Keys to Confidence

 

On a Sunday afternoon this autumn, I will attend what I think will be my 10th Marilyn Lazare piano recital—that is, a recital at the Community Music School in Centerbrook over which she will, as always, elegantly preside.

She will introduce her students one by one —girls in dresses, boys wearing white shirts and ties—then arrange the pillow on the piano bench to accommodate the tinier behinds. She will watch as the children unfold their sheet music, and, as they are taught, pause to study the first two measures, take their deep breaths and then finally play their pieces. She will lead the applause as each student takes a proper bow, a ritual that does not for most come naturally but, under the tutelage of “Miss Marilyn,” is a requirement.

I went to my first Marilyn Lazare recital years ago because I knew of her excellent reputation as a teacher and because two of my wife Suzanne’s grandchildren were on the program. But as time passed, I became a regular at Marilyn’s programs. For one thing, I could marvel at each child’s progress over time. For another, they reminded me that, in the hands of a nurturing but demanding teacher, a child has a chance to do something increasingly rare—actually earn praise.

In a recent issue of the Atlantic, the cover story explored the phenomenon of “teacup students” at college. These are bright kids of indulgent parents who have never been allowed to fail and who, once presented with actual challenges on campus, become fragile and break.

Audience members at a Marilyn Lazare recital never get the sense that anyone is being coddled. As Suzanne’s granddaughter, 13-year-old Georgia Brainard, a student of Marilyn’s for several years, told me, “Her threshold for approval is much higher than anyone else’s. You want to meet her standard. I’ve cried many times after lessons because I could tell how disappointed she was.”

So the applause at recitals is almost always well-earned, the preparation of the students obvious. Even their body language changes because Marilyn insists that playing the piano requires having dextrous fingers and hands as well as using the muscles of the back.

The students are taught not only to play the right keys but, more important to Marilyn, to bring emotion to their performances. As she says, “You can just play notes. What’s the point of that? In music you can put your gladness, your sadness, your yearning.”

In her own playing, this is what she does. And her playing, she tells me, is what composes her life story. For years, I have tried to discover that life story as revealed in traditional ways, in plain English. So I’ve peppered her with the journalist’s questions—but to no avail. For her, it’s all too personal.

I am resigned at this point to the fact that she will never tell me her age, or the defining moments in her life, or details of domestic bliss with her late husband, the radio personality Jack Lazare, a favorite of mine who, among many other gigs, hosted “Milkman’s Matinee” in New York City, welcoming guests such as Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and Benny Goodman.

I do know that Marilyn also teaches French 20 hours a week at Quinnipiac University in Hamden. And that in her formative years, whenever these were, she studied piano in Paris under Germaine Pinault, “a frail woman who could get amazing depth of tone from the piano.” She was the one who taught Marilyn that the real power in playing comes from the back, “then onto your arms, and onto the piano.”

I have also watched Marilyn teach. I sat in the second-floor studio she uses at the Community Music School as she went over a difficult Rachmaninoff piece (they’re all difficult) with Sam Haney. I first heard Sam perform long before he became Marilyn’s most accomplished young student, going from someone who just played the right notes without dynamics to a musician who now treats the 88 keys as the tools of personal expression. (Marilyn explains the phenomenon of emotion in music in metaphor, “When does the great cook put in seasoning? While she’s cooking. It’s too late afterward.”)

This was one of the high school senior’s last lessons before he headed off to study engineering at college. That afternoon, teacher and student were spending time on matters other than notes, including proper hand positioning.

On a more recent occasion, I returned to the studio to ask Marilyn to sit at the keyboard and reveal what she would teach me if I were 60 years younger, and eager for my first lesson. She told me the first thing she does, in the presence of the child’s parents, is to tap out rhythms. And count aloud, because without counting there is no music. She goes through the scale, listening for various sounds, and comparing those sounds to colors and shades. “The note A is bright; G is limp—not my favorite note.”

Of course, this is the way the notes sound to the ear of a woman with perfect pitch, who says she can “listen for a note before I play it,” but, as she also says, “Who cares about that? Anybody who’s paying attention, and really wants to, can learn how to play.”
In explaining the sound of a note or a simple combination of notes to a child, Marilyn knows the limitations of spoken language. “But children do understand a sound that isn’t happy,” she says, “because every child knows disappointment.”

As I listened, I thought back to my own piano-student years in the 1950s—the Tuesday afternoons with Elsa Fessler, known to me as the stern “Miss Fessler,” who drove to my house in her green Studebaker. On Terror Tuesdays she so helpfully responded with a subtle “No! No! No!” whenever I played the wrong note. Miss Fessler was the one who appraised my talents for piano this way: “You have long fingers. You should take up the bass fiddle instead.”  

Marilyn Lazare is more tactful about her students’ shortcomings. “When students play a wrong note, I don’t stop them, I don’t correct them,” she says. “I tell them just to keep going. We’ll come back to it when the piece is over.”

Children are not the only ones who benefit from Marilyn’s mastery. She also has adult students, and some of them have been with her over many years. Doctors, for example, who find in quiet evenings at the keyboard a gentle juxtaposition to pressure-packed days. But it is through the children that the legacy of music is passed along, and life lessons learned.

I asked Marilyn about electronic keyboards, and whether parents nowadays are providing real pianos instead of these convenient and much more affordable substitutes that never, to me (a man without perfect pitch), sound anywhere close to real.

“A student won’t learn to play beautifully on a keyboard,” Marilyn says. “I often hear from parents, ‘We have a keyboard. If my daughter likes piano, we’ll get a real piano.’”

It’s a big investment, a piano. I know. I have a Mason & Hamlin baby grand, manufactured 98 years ago in Boston, and rebuilt 25 years ago by Shawn Hoar of West Hartford. Alas, I’ll likely never play it the way Marilyn Lazare would, finding all the gladness, the sadness, the yearning. Even so, I think Miss Fessler would be surprised to learn that I never gave up.
 

Keys to Confidence

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