The story of my musical journey begins with my earliest memory. It was 1968 lying on my parents’ bed in a little white weatherboard house with blue trim in Melbourne, Australia, when I heard a song on the wireless radio. That song was A Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harum. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. It was the most beautiful chord progression with a descending bass line and vocals that bled with emotion. This was the first time I experienced the power and poetry of music without yet knowing how to speak it’s language.
I always found solace at the piano even from a very young age. I was fortunate to have parents who recognized this, which was most noticeable when we visited my Italian Nonna for lunch on a Sunday after the Catholic Mass service we attended as a family. My Nonna had an old upright piano which I was drawn to. Without having had lessons, I picked out melodies with one finger that were floating around my head after hearing them in church that day. I had to be dragged away from the piano to go and eat the Italian feast that had been prepared at the dining table.
My mother asked me if I would like to have piano lessons, and I said I would, not really understanding what that would mean. A friend recommended a teacher named Margriet Pendavingh who taught from her home. I’ll always remember walking into her home for the first time at 8 years old, being greeted by a buxom woman with a Dutch accent wearing a pink dress and long black boots, and two enormous chow chow dogs that resembled small lions. There were two pianos in her living room, the upright on which she taught her students, and the grand that was hers. And the always present packet of Salem cigarettes sitting on the piano, which she would smoke during my lessons. Several years ago, Margriet had told me the story of whenever she wanted to introduce me to a new piece, she would sit down and play it for me, and I would stand beside her and weep. As an adult the only explanation I have for that was the feeling of being so enamored by her beautiful hands and the magic they produced at the piano and wondering if I would ever be able to play something so beautiful, if I’d ever get there and at the same time knowing it was what I yearned for and who I was to become.
Classically trained in Europe and then Indonesia by Herr Becalel, her teacher who was taught by Franz Liszt, Margriet and her family migrated to Australia in 1952 after WW2. For 13 years, I had a weekly lesson with her beginning with me playing scales, arpeggios, and technical exercises, then having me play the pieces I’d worked on. She’d light her Salem cigarette, take a puff, drawback the smoke and as she blew it out she’d say, “Play me the Bachhhhh.” And in a cloud of smoke I would find the keys on the piano and my starting place to launch into a Bach Prelude.
At other times Margriet and I would simply talk for my lesson. She delighted in teaching me the different styles and eras of classical composers by directly experiencing them. To help me grasp the concept of a time signature of 3⁄4, she took me by the hand and led me in a waltz dance around her room, as she counted out loud, “vun, two, sree, vun, two, sree, vun, two, sree.” I have Margriet to thank for my ease of performing in front of an audience. She also encouraged her students to learn how to announce the piece they would play at concert recitals she hosted in her home for family and friends; how to pause before beginning to play, and stand up to bow after finishing the piece. They were little details, but even today I feel so blessed that she bothered to instill those habits in me at a young age.
Although I was classically trained I always enjoyed exploring at the piano, creating my own music, which I never thought had any merit at all. According to Margriet, my piano teacher, anything that wasn’t classical… was ‘jazz’. She had no tolerance for ‘jazz’. When I was 16 she asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I replied that I’d like to play my music, the music I created… which was neither classical, nor jazz! Her response was, “Vell, vot do you sink you’re going to do, play jazz in a vine bar for the rest of your life?”