Herbert Chatzky, my beloved piano teacher from my teenage years, passed away September 5, 2013 at the age of 78. His pianism and musicianship were a huge inspiration for me. He was my mentor and my friend and he played a important role in my life.
We met when I was 14 or 15 during a Hartt School of Music Summer Program. During that first meeting we spoke about music for several hours. There was something about his “out of the box” rebellious attitude that resonated deeply with me and I asked him then and there if he would be my teacher.
I recognized how unbelievably talented Mr. Chatzky was, a musician of the highest order. As a Juilliard student he crossed paths with Van Cliburn, John Browning, Daniel Pollack and so many other brilliant pianists. Yet it was Herb who was the Juilliard concerto competition winner in 1958.
His lessons with me were unorthodox and thought-provoking. I remember how he would sit on the sofa eating pistachios and excitedly describe his new moped. He loved to tell the story of how 15 year old Scott attempted to help him eat more healthfully when he was on an “all nut” diet. One day we were in his kitchen and he opened the refrigerator and I saw a whole cooked turkey. The following words are his, from an email he wrote many years later:
“I will ever recall the day you came for a lesson and went to the kitchen, sliced a slab of turkey and said to me “here, don’t just eat sh**”– while I reproved you for such audacity at the same time I was very proud of you for caring that much.”
Back to our lessons.
Sometimes almost the whole hour would pass by before we realized we needed to get to work. When we did get to work, he would challenge me to think about music differently. And I did, and still do. Herb helped me to integrate my two loves – jazz and classical music – in an organic way. Our work together on an interpretation for The Rhapsody In Blue for an orchestral performance during my senior year of high school was pivotal. As recently as last year, Herb told me he was listening to it and loved the uniqueness of what we had created together.
Herb’s teaching style frustrated me in ways that forced me to think about and discover things for myself. At the time I wished for someone to give me all the answers I was seeking, but now I’m appreciative he didn’t. I’ve grown in my understanding and realize simply loving the questions can lead to a deeper learning.
His personality wasn’t suited for a concert career. It was one of my frustrations. I couldn’t understand how someone so talented would never record a CD or promote their career. He, like all of us, wrestled with his demons and perhaps a bit like Mr. Holland in the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus, his gifts were received in ways that even he might not have realized.
The ways we respectfully argued about music and life was essential for my growth. Having such a passionate, knowledgeable and esteemed debating partner was pivotal in helping me find what was true for me, whether we agreed or not. And even now, to know of and feel his pride means the world to me as he was like a musical father.
I will be feeling his love and influence whenever I play the piano. And for that I’m more than grateful.