Remembering Mr. Stessin

Herbert Stessin, my last piano teacher, passed away recently at age 88. His New York Times obituary describes his remarkable life. I written down my own memories, so I don’t forget them.

* * *

Mr. Stessin often closed his eyes and appeared to nod off while his students were playing. But he always made insightful remarks afterward, proving that he was in fact listening. Sometimes while I played I would sneak a peak at Mr. Stessin, and as his head bobbled, I’d think, “This time he’s fallen asleep for sure.” Then he’d point out that I could improve my articulation in the left hand of the third phrase in the recapitulation.

* * *

“I can’t compete with Harvard,” Mr. Stessin once said. He was bemoaning how many of his Pre-College students in recent years had chosen to attend Harvard instead of Juilliard. “What can I do to keep you guys? Bake cookies?”

* * *

One of Mr. Stessin’s students gave him a miniature toy violin, about five inches long. When you touched the bow to the strings, the violin would play a melody. I vividly remember Mr. Stessin asking, “May I play a concert for you?” then pulling out the toy violin with great glee. “Look, I’m Midori!” he exclaimed.

* * *

Mr. Stessin was a grandfatherly figure, and I often gave him a peck on the cheek as I departed my lessons. One time I apologized for leaving a lipstick mark, and he said, “It’s ok, it’s a badge of honor!”

* * *

Mr. Stessin had Parkinson’s, and I often thought how sad it must have been for him to lose his manual dexterity. At a lesson when I was working on Chopin Étude Op. 25 No. 12, Mr. Stessin sat down at the piano and demonstrated the étude for me. There was still magic in his fingers, despite the tremors he suffered. It was awesome.

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One thought on “Remembering Mr. Stessin

  1. Ann Zalkind says:

    I had the unexpected good fortune of studying, albeit briefly, with Herbert Stessin while earning my DMA. I recall entering his upper West Side apartment and feeling truly welcomed by him. So unassuming but formidable was he in the depth of his knowledge, musical instincts and ever ready access to the scores which lived in his wooden cabinets. It is the spirit of the mentor that I carry with me and the mood of our conversations which left me inspired and encouraged.

    Ann Zalkind, pianist for Sylph Chamber Music

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