Madame L

Madame L.

by Kathy Panek

When I reached the age of eight, mom decided it was time for me to begin piano lessons. I’m not sure whether I asked to learn or the decision was made for me, but there was a big old Schultz Upright Grand taking up prime real estate in our small living room and apparently begging to be played. Mom asked around about possible teachers and finally enlisted the help of the elementary school band director. Mr. B was fresh out of college, could play the piano, and was willing to come to our house to instruct me, a big plus. I don’t think he had ever taught anyone else to play, which I guess made me his first guinea pig. My lessons went smoothly for the first year until he introduced “stride” piano—an accompaniment style that incorporates alternating bass octaves and chords. This is quite challenging for a young student and I suspect mom had put a bug in his ear about the possibility of me learning a couple of her favorites that required the skill—The Missouri Waltz and The Tennessee Waltz. Soon, his handwritten, mimeographed copies appeared on the piano along with chord charts and other music theory materials.

I believe it was at about this time that I began to balk about practicing. I enjoyed playing the piano but was not allowed to go outside to play with my friends after school until I had finished 30 minutes of practicing. How could I concentrate while a gang of kids played games and rode their bikes up and down the road in front of our house? It was absolute torture. I pleaded with mom to understand but she stood her ground while I cried and kicked the old Schultz.

Mr. B left our school a couple of years later making it necessary for mom to find me a new teacher. There were two piano teachers in our town and I don’t remember why she settled on Madame L. Her credentials were impressive but I’m not sure mom understood that at the time. Hungarian by birth, and educated at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest, she had studied with composer/pianist Bela Bartok. During the day, Mme. L taught students at the Chicago Conservatory College, then caught the commuter train to the suburbs and spent evenings and Saturdays teaching half the students in our town. Ten-year-old me became one of those students.

When I appeared for my first lesson, knees knocking, I noticed that Mme. L’s home was decorated in a very different style than that of most people I knew. The upholstery was done in red velvet and every last chair leg and arm rest had been covered in gilt paint—even her grand piano! (Years later on our first trip to Europe, my husband and I toured the royal palace in Vienna and found every room decorated with velvet and gilt. It was then that I realized Mme. L had tried to create a bit of imperial splendor for herself on this side of the Atlantic.) Apparently, my teacher had no time for filing cabinets because the closed lid of her grand piano was piled high with stacks of sheet music and lesson books. When the kitchen door swung open, we caught a glimpse of a wild color scheme that convinced us Mme. L must have been color blind— blue walls, purple ceiling, and red woodwork!

Madame L, like her décor, was like no one else we knew. Her broken English was challenging to understand and her handwriting in our assignment books was difficult to decipher. When she received cash or checks they were immediately stuffed into the bodice of her dress. Her mantra was “count out loud” and she frequently reminded us that we were fortunate to be studying with her instead of the other teacher in town who didn’t make her students count. We were also informed that our pedagogical genealogy included some very famous teachers and that we were great, great grandstudents of Franz Liszt! We had him to thank for the finger exercises we detested.

She insisted on being addressed as Madame L, but for some reason we could not fathom she called me Marguerite for the first two years I was with her. Mom labeled my piano assignment book “Kathleen” and put the monthly tuition check in an envelope labeled, “For Kathleen,” but I continued to be “Marguerite” in Mme. L’s studio. Exasperated, mom finally confronted her and after that I became “Katty,” the closest she could come to pronouncing my name.

Because her schedule was so full, Madame L rarely sat down for a meal. Instead, she would disappear from a lesson for a few minutes and then reappear, still chewing a mouthful of something or nibbling on a chicken drumstick. During one of Mme. L’s absences, my sister was warming up with scales when she noticed one of the piano keys was sticking. Peering into the piano, she was surprised to see an old chicken bone that must have succumbed to the piano vibrations and fallen inside! Mom could only shake her head and roll her eyes when we described such occurrences.

Quirkiness aside, Madame L was a wonderful teacher. She helped me establish a practice regimen, and taught me to play the classics not only with accuracy, but with expression. I coveted the composer busts that we earned for demonstrating good practice habits and I soon learned that Mme. L was absolutely right about the counting aloud. She also broadened my musical horizons by escorting me to a recital by pianist Rosalyn Tureck at the college where she taught, presumably to encourage me to consider the school as my future destination. The solid musical grounding I received from her helped me find my niche in high school. As a freshman, I began my training as choral accompanist, a position I retained throughout my high school years, but to Mme. L’s dismay, I was spending more time practicing choral accompaniments and stage band music than learning the repertoire that was necessary for me to gain admission to a music college. Believing that the high school music teachers were using me, during my senior year she boldly marched into the school music department and presented her case. As a result of her advocacy on my behalf, I was given the opportunity to play a solo at one of the concerts and a piano concerto with the band.

My days with Madame. L ended when I left for college in Wisconsin. In vain she had tried to persuade my parents to send me to the conservatory in Chicago, but mom and dad were adamantly opposed to their 18-year-old daughter commuting to the city every day. Before we all left for college, Mme. L invited her senior students and even our friends from the other teacher to have dinner at her house. Having no idea what to expect (cooking was not known to be on her list of accomplishments), we had a hilarious evening and saw a fun-loving side of our teacher that we had never experienced. As “insiders” we enjoyed introducing our friends, students of the other teacher, to the eccentricities of our beloved Madame L.

I’ve had other teachers since Madame L, but she remains for me the most influential and highly regarded. If even one of my students feels the same about me, I will consider my life’s work to have been worthwhile.

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Featured in our September 2021 issue, "Nostalgia"