MUSIC TEACHERS, if they are any good, and sometimes even if they aren't, have a way of entering our young lives and assuming an importance far out of proportion to their professional services. In my own case, years of study with a particular piano teacher - a woman named Hedy Spielter, who died 16 years ago - had far more effect on my ways of thought, my relation to the world, my love life, my ideals and my ambitions than on my piano playing or musicianship.
Nor am I alone in this, Hedy Spielter swept like a pedagogical cyclone through the lives of countless children and adults in her 30 years of teaching. To many she was not just a teacher, but a mother-confessor, matchmaker, armchair psychoanalyst, mentor, friend and confidante. Her influence was benign for some, pernicious for others - one way or another, she left a lasting mark on all.
Even today, there is a network of ex-Spielterites strung across the map. Wherever and whenever they meet, it is the signal for hours of droll and grave reminiscence, recounting all the old anecdotes adventures. Two of that clay besides myself, live here in Washington - Alan Mandel, the American University professor who went on to other teachers and a splendid planistic career: and Naomi Eftis, founder-director of the Back Alley Theater.
I was about 11 or 12 when I first encountered "Miss Spielter," and it was a heavy trip from the start. I had already had several years of lessons when my parents and I began to hear rumors of this phenomenal teacher in Manhattan (we lived in a New York City suburd) who could make tonedeaf blockheads play like virtuosos.
The reports, it hardly needs to be said, were grossly exaggerated, but not without some truth. In any case, the person lived up to or exceeded youthful fantasies. Hedy as I grew to call her in later years along with the older pupils) was formidable. Short, but of enormous bulk, she had a German accent as thick as dumplings, a Wagnerian-size voice and a manner one could only call overpowering. The first felling she inspired in me on that first meeting was fear, the next, an almost mystical awe - throughout the years, I never lost either one.
It wasn't until many years afterwards that I saw a photo of Hedy as a young girl, slender, delicate and pretty. Later on, too, I made another discovery - Hedy had been born in Washington Heights, and for all her accent and Old World aura, had spent most of her life in this country, with only a few years abroad for musical studies and performances. I'm not even sure to this day that she ever set foot in Germany, though almost everyone who knew her automatically assumed she had been raised there.
Description of Hedy doesn't suffice - one must see her in her total surroundings, which were as outre as the woman herself.
Because she believed in grooming children as prodigies, she maintained a studio on West 79th Street where a tutor could provide academic instruction and the kids could practice for hours each day under her stern supervision.
To enter that studio - a large, dingy old brownstone of about four stories - was to leave the 20th century entirely behind and to find oneself in a bizarre, self-contained universe that Charles Addams might have designed. The enormous, heavy outer door opened into a musty smelling antechamber - if your remember Miss Havisham's decaying manse in the film "Great Expectations" you have some idea of what it looked like.
The interior was so gloomily dark it took minutes for the eyes to accustom themselves to vision. The place was overfilled with gewgaws - bronze reproductions of classic statuary, giant potted plants, thick draperies, vast mirrors, umbrella stands, bookcases, massive carved wooden chairs. And on the floors above, in addition to the same gargoylish profusion., were the pianos - everywhere, pianos. The large front room on the second floor, the grand teaching salon, had a Steinway concert grand: elsewhere there were Mason and Hamlins, Knabes, dilapidated uprights, and even "dummy" keyboards for soundless practice.
One felt that the cast of characters who worked, and in some cases resided, there must have come with the place, so perfectly did they fit its ambi ance. There was Hedy's teaching partner and common-law husband, Jules Epailly (we called him "Mr. Epuhlee"), an incredible bear of a man with a terrifying below, who had had a firm but sporadic career as a Broadway actor (he had substantial roles in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and Johnnny Belinda," for instance); there was Hedy's gentle, quizzical, perpetually tipsy brother William ("Uncle Willie"), who was a composer, arranger and gifted illustrator and who taught us "theory"; there was tiny, ancient Mama Spielter, the surviving parent; Prof. Schiffmann, a German refugee with a Brahmsian beard, who counted every semiquaver out loud as you played: "un, two, si, four, un, two, si, four"; Euro Teste, a gaunt young Hungarian; Mr. Mendelssohn, supposedly a direct descendant of the composer; Madame Bohm, who taught solfege, and her daughter, and so on, one more oddball and queerly caparisoned than the next.
The place had the atmosphere of a post-war Viennese cafe - smoke-filled, dim chambers, foreign words and accents everywhere, and never-ending cabals and intrigues. The effect of all this on impressionable young minds you can imagine. But the most potent presence of all was Hedy herself - her zeal, her advice, her warnings, her theories and her teaching.
