Last week I learned that Paul Parker, one of my first mentors and teachers, passed away at 88. He lived a long and full life, and leaves behind a large family and a great musical legacy in Omaha, Nebraska.
Paul was one of my first piano teachers, and certainly my most significant influence for years—and not just in music. He was the owner of the Parker School of Music, a storefront in Rockbrook Village shopping area in Western Omaha. In a collection of one-story, flat-roofed buildings, the Parker School was furthest from the entrance. It was approached through a maze of parking lots, past a drug store, the pizza place, and right next to the travel agency. I spent hundreds of hours there.
The front door opened into a small waiting room that featured a long window through which parents could watch their kids in “piano lab”. The lab was a large room with six electric pianos, plus one more piano on a raised platform in the front of the class where Mr. Parker would sit. He would address students at the pianos through headphones. Chalk boards lined the walls, with permanent music staffs on which we could draw key signatures, notes and chords. Through the headphones, Paul could address us as a class or one-on-one. As you were playing. you never knew if Mr. Parker was tuning in to listen to you. I thought of him like God. It was a classroom atmosphere, but also had a slight edge of competition—the idea was that by learning together we would all learn faster. For some of us at least, it worked brilliantly.
This was a fairly revolutionary teaching idea in the mid-1970’s. Some students only took group classes, but soon I was in group class and studying privately. My first private teacher at the school was John Bennett, the only man I’d ever met who wore muumuus and gold chains, and I developed a hopeless eleven-year-old crush. (As an adult, John became a very good friend.) Eventually I studied with Mr. Parker himself.
Private lessons were held in sound-proof modules, and Paul’s was large enough to accommodate two grand pianos. There were other instruments taught at the school, too. Clarinet, guitar, flute, trumpet, percussion, all being taught simultaneously in modules throughout the building. There were some instruments for sale and rent, along with a pretty sizable collection of sheet music and books. Looking back on it now, Paul’s initial investment in this school must have been considerable. For Omaha at the time, he was downright visionary.
I remember Paul as a demanding teacher with a soft edge. Because my respect and affection for him grew so much, my biggest motivation became not to disappoint him. With his guidance I quickly pushed into meaty repertoire. I became obsessed with a recording of the Beethoven “Waldstein” Sonata played by Emanuel Ax, and I decided I had to play it. It’s a huge piece of music and far beyond what Paul would have assigned me, but he let me dive in. Looking back, he probably figured I’d give up once I realized how difficult it was. I didn’t.
The lessons I had with him on that sonata were some of the most important of my life. I learned to break down a large piece into sections, making it easier to learn. I learned about sonata form, and how that could effect the way I practiced. For the first time I understood pedal technique. Paul taught me how to spot technical challenges within a piece, then develop a system for mastering them before putting them into the context of the music. I still use these methods when learning pieces, both as a pianist and conductor.
By the time I was 15, I was teaching in the piano lab and working at the front desk of the school. I scheduled lessons, took phone calls, sold music, and assisted with monthly billing.
Paul sensed that my home life was challenging, and the Parker School became an escape, a refuge, and a second home for me.
He taught me that the best thing to have as a musician was “quiet confidence”. I’ve never forgotten that, and always aspired to it.
We lost track of each other for many years, but before he passed I was able to resume communication with Mr. Parker. I had the opportunity to thank him for what he had given me. His belief in me—not just as a musician, but as a person—was one of the greatest gifts I was given as a young person. I’ll always be grateful.