When I was a child, we had a neighbor who was a flutist for the New York Philharmonic. His name was Mr. Morris. His home was behind ours. It’s possible my father called him Sam, but my memory is fuzzy. I was so incredibly young at the time. His backyard was large and unruly. An old collapsed greenhouse was buried beneath overgrown brush and small trees that had given up years before I was born.
Although Mr. Morris and the state of his backyard is a faint, early memory,I remember in summertime, when his windows were open, I could hear him practicing his flute. His instrument was part of the atmosphere. The sound of his practice floated through the air, mixing with the hiss of passing cars, birds chirping and children playing. Years later, when I moved into Manhattan, where you could throw a penny and it could land on a creative’s doorstep, the sound of vibrato voices practicing scales in the building next door, or the rehearsal of a lone french horn through a window would bring me back to Mr. Morris. Today, when I listen to the gorgeous recording of Aaron Copeland’s, “Appalachian Spring” performed by the New York Philharmonic with Leonard Bernstein conducting, I think of him lending his flute to the cacophony of beauty in a grand recording studio somewhere with Lenny himself.
When I was eight years old, my father (a music lover much like my mother and myself) wanted me to learn piano. When he started looking for a teacher, he consulted Mr. Morris, whose work within the Lincoln Center community could offer some names. It just so happened, that an acquaintance of his – a Mr. Allen Weiss – was a prominent piano instructor who happened to live in our small little town. He was a graduate of Julliard, had a very progressive way of instructing young people in piano, and was a mentor to gifted students who were on the path to being accepted into the very institution from which he graduated. He also hosted a show on WQXR called The Midnight Showcase, where those gifted, classically trained proteges would be presented. Let it be known that I wasn’t one of them, nor ever was. He also took on regular kids who just wanted to learn piano – like me.
When I attended my first lesson in his home, I entered a separate door to a side room in his house, so small, it barely fit the two giant pianos that lived there: one baby Baldwin piano, and one Steinway grand piano. They slipped side by side, their Lima bean shaped bodies on opposite ends, fitting like puzzle pieces, with the keyboards opposite so two pianists playing at the same time could face each other. The walls were lined with brown cork, and gave off a sweet smell that lingered with the wood of the piano and mixed with the fluid aroma of cherry tobacco drifting from Mr. Weiss’ pipe.
Mr. Weiss appeared to be in his early to mid-thirties, and was married with two little children. This was 1972, and he was a young man of the time – raffish, hippy-like, curly longish red hair. His limbs were long and lanky. There was an ease and elegance to him as he sat cross legged with worn out corduroys, well worn suede Earth shoes, a pipe between his teeth, listening to me play scales and fumbling over fingering. It was ever thus, as the years went by, and my books like “Teaching Little Fingers to Play” morphed into sonatinas, sonatas, Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn and the various classical pantheon of old music I hardly cared about, but enjoyed playing – once I got it right. Remember, I wasn’t one of those gifted students Mr. Weiss mentored. I also remember I was so painfully shy that I’d just sit in silence for months of lessons. Then, one day, I just opened up and responded to a question he raised, delighting him, as if he just found gold in a ditch. I don’t remember why I shed that wall of shyness. It’s likely the more confident I became with the piano, the more comfortable I was with him.
He was a teacher with a dream, creating cutting edge ways to teach kids about piano and music. Within the first two years of lessons, the small little room that barely fit two pianos, was bulldozed to make way for a giant solarium type studio. Floor to ceiling windows let in natural light. The space was modern and open. He graced his layers of shelves with instruments for students to explore, opening our vision on music that went beyond the acoustic keyboard. Synthesizers, electronic pianos, drums, dulcimers, and percussion accessories were everything, a virtual wonderland of music exploration for kids and teens.
The two pianos could now spread out comfortably with enough space to accommodate audience chairs for our quarterly class lessons and recitals where individual students gathered for one interactive meet up. These classes were split up and held on various weekends according to level (beginners, intermediate, advanced, uber-advanced-Julliard-bound) and touched upon various topics of music theory. Each session focused on new concepts, such as early renaissance music, or choir, African beat or sound vibrations. He’d use his instrument collection to demonstrate degrees of sound. One time, he wove nails and metallic objects inside his Steinway piano strings, making the key hammers pound against an altered wire, producing a foreign sound as he began to play a tonal, avant garde piece. The one constant was that each class would end with the dreaded recital, where each member got up to perform a piece they slaved over since the last group class.
