When I reached the age of eight, mom decided it was time for me to begin piano lessons. I’m not sure whether I asked to learn or the decision was made for me, but there was a big, old Schultz Upright Grand taking up prime real estate in our small living room and apparently begging to be played. Mom asked around about possible teachers and finally decided to enlist the help of the elementary school band director. Mr. Burney was fresh out of college, could play the piano, and he was willing to come to our house to instruct me, a big plus. I don’t think he had ever taught anyone else to play, which I guess made me his first guinea pig. My lessons went smoothly for the first year until he introduced “stride” piano—an accompaniment style that incorporates alternating bass octaves and chords. It was a challenging skill for a young student to learn, but I suspect mom had put a bug in Mr. Burney’s ear about the possibility of me learning a couple of her favorites—The Missouri Waltz and the Tennessee Waltz. Soon, his hand written, mimeographed copies appeared on the piano along with chord charts and other music theory materials. I think it was at about this time that I began to balk about practicing. I enjoyed playing the piano but I was not allowed to go outside to play with my friends after school until I had finished 30 minutes of practicing. How could I concentrate while a gang of kids played games and rode their bikes up and down the road in front of our house? It was absolute torture. I pleaded with mom to understand but she stood her ground while I cried and kicked the old Schultz.
Mr. Burney left our school a couple of years later making it necessary for mom to find me a new teacher. There were two piano teachers in town and I don’t remember why she settled on Madame Renee Lidge. Hungarian by birth, and educated at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest, she had studied with composer/pianist Bela Bartok. During the day she taught students at the Chicago Conservatory College, then caught the commuter train to Libertyville and spent evenings and Saturdays teaching half the students in our town. At the age of ten I became one of those students. When I appeared for my first lesson, knees knocking, I noticed that Madame Lidge’s home was decorated in a very different style than that of most people I knew. The upholstery was done in red velvet and every last chair leg and arm rest had been covered in gilt paint—even her grand piano! (Years later on our first trip to Europe, Larry and I toured the royal palace in Vienna and found every room decorated with velvet and gilt. It was then that I realized Mme. Lidge had tried to create a bit of imperial splendor for herself on this side of the Atlantic.) Apparently, she had no time for filing cabinets because the closed lid of her grand piano was piled high with stacks of sheet music and lesson books. When the kitchen door swung open, we caught a glimpse of a wild color scheme that convinced us Mme. must have been color blind—blue walls, purple ceiling, and red woodwork!
Both my sister Becky and I studied with Mme. Lidge for several years. It didn’t take us long to discover that this woman, like her décor, was like no one else we knew. Her broken English was challenging to understand and her handwriting in our assignment books was difficult to decipher. When she received cash or checks they were immediately stuffed into the bodice of her dress. Her mantra was “count out loud” and she frequently reminded us that we were fortunate to be studying with her instead of the other teacher in town who didn’t make her students count. We were also informed that our pedagogical genealogy included some very famous teachers and that we were great, great grandstudents of Franz Liszt! We had him to thank for the finger exercises we despised.
She insisted on being addressed as Madame Lidge, but for some reason we could not fathom she called me Marguerite for the first two years I was with her. Mom labeled my piano assignment book “Kathleen” and put the monthly tuition check in an envelope labeled, “For Kathleen,” but I continued to be “Marguerite” in Mme.’s studio. Exasperated, mom finally confronted her and after that I became “Katty.”
Because her schedule was so full, Mme. Lidge rarely sat down for a meal. Instead, she would disappear from a lesson for a few minutes and then reappear, still chewing a mouthful of something or nibbling on a chicken drumstick. During one of Mme.’s absences, Becky was warming up with scales when she noticed one of the piano keys sticking. She peered into the piano and was surprised to see an old chicken bone that must have succumbed to the vibrations of the piano and fallen inside! Mom could only shake her head and roll her eyes when we described these occurrences.
Quirkiness aside, Madame Lidge was a wonderful teacher. She helped me establish a practice regimen, taught me not only to play with accuracy, but with expression. I coveted the composer busts that we earned for demonstrating good practice habits and I soon learned that Mme. Lidge was absolutely right about the counting aloud. She also broadened my musical horizons by escorting me to a recital by pianist Rosalyn Tureck at the college where she taught, presumably to encourage me to consider the school as my future destination. The solid musical grounding I received from her helped me find my niche in high school. As a freshman, I began my training as choral accompanist, a position I retained throughout my high school years, but to Mme. Lidge’s dismay, I was spending more time practicing choral accompaniments than learning the repertoire that was necessary for me to gain admission to a music college. Believing that the high school music teachers were using me, during my senior year she boldly marched into the school music department and presented her case. As a result of her advocacy on my behalf, I was given the opportunity to play a solo at one of the concerts and a piano concerto with the band.
My days with Mme. Lidge ended when I left for college in Wisconsin. She had tried in vain to persuade my parents to send me to the conservatory in Chicago, but mom and dad were adamantly opposed to their 18-year-old daughter commuting to the city every day. Before we all left for college, Mme. invited her senior students and even our friends from the other teacher to have dinner at her house. Having no idea what to expect, because cooking was not known to be on her list of accomplishments, we had a hilarious evening and saw a fun-loving side of our teacher that we hadn’t experienced before. As “insiders” we enjoyed introducing our friends, students of the other teacher, to the eccentricities of our beloved Madame Lidge.
I’ve had other teachers since Madame Lidge, but she remains for me the most influential and highly regarded. If even one of my students feels the same about me, I will consider my life’s work worthwhile.