As I am approaching middle age, I have been reflecting on my past training with great fondness. I was very fortunate to have several great teachers, each giving me what I needed exactly at the time I needed it. With the passing this past year of my maternal grandmother, who was the ‘family genealogist,’ my thoughts fall into this type of generational thinking. But just as one thinks of their family tree, where do I come from, how many generations can you trace back?- I was thinking of my musical family tree. In particular I want to write about my first principal mentor, Nancy Zipay Desalvo. In addition to being a wonderful soloist and teacher, she was the pianist for Dorothy Delay’s studio at Aspen/Julliard and has played with countless world-class musicians. Many years later, Nancy and I are still great friends. We often play two-piano concerts together and I make a point of seeing her when I am visiting Pennsylvania. In talking casually about what is what like to study with her, we have shared many great memories. But I have discovered in these conversations that much of what I learned from her, she in fact garnered from her principal teacher, Constance Keene at the Manhattan School of Music. Constance’s amazing recordings of Rachmaninoff, Chopin, and Mendelssohn are still viewable on YouTube. Of course, tracing Constance’s training, we find her the pupil of Abrams Chasins (who later would become her husband ) and he a pupil of the great Josef Hofmann. What a great lineage!
I studied with Nancy for 8 years and can honestly say, I could not be doing what I am doing today without her guidance. Growing up in a small town north of Pittsburgh, there were not many options for a professional teacher. Luckily at the time Nancy was teaching piano at the college in my town. And after successfully auditioning, my musical journey began.
A career as a pianist (regardless of fame) hinges on two key elements technique and musicality. These two elements must be addressed early on. I can remember the countless hours of technical work. Nancy was very forthright about how much practice was needed if I wanted to be a professional pianist: hours! Each day of practice started with an hour of scales, arpeggios, exercises and etudes. Oh the etudes… I remember asking Nancy which one should I play. Her response: start with Chopin Op. 10–all of them. And so one summer I learned all 12. Of course, the goal was not to perform them in public but to glean the technical and musical insight from each etude.
Musicality. What I learned from Nancy was how to listen to details in music and how to practice. As a youth, I was frankly all over the place musically. She taught me as Constance taught her. With a firm but loving hand. She did not mince words, telling me directly when something was not good. I know many of her current students may be ‘afraid’ of her strictness but I loved it! But the difference was that Nancy (and Constance I am told) took the time to show me HOW to figure out the musical or technical problems, how to create solid fingering, and the wizardry of solving these problems with creative solutions. I pass this same information on to my students…the tradition continues.
I was learning heaps of music during my 8 years with Nancy. Again, she told me to learn as much music as you can when you are young, to make your mistakes early, and go for it! For years, I was learning entire programs of music each semester, several concertos (Beethoven 3rd in three weeks for competition just to see if I could do it…and I did!) and chamber music plus accompanying everyone (it seemed) and their pet poodle. But I never thought of this as work. I loved to practice; I still do. My mother will still talk about the summers of 6-7 hours of practicing a day—driving my family crazy probably! Although now I don’t have the luxury of that kind of practice time, I still find the time spent to be rewarding. Both sides of my brain are stimulated as I try to solve the puzzles that this great repertoire throws at me.
So maybe this essay is just my public way of thanking Nancy and in turn Constance, et al for the guidance and careful teaching I received that can be traced back through many generations of great artists. I just hope I can live up to these standards and continue the tradition for my own students.