August 12, 2015
A famous musician whom I met only once said to me over lunch, “You have a great gift for admiration.” That proceeded from a discussion that we were having about some important figures that we had both worked with and whom he probably thought as highly of as I did. But I don’t think that I bestow my admiration promiscuously.
There are three men who have been key to whatever education I can lay claim to. One of them died yesterday and, inevitably, he is the one who lives in my daily life even more than the other two, because he was the one who taught me to play music. I know that not every teacher gets through to every pupil (and that is not necessarily the fault of pupil or teacher, but just of a misfit between the one who imparts and the learner). But Paul Jenkins could have been born to teach me. I think I must sometimes have driven him crazy with my earnest questions based on concepts that he had introduced me to. (I’ve always been the type to be partial to systems.) I remember once on a drive, in his signature Mercedes, to a neighboring city for a concert when it became evident even to naîve me that I might be driving the driver a little too hard with my pressing questions about accents in Baroque music. And there were those nights when I’d be working away in a practice room and the door would suddenly be flung open with a demand that I join him and others for a sail. How wonderfully confusing to have the person who is, in some sense, driving you to be practicing late at night, appearing to urge your doing something else entirely! But if he thought that he was going to escape from teaching mode even then, he hadn’t realized the persistence of my questioning mode. I think I must have been a true pest.
But it’s his doing that I never—literally never—play at any length without consciously invoking interpretive or, especially, technical insights that he injected me with. Some of my colleagues may not have needed what he gave me, especially in the technical realm. But he literally taught me how to use my hands. What is more intimate to us instrumentalists than our hands? That’s where he will always reside for me, and with lasting veneration.
I had arrived in his studio as a pretty blank slate. What musical knowledge I had had come from experience with top-flight choral repertory and by basically learning my way around the keyboard via a succession of piano teachers of indifferent quality. He taught me that there was no technical challenge that I couldn’t overcome, because he taught me to turn every technical issue into a musical one. And, as it happens, he was right: a doctrine that I have tested over a long career.
As I have already said on Facebook, I’m not yet ready to face a world that doesn’t have my teacher in it. How little he could have known, even as I sometimes tried to tell him, what he meant to me—and, for that matter, to anybody that I have taught.