I discovered recently that while 2020 was handing out its many indignities, there was one that I had missed. Sometime during that year, Joy Miller Kiszely passed away.
Mrs. Kiszely was my childhood piano instructor, a brilliant and celebrated pianist and lecturer who taught students at the prestigious Main Line Conservatory Of Music in Ardmore, PA. Her pupils had to meet a strict standard and treat the piano as a highest priority. Many went on to compete in—and win—national and international competitions.
For reasons I will never know, she accepted me as a piano student when I was seven years old, despite that I was not anywhere near as technically proficient as my new peers. As I struggled through my scales and cadences and arpeggios and an increasingly challenging repertoire, the gulf of skill between me and the other kids only widened. I was never going to qualify for any competitions, let alone win one. And yet, she kept me on, patiently watching me fumble my way through Chopin and Liszt, Bach and Debussy, making more technical mistakes on each page than her better students would make in a half-hour recital. She despaired of me on many occasions, I’m sure.
Her husband, Andor (Mr. Kiszely to me, of course) was an even-more-celebrated pianist, a Hungarian-born prodigy whose mentors included Zoltan Kodaly. It was from this man that I learned music theory (“Kodaly class,” as it was called) in a room full of students several years older than I was. I recall that part of his class involved listening to pairs of increasingly esoteric intervals and having to name them. “Minor 7th up, then an augmented 4th down.” I recall also that I was no more proficient at theory than at practice, as it were.
I did have one talent that I gathered was unusual among Mrs. Kiszely’s students: I enjoyed improvising and composing my own music. Perhaps grateful that I showed at least some kind of unusual aptitude, she encouraged this habit, and shepherded me through the process of scoring my pieces and submitting them to competitions. My senior year of high school, two of my compositions actually won awards: 1st prize in a Pennsylvania state competition, and 3rd prize in an international one. (I can’t prove it, of course, but I suspect there weren’t many entrants to such contests back in the pre-Internet days.) Still, the certificates were real enough, and Mrs. Kiszely rejoiced in my achievements, thus making me feel that maybe I did sort-of belong under the same roof as the prodigies winning prestigious sonata competitions every year.
Late in my junior year of high school, I heard a senior named Nancy Patterson give a performance of an incredible piano piece. Nancy was the star athlete AND the valedictorian AND the musical phenom. I listened to her performance in a kind of trance, and during my next piano lesson, asked Mrs. Kiszely if I might learn the piece she had played.
She took some extra time thinking about how to answer my request. “It’s a very difficult piece,” she told me, the subtext obviously being “…and probably beyond your abilities.” But I promised to devote extra practice to it, and she relented. The following week she gave me the sheet music to Claude Debussy’s L’Isle Joyeuse.
Mrs. Kiszely suffered through months of my slow, laborious journey with that piece. Despite her initial reservations, she never expressed pessimism after that first day, and afterward was enthusiastic and encouraging, plying me with fingering suggestions, showing me tricks for playing polyrhythms with crossed-hands, and never letting me skimp on dynamics no matter how much I needed to focus on the brutal technical challenges.
Because of her faith in me, I was willing to do whatever it took to get that piece ready for a recital performance. During the last few months, I was practicing 3 hours a day, and I went so far as to drop an advanced Spanish class because the teacher was assigning so much homework, it wasn’t leaving me sufficient practice time.
Seven months on a single piece probably seems excessive, particularly to serious musicians who would have learned it much less time. But the result of my work – and the incredible instruction from my teacher – was an off-book performance of L’Isle Joyeuse in front of a packed house, in which I made only a normal number of technical blunders. (Granted, I was nowhere near playing the piece at true concert performance speed, but it sure seemed fast to me!)
To this day, as I write this at the age of 52, and with a decent handful of creative accomplishments to my name, I would still call learning that Debussy the most difficult and rewarding achievement of my life. My skills have atrophied since, and I doubt my fingers will ever again move fast enough to play all the crazy trills and arpeggios, but still, those seven months will always be mine to cherish.
I was given them by a wonderful teacher, a woman who was not only accomplished and kind, but patient with her least-skilled student to a degree far beyond reason. Long after I graduated high school, when I was in my 30’s, I was lucky enough to see her one more time. I thanked her for all she had done, though I was probably not as effusive as I should have been. But that moment will have to suffice.
Joy Miller Kiszely (1941-2020)
p.s. You can see pictures of both the Kiszelys, as well as the highlights of their illustrious careers, here:
p.p.s. Here’s a link to L’Isle Joyeuse played about 50% faster and with far more virtuosity than I ever managed.