A tall, elegant woman entered the studio with me. We sat down for an introductory interview. The object of the interview was to become acquainted and to discuss the possibility of lessons at the New School. I asked some questions and learned that she was retired. She seemed a bit young to be retired. “Ah, time to enjoy some other interests,” I said. This is when she informed me in a matter-of-fact way that the reason for early retirement was that she had cancer, and needed to focus on her health.
Several years have passed since this interview, so I don’t remember exactly how I responded to this. But I do remember her absolute delight at learning a piece by rote that used the pedal. Her positive energy filled the room. She was going to be my own student (often after interviews, students are placed with other teachers). I was certain that she would recover from her illness. Any other outcome was simply unacceptable!
What followed were some very special lessons. Having never studied before, Gloria began with some simple pieces. I coached her on shaping her phrases right away. During one of our first lessons, Gloria’s eyes filled with tears after playing a piece with the most beautiful shaping I could imagine. She exclaimed: “It is so beautiful!” What a gift to experience sharing music with Gloria! And she is right: it is so beautiful. How often do I take that for granted?
Gloria’s study progressed at an extraordinary rate. From September to June, she managed to progress from learning where treble G is on the piano to the early-intermediate level. Believing that she only had a short time to learn how to play the piano, Gloria was focused in a way that I haven’t seen before or since.
Gloria was absolutely determined to come to each lesson, consulting with her doctor to make sure that she was well enough. Knowing how important it was, he never said no. She only missed when she had to go to the hospital. My own health became an issue that year, in terms of protecting my student. Usually armed with the iron-clad immune system of a teacher who’s “caught it all, ” that year I seemed to catch quite a few little colds. These are the kinds of annoyances that don’t stop most of us from working, whatever our jobs. But I had to wear a special mask during those times teaching Gloria. Again, it was about doing everything we could to meet. There was an undercurrent of urgency… we were on a mission.
In the late spring, students sign up for the following academic year of lessons. She reported to me: “My minister said to sign up! It is a way of having a positive outlook.” This statement told me much about the state of Gloria’s health and her prognosis. But fully enmeshed in my state of denial, I told her and meant it: “I can’t wait to see you again in September.” An email followed a few weeks later from a family member to let me know that she was not going to continue, and that she was in hospice care.
I made arrangements to visit her at her home. I drove… and drove… and realized that Gloria was making quite a commute for her lessons. During our visit, I played the piano for her. She wanted to hear hymns. Fortunately, my car was a mess – full of books of hymn arrangements from my church job. I played her favorite hymns and she really seemed to enjoy them. When I was leaving, she told me, “I love you.”
As I start my new year of teaching, I remember Gloria.