Musings of a Transplanted Southerner on a Life in Music–Mentors

As I prepare to enter into my 30th(!) year of teaching, I’ve been reflecting on those artists who have touched me, mentored me and taught me–those who have gone before me and have inspired me to walk my own artistic path.  There have been four teachers, in particular, who have shaped my music making, my relationship to the piano and my teaching.  I carry a small part of each of them with me throughout my life’s journey.  These wonderful artists are, for me, those who have guided and continue to guide me.  They are my esteemed and treasured mentors.

Roy McAllister: As a teenage piano student in Alabama in the ’70’s, “Mr. Mac” represented the height of piano teaching in the state.  A long-time presence at the University of Alabama, I came to him later in his teaching career and chose to attend Birmingham-Southern College specifically to work with him.  All of his students were deeply saddened by his sudden passing in October of 1979.

Mr. Mac instilled in his students a deep love of and fascination with the endless sound possibilities of the piano.  He retained an almost child-like, but sophisticated, sense of wonder toward music and the piano throughout his later years–and helped me to understand not only how to appreciate beauty of sound, but how to be truly present with the music in each moment.  I can still hear him singing the various melodic lines in Chopin’s Op. 27, Nr. 1 nocturne during my lessons–I learned to sing with my students from Mr. Mac–as well as through my fingers.

Daniel Ericourt: A child prodigy, Mr. Ericourt studied at the Paris Conservatoire during the time of Debussy.  In fact, he told me stories of playing with Debussy’s daughter Chou-Chou and of attending master classes with “the master”.  His playing was the epitome of the French School–transparent, fluid, but also muscular when needed.  He was obsessed with creating color through layering sounds one over the other.  Mr. Ericourt taught me how to think about music from a 3-dimensional perspective.

Some of my fondest memories are of sitting in the corner of his studio as he prepared for upcoming recitals.  I listened and observed.  I came to understand how to create a sense of natural arc in every piece–and how to deftly incorporate the pedals to layer and color sound.  His playing and manner were French to the core–full of joie de vivre and old-world charm.  I’ll never forget the many kindnesses that Mr. Ericourt showed me.

Indeed, it was Mr. Ericourt who brought me to the Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro, NC, where I had the very good fortune to meet…

Deborah Sobol: I met Debbie at the beginning of her teaching career while she was living in Cambridge, MA and teaching at the Longy School of Music.  We immediately developed a strong rapport with each other, so much so that I spent the next year working with her at Longy.  Debbie had spent several years studying in Vienna and London–a significant portion of that time as a student of Alfred Brendel.  She was a meticulous teacher, player and technician (in the most elevated sense of the word).

Debbie showed me how to develop my technical equipment, always in the service of a greater musical and expressive goal.  She also opened the door to a life-long love of chamber music–a love which was to become my primary musical passion.  I remember spending hours exploring Bach, Haydn and Brahms together–always learning music deeply, fully, from the inside out.  We discussed the teaching of Brendel and Artur Schnabel, his teacher.  Debbie taught me how to practice–and how to LOVE practicing.  I’m forever in her debt–she was such a gifted teacher.

Years later, she brought me to Chicago (where she had relocated) to be part of a fledgling educational outreach program sponsored by the newly-formed Chicago Chamber Musicians.  This soon grew into a senior fellowship program.  I created some lasting relationships during this time, learned the ropes of working artistically in the community and played lots of chamber music with some amazing artists.  Little did I know at the time that the skills I gained with CCM would later translate into the creation of The Musical Offering in Evanston (my own musical love child).

Everyone who knew Debbie was deeply affected by her sudden and unexpected passing in 2014.  She was a force of nature–a visionary–a wonderful mom–one of the greatest collaborative pianists I’ve ever heard–a direct connection to Schnabel’s teaching–but, at the end of the day, Debbie was simply my teacher.

Abbey Simon: Grace, elegance, ease and style–Mr. Simon continues (at age 93!) to dazzle audiences with his wonderful lyricism and transcendent artistry.  Memories of hearing his Chopin B Minor Sonata live still make my spine tingle.

From Mr. Simon I learned how to tackle and solve large musical challenges–how to think critically at a higher level and to dissect problems into their smaller components.  He was a master diagnostician at the keyboard–so wise, abrasive, hilarious and inhabiting the highest reaches of his craft.  Everything he touches turns to gold–and Mr. Simon’s catalog of recorded works is truly impressive (my favorite being his complete recordings of all of Ravel’s solo works–magical!).

I also learned from Mr. Simon how to gain the respect of fellow artists by following my interests and passions and devoting myself to them entirely.  This is a shared characteristic of all great artists–and I’ve have the privilege of being mentored and taught by four very generous and goodhearted musicians in a sea of excellence.

This is my way of recognizing and thanking them and all great teachers–and hoping that I can serve a similar function for the next generation in some small way.

I’m reminded of Mr. Simon’s mantra, “Keep moving, or they’ll bury you”.  Life for me is about movement and growth.  My mentors continue to help show me the way.

Abbey-SimonDaniel EricourtDeborah SobolRoy McAllister at the piano--University of Alabama


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