A Looking Glass to the Past

  • It is an amazing thing to watch your son come into himself, doing something he loves, among people who truly understand who he is.

    – Parent of a Young Musicians Program student

by Geoffrey Lapin

It was the spring of 1956 that my parents decided that I needed to be tested — they had caught me “in the act”: I had once again been sneaking into the living room and putting on their 78s of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, and they decided that something just had to be done…

So, my mom and I took the #47 bus to downtown Baltimore for our appointment at the Peabody Prep, where we were ushered into this musky-smelling, dark studio. Besides my mom were two very old ladies (but then, at age 6, just about all ladies seemed to be old). Their names were Carlotta Heller and Mary Webb Gminder, and they were the ones who were to ultimately decide my livelihood and future for me (their “official titles” at the Prep were “Examiners”).

I sat at the black grand piano (a Knabe, I believe), and had to mimic what they showed me on the keyboard. And after an interminable few minutes, they decided that I indeed did need their help, and I was immediately enrolled for training at the Prep – both piano and “Musicianship” lessons. Piano was with Jane Whitten, and Musicianship, of course, with Grace Newsome Cushman.

My first class, and so many more for the years that followed, was not in the Prep itself, but on the top floor of the main Conservatory building. We would take the super-fast elevator to the third floor, and then walk up to the fourth. And at the top of that narrow staircase was the classroom: two pianos (Knabe, of course), our chair-desks, and the blackboard with permanent staff lines on it. On a rare occasion, we would move to the classroom next door, whose blackboard did not have the staff lines on it, so Mrs. C. would use this nifty device that held five pieces of chalk, and draw the lines with that. And it was in those rooms, and on those pianos and chalkboards that I would have the happiest times of my childhood.

We learned the Circle of Fifths early on. (It made such sense to me, the way Mrs. C. presented it.) And she would have us stand in line at the piano while she tapped out passing seconds = first, she’d walk across the room in front of us making “karate chop” movements with her hands, saying, “Time is always moving – it never stops.” And then we would have to play whatever she said, within her specific time limit – “major second up from middle c,” “minor seventh down from g sharp,” “tritone up from d flat,” “the overtone series on a natural.” And then were the dictation “races” at the blackboard. I would imitate how she would take a short stump of chalk, hold it sideways, and swipe it on the staves in her oh-so-efficient and time-saving fashion. And the score reading using all those moveable c clefs (I even have a “chain” of them tattooed on my left bicep now!). And then there was the instant improvisation at the keyboard: a piece using median relationships, something using the Dorian Mode, the nightmare of secondary dominants!

All of this has stayed vividly with me for almost a half-century now. It’s as if she is still here, peering over my shoulder, inspiring me as she did for all those years I was with her at the Prep.

And then there were the “Forums” we had at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, sometimes at her basement apartment, and sometimes at Grace and St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on the corner of Monument Street and Park Avenue. The first one I had gone to was where Mrs. C. lived across from the Prep, at 18 East Mount Vernon Place. Since my parents had just bought me a stereo tape recorder, I would get to her place several hours before the Forums were to start, to set up my recording equipment. Georgia and Flora were always there. Georgia also taped the proceedings, and Flora, always in a voluminous skirt, was often curled up in an overstuffed chair, with their red, long-haired cat Fishly in her lap, and a huge, brown mug of coffee in her hand. I remember that the apartment was opened up, from living room to bedroom, with sliding doors between, was painted a very dark green, and had a mahogany grand piano with a cello underneath it. There was a tiny kitchen, where Mrs. C. would make her dinners for us to eat afterwards. I can still almost taste her spaghetti with crushed Ritz crackers on it, and her chicken-noodle casserole!

Sometimes “moderated” by friends of Mrs. C., we would sit and listen to our classmates and their predecessors’ new works. One Christmas Forum, Nansi Carroll, wearing a plaid skirt and saddle shoes, played a beautiful piece to celebrate the new clarinet her parents had just given her. Quite the modal piece! And another Christmas was the debut of her Carrolling for mixed voices and flute. Again, a wonderful and modal resetting of familiar Christmas carols with flute interludes that only Nansi could have imagined. I remember the works written by older classmates Lenore Max, Marilyn Braune, and Ellen Schwartz (with whom I had “cut a mean rug” after one of the Forums at the Church!). And then there was Humphrey Evans III, with his “way out” works. One I particularly remember was his setting for his voice and piano, to the words of e. e. cummings. That boy was way ahead of his time and fellow classmates!

I had the honor of having three works premiered on different Forums: Country Dance for piano, which I played on an incredibly out-of-tune piano, at one of the gatherings in the basement of Grace and St. Peter Church (In fact it was on that same evening that we got to hear Ann Callaway’s first Forum-performed work). And my two works for voice and piano, which Amy Catlin so willingly learned the day of the performances!

I never made it to “camp.” As I look back, it was simply for one very silly reason: everyone there was required to swim, and I was terrified of the water. And so I never went, even after Mrs. C had worked out a scholarship for me to work in the kitchen to help pay the tuition. But I was too afraid of having to swim to go…

And so it was, all those years ago. My happiest hours, weeks, years in Baltimore. Mrs. Cushman was my ultimate driving force as far as music was concerned. I am fortunate to have retained so much of what she taught all of us, and to still use it whenever the chance erupts! God, I miss that Woman!

Copyright by Geoffrey S. Lapin

© 2005 LapINK

Geoffrey S. Lapin (known in those days as Scott) has been a cellist with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra since 1972 and is an award winning author. Prior to her passing in 1992, Georgia Cushman and he were planning a collaborative biography of Mrs. C. He has recently been contracted to write a screenplay about the legendary Siena Pianoforte.

Return to Alumni page.