Nina

I remember my son’s first piano lesson with Nina. He came home marveling at the difference it made when he tried a technique she had taught him. “Why didn’t anyone ever show me that before?” he asked.

She was his piano teacher for the next five or six years, until he left for college. The relationship was not always a smooth one. Nina was like a Russian piano teacher out of a movie. She grew up in the Soviet system, in which a student with talent was identified at a young age and relieved of other responsibilities, to practice piano all day long, for the Glory of The State. That’s what she wanted for Jon Morgan, and what she expected of him. In him, she saw extraordinary talent.

Nina decided he would play Carnegie Hall at 15, go to Julliard, and become a famous concert pianist. She knew what it would take for him to get there, and she never wavered in her belief that he could do it. There were just two things she didn’t count on: the U.S. educational system, and Jon Morgan’s complete lack of interest in becoming a concert pianist.

Don’t get me wrong. My son is a serious musician with professional aspirations. But while he enjoys performing, he does not want to play piano professionally. He wants to be a professional composer, and he’s good at it.

Nina never completely believed him when he told her that was his goal. She told him he should be practicing four hours a day. She told him to drop orchestra and the violin — which he’s also very good at — because they were unnecessary distractions from his true calling as a pianist. She told him he should not bother with friends or other interests, or spend any more time on school than was necessary. She ordered him to drop