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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

Feature | When The First Piano Teacher Is Mom, Dad Or Grandma

By Robin Roger on May 1, 2020

We take a look at the long standing traditions of parents and grandparents who pass along their knowledge of the piano to the next generation.

Parents teaching piano feature

Concert pianists’ biographies almost always list the names of their teachers and the master classes in which they have played for other famous pedagogues. Seldom do they mention that their first teacher was actually their mother, which is often the case. At age three, Angela Hewitt began piano studies with her mother. Margaret Parr, once a student of Alberto Guerrero, got her daughter Patricia started at the keyboard. Another one of Guerrero’s prominent protégées, Glenn Gould, also struck his first fledgling notes by his mother’s side. Janina Fialkowska’s first teacher, Bridget Todd Fialkowski, had studied in the class of Alfred Cortot. Van Cliburn maintained that his most important teacher was his mother, Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn. She in turn had also started piano at her mother’s side, before eventually studying with a student of Liszt. Sophia Bodik Horowitz was her son Vladimir’s first teacher.

That fathers were teachers less frequently might be explained by the fact that they were the primary breadwinners when these pianists were children, so unavailable. But there were some notable paternal pedagogues. As chronicled in Ludwig Van, Ian Parker’s father Edward, one of Canada’s most prominent piano pedagogues, was his primary teacher until he went to Juilliard. Lang Lang’s father, who played the two-stringed bowed instrument, the erhu, gave himself a crash course on the pedal organ so that he could teach his son to play piano until such time as he could arrange for a teacher.

As Mother’s Day and Father’s Day approach on May 10 and June 21 respectively, it’s time to recognize the parents who did so much to develop these outstanding performers. But don’t get too sentimental. Parent-child piano collaborations are not all warm experiences of emotional and musical harmony. They run the gamut from extremely positive to destructively negative, or anything in-between.

Every time I made a mistake, he leaned over and very methodically, without a word, slapped me across the face.

For soul-murdering destructiveness, Josef Slencynski, father of American pianist Ruth Slenczynska, surpasses any other abusive parent in the annals of music or any other domain. Gripped by a monomania to create a musical prodigy, he sought a wife with musical abilities to guarantee the genetic endowments, and then decreed in the maternity ward that the newborn Ruth would scale the heights. By age three she was labouring at the keyboard, 6 hours days without a bathroom break, working so strenuously that she wore only her underwear because she would sweat through her street clothes. “Every time I made a mistake, he leaned over and very methodically, without a word, slapped me across the face,” wrote Slencynksa in her 1957 memoir Forbidden Childhood. This progressed to full-body beatings as she grew.

Fortunately, most other accounts of parent-child keyboard learning are far more benign, even if there can be quite a bit of conflict. One young man who now teaches his own roster of students told me about being taught by his mother. “I can hardly remember anything from my lessons with her except crying.” He had regularly scheduled lessons and learned the RCM curriculum, just like his mother’s other students, but he had to wait until she was finished teaching everyone else before he could get at the piano to practice. And, she taught him his lesson when she’d finished teaching every one else, so she was at he end of her energy. “When you’re dealing with a parent, there is no professionalism,” he asserts, “so if I had a problem with an assignment and said I couldn’t do it, she would say, ‘just do it’, which is not how she would treat someone else’s child.”

Still, something must have gone right, because he graduated to a more advanced teacher and went on to earn a graduate degree in music performance. This is the common pattern with elite musicians who start with a parent, then outgrow their teaching ability. The transfer is often quite early.

Patricia Parr, who describes her life as a child prodigy in her memoir Above Parr, transferred from her mother to sought-after pedagogue, Mona Bates, when she was five years old. Before the COVID lockdown, I met with Pat to hear about the transition from mom to Mona. She still has her mother’s baby book, as well as some extra notes her mother wrote when she was a few years old. Her mother observed that she watched Patricia closely as she practised to make sure she obeyed Bates’ instruction, and agreed to Bates’ suggestion that Parr give a recital in her studio, around the time she turned six. Margaret Parr was worried that her daughter might start to cry, being a shy and sensitive child, but she allowed the recital to take place. Pat remembers how disappointed she was that she couldn’t hand out the programs.

When Parr raised her two sons, she did not teach either of them to play piano. And the young man who studied with his mother asserts that he would never teach his own children. These two examples, though hardly exhaustive, speak to the truth that the relationship between the parent and child away from the piano is also a force during piano lesson, for better or for worse. MDs are not allowed to treat their own family members. The Canadian Bar Association recommends against lawyers taking family cases. Maybe this should be the case for piano teachers as well.

