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Without the efforts of all my teachers, I would not be able to live a life full of music, but I want to recognize one piano teacher who made a difference at a critical juncture in my life.
Crystal Lee is a pianist and piano teacher residing in Boulder, Colorado where she maintains a private studio. Crystal is a well-known teacher in Colorado, as are her students who frequently win prizes at competitions and who have studied at some of the top conservatories in the country. I was almost sixteen years old when I met Crystal and her teaching completely changed the trajectory of my life and gave me the expressive skills I wanted. Even though my interest in the piano was all-consuming at this point in my life, I needed to refine and develop my playing if I wanted to achieve my musical dreams. She knew how urgently I needed to advance in order to become a professional musician and she made sure I understood that from the very first lesson with her.
When Crystal accepted me into her studio, she asked me to learn the first movement of a Beethoven sonata and a Chopin nocturne in one week. Both were to be performed from memory for her. I had never learned so much music in a single week, nor was I sure that I knew how to memorize these pieces within such a short timeframe. I spent hours each day that week studying these two pieces hoping that my efforts would pay off in our lesson. After many challenging and frustrating practice sessions, I proved to myself that I could manage this seemingly impossible task. In my lesson I struggled to get through the final page of the sonata but that did not matter; Crystal smiled and assured me it was “nearly memorized,” and this affirmed all of my practice that week. Discovering that I was capable of this helped me to realize that I needed to aim higher in my musical studies and beyond. She always showed me that I could do more than I imagined—I just needed the right direction and a willing attitude.
Crystal taught me the importance of listening to myself and to others with intention. I remember one lesson in which we had an in-depth conversation about the interpretation of Chopin’s Ballade No. 3, a piece I was studying at the time. We spent most of the hour listening to a variety of different recordings noting the special qualities of each. I had never listened to music with that intensity and it taught me how many choices we must make as performers. This was also the first time I was able to communicate my thoughts about someone’s interpretation with a fellow musician. Having the opportunity to share these musical opinions made me feel that my ideas mattered.
Throughout my time in Crystal’s studio, her students and I regularly performed in monthly performance classes. We met in small and large groups throughout the year to share musical progress with each other. After each performance, Crystal would ask us to provide comments and talk about what we noticed in our colleagues’ performances. This challenged me to listen critically, especially when I did not know the piece being performed. By modeling how to give specific compliments and constructive feedback, we learned over time to offer similar comments. During the summer, performance class was always followed by a potluck, which allowed us to get to know one another at a deeper level. These experiences helped me find a community that existed neither in my hometown nor in my school. It was through this community that passion for classical music was normalized, allowing me to make friends with the same interests. From this, I learned the importance of building a community and the power of connection through the arts. To this day, one of the highlights of visiting my hometown is making a stop at Crystal’s studio class where I get to see my former studio mates and sight read duets together.
One of the most important lessons I learned from Crystal was the power of mentorship. A few years after I left Colorado to attend Indiana University, I traveled to Boulder for a studio alumni lunch. Many of Crystal’s students studied music in college, but several others did not. As each former student shared their current studies and projects, I saw how Crystal’s individual approach encouraged all her students to pursue excellence in every part of their lives. Her students have become successful piano teachers, conductors, playwrights, entrepreneurs, and more. It goes without saying that the patterns that were instilled while we were taking lessons created a lifelong pursuit of excellence. Crystal taught all of us to believe in ourselves—not only as musicians, but also as people capable of accomplishing anything we desired.
Piano teachers have a fundamental responsibility to teach much more than just music. We are called to teach skills and wisdom to help our students in whatever challenges life sets before them. Although I learned so much about music from Crystal, I am most grateful to her for these life lessons I learned as a teenager. I hope that I can impact just one student’s life as positively as she has impacted mine.