Two Great Musical Mentors by Mollie Nichols

Two great musical mentors: Norma Bertalomi Sapp, piano and Russell Saunders, organ

Mollie Nichols

I am fortunate to have had a number of wonderful mentors in my life.  In this article, I would like to choose two and share what made their teaching so extraordinary and transformative for me.

My earliest musical recollection was beginning piano at age 4 with Edna Springborn who made sure I always read the notes and played exactly what was on the page including fingerings, notes, rhythms, and dynamics.  After wending my way through all of the Eckstein and John Thompson series, I moved on to the usual Hanon and Kuhlau sonatinas with two other teachers.  I began to feel as though I didn’t enjoy music making and wanted to stop practicing and taking lessons. I grew up listening to an esoteric collection of great recordings including jazz, early music, classical, and contemporary music.  I was inspired and moved by their musicianship. My playing in contrast didn’t seem like music to me.

My sister had begun taking lessons with a wonderful teacher, Seymour Fink, so my parents dragged me along one week and asked him to listen to my playing.  He said he knew exactly the right person for me, Norma Bertalomi Sapp.  I was about 12 and about to quit lessons until my first lesson with Norma.  She put away all my music and told me to hold my hand above the piano and drop onto the keyboard totally relaxed one finger at a time.  We did that for the whole lesson and perhaps worked on one simple piece. She had a beautiful sounding Steinway concert grand which completely changed my view of sound. I had a very bright Steck upright piano at home with a shallow action and had no idea I could make a piano sound like that!  I was mesmerized and did exactly what she asked me to do. Gradually we added groups of 2, then 3, then 4, then 5.  We worked on listening to legato and I began to hear glimmerings of what I had heard on those recordings.  We went from scales played incredibly slowly with total relaxation on each note paying attention to the hand, arm, shoulder to eventually playing four octaves very fast and completely relaxed. Gradually we built this into the music.  We also did high finger technique later but always with a completely relaxed arm.  Any passage I had trouble playing, she always had a way to solve it.  The gap between the recordings I had heard and what I could do began to close and the music came alive for me.  She would often make me play the first chord or note of a piece over and over again until I could “find” the exact voicing needed.  It took endless patience but I was so rewarded by being able to create something of beauty that I never minded it.

I began studying organ with Squire Haskin during my last two years of high school. We did every exercise and piece in the Gleason book which gave me a solid technical foundation. However, it seemed to my ears that organists played music differently than pianists.  The music was played correctly but it didn’t move me.  I wasn’t hearing from the organ what Artur Rubinstein brought out of the piano. I was studying piano by this point at Eastman and one day, I heard Russell Saunders play the organ in a concert at Eastman.  I was completely struck by his phrasing and musicianship and knew I had to study with him.  I was not yet comfortable at the organ and knew Russell was more of a musical coach and didn’t teach technique.  I was fortunate to work with Terry Yount during this time who gave me the solid technique I needed. Those undergraduate and graduate years with Russell Saunders were some of the best musical experiences of my life, alongside those earlier years with Norma Sapp.  He would conduct through pieces and create beautiful phrasing, adding rubato and listening for everything.  Nothing got by his ears.  I would then go back to my practice room and figure out on my own how to technically and reliably create the musical experiences of those pieces.

In closing, I was struck by the fact that Russell was always learning.  He never stopped listening and learning and being willing to change his ideas. I have tried to keep that at the forefront of my approach to life and music.  Norma Sapp and Russell Saunders may no longer be with us but they continue to live for me through every note I play and every student I now teach.

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