February 26th, 2015
In just the past couple of weeks, here at ACEI, we have been suddenly blessed by a flow of credentials from individuals with degrees in music. Holders of these degrees are from all corners of the world and studied at conservatories and universities from Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, Italy, South Korea, to Canada. They are all seeking teaching positions at various high schools and colleges throughout the U.S. Coincidence? Perhaps, but a very happy and encouraging one to know that music education in this country is alive and highly talented and qualified individuals will be teaching our young people.
Having just watched the film “Whiplash,” the story of a promising young drummer as a first year jazz student at a prestigious and cutthroat music conservatory and his abusive and demanding teacher, I was reminded of my early childhood experience with learning the piano. The actor J.K. Simmons who plays the role of the teacher in “Whiplash,” won this year’s Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, a much-deserved award, though his character’s personality is nothing like my former piano teacher, Suzi.
I was seven when I first met Suzi. She was twenty-five. A recent graduate of the Vienna Conservatory, the daughter of upper middleclass Armenian parents living in Tehran, Suzi was a virtuoso. She could have been a concert pianist performing around the world, yet for reasons unbeknownst to me, she had chosen to return to Iran, move in with her parents and teach piano to children of privileged Iranian families.
Finding me a piano teacher had been my mother’s idea. After seeing “The Sound of Music,” I had pestered my mother that I wished to learn a musical instrument and the piano was my number one choice. She had surprised me with news of fulfilling my wish by picking me up from school one chilly afternoon in Autumn and taking me directly to Suzi’s house. She met us at the entrance to her house that like most Iranian homes was hidden behind high walls and a large iron gate. Tall and rail thin with pale skin and light green eyes, she struck me as a ghostly figure emerging through the plume of her cigarette smoke. A far cry from Julie Andrews’s timid Maria of The Sound of Music, Suzi commanded a regal presence in her designer tailored dusty rose suit with pumps displaying the famous Chanel logo and the short single strand of pearls adorning her swanlike neck.
We followed her through the inner courtyard carpeted with yellow, russet and orange leaves, past the decorative shallow pool empty of water but a few layers of leaves. She led us to the house, a two story building its façade bathed in pale yellow offset by white shutters and two white pillars standing on each side of the front door looking like sentries guarding the inner sanctum. Suzi’s music room, or the “studio” as she called it, was on the ground floor as was her apartment. Her parents lived on the second floor.
As we parted with our coats in the marbled foyer, we trailed Suzi down the hallway carpeted with a well-worn Persian runner, past large oil paintings of landscapes mounted on cream-colored walls. The faint sound of classical music I had heard earlier in the foyer got louder and louder as we neared what I assumed to have been her studio. It was the most sublime piano music I had ever heard. “It’s Chopin…nocturne,” Suzi whispered as though our natural voices would somehow disturb the pianist on the recording. “Someday you will be playing these very pieces, my dear,” she said to me, her tone sincere and filled with optimism of my abilities, though until that day, I had neither played nor touched the keys on a piano.
Her studio was spacious with French windows opening to the courtyard. A pot bellied stove had been lit heating up the room. A full-length Persian rug with rust and creamy white floral design covered the entire marbled floor. A partially drawn sliding glass door separated the studio from another that remained dark but I was able to make out the silhouette of a black grand piano. It stood alone in the center of the room like a king holding court with the low hanging chandelier as its crown.
Bookshelves and framed oil paintings of pastoral landscapes hung on the walls. Perched atop the mantle and squeezed between books on the shelves and coffee table were small statues of men’s heads. Stacked against one wall was a collection of LPs, displaying covers of recordings by symphonic orchestras.
Two upright pianos rested side-by-side against one wall. “Perfect for duets,” Suzi said, sensing my curiosity and invited me to look around while she and my mother sat on the sofa to talk. I jumped at the invitation and headed toward the framed photographs on the wall and on the pianos. They were mostly of Suzi sitting behind a piano or standing next to one on a stage with various people. In some photos she was dressed elegantly in an evening gown and in others she looked as she did on that day. Framed documents in an unfamiliar language adorned with gold seals and red ribbons covered another portion of the wall above the upright piano. The language wasn’t English but used the English alphabet. I was able to make out the word Vienna and Konservatorium, and of course, Suzi’s name. Graduation diplomas, I concluded. Little did I know then that thirteen years later I would be examining and evaluating diplomas like Suzi’s at a company based in the U.S.
