured her that things are kind of magical in Piano Town and that the kids would be able to get a wonderful kite for only two dollars.

She learned the piece and loved it. Maybe not as much as she loved Purple Paint. When I asked her if she wanted to play that one again with me playing the duet she said, "Yes. I want to play it 30 more times." We settled for five.

My husband drew all the art for Piano Town. Late in my teaching days I really appreciate him. Without him, there would be no $2 kites to inspire a world of wonder.

Mrs. Miller

"Hello. This is Mrs. Miller. I am cancelling my son's lesson for this Tuesday afternoon. I found someone closer."

A bit abrupt, but I do believe in finding the best teacher in the most convenient location. I often try to talk my students out of driving so far to work with me. It doesn't work, but I do try.

Here's the weird part: This message was on my machine when I was returned from five days at the Music Teachers of California convention. I hadn't spoken to anyone named Mrs. Miller before I left. There were no other messages from Mrs. Miller. She didn't leave a number, so I couldn't even consider phoning back which, I must admit, I probably wouldn't have.  After all, she was cancelling a non-existent lesson - at least in my book.

A few hours later the phone rang.


"Hello. This is Mrs. Miller. I'm calling to cancel my son's lessons for Tuesday afternoon because I found someone closer."

"Ahhh, Mrs. Miller. I'm very glad that you've found a teacher who's conveniently located for you, but I've never spoken with you before."

"Yes we did. We set up this lesson for Tuesday, but I found someone closer."

"I understand that you found someone closer, but you must have spoken to someone else because we have never spoken before."


"Yes. Really. We have never spoken before, but I certainly wish your son every success with his new teacher."

"Oh. OK."

Whew.  I suppose that it's admirable that she wanted to be sure to cancel a lesson that she (thought) she had scheduled, but I would actually prefer a parent who knew who I was and thought I was conveniently located.

Vanishing Villain

I write pieces for kids. I write pieces for specific kids. I'll explain.

I have a particular student who defies a usual "music student" category. She is a tall, willowy 9-year-old. Her mother is almost six feet tall; I see that in her future. She is bright, an avid reader, has an excellent ear for melody and sings beautifully with a round, mellow tone. I've taught her for several years now and each lesson has been a challenge.

Why? Because she has attentional issues. She has everything she needs to play the piano beautifully, except that it's really hard for her. Therefore, it's really hard for me to find "just the right" piece at any particular time. So I've taken to writing for her.

I write pieces for her with catchy rhythms, with patterned melodies, with challenging rhythmic accompaniments, but no small surprises.  That's not a typo. It's the little things that trip her up. Give her a difficult chord progression and she's fine. Give her continually slightly changing tasks and she's bound to fail. Particularly if the changes are part of a large homogenous rhythmic structure. (All the notes look exactly the same, but they aren't. Quite.) Think: needle in a haystack.

I recently wrote a piece, Vanishing Villain, for her. It was a success and gave her everything she wanted. She could move all over the keyboard in a predictable way, the middle section melody was catchy and best of all...there's a great, big, fat disaster-proof glissando to end it all. What more could a kid want?

What interests me is this: What is it about this girl that inspires me to write for her? I could give up on her, I realize. I could give her to another teacher. But no, she's mine and I love her and I will continue to write pieces for her that make her sound amazing.

It's my job. I like my job.

A Supposedly Fun Thing to Do, Almost

So sad about David Foster Wallace. He's been on my mind.

A friend of mine, Charlene, somebody I like to think of as just like me. (This is silly - she's a tall blonde Mormon bombshell, recently divorced, loves living in Phoenix, and runs marathons. I like the cool fog of San Francisco, I am most certainly not blonde, I'm married and I think that walking is plenty fast enough, thank you.)

Anyway, she's got this gig teaching keyboard lessons to people on cruise ships. She told me about how she got to go on these cruises and that I should do it. Yeah, I thought. That would be great. I could take Evie on a cruise. Charlene says you have to be sure to be really social so you get a high rating and you're invited back. I'm social. I can be charming. I was sure it was a great way to get a two week cruise of the Italian Riviera.

So I emailed the woman at Yamaha. She sent me the forms. I downloaded and printed them. Five pages of forms with lots of description about how your guest would still have to pay their own tips and that alcohol wasn't included. I tried to fill them out.

Then I realized, I'd already been on that cruise. I went with David Foster Wallace  when I read his A Supposed Fun Thing to Do and there was NO way I was going to ever going to actually go myself. I knew what a cruise was about and it wasn't about anything I wanted to be a part of. Maybe Alaska, but even then it was iffy. Still trying to be positive, I started to file the application for future use. Then I realized where it needed to be filed;There it lies in the land of the recycled - where all cruise information should be.

David Foster Wallace. Rest in peace.

Better than a Book Club

Everybody has a friend who’s in a book club. If you want to start one, you can buy a book that will tell you how. Some books even come with “book club” guides to tell you how to lead a discussion on that particular book.

I think what makes book clubs so successful is that they give people a place to talk about something that is an otherwise solitary experience. Reading a book is a wonderful thing, but often when you finish it you want to say, “Didn’t you just love the part where Annie finally told John that she was leaving him?” and have someone say, “Yes. I thought she’d NEVER do it.”

Practicing the piano can be as lonely as reading a book. You play for your teacher, but that's not always enough. It's important to have a place to share that experience with other people who can understand and appreciate your hard work.

