Your Stories No.11
Paula is a piano teacher, performer and accompanist in San Francisco, California. She is the composer of “Little Gems for Piano: Rote Pieces that Motivate and Captivate.”
Here is her story…
My story is one of hard work and determination.
At the age of 7 in Cincinnati, OH, I clearly remember my mother asking if I would like to take piano lessons. I enthusiastically said “Yes!!!”.
Before then, I remember our neighbor teaching some kids gathered around the piano how to read music by knowing finger numbers. This felt quite easy and natural. I also remember how difficult it felt to read the notes WITHOUT the finger numbers.
My first teacher was an older woman who lived in the neighborhood. She was quite dry and serious, and was all about teaching students how to read. One time, I forgot my books and we sight read for the entire hour. Looking back, I might have her to thank for my reliable sight reading skills. I don’t recall her reaching me with the joy of music, but I do think she instilled a decent foundation.
I got more joy from working with my grandmother – a professional organist, singer and accompanist at her church.
She would visit and we would spend hours together in the basement learning Go Tell Aunt Rhody. Somewhere along the way, I remember loving to play Heart and Soul and Chopsticks.
We always had lots of sheet music around and I loved digging through music and trying to figure it out, even in my first couple of years of study. I can picture the pages from a complicated piece in a Boogie Woogie style. We had a large, upright piano that was terribly out of tune and when you played the F above middle C, it sounded like F and F-sharp together (not a very pleasing sound).
My family moved every 2-4 years for my father’s job. When I was 9, we moved to Michigan and I studied with the woman up the street. Somehow, she had me playing pieces such as Für Elise. I can’t imagine that the middle section sounded at all convincing! She was a sweet and encouraging woman.
Fast forward two years, and I ended up in Texas, studying with another older woman. This one was full of energy and enthusiasm. I recall she was constantly telling me to play “slow and steady”. I think I played quickly with many errors. We studied Hanon, theory, classical repertoire and popular themes from movies and TV shows. I remember learning the Entertainer and Moonlight Sonata, the Minute Waltz and a reduction of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.
She would say that I ate music up. She would throw music at me and I would eat it up throughout the week, eager to move on to a new challenge. I would practice before school while waiting for my ride.
I loved playing musicals and pop songs and my friends would gather around and sing while I played. My parents never asked me to practice. On the contrary, they would tell me multiple times to come to the dinner table and I would just keep on playing. I always had a need to feel prepared for lessons and I really wanted to master everything I was working on.
In the 8th grade, I got my first professional gig as a choral accompanist. By this age, I knew I wanted to major in music and be a professional pianist.
Back in Michigan
At the age of 15, we moved back to Michigan. Fifteen is not an easy age to move a child.
During this difficult time, I think it was music that really comforted me and served as my guiding light. It gave me an identity and a community and something to focus on.
I was the accompanist for the high school “Ambassadors”- a show choir. We did a tour to Toronto and would practice multiple times a week and learn choreography on weekends. I was part of a band with a drummer and bass player and had to learn many tunes.
Looking back, these choral accompanying experiences prepared me for so much of what I do professionally. Much of my work today involves accompanying singers. My closest friends were in this group.
Although I found some solace in my music community, I wanted more. While reading the paper one morning, I read a small blurb saying “so-and-so” got a scholarship to Interlochen Arts Academy. Somehow, pre-internet, I researched this school and learned it was a world class boarding school for the arts in northern Michigan.
I gathered the audition information, prepared with my teacher (again, the lady down the street) and got in!
At age 16-18, I studied at Interlochen and was now in the big leagues.
I had my first male teacher who really took me under his musical wing. I was no longer the only child in my school who could play the piano at a decent level. I was surrounded by amazing musicians and artists of all disciplines, from all over the country and the world.
My teacher somehow transformed me into a real musician, preparing me to play hour long, memorized recitals. I practiced 2-4 hours a day, as I would do for the next ten years of my life.
It was full of struggles and set backs, but I kept persevering and somehow kept up with kids who had been trained by top teachers at a young age. I remember my teacher saying, “You’re doing quite well for someone who just went to the local piano teacher down the street…”
Before I studied with him, I had no idea how to listen to myself or voice a melody. I played for the piano faculty on the first day and later my teacher told me, “When you played the opening chords of the Rachmaninoff, it was the worst sound I heard all day.”
He taught me how to interpret music, how to practice, how to get a warm sound and how to listen. Previously, my teachers barely wrote anything in my scores. My music from Interlochen looks like a piece of art, as they have so many passionate, detailed interpretive markings in all sorts of colors.
He went the extra mile for me and got me out of lunch duty and replaced it with accompanying voice lessons, so as to make the most efficient use of my time. Even though I wasn’t the most technically advanced student, I remember another student saying to me – “You have the ability to perform! I don’t have this!!!”. She could play more advanced repertoire than me. Maybe she saw something though.
At age 18, I went to study at McGill University in Montreal.
My teacher was an older, Ukranian woman who was very feisty and full of fire. She was tiny but so mighty. She was mostly encouraging but could also be very blunt.
After I won first place in a competition, we were talking while walking to the car and she said “People played better than you, but I guess the judge liked something about your playing”.
I would play my heart out in a performance and she would scold me afterwards for the shoes that I wore, etc. However, she was all about interpretation and voicing and gave me an excellent musical foundation. She knew exactly how she wanted everything to sound, although didn’t exactly convey “how” to do it. I also felt like she singled me out and kind of gave me her all. She would give a few compliments here and there, such as “Paula really knows how to listen”. Or, “Paula is an intellectual musician”.
Then, it was time for me to return to the US. I got a full scholarship to San Francisco State University and studied with an older, brilliant man.
He was like a walking encyclopedia and could play anything he has ever heard by memory and knew every detail about every composer’s life and music. He heard my audition and said “You are a natural born musician”.
At this point, I breathed a sigh of relief. This school was not as high caliber as the other schools I had attended, but I felt like I deserved a bit of rest in the mental department. I chose this school over Northwestern University in order to avoid student debt and loans (and to be in San Francisco!).
I was at the top of the class, won the concerto competition, accompanied the university chorus and gained much professional experience. I also taught the class piano sections for non music majors, with no guidance from faculty. It was a classroom full of 20 acoustic uprights and probably 30 students!
“It changed my playing forever…”
After graduation, I was working professionally and still felt that I needed to refine my technique. I had such a mix of teachers and was always in awe of people with a reliable, coordinated technique.
I took a leap of faith and went to Princeton to study the Taubman technique. It changed my playing forever.
I loved the detailed explanations and found so many answers. I studied with a wonderful Taubman teacher for a few years and took lessons in New York and San Francisco with all of the main teachers. I am forever grateful that I discovered the Taubman work and it gave me the confidence to pursue so many different endeavors.
A Constant Learning Experience
I feel that music is a constant learning experience, and I can’t wait to keep refining, persevering, and growing musically and personally.
In a nutshell, I am a musician today because I worked very hard and had teachers who believed in me.
I now play in the longest running musical in the world, perform with a local symphony, have a large private studio, compose educational piano music, accompany in various settings, perform with chamber groups, etc.
Basically, I am doing things that I started doing at the age of 13, but on a higher, professional level.
Playing music has brought me to places such as Carnegie Hall, Portugal, Spain, Nicaragua and Prague. Many of my dearest friends are people I know through music.
I love the adventure and the community that music brings.
I am truly grateful to have studied with such a variety of teachers, all of whom invested in my musical growth in different and profound ways.
I am also delighted that my childhood dream of being a professional pianist has come true!
Thank you for reading and …
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