My snooping was cut short by Suzi inviting me to join her on bench in front of the piano where we sat side-by-side. I breathed in her perfume and stared at the empty pages of an open book with lines unlike any notebook I had seen before. “This is going to be our sheet music. You’ll be learning a new language that will help you play beautiful music.”
Still curious at the objects around me, I pointed at two busts atop the piano. “Who are those?” I asked.
“The one on the left is Schubert, and that one on the right is Ludwig von Beethoven,” she replied. “Soon you play their pieces,” she added with confidence. “Here’s a little taste of Chopin, it’s one of his Nocturnes.”
I didn’t know what a nocturne was but as soon as her long fingers touched the keys, the room was filled with the sound of music so glorious unlike anything I’d heard in my short seven years of existence. Suzi may have seemed fragile and almost frail on the outside, but the music that was emanating from the piano was powerful, yet intensely graceful and melodic evoking so much emotional sentiment that I found my skin tingling with goose bumps. So overcome I was by its sheer beauty that I fought hard to hold back tears as she played.
Patiently, Suzi began the instruction and over time, I had not only learned to read musical notes but played them with confidence. By the time I was ten, Beethoven’s sonatas, Mozart’s piano concertos, Tchaikovsky’s mazurkas were my go-to pieces of music. I continued with my piano lessons at Charters Towers School (CTS), the boarding school I attended for the next six years in England. At CTS, not only did I take lessons, I also prepared for exams with the Royal School of Music and participated in competitions playing solos and duets. I fared well and won a few awards and collected certificates. But it was during those brief visits to Iran for the Christmas or summer holidays when I’d resume my lessons with Suzi, that I felt a oneness with the piano. At Suzi’s I was able to enjoy playing the piano for the sheer love of the composers and their creations; free of the drudgery of competitions and pursuit of awards.
It was at one of the lessons with Suzi during a summer holiday that she introduced me to a collection of Chopin’s nocturnes. “Let’s start with this piece,” she said, turning open a page from a book bearing a portrait of Chopin on its cover. I had just turned 13. I must have balked at the sight of the open page in front of me filled with a complex line-up of notes. “I’ll play a few bars and then it’s your turn.” As soon as she began to play, I was overcome by a sense of déjà vu. She was playing the very piece I had heard six years earlier when my mother and I had first stepped into her studio…the same piece she had played for me on that first day. Suzi had promised me that one day I too would be playing Chopin and she had kept her promise.
I was sixteen when I last saw Suzi. I was heading to America to study but had plans to return for the long summer holidays. Unbeknownst to both of us, our lesson in summer of ’78 was to going to be our last. “Find yourself a piano at the university and practice, practice, practice!” These were Suzi’s last words.
At the University of San Diego, I did find a piano and after graduation bought a piano and continued to play. To date, the piano is my go-to instrument to unwind, relax and create. I still play the classics but I’ve learned to improvise and free form. On occasion, I’m invited to play with a talented group of friends in their music studio. No sheet music, no notes, just stream of consciousness creating and performing.
Thanks to Suzi, my dream of learning the piano had come true. Had I not pestered my mother to find me a teacher after seeing the film “The Sound of Music,” I may never had the musical experience that is part of my life even today. I wonder if I would have felt the same had I seen the film “Whiplash.”
Jasmin Saidi-Kuehnert is the President and CEO of the Academic Credentials Evaluation Institute (ACEI), an international credential evaluation company, based in Los Angeles, CA. She is a leading expert on world education systems, and is also writing her memoire “Cinema Iran,” offering a glimpse into pre-Islamic Republic Iran as seen through the eyes of a young girl. This blog includes excerpts from a chapter in her memoire entitled “Tehran Nocturnes.”