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COFFEE BREAK | Oscar Winner Jon Batiste Pays Tribute To His Classical Piano Teacher

By Anya Wassenberg on May 7, 2021

Jon_Batiste

Who is “Ms. Shirley”?

When the 93rd Academy Awards for music in movies were doled out, winner Jon Batiste did what many winners do: he thanked a few people close to him. In a brief speech quoted in the transcript, the multi-talented musician and composer named several people, some without any explanation.

My parents took me around clubs in New Orleans when I was 10 years old, put me in piano lessons —Ms. Shirley (ph), William (ph) (laughter). Just so much has happened. This moment is a culmination of a series of miracles.

Ms. Shirley, as it turns out, is Batiste’s very first piano teacher — Shirley Herstein of Metairie, Louisiana. Despite the lack of context for his Oscar speech, she knew it was meant for her, as she told The Times Picayune of New Orleans.

“That was so sweet,” she said. “He’s really a super guy. He comes from a great family. He was really well brought up. I sat there watching him and got kind of teary-eyed.”

Herstein has been playing piano since the age of 12, and still plays the Steinway grand her parents bought her. She graduated from studies to teaching at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music until moving to NOLA in the 1960s with her husband. Later, she taught at Loyola University and Ridgewood Preparatory School, in addition to giving private lessons.

Batiste grew up in a family of musicians, and was referred to Herstein through fellow student and friend Nick Sanders. Herstein immediately recognized that he would be a very special student. She described the experience of teaching such a talented student as, “like a dream. It’s so rare you get somebody like that.”

That’s not to say that she was soft on the budding musical genius. When he started lessons, Batiste could not read music. He was able to play a music by ear nearly perfectly after hearing it only once — but she didn’t let him off the hook.

“When I would give him a new piece, he used to say, ‘Play it for me,’” Herstein told the reporter. “I wouldn’t let him do that. I got him out of that habit as quickly as I could. No shortcuts. You’re going to figure it out and play it for me.”

She’s firm in her belief that a solid foundation in classical music led to his later success, even if he later made the switch to jazz. “That’s why Jon’s so good. He has a good classical background.”

It’s so rare you get somebody like that.

Herstein encouraged his interest in other musical genres, and would allow Batiste and Sanders to play jazz duets at their recitals instead of the usual classical repertoire. She kept abreast of his career over the years. On a trip to NYC, Batiste got her tickets to a taping of The Late Show and brought her backstage, and he still drops in from time to time when he’s in town visiting family.

The octagenarian still teaches classical piano, albeit with a reduced schedule, just as she did years ago when she took on a new student in Jon Batiste. Herstein taught him for seven years, every Saturday through middle and high school until he graduated from St. Augustine High School and the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts in 2004.

Batiste released his first album at the age of 17, while still in high school, and went on to the Julliard School in New York, where he got his Bachelor’s in 2011 and a Master of Music degree in 2013. After a rapid rise as a soloist and performer in his own right, he became bandleader and musical director on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2015. He regularly tours with his own band, and is also known for his acting work.

He shows off his classical chops in a head-to-head Chopsticks battle with Lang Lang in 2019:

It’s been a banner year for Batiste, who was nominated for two Grammy Awards, including one for his live album Chronology of a Dream, and another for a collaboration with guitarist Cory Wong. His latest album, We Are, was released on March 19.

Batiste won the Oscar for his contributions to the movie Soul, along with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Those contributions went beyond what he is credited for in terms of the musical score, as he told Billboard in an interview.

“Yes, my hands are in the film! A lot of my story is a composite of the story of what came to be [protagonist Joe Gardner’s] narrative, and even some of the dialogue — which I’m not credited for, but it was such a collaborative process that a lot of my contributions seeped into the final work in a way that I’m really proud of. I think there’s a lot of life in the narrative.”

His composition work for Soul also garnered a BAFTA and a Golden Globe Award.

In a further nod to piano teachers, Batiste’s reference to ‘William’ may be referring to William Daghlian, a New York City based piano coach and mentor who has worked with the Oscar-winner in the past.

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