In her own younger years, Hedy had studied in France with a notable pedagogue, Isidor Philipp, at the Fontainbleau Conservatory, and later at Juilliard. She did some performing, but to hear her tell it, she was so unhappy over the way she had been taught that she set out once and for all to find a "scientific" means of achieving piano technique. This led to The Method. Every one of the Old School teachers of Hedy's generation had a "system" they swore by; Hedy was hardly an exception. The Method was sacrosanct, it was a gospel - the one true path to pianistic salvation.
From the pupil's standpoint, it was also a form of medieval tortune. In common with many other piano pedagogues, Hedy stressed the importance of arm weight and relaxation. But in her view, these were goals to be attained by arduous practice (with the help of The Method), not by mere fiat from the teacher. She would cover the pages of our music - she always worked from the classics, never books of "exercises" - with fat pencilled symbols she called "doodles."
These outlined a sort of technical skeleton of the piece, to be repeated adinfinitum while striving for the correct figner, hand and arm positions demanded by The Method. The idea was that the weight of the arm needed to be supported by a sturdy hand and fingers. Therefore, The Method called for almost vertically upright fingers, under high knuckles and a horizontal forearm. There was a lot more to it, of course, but these were the primary axioms.
In addition to the "doodles," however, The Method also included a slew of hand and finger-strengthening exercises to be practiced away from the keyboard - excruciating stretching routines, for example, and something called "driving nails," which involved dropping the fingers from a height, with the elbow as a pivot, onto a hard, flat surface.
We, her students, submitted to this more or less willingly. At the time, though we argued endlessly over the details of The Method, few of us questioned its basic validity. Hedy's own devout belief in its efficacy was infectious. And she'd had concrete verification, of a sort - gifted children from ages 4 to 12 who performed respectable recitals at Town and Carnegie Halls to admiring notices in the New York press (one youngster, at 3 1/2, was flown to Hollywood to appear in a movie with William Powell).
Besides, we all had tremendous respect for her musicianship and her thoroughgoing knowledge of the standard piano literature (her chronological horizon ended with Ravell), Hedy didn't play for us often, but when she did, even in brief passages of Bach or Schubert or Chopin, we were invariably impressed by the simplicity of utterance and depth of feeling. The lessons, moreover, were endless philosophical dialogues, in which we discussed not just music and other arts, but politics, current events, books, countries, people and The Meaning of Life.
Whatever else she may have been, Hedy was indefatigable in her work. She seemed to be teaching day and night seven days a week. Her clothes rarely changed. I never knew her to take any vacation.
During the war years, and mainly, no doubt, because of her accent and unconventional appearance, there were whispers about her being a "Nazi." That was pretty funny, since the large majority of her students were Jewish, and the rest were divided among every race, color and creed New York had to offer. She also had numbers of blind and otherwise handicapped pupils, and adults of every age. Nor was anyone ever turned away for lack of funds - her fee was always on a kind of sliding scale according to means.
Because she regarded summer vacations away from the piano as a waste of precious time, in the late 40s she purchased a small island in the middle of New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee and took her entourage and as many students as could come with her. It was an idyllic setting in most ways, with a small swimming beach, a canoe and boats, camp-style cottages for the students and a handsome "main house" for teaching that had belonged to a doctor. She redubbed the site "Melody Island."
Melody Island grew into quite an enterprise after a while. With the older, advanced students longing for performance opportunities, Hedy and Jules built a small shell, engaged an orchestra and a conductor for the summer, and staged a mini-music festival there for several years.
One certain summer, Hedy learned that Leopold Stokowski was looking for a quiet retreat. He was persuaded to come to Melody Island on condition that he was to be left wholly undisturbed in the main house, especially by the orchestral musiciands. The condition held for a week or so, and then one by one the players began trotting up to Stokowski's haven to audition for him. He took quite a few of them to Houston with him that fall, which is where he was headed that year. All this gave the Spielter circle, masters and disciples, enough stories to last a decade.
Those halcyon days seem incredibly distant now. Hedy, Jules, Uncle Willie and Mama are long dead. The domesticated clan of older Spielter students of my generation is scattered to the winds; a few of the old band are pursuing flourishing careers in music. At the time of our camaraderie, however, the piano and Hedy - they seemed synonymous then - were a religion for us, with Hedy as high priestess. The Methos out scriptue, doodles our catechism.
What remains of all this now, though, is mainly the memories of our confraternity, of the joys and sufferings and dreams we shared under Hedy's protective wing. Looking back at that time, it's hard to think of it in terms of musical instruction. It was an education in living, and whether it left me a better person or not, I wouldn't have missed it for the world.