But skip one generation, so there is a grandparent/grandchild team, and the results can be utterly blissful.

baby-at-the-piano crop

Grandparents Are Grand Teachers

A brief look at the experience of children learning piano from their parents showed that it could be an effective learning process, but something of a mixed emotional experience. The less common situation of grandparents teaching grandchildren appears to be especially positive. Many grandparents will tell you that they find having grandchildren to be more fun and less strain than raising children. For grandparents who are piano teachers, this can also mean that they have more time to teach and fewer household responsibilities burdening them so their time at the keyboard with their grandchildren is more relaxed

At her busiest, Dorothy Glick had a studio of 50 to 60 students. Today you can only benefit from her teaching if you are a blood relative. She’s currently teaching four grandchildren between the ages of 14 and 9. She feels very fortunate that they have inherited the family musical aptitude, and that she can share this keyboard experience with each of them.

“It’s very moving for me to have this relationship with them,” says Glick, “even though they don’t always listen to me because I’m their grandmother — although I do expect them to practice, and their parents have to back me up. And, I have time to sit with them when they practice now that I’m not running my own studio. Also, I can take them out to lunch after a lesson, which is a nice extra incentive.”

Tour de force pianist Anastasia Rizikov, who played with the Kiev Philharmonic at age 7 and has several competition triumphs and over 40 international concerts behind her at age 21, credits her lifelong pianistic training from her grandmother, Maia Spis, as the foundation of her success.

“She was my only teacher for 15 years, and while I also had the opportunity to work with many other fantastic musicians in master classes, she’s my main coach and always will be. Every time I am preparing for a concert or learning new pieces, she is the first person I go to for musical advice, so we are still very much a team.”

Anastasia Rizikov (Photo: ©Deyan Parouchev Photography)
Anastasia Rizikov (Photo: ©Deyan Parouchev Photography)

It’s easy to understand how two equally gifted and deeply attached family members would thrive from jointly pursuing their shared passion, and that it would provide a level of emotional security beyond the musical instruction that could only enhance a performer’s confidence. Rizikov feels very strongly that she has a sense of herself as a musician that comes from the trusting dialogue with her open-minded grandmother, who always supported musical exploration.

“I’m never afraid to ask questions, or even go into debates of sorts… whenever I play with other musicians. Musical discussion was always a key element during lessons with my Grandmother. When it came to interpretation, freedom of expression was above all, and it was very important to her that I keep my individuality,” enthuses Rizikov. Spis encourages the same curiosity and musical expression in her unrelated students who study with her at her studio in Scarborough, the Nadia Music Academy.

Having heard Rizikov perform at a benefit concert for Piano Six, of which she is one sixth, I can attest to the aplomb with which she holds her own in the company of the other five older pianists, including those who are twice her age.

By the time I arrived at the piano studio of my childhood piano teacher, Miriam Russell Smith, she was herself a grandmother who had taught both her daughter Vivienne and her granddaughter Diane to advanced levels. Diane Smith, now 80, and the third generation of piano teachers in the family, has the fondest memories of learning piano from her beloved Mimi as she called her.

“I started studying with Mimi when I was three and stayed with her until I completed the final exam for the Royal School of Music in London. At one point she tried to transfer me to a teacher she thought was more highly qualified, but I stubbornly resisted and went back to her after two lessons,” she told me. “And, she applied the same standards to me as she did to all her students, so being her granddaughter did not result in accommodations.” Having been one of those students, I’d describe that standard as warmly uncompromising. Mrs Smith didn’t have to ask if I’d practised during the week; she could tell as soon as I started to play. “To this day I teach my students all the tricks Mimi taught me — plus a few of my own,” Diane reports.

When, as a young adult Diane felt ready to move on to a more elite teacher, Mimi’s training stood her in good stead. She auditioned for and was accepted by Pierre Souverain, who she found to be a wonderful teacher.

So did concert pianist and professor at the Faculty of Music at Western University, Leslie Kinton. At a lecture he gave about a month before the lockdown began, he referred to Pierre Souvairan as his ‘musical father’. With heartfelt warmth, he recounted an incident in which Souvairan humbled him by terminating a lesson for which he had disregarded the assignment. It was touching that Kinton was still grateful to Souvairan for guiding him firmly even when it thwarted his inclinations, providing a modicum of maturity that the youthful enthusiast lacked at the time.
This strikes me as the ideal outcome of a committed teacher student relationship, whether they are blood relatives or not. When both parties make a sincere effort to teach and to learn, in a context of trust and respect, the musical growth and skill that develops fosters a bond that is as enduring as a parent and child’s attachment.

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Robin Roger

Robin Roger is a psychotherapist who emphasizes the importance of learning new things as part of developing and maintaining mental wellness.She is a committed amateur pianist as well as a writer, book reviewer and frequent contributor to Ludwig Van.
Robin Roger

Robin Roger

Robin Roger is a psychotherapist who emphasizes the importance of learning new things as part of developing and maintaining mental wellness.She is a committed amateur pianist as well as a writer, book reviewer and frequent contributor to Ludwig Van.
Robin Roger
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