In my parents' Romania there were two things that were seen as integral to augment school education, one was the learning of a foreign language and the other learning how to play an instrument (preferably the violin or piano). They dutifully hired a French tutor for me when I was about 3 or 4 and I promptly disliked her and the language immediately. I did become pretty good at hiding from her and distracting the other kids who were learning with me also. To this day French is the one Romance language I have no interest in.
About a year after I arrived in the States my parents met an elderly couple at a Romanian gathering. She taught piano lessons. Since my French lessons had amounted to merde (see I did learn some of that language) my parents promptly hired her to teach me. My parents did not have a lot, ah who am I kidding any, discretionary income for these lessons but they did it anyway. My piano teacher was in her 70s, which to me at the time was about as ancient as a human being could be, funny how that perception changed as I got older. She had once been an incredibly wealthy woman in Romania, whose family had everything taken away from them by the Communist regime. Mrs. Bratu was maybe 5 feet tall, or even a bit tinier, with the best skin I have ever seen. It was smooth and porcelain and smelled of talcum powder, which to this day I still think smells like older ladies of that era. Her apartment was small and full of old time sepia pictures, doilies and a baby grand. She had been taught by famous pianists of her time and had a tremendous love of classical music. Mrs. Bratu's appearance as a frail older lady though was a bit deceptive.
She had lived the most incredible and brave life of anyone I have ever personally known, bar none, to this day. Her 2 husbands had been political activists. They fought against a brutal regime that tolerated no dissent and aimed for total submission without question. Her first husband died during one of their many incarcerations, a victim of multiple hours of torture and beatings. Most of her adult life had been spent in various jails with inmates who were not dissidents but rather criminals. She had not lost herself or her dignity in these places. Her belief that the Communist regime, which had such dire consequences for Romania, would eventually fall never wavered. I remember how full of joy she had been when it finally did.
My piano lessons consisted of me trying to get out of them and my Mother's various ploys to see if I practiced (most famous among them was her asking me every day before my Friday lesson if I had practiced to which I adamantly confirmed that I had and on that Thursday her bringing me nicely to the piano, opening the cover and showing me the clothes pins she had put on each key all the while asking me how did I manage to practice around them....can you say busted?) They also consisted of Mrs. Bratu telling me the most amazing stories, coaxing me through years of lessons, gaining my respect so that I practiced more for her than for anything else, sheltering me from my Dad's displeasure at making mistakes as I played and most of all leaving me with a love classical music and tremendous respect for this incredible woman.
My eldest son is showing an interest in taking piano lessons which we will try start next Fall. I know Mrs. Bratu has long since passed away and I am pretty sure that no matter how good his teacher is, he will not have the unique experience that I had with her. However, if they can manage to open his heart and his mind to music the way she did mine the lessons will be priceless.