Writings about Music

On Losing A Piano Teacher

A painting of Jocelyn, 1925-2021, who was Michael Robinson's recent piano teacher

The first time I met Jocelyn she was in a nursing home recovering from an injury during 2015. It was startling entering her room for she filled it with her presence, an extraordinarily powerful intelligence and awareness permeating the space. After returning to her home, and learning I was a composer, she asked me to play the piano for her beginning in 2017. Given how I didn't have any keyboard at home, preferring to compose without the aid of any musical instrument, my playing was rather modest, knowing a few standards and classical pieces by memory. Subsequently, Jocelyn's daughter and I decided to purchase a full set of jazz standard fake books, as they are known, amounting to six thick volumes of songs. It's unfortunate how these don't include the song lyrics, keeping to the melodies with chord symbols only.

So it began, on Sunday afternoons, lasting around three hours each time, including an intermission for coffee or tea together with pastries and fruit. The piano was an impressive Steinway around a hundred years old in excellent condition with a body made from varied shades of brown patterned woods.

My playing of these jazz standards kept entirely to the melody and familiar chords, though I did vary the melody in the manner of what I'd learned from artists like Lee Konitz, John Coltrane and Frank Sinatra, fascinated with different ways of phrasing the same melody each time I played a particular song.

On occasion, I was moved to improvise on a particular raga, but this was of less interest to Jocelyn who preferred hearing songs she was familiar with, having been an exceptionally gifted singer and pianist herself, especially enjoying performing in the choir of her temple. At the time I began playing for Jocelyn she was 91, and there was something mystical about our sharing the same birthday of March 11.

A photograph of Jocelyn, 1925-2021, who was Michael Robinson's recent piano teacher

While playing for Jocelyn, she sat close by in her wheelchair, always beautifully dressed with a different bright colored ribbon in her hair. Despite her age, there was not a single line on her face despite never having had any plastic surgery. 

Most remarkable was her keen musical sensitivity and intelligence, for I felt her tuned into every single nuance and detail of what I played in terms of tone quality, volume, tempo, and overall expression. If something wasn't perfect we both knew it instantly, and having someone else there caring so deeply about what I was playing was both encouraging and instructive, including when she would compliment a particular performance with something like, "That was very beautiful" or "I loved that." 

Immersing myself in jazz standards for three hours at a time, I began to wonder how I might actually improvise on them, and wishing to free myself from the obligatory chords in the left hand, I began playing a walking bass line that I had been impressed with in some solo piano recordings by Lennie Tristano, who was the teacher of my primary jazz teacher, Lee Kontz. This was perilous at first, essentially creating spontaneous two-part counterpoint by joining the left hand bass lines with improvisations on the melody with my right hand. Eventually, I began adding chords with my right hand, and sometimes segued towards playing giant chords with both hands at once. While my first four recordings of piano improvisations focused on either pure improvisation or Indian ragas, my next three albums presented improvisations on jazz standards almost entirely. Now, I'm about to release six new albums with improvisations on jazz standards.

Sadly, when Jocelyn's condition worsened, she was confined to bed, and so our living room performances on the Steinway grand moved to her bedroom where a much lesser electric piano was set-up. It took me a while to adjust to this instrument, and I did my best, Jocelyn still enjoying the performances, even if I didn't feel her musical consciousness quite as strongly. Even more mournful, as Jocelyn began feeling even worse, she seemed unhappy to have anyone around her, and I stopped playing for her, something that breaks my heart when I think about it, wishing somehow there may have been a way to continue, overcoming her seeming unwillingness for company and music. I still cherish the last sentiment Jocelyn offered for my playing, "That was very beautiful," spoken with heartfelt emotion.

During her final weeks, I visited her when she was taken to the hospital for emergencies, and the last time I saw her alive back at home, I kissed her forehead, and told her how she had given me a priceless gift by transforming me into an actual pianist, and told her how I loved her. I knew Jocelyn heard me and felt me even though she wasn't able to speak.

A sculpture of a musician in the home of Jocelyn, Michael Robinson's recent piano teacher

And when I heard she was dying on a recent Thursday night, I drove to her home, but for some inexplicable reason, perhaps nervousness, kept making the wrong turn three or four times, so that when I finally arrived she had left her body five or ten minutes before, an expression of disbelief on her face, like she couldn't believe someone would dare have the audacity to remove her from this world. Regardless, I kissed her forehead, and spoke to her again. Jocelyn's gift of artistic awakening guided by her incredible musicality, intelligence and spirit makes her alive inside of me and my piano playing forever.

I know little about Jocelyn's life prior to her becoming my piano teacher. Apparently, she claimed to talk to God, and was an impassioned supporter of Israel, growing up in Wisconsin, as coincidently did Golda Meir. Later in her life, she became an astonishingly gifted jeweler, but only for herself and loved ones, her favorite model being Paloma Picasso. What I can say is that Jocelyn was a force of nature, and I am a bit dazed, awestruck and grateful for what happened between us, including how back in the winter of 1998, I was in a restaurant picking up a takeout order, and heard a piano playing in the distance from a back room. Searching for this mysteriously intriguing music through the conjoined restaurant rooms, it turned out to be Jocelyn's daughter playing the piano in what seemed a most incongruent setting like in a movie, though a real life film that nineteen years later led to expanding myself from a composer of music for meruvina, becoming an improvising pianist, too, the two disciplines seemingly enhancing each other.

Speaking at Jocelyn’s funeral in a momentously bucolic Hollywood Hills setting on a glorious summer day earlier this month about my time with her, I began to cry, and had to pause to catch myself, my words spoken strongly nonetheless. Now, sometimes when I play, I feel Jocelyn still listening, letting me know someone feels and cares about what I am creating, attempting as all artists hopelessly do, to match the perfection of God's creation, or nature, if you prefer, and how to sustain it for all here and now and moving forward.

My teachers have included Lee Konitz, Pandit Jasraj, Anindo Chatterjee and Leonard Bernstein, all among the greatest musicians in recorded history, while counting Jocelyn as equally important musically together with being my most recent teacher along with Guruji and Jerry Sharell.

Shalom, Namaste, Aloha, Jocelyn!

No doubt, if she was reading this, Jocelyn would modestly say, "Stop wasting time writing about me, and practice!"

But there are no words for her, only music. I'm honored how she thought so much of my potential to provide much needed nourishment, as all aspiring musicians require without exception.

- Michael Robinson, September 2021, Los Angeles

 

© 2021 Michael Robinson All rights reserved

 

Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and musicologist. His 155 albums include 148 albums for meruvina and 7 albums of piano improvisations. He has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University.