On a cold January afternoon Norma Ramberg, private piano teacher, was in the family room of her suburban Virginia home, teaching a 16-year-old to play a Mozart concerto.
The day was not extraordinary. Just another afternoon of lessons. Mrs. Ramberg wore a gray sweater and gray shoes. She leaned over the piano. "De-da-da-dum," she said. "Same tempo. Don't speed up."
It's not easy being a classical piano teacher these days. Kids are into soccer and computers, Sting albums and video movies. A lot of flashy things compete for their time.
But there are still high school kids like Debbie Lind who are serious about Mozart. And there are still teachers like Norma Ramberg, who spend most afternoons at the pianos of their suburban homes.
"When you do the 'da-da-da,' ease up on the pedal," Ramberg said. "It's too blurry for Mozart. Good. That's it. That sounds better."
She would be the first to admit it; teaching classical piano is not the world's most glamorous job. The average suburban pay is $10 per half-hour, which is not great, considering lessons must be squeezed in after school.
And it would be easy for a classical piano teacher to stop caring. Not everybody likes to practice the hard passages as much as Debbie Lind, and piano teachers can't threaten poor students with Fs.
There's also the matter of unfair and leftover images, of blue-haired ladies with bad breath who sit too close on the piano bench. A piano teacher has to deal with pushy parents, parents who saddle their children with their own unfulfilled musical dreams.
The students, too, are different. These days, they look tired a lot. "Some literally seem exhausted three-fourths of the time," said Ramberg. "I guess there are just too many things coming at them."
And the new students often demand to play the same thing as their school friends. In the '50s, it was "The Spinning Song;" these days, it's "Fur Elise."
"There's a running joke" about new students, said Ramberg. "We call them 'Fur Elise students.' "
It might seem boring to other people, Norma Ramberg said, but teaching classical piano is all she ever wanted to do. She grew up in Wisconsin, and taught herself to play "Baby Face" by ear.
"I don't remember my mother ever having to force me to practice," she said. "I just always loved it." She started teaching at age 16.
She sometimes tells nervous students about her first big recital. She slid across a polished floor while walking to the piano, ending up underneath it, not seated at it.
"Is what happened to you worse than what happened to me?" she will ask after a student's first recital. "I lived through mine, and you will too."
After 35 years of teaching, she says the little things continue to delight her. Her favorite moment, she says, is when a child begins to play well.
"It makes me feel -- how can I say? -- wonderful. As a teacher, that's what you wait for, live for. It's great."
Always, she tries to discover what will work, what won't. Every child is different. She tells new students that she needs six months to get to know them.
*Teen-agers are likely to do the exact opposite of what you tell them. Don't nag them about practicing.
*There is no such thing as "no talent." Ramberg remembers only two students who didn't have sufficient rhythm to play. "I sometimes wondered why they didn't fall down when they walked, because even walking requires some rhythm," she said.
*A crucial time for all piano teachers is between eighth grade and sophomore year. "We say that if a student gets past that, they're good for the stretch."
Debbie Lind, a student at Lake Braddock Secondary School, appears to be good for the stretch. She plays the Mozart piece from memory for the first time.
Lind is not a "Fur Elise" person. Like most of Ramberg's 18 students, she is more advanced, preparing for a coming competition.
"You need to think about the balance between the hands," said Ramberg. "Play the right hand a little stronger."
Outside, the afternoon shadows lengthened. A metronome, used to help students with tempo, sat on a table in the corner. A stained glass ornament, shaped like a piano, shimmered in the window.
"Da-da-de-de-dum," Ramberg said, as Debbie Lind's hands slid over the Steinway's keys