I went through several piano teachers from age 4 to 16. They all exerting varying degrees of psychological abuse. I was not a savant, nor a practicer, so none of them ever liked me much. I only got through 12 years because my mother instilled in me that idea that musical competence is a vital skill in life. But when I think back to those days, I don’t remember the thousands of hours practicing Bach, Hanon and Mozart. Instead, I remember the teachers. They were real artists, surviving by teaching little brats like me to play the piano with just enough competence so that their parents would continue to pay the $20to $25 for once-a-week lessons.
My first teacher was a Korean woman — a friend of my mother’s — who taught me a song called “Fuzzy Wuzzy Was A Bear.” It isn’t as much a song as a series of three notes. I remember being confused by the name of her piano, Young Chang, because that is also the name of my father. She had older daughters who also played the piano, so well in fact that I believe one of them flirted with playing professionally. But when she taught me and my brother, how to play our very first songs on the piano, she did so with the mindset that we were learning how to learn. Much of our lessons were focused on how to practice — not how to play a song. Our recitals were more about learning how to perform, not performing. During one recital, my brother once played the same passage 12 times because he didn’t remember the next section. And that was OK. That was, in fact, a grand victory. This woman, whose name I don’t remember, taught me about perspective.
My second teacher was a Russian woman named Tatiana, who held lessons in her musty house. She had cats. I was allergic to cats. She always chose songs for me that were technically, and aesthetically, challenging . She told me I had to practice each song 10 times every day until my fingernails bled. None of her students ever practiced as much as she demanded, but her daughter — who always practiced on an electric piano in the next room over — practiced as much, if not more, than Tatiana demanded of her students. Her daughter would play at recitals, and she would do it with such focus and concentration that, to this day, I think of her when I do something that requires an excruciating amount of practice and technical proficiency. Tatiana taught me about perfection.
My third teacher was a Russian man named Bair, pronounced like the animal. He was a jolly fellow who came to my house to teach me. Before the lesson, he always asked for a glass of Diet Coke in ice, almost as if it was the compensation itself. Then he took out a mechanical pencil to write on the sheet music as I made mistakes. I was a sloppy technician, playing with my finger pads and not my tips. Bair told me that small errors, like playing with my pads and using the wrong fingers, make it more difficult to play properly. He said that softly and with a smile. But the he took that mechanical pencil an stabbed me on my finger tips with the sharp point, as if to remind me where my finger tips were. This Pavlovian act made me fear the use of my finger pads. To this day I play the piano with my finger tips — and type with my finger tips. Bair taught me about the importance details.
I’m sure there were a lot of piano teachers in between, because I vaguely remember stepping foot into several other people’s houses to perform amateur renditions of masterpieces. But my last piano teacher is my most memorable.
His name was Wayne Hawkins, and he wasn’t a piano teacher — just a brilliant jazz pianist. But when I asked my mom if I could take jazz piano lessons, she found Wayne, who agreed to teach me. He’d never been a teacher before. He was a bachelor who lived in a funky-shaped house and had a scratched up piano in the corner of his half-basement living room. It was messy, and there was a cat hiding somewhere in the clutter. And when I showed up to his house at 11 in the morning, he was almost always still asleep. Often, I would wait outside and ring the doorbell for 10 minutes. After the first 5, I really hoped he wouldn’t answer; I imagined he was cursing me from his slumber, hoping I would just go away — hoping he didn’t have to teach me after a long night out at a club where he was the featured live music. But he would always come to the door, and he would show me how to play jazz. He showed me that it isn’t just a thing you do — it’s a thing you care about. He showed me how to put emotion into music — how to express a raw idea and develop it into a nuances thought. He showed me how to use whatever technical ability I learned along the way, and turn it into expressions. But most of all, he taught me how to do something passionately. I would always ask him to show me how to play something, because when he played, the music always sounded like it came from his soul, and not from a page. From Wayne, I learned about passion, about hope, and about dreams.
I often think about where I learned traits of an artist, and I think it is from these people, who do what they want because they believe it is beautiful. They were all older than I am now, but they were still chasing the dream, still doing what they love, still creating beauty.
I sometimes wonder if I’m too far down the hatch to “make it,” whatever that mean, because I haven’t felt excited or content in a very long time. Certainly it is revealing to hear about people who made it big later in their lives — and these anecdotes are enough to make me feel better for a brief time. But it is far more comforting for me to think about my piano teachers, who all found such joy and contentment from such a simple act. When I hear their music in my head, which I do all the time, my fingers move and my foot taps and I’m painted a picture of where I want to be.