The Piano Lesson: A Moment in the Flow of Music
Florence Scholl Cushman had a celebrated career as a concert pianist. When this image was photographed, she remembered, “The last time I played the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony, I was recalled eight times. They finally turned out the stage lights to quiet the house.” As a young woman, she studied music with greats of the early 20th century, and was quite proud of close association through her teachers with a pantheon of musical giants.
Retiring from her own performance career, Mrs. Cushman, as all her students called her, settled in Randolph in the early 1950s, prepared to lead new generations in piano performance. This she did for more than four decades from her Main Street studio and home in Randolph Village.
In imagining Mrs. Cushman’s teaching, the reader should dispel any thoughts of a kind old woman gently leading students into the simple joy and wonder of musical appreciation. She was a formidable force! One approached study with her on tiptoe, hoping to be worthy of the endeavor, up to the task.
When in 1988, our sons were studying with Mrs. Cushman, I broached the idea of a photographic study and, without hesitation, she agreed. I visited three or four times, as she taught various students, as she took her customary afternoon nap between lessons, and made preparations one evening shortly before a recital. From these sessions several photographs were used to make a fitting portrait of this amazing woman, by then 95.
In this image, we find my son, Nathan, at the far right, almost swallowed up by the massive Mason and Hamlin concert grand piano before him in the frame. Mrs. Cushman had two grand pianos in her studio, Nathan is actually seated with his back to the second, a Steinway, hidden from view. Let’s back up, however, for we’re getting ahead of the story this scene tells.
My photographic series of Mrs. Cushman for The Herald incorporated this as the featured image. Trained by the convention of reading from left to right and down the page, our eye first rests upon the upper left quadrant of this scene. Here we find Mrs. Cushman, her lips shaped in the framing of instruction.
Look carefully at her mouth. You can almost see her words firing across the room toward her young charge. I say, “firing,” because the message is animated by the unmistakable force of her left hand, flashing forward in the air. In marked contrast, her right hand is poised in absolute stillness.
Our eye is drawn to the sharpened point of pencil, a visual metaphor for the precision of her instructions. This is not a “feel good” moment over a shared musical experience! Here we find that music is serious business, a terrain not to be entered lightly, a discipline worthy of our full passion and intellect.
Following in the direction of Mrs. Cushman’s energy, we are brought across the page to the upturned face of a young boy, wide-eyed and slack-mouthed in amazement.
In fact, numerous elements in the composition direct our attention toward the student. From the left, strong lateral lines of the chair are swept forward and up by Mrs. Cushman’s right arm and the movement of her hand. The piano keyboard pulls our eye from the foreground up to the boy, as do all the strong verticals of the piano front and empty music stand. Even the vivid reflections of the musical scores on the far edge of the stand flash toward the boy, as he absorbs everything he possibly can in this moment.
Though the movement is toward student in every respect, this is also a very balanced portrait. Observe the axis on which the image pivots. At the heart of the scene we find the boy’s and teacher’s hands almost touching, emphasizing the intimacy of the learning relationship. At the front we see Mrs. Cushman’s open notebook, accounting the boy’s progress, and her plan of battle for the weeks to come.
Just beyond her pencil, the boy’s young hand appears, the shadows of knuckle and finger echoing the march of white and black keys leading up from below. In contrast to her aged fingers, his smooth hand holds a musical score. The “H” in the composer’s brief name tells us this young boy is studying Bach.
The Ages Pass
Mrs. Cushman was extremely aware of musical influence passed down from the ages through her. Following his first year of study, she gave our son a handwritten genealogy of musical influence: “Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Czerny, Liszt, Rosenthal, FSC.” Studying with Florence Scholl Cushman, one entered and became part of the great river of Western musical tradition.
The positioning and pose of teacher and student in this photograph vividly portray the passing of wisdom and the passage of time. Mrs. Cushman, 95 here, is slumped low in her chair; she would be gone within a few years, dying at the age of 102. (The genealogy quoted above is engraved on her headstone.) By contrast, her young student sits tall, above her in the frame. That boy is a father now with children of his own. His daughter Mahalia, age 7, plays the recorder, flute, and violin. She hopes to begin piano next year.
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