Thursday, October 7, 2010

FLASHBACK - Teaching Tiffany

(The first part of this post was written in 1996.)

Working with special-needs children can be a rewarding experience, and one that private music teachers seldom enjoy. In our endeavors we often seek out the most talented and work with them to achieve their highest potential, eliminating the ones we may consider the less gifted in the interview process. I learned this through personal experience, and feel compelled to share my story of how I met one special child, and how we have touched each other's lives.

When I interviewed for a teaching position at First School of Music in LaGrange, Georgia, the director asked me the usual questions about my background, degrees, and teaching experience. One question stood out in my mind during the interview, and I saw the relevance of the question later.

What is one goal that you have set for yourself as a teacher? What one thing would you like to say that you have accomplished?"

I had two answers in my mind to that question - one is to see my name in print as a composer, and the other is to take a young student with only a left hand, and teach them from the beginning to play piano. Realizing that this man would rather hear the less self-centered answer, I voiced the latter.

I remember his surprise at this statement. In fact, I elaborated on my answer somewhat defensively, reminding him that there was, in fact, a large body of music for the left hand alone that is rarely performed these days. At any rate, and more important to me at the time, I was hired in January of 1990.

Sometime in May of that year, I was called back into the office by his secretary. Would I consider taking a girl, from a musical family, who had no fingers on her right hand?

Without hesitation I said yes.

Tiffany was ten years old. She was a bright and intelligent girl, with a very positive outlook on life and a very mature attitude about her handicap. In fact, she has never considered herself handicapped. Being born without fingers on her right hand had never stopped her from doing other things little girls do - one does not need fingers to dance, or to sing. And she learned to tie her own shoes, to jump rope, to cheer, and to march in her high school drill team, spinning a flag mounted on a specially-fitted pole.

When I first assessed her musical situation, I found that there was quite a lot to work with. Her mother had studied piano throughout high school and could have majored in piano, but chose elementary education. Her older sister Maria had studied piano and voice for a few years, and the two sisters had studied tap and ballet. She had read through her sister's beginning piano books, and from this had already acquired a basic knowledge of what the keyboard is and how it is laid out. The church that hosts our music school, First Baptist of LaGrange, has an excellent music pre-choir program, "Young Musicians". Here the children learn basics such as note names, clefs, and how to direct and clap rhythms. The years of dance lessons had paid off with an excellent sense of internal rhythm, and gave her the self-confidence to move gracefully around the keyboard.

In the very first lesson I learned that this girl could already reach a tenth in her left hand. Years of making one hand do the work of two had given her a large, strong hand that is very flexible. She does have a nub approximately one-half inch in length, where her thumb would be, and a smaller one for an index finger. Although there is bone or cartilage here, these "fingers" are not moveable.

I was unable to find and purchase one of the "standard" one-hand method books such as the Olson or the Riccardi/Vela due to the short time period between the interview and the time we began lessons. So we started with the Alfred's Basic Piano Library, progressing rapidly, playing as much as possible with the left hand alone. As much of this book consists of pieces where the left imitates the right, or vice versa, she would merely play both halves with the left hand, moving up or down the requisite octave. This worked all right for a while until we hit that little milestone, "Rockets" and "Sea Divers", where the hands played together. I showed her how to read both clefs and play the whole thing with the left hand, she showed me how she had already figured it out at home with both hands.

"But it will sound choppy", I said. I already had it in my mind that she would drop her "thumb" on each note, rendering a sound like a xylophone, with no concept of legato.

"Not if I do it this way". She then played the piece with both hands, dropping arm weight into each right hand note, and connecting each note with "quarter-note" dabs of pedal. Syncopated pedal, the kind we struggle to teach to ten-fingered children.

Balance between hands? No problem. Arm weight in the right hand coupled with finger strokes in the left produced an ideal balance for pieces at this level. Left hand melody? As a last resort, she would cross hands, right over left. All the shifting and moving she was doing from the very first lesson gave her an excellent sense of "keyboard geography" and she was never tied down to one hand position or that tyrannical middle C.

After a month or so of lessons, I could see where this was heading. Although I still wanted her to concentrate on her left-hand-alone pieces, she stubbornly worked on whatever she could find with single-note right hand parts. We found much rewarding music out there with this texture, or that could easily be adapted. For example, a four-note chord for two hands such as C,G in the left hand and E,C in the right could be easily and consistently played C,G,E in the left and C in the right. The tenth posed no problem; she could already reach a white-key tenth at this early age.

By the age of 14, Tiffany had performed on a regular basis for her church, had some success in local high-school level competitions, and in November of 1994 performed a full-length solo recital, receiving some newspaper coverage for her efforts.

Practicing the Scriabin Nocturne, 1997

Obviously, there are pieces in the repertoire she will never play, but as I have told her several times, "you will never be able to play the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto, but neither will I!"

A favorite high-school war-horse was the Mendelssohn Song Without Words, op. 102 no. 4 ("The Sighing Wind"). Surprisingly few modifications were necessary; she could play the sixteenth-note accompaniment up to tempo with the left hand. The stretto-like section near the coda is played with a very active left hand, omitting only a few right-hand double notes (most of which are duplicated at the octave in the left hand) and playing the black-black augmented seconds in the right hand with the fleshy part of her hand.