My adult students get together about 5 times a year. We always meet at 4 p.m. on Sunday afternoons (in honor of Vladimir Horowitz, the illustrious Russian pianist who would only play on Sundays at 4pm.)

I hold these gatherings at my student Dave’s beautiful Victorian apartment. He’s a retired psychiatrist with a gorgeous Steinway and a home full of art. Sometimes there's a painting missing from his walls when it's on loan to a museum. His home is peaceful and comfortable. Yesterday he filled his huge crystal vases with star gazer lilies and blue irises. It was a chilly, rainy day so he lit a fire: the perfect atmosphere for an afternoon of music.


Judith, a college professor, played the Schumann piece, "Child Falling Asleep". Though she began as a complete beginner just over ten years ago, she has developed into a beautiful pianist. She is at the top of her field professionally, but playing the piano for others is a challenge to her nerves. Yesterday she won the battle over her nerves and we got to hear her gorgeous playing.

Richard, a retired transportation engineer, played the Bach C Minor Prelude & Fugue from W.T.C. Book II and El Puerto by Albeniz. He has played the piano his whole life and taken it up with gusto in his retirement. He's getting better all the time. Yesterday he played especially well. His next piece will be a Haydn sonata and he's excited to get started on it.

Barbara, a grandmother in her late 70's, played six pieces from Schumann's "Davidbundler" absolutely gorgeously. She plays with such love and passion. She looks like a grandmother who would love to bake you some yummy cookies; she plays like a demon and is a most professional musician.

Dave, our host, played the first movement of the Bach E Minor English Suite. After many years of not-so-subtle hints from me, Dave finally worked on this piece consistently with the metronome. It was fabulous.

Sruti, a high school senior who drives more than an hour one way to study with me each Friday afternoon, (that's parental dedication!) played the Mozart D Major Rondo and the Chopin F Major Waltz. They were both brand new pieces and they were sparkling and full of energy.

Finally Yung-Yee, a senior piano major from Stanford University, played the Bach B flat Partita and the Chopin Ocean Etude. Yung-Yee is a petite young woman who surprised everyone in the room with her incredibly virtuosity and passionate playing.

One of my favorite things about teaching piano to adults is the marvelous mixture of people who meet through music. I enjoy bringing together people who would otherwise probably never meet. I delight in the conversations that unfold among people of different ages, races, and professions.

And I bet they'd all agree with me; it's better than a book club.

Berkeley Master Class

I taught a Master Class today for the Berkeley branch of the Music Teachers Association of California. I arrived early and got to sit in on their riveting business meeting. Just about what you'd expect from a group of piano teachers. I heard phrases like "the two errata in the new syllabus, required repertoire, scholarship auditions, facility rental, tuning fees." There was much concern about filling out the online forms correctly for the Certificate of Merit auditions: California's state-wide yearly auditions in which thousands of students participate each year. It is apparently crucial to not confuse the author with the composer: sometimes the author IS the composer, but sometimes the author IS NOT the composer. Even I was nearly confused and I'm an author, composer AND artist/performer so I should understand these things. A delightful sense of humor prevailed throughout the meeting. No one took themselves too seriously.

After the meeting, six different young people took their life in their hands and played for me in front of a large crowd of teachers, parents and other students. They played, of course, for everyone, but I was granted the honor of getting to talk to them about their playing. Everyone had their opinion but I got to say mine out loud.

I find Master Classes to be a challenge.

Here's how a Master Class works:

Teachers select a student to play for me. I listen to them play. While they're playing, I try to think of things to say which will help both the student and their teacher. I might talk about a particular problem and how to solve it from a teaching perspective. I have to be tactful, but real. It also helps to be entertaining enough to keep the entire audience engaged. Today the students played everything from a two piano arrangement of Mars: The Bringer of War by Gustav Holst, (Who knew there was a two piano arrangement of The Planets done by Holst himself? Not me!) to the Rachmaninoff Prelude in C Sharp Minor.

Today I felt pretty happy with the way things went. I didn't make anyone cry.

I made a girl cry once in Reno.

I made a rather gentle suggestion about her pedaling and she melted into a puddle right there on the piano bench. I don't know who felt worse: her or me.

Today my only possible faux-pas was going over my allotted 25 minutes with one particular boy who was the perfect master class student. He happened to be exactly the same age as my son (12 1/2, which made him kind interesting to me because he was so different from my son). He was playing the first movement of the Beethoven Sonata Opus 10 #1 in C Minor. This is the kind of piece that makes a great class piece because it's familiar, teachers teach it frequently, and it's full of interesting technical and musical problems. If the student is like this boy, talented and quick to adjust, it makes for an ideal teaching situation; the kind of situation that makes it easy to spend all your time with one student. Oops. I can't do that. I have to be sure that everyone gets their fair share of time and attention.

I got a few stern looks from the woman who was keeping her eye on the clock for me. I had asked her to let me know when I'd spent 20 minutes with each student. I've learned that time is far too relative to rely on my own sense of time when I'm teaching in public. An unattractive piece played badly can seem to take forever while with this boy time literally flew.

Lots of old friends and current students came. Always nice to see familiar faces.

My long-time student Deborah took me to lunch at the yummiest French restaurant after the class. It was nice to just sit and enjoy the meal and not have to say insightful things about it. I'm glad I'm not a restaurant critic.