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For the Teachers

excerpt of music by Carl Czerny
excerpt of music by Carl Czerny

For years we’ve seen the bumper stickers: “If you can read this, thank a teacher.” When it comes to music, that bumper sticker might say “If you are hearing this, thank a teacher.”

September is National Piano Month. And with all the “back to school---or not” discussions going on right now, this month’s blog post is dedicated to Teachers and Mentors.

No one, not even exceptional child prodigies like Mozart and Mendelssohn, was born knowing how to play the piano or write music. Someone had to teach them.

All the composers and performers that we can think of had excellent teachers. And they, in turn, taught what they knew to the next generation. Since the history of classical music is the very definition of teachers handing down to students, here’s a snapshot of how that works.

Johann Sebastian Bach had four sons who followed in his musical footsteps. He taught all four: Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Christoph Friedrich, and Johann Christian. Bach died when Johann Christian was only 15, so his older brother Carl Philipp Emanuel took over his musical education. Those two were considered the most talented and accomplished of the sons.

Johann Christian Bach was living in London when he met little 8-year-old Wolfgang Mozart. Up until that point, Mozart’s father, violinist and violin textbook author Leopold Mozart, was his primary teacher. J.C. spent about 5 months teaching the child composition, and at least two biographers considered him Mozart’s “only true teacher.” Young Mozart arranged some of J.C.’s music and acknowledged the “artistic debt he owed” to him. Later, as a young adult, Mozart also met Joseph Haydn, who became a mentor.

Although Mozart always sought fame and fortune as a composer and performer---he also taught. He was particularly impressed with a 9 year-old named Johann Nepomuk Hummel. The Mozarts invited Hummel to live with them for two years while Mozart gave him lessons. Hummel went on to become Konzertmeister to Prince Esterhazy when Kappelmeister Haydn’s health started to diminish. Haydn became his mentor, too.

And Hummel...also taught. His greatest student success was Carl Czerny, who in turn taught the fiery showman Franz Liszt. Hummel also taught Felix Mendelssohn, although briefly. Mendelssohn (who was the one who revived interest in the almost-forgotten Johann Sebastian Bach, bringing us full circle here) founded a music conservatory in Leipzig and taught there as well, counting among his students British composer William Sterndale Bennett.

Music being written today does not sound like the music written by Bach, Mozart or even Brubeck. It shouldn’t. Good teachers make sure their students have a solid foundation, and then give them the permission to sprout their own creative wings and fly.

I’ve never forgotten what Christa McAuliffe, chosen to be the first Teacher in Space, said about her profession: “I touch the future. I teach.”

All respect and best wishes to the teachers who are preparing their classrooms and lesson plans for in-person, hybrid or fully remote learning. However it is that you have to do what you do this year . . . you, too, will touch the future.

And in case it has been a while since you were in school:

Laura Carlo is the Morning Program Host for CRB.