When I was 3, I used to watch my 7 year old sister, Krishani, play the piano.
I was also, by default of sharing a room with her, exposed to the Suzuki method of ear training. The Suzuki method, basically, demands that care-takers/parents make their children listen to the piano-music books on tape. At that time, my sister, while finishing up book 1, was also listening to book 2 and 3 tapes. The idea behind listening to the tape is to get the student familiar with the piece of music in order to help navigate their hands in the proper ascending and descending tones of the keys, as well as, having a tightly trained ear supplement their sight reading.
While my sister was in her lesson with Mrs. Meltzer, her piano teacher, I played the melodic line of a sonata to show Mrs. Meltzer what new “trick” I had learned. Mrs. Meltzer then told my amma that I had to start lessons too. From then on out, it was a love/hate relationship with piano lessons.
We would travel 20 minutes from our home in Lancaster to Mrs. Meltzer’s piano den in Palmdale. This calico half-shag carpeted den was filled with portraits of all the famous composers from all periods: Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven, Bach. Her husband, Herb, was a herbalist and vitamin supplier, so the place also smelled of vitamins.
Mrs. Meltzer was an excellent teacher to both me and Krishani. She had a particular and strict way of teaching, but she believed strongly in the Suzuki method- therefore she was a worked around our short comings (mine being sight reading) and got her students to play beautifully.
At some point in my adolescent years, Mrs. Meltzer moved to Quartz Hill and we moved 4 minutes away from her. I was applauded for my playing ability. Mrs. Meltzer, while happy over my playing ability, hid from other teachers that I couldn’t sight read for shit. She told me repeatedly that I was lazy at sight reading and then gave me too many sight reading exercises to do at home (which I hardly ever did). Her frustration over my lazy-ness, she told me, was over the fact that she saw more potential in me than some of her other students (who were forced into piano lessons as well) because of the emotion and feel I put into the pieces I played.
As a pre-teen, I struggled with a lot. I was trying to figure out how to live in Palmdale being “gay” in a white-supremacist, mason-run hick-town, having crushes on girls and not being able to do anything about it...amongst other things.
My sister passed when I was 13 and when I walked into my piano lesson, Mrs. Meltzer gave me a loving look, sat me on the piano and went right into the lesson. It was established that we were friends and her way of taking care of me was to put me in the music and out of my head. She was my beloved friend and I hers. I was her crazy student, so she would say with a chuckle. We sometimes talked about her life as a young jewish girl and her past short-lived desire to be a concert pianist. Even though she never talked about this desire much, I think she hoped her students would become concert pianists.
Lessons consisted of me, having not practiced a lick, going into her home, asking her to play the piece atleast 2 or 3 times and watching her hands. See, I already knew the piece in my mind. I just didn’t know how it looked (I liked visuals) and I LOATHED sight reading. She hated that I asked her to do that. She would roll her eyes at me, but continue anyway. She knew that I was stubborn in my discovery of the best way I learned the music. Did I tell you she HATED this fact?! But she worked around it. She would grumble complaints at me, but then to soften her up I would say, “Oh Mrs. Meltzer, I love you” and she would give smile and grumble some more saying “I don’t know what to do with you”.
I’d like to think I was her favorite student.
I’m pretty sure that I was, even though I wasn’t her BEST student.
At adjudication times, I would fail at the sight reading portions of the exams. On the other hand, I would nail the ear training part. But year after year, the judges were impressed enough with my playing ability to dismiss the fact that I sucked at sight reading and selected me to perform at conventions throughout California.
Mrs. Meltzer would always tell me, with a smile, “I don’t know how you got in…”.
During my teenage years, I looked forward to my piano lessons because we shared stories and music. She listened to my compositions and I asked her repeatedly to play compositions she had written in the past. She never did. She used to downplay the fact that she even composed once upon a time, saying that they were silly and that she didn’t remember anything she wrote.
I never stopped asking. Annoyed, she would tell me, with her hands waving in the air, to “never mind”.
When it was time to be adjudicated at age 15, I was wrapped up in college applications and couldn’t dedicate much to practicing (which isn’t saying anything new). I managed to pull it off, but didn’t get selected for convention, which I didn’t really mind. She had given up on the hopes of any of her student getting into the convention, but I think 2 of hers did, which is saying a lot.
At this point in our relationships, I used to go to her house and play song after song for her. Anything I remembered from when I was 3 till the age I was at, 16. She would fine tune different things in my playing, like when something was to be loud or soft, lively or subdued. She always shared the music with me as if it were a story she had translated. “Then this is where ‘this’ happens”…
As a side note, my mother took lessons in the vina (south Indian lute, predecessor to the Sitar) at different points in her life. She was never really any good (hey! She says so herself!) and then shifted out of it when I started lessons. Having musical knowledge help so much and it didn’t matter that I couldn’t sight read because this instruction was strictly ear training!!! I flew through, though, again, since I was 15 and dealing with college stuff, I couldn’t practice much. I was loving it cuz I asked him to tape the songs for me and I would listen to the tape over and over again. Something I was used to with Mrs. Meltzer and the Suzuki method. Murali Krishnan taught at UCLA at the ethnomusicology department and strongly recommend that I apply for the program. I did and auditioned on both the vina and piano (nailed Bach’s invention #13) and got accepted.
My vina lessons stopped after my first year of college because MK wasn’t teaching at UCLA anymore AND I was busy with activism and the beginning my spoken word/theatre “career” at that point.
Mrs. Meltzer’s husband died around this time and so everytime I visited my family in Palmdale, I went and visited Mrs. Meltzer. Her sons and grandchildren were also always around taking care of her and just being in the house, she had a lot of love around her always. I was also happy that she was still teaching so as to not be too lonely without him.
Her eyes would light up upon seeing me and then she would complain about her present students and how no one had time to practice because they were involved in too many extra curricular activities that their parents’ said demanded more attention. We’d play music, hang out and talk “where are they now” in regards to my sri lankan cousins who had also taken lessons from her.
When I moved to New York, I didn’t get to talk to her that much except for a phone call here and there. I visited her everytime I came to visit my family, but that became less and less. However, when I finally moved back to Los Angeles, I would ask her to help me learn new inventions (I love Bach, yes) and she would get me started.
A few years ago, she had undergone some major surgeries. Soon after, she was moved to a convalescent home. Her memory was suffering a bit, too. But everytime I made the trek out to Palm Springs to see her, she would cry upon seeing me come in and watching me go. I didn’t like visiting her much there, because I would’ve wanted to stay just so that she wouldn’t cry. Even under the best care, I’m sure it was hard not to be teaching or having full control over her environment. The last time I saw her, she cried over the fact that she couldn’t remember my name right away. I didn’t mind, actually. I saw the love in her eyes for me and who cares about someone’s name?
Today I got a call that she passed away.
I’m happy for her spirit to be released. She is free now.
She was an incredible woman. I may have not known her in respect to all the happenings of her life, but I knew her in my love for her. She was a strong woman- a woman who knew how to take care of herself and those around her. She was my friend-I always felt safe with her. She was my teacher-she taught me invaluable lessons in both music and life.
I love her for being my teacher and instilling in me a love for music.
If not for her, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
She was one of my dearest friends.
She understood me on a whole other level than other’s did.
She understood me artistically.
For a child who grew up with no validation for being creative.
For a child who’s community never supported their children’s artistic endeavors,
She was my oasis.
Rest, Fly in Peace and the Melodious Music of the Universe.
Mrs. Hilda Meltzer.