Our teacher-student relationship hasn't always been rosy; she could go through of mood swings like any other teenager. But she was constantly an inspiration to my other students, who understand that she is "special". (Of course, all of my students are "special", and I make an effort to express that.)

Those Ravel and Prokofiev concertos never became a reality for her. But she did learn the Scriabin Prelude and Nocturne, and performed the Nocturne in many recitals and competitions.

Yours truly with Miss Troup Teen, January 1996. 
Yes, she played the piano for her talent presentation.
Yes, it was the Mendelssohn.

In fact, one competition was a "high point" in my teaching career.  In the fall of 1997 she entered a piano competition held in conjunction with a "literary-meet"-type academic competition at Gordon College in Morrow, Georgia.  The repertoire requirements were rather simple: the contestant had to play two classical pieces, and one had to be memorized.  Tiffany played her warhorse (Mendelssohn "The Sighing Wind") and a piece I wrote for her, "Seaside".  My piece was what I would describe as a twentieth-century barcarolle, with a little syncopation, but certainly not on the level of what one would find in a Gershwin, or even Ginastera, composition.  (Not to mention Nikolai Kapustin.) Not that I compare my oeuvre favorably with any of these, but I do consider my work to be "classical" in style.

The judges disqualified Tiffany, claiming that "Seaside" was not classical.  I guess I was not dead enough or European enough.  I was certainly white enough, but one out of three was not sufficient for them.  Comments on the score sheets ran the gamut from "this is not classical" to "you should play something like Bach or Mozart".  Seriously.  In other words, the judges did not even take the time to look at her hands (to see her fingering, perhaps?  Or to see if there were what they might perceive as flaws in her technique?) because if they had, they would have noticed she was quite a few digits short of a full hand - something which certainly did make performing Bach or Mozart a problem.  (Actually, two years prior she did perform the second movement of the Mozart Concerto in C, K.467 in another competition - alas, without success.)

This incident set us both back.  She lost interest in performing for around six months, and I stopped writing for about the same length of time.  But she was determined to try again the next year - her senior year, the fall of 1998.

In the brochure describing the rules, there was some sort of ADA paragraph stating that "physically challenged students with special needs may contact the organization if there are certain circumstances", or something like that.  At my urging she wrote them a letter stating that she was a "one-handed" pianist entering the piano competition, that she was aware of the repertoire requirements, but due to an unfortunate incident the prior year she wanted the judges to be aware of her situation.

She had prepared the Scriabin Nocturne for the Left Hand, op. 9 no. 2, and the Mendelssohn.  (That piece did us lots of good over the years.)

First came the Scriabin, which she performed with score, open only to the page containing the cadenza.  It was memorized, but she needed a little "crutch".  No mishaps whatsoever; it was arguably her best public performance of the piece. 

Then came the Mendelssohn.  There were two judges.  As soon as she started playing, one judge kept her face buried in the score (perhaps to see if she left anything out?), and the other judge rose up out of her chair, evidently to see how Tiffany was doing what she was doing!  Tiffany played beautifully - the best she had ever played in a competition.  When she stood up and bowed, she held up her right hand before she left the stage.  Perhaps the casual observer thought she was making a fist, but I didn't care.  She knew, I knew - and the judges knew.  She got first place.

Playing one of the Moszkowski "Teacher and Pupil, op. 97" duets
on her high-school senior recital, May 1999.

(Now we move ahead to 2010)

Many years have passed since the first draft of this article (intended to be submitted to Clavier Magazine) was written. Tiffany is now a young woman living just outside of Baltimore, Maryland.  In June of 2008 she married David Cole, a multi-talented musician who serves a church there as organist-choirmaster. She is now a radiographer, but obviously music is still very much a part of her life.  "As far as my music, I currently sing in a community chorus, "Masterworks" and in our church choir and play in the handbell choir (I play the higher, lighter bells by placing my entire hand in the loop of the bell handle)"

Working with Tiffany unleashed a creativity that had lain dormant for ten years. In fact, she became my muse, as I worked to come up with pieces that she could play, given her physical limitations. The challenge of “slow single-note right hand with a more complex left hand” inspired me, and then other pieces came to mind, to bring out the strengths or improve the weaknesses of other students. Since I wrote my first piece for her, "A First Nocturne", to date 79 more have followed.  Tiffany credits me with "giving her music" - taking her on as a student when no other teacher would take the challenge.  I credit Tiffany with singlehandedly unlocking the creativity that had lain dormant in me for ten years, and enables me to continue to write pieces for my students - many of which have been performed by students, and even some professional pianists.

Tiffany and me at her niece's christening, June 2006.

And one of those pieces I wrote for her DID get published – the very first one. If one opens a copy of “Learning Piano: Piece by Piece” by Elyse Mach (Oxford University Press) and turns to the "Repertoire" section in the back, one sees “A First Nocturne” by Rick Robertson – and at the upper left corner of the page above the title, it says…

“For Tiffany Oliver”.

The beautiful bride, June 2007


  1. Beautiful story, Rick. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  2. Rick,
    It was good to read the full story this way, with great pictures. Thanks for the inspiration from Tiffany. I like your style.

  3. makes me appreciate my sister-in-law even more! Her husband two brothers took piano as children also - but she and David really took it seriously, and successfully! Congrats again Tiffany and thanks Rick for writing!!!