I started playing the piano when I was three in China trying to imitate my Aunt Anna, a piano teacher. When my father was finishing his doctorate at the University of Chicago, he sent for my mother and me to come to America. We were living in Peking with his parents until the end of World War II. We travelled by freighter for three weeks, arriving in California. Then we took a train to Chicago, five days sitting up in a train, eating sardines on saltines for our meals. Our first home in Chicago was located in the cement basement of a house belonging to a Chinese family who kindly took us in. When he graduated, my father got a research position at the U.S. Geological Survey in Washington D.C. and we moved to a 2nd story apartment in a small house in Berwyn, Md.
Piano was important everywhere we lived. We had an upright in the Chicago basement which I would practice after I had started the evening’s rice to cook. In Berwyn, we also had a piano. That’s when my parents found a piano teacher named Mrs. Cortez to give me piano lessons. We stood by the highway and took the Greyhound bus to Washington, D.C., then took the D.C. Transit bus to 16th Street for my piano lesson. Sometimes my father would drive us there, reading scientific papers in the back of our old black Ford while he waited for me to have my lesson. Soon, Mrs. Cortez suggested that I take lessons with the Professor instead. She was a student of his as well, her teaching room right off the reception room filled with sumptuous furniture.
Before leaving Russia, Professor Basil Toutorsky was a renowned pianist and friend of both Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Scriabin. He was also one of the nicest persons I had and have ever met. He took me under his wing for about four years from the time I was eight to when I turned twelve. The architecture of the house on 16th street made it a landmark in Washington. Click studio to see the outside and imagine what it must have been like for a Chinese kid to have piano lessons there. Inside, there were twenty-two grand pianos, placed two-by-two with keyboards that ran from one end to each other. Some were coved together as matched pairs in room after room. We spent many hours playing four-hand pieces together, either on one piano, sitting side by side or on two pianos where we could see each other over the music desks.
By osmosis, this early routine of playing with Professor Toutorsky gave me a deep sense of music and rhythm. He taught me laborious hand and finger exercises that gave me strength and independence. I played a lot of technical exercises: Czerny, Cramer and lots of scales: chromatic through the circle of fifths, natural, in parallel and contrary motion. I later learned that the finger exercises were known as the Leschetizky method. To this day, I owe the development of my technical ability, ear training and musicality to Professor Toutorsky.
He was also one of the few adults who showed me humor and compassion. One year for my father’s birthday, he recorded me playing Beethoven variations and encouraged me to say “happy birthday” on the ’78 rpm record that he put into a paper sleeve.
When I was twelve, he took me down to the Cosmos Club, an exclusive place where concerts were attended by Washington’s society elite. It was the first time I played a few notes on a nine-foot Bosendorfer grand piano. The tone of the Bosendorfer’s bass notes made a lasting impression on me. Later, I compared its tone to many of the instruments that I played, looking for that elusive and rare depth of sound. He also planned my first recital to be given at his home. As a momento, he showed me a photo of a music lyre in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and then with my assent, had the image of the lyre made into a gold pendant, engraved on the back with my name and date commemorating my”First Recital”.
To this day, I am ever so grateful to this gentle man who gave me so much technical and musical training so magnanimously. My parents underestimated what he did for me. I don’t think they knew what Leschetizky method was. For sure, they didn’t realize how much Professor Toutorsky cared for me. Nor I for him.