This must have been Mr. Weiss’ glory days. His radio show continued to attract respect from the Lincoln Center crowd, and he even performed in concert at Alice Tully Hall, headlining an evening of complicated classical pieces that blew my mind. (Yes, my family attended). Back at Chez Weiss, he had a school of teachers who worked for him. As I grew into a teenager, I wanted to play more contemporary music; plus, I wasn’t growing into an elite student, a special unit of gifted teens who became his main priority. So, he assigned a new teacher who worked under him to come to my house for instruction. His last name was Dunn, and he wore a toupee, which I could see him pat in place from time to time in the mirror above our piano. I still attended Mr. Weiss’ quarterly classes. I may have given up Chopin for Elton John, and wasn’t playing Liszt’s ‘Leibestram’ from memory, but I was still rehearsing classical music, and I was still part of his school.
Then came the day I graduated high school and moved on to college. I bid adieu to my piano school days and moved into a dorm, embarking on adulthood, sadly leaving the keyboard behind.
I wasn’t the only one growing up and moving on. As the years went by, I figured Mr. Weiss he still lived in that beautifully renovated house on Beacon Hill Road in Ardsley with more young students showing up at his door. That wasn’t the case.
One day, years after my last lesson,my father ran into him at an
gas station auto repair shop*. He was pumping gas. Apparently, he sold off his instruments to enter into a partnership to co-own the repair station** It’s possible he may have been divorced, and his young family was torn apart in some way. (Or is that just a sad romantic notion? Or my own father’s view of the situation?) Yet, the stark contrast in circumstance was troubling. Indeed, owning a gas station is a noble profession, but it’s a long way from a career as a respected piano teacher, mentor and concert pianist within the world of Lincoln Center (which my father sensed, via mutual friends, harbored an internal cut throat atmosphere that possibly lead to Mr. W’s decline). (Update: I’m sad to say it was a “decline”. Just a very sharp turn on his path in life.)
Today, I hopelessly search the internet, looking for Mr. Alan Weiss (or is it spelled ‘Allen?), only to find another Alan Weiss, a pianist who trained through Julliard and is teaching students to become professional concert pianists. Very odd. Very coincidental. However, one look at his photo and I can attest – that’s not my Allen Weiss.
This past weekend, the memory of Mr. Weiss invaded my mind along with all the remembrances above. I searched and searched the internet, trying to see if I could find him – his whereabouts. Not much was found, except an excerpt from an old newspaper article reading more into his mind than I – the young student – ever realized.
Strangely enough – an article appeared in the Milwaukee Journal, “In New York, Thousands Play Waiting Game”, dated December 24th, 1978 (when I was his student) where he is quoted discussing the high expectations a Julliard student carries with him/her:
“You walk out the door of Julliard and say ‘Here I am!’ and nobody is listening. So you teach. But it isn’t what you though of when you were in there. A lot of people do it with bitterness. But I had no choice. I practically retired as a performer the day I walked out of school. I don’t, you see, have a family with millions of dollars behind me. I was a good pianist. Respected, generally. I mean, nobody thought I was crazy to want to be a pianist or anything. But you are faced with such competition that it is very difficult to sit back and look at yourself and ask ‘who am I, how do I play and how do I wish to play?’. There simply isn’t time to question anything. Your whole pursuit is giving the perfect performance, playing your octaves faster than anybody else, and getting management, getting the right people to hear you. And winning competitions.”
I hadn’t realized the struggle Mr. Weiss was going through until my father ran into him all those years ago at that autobody shop. As a young child, he loomed over me as a piano god, a young, enthusiastic educator who taught kids to appreciate the profound meaning of music rather than just merely learning to play it. His inner turmoil never showed. To me, he arrived at a perfect destination, but he was really lost in the midst of grasping hold of a dream that was slipping away.
There was another item I found online. It was from Julliard’s alumni newsletter dated September 2009.
“Allen Weiss, Piano, graduate 1962. Deceased.”
I’m hoping it’s the wrong Allen Weiss.
I’m still looking.
*Revisions thanks to Debra Weiss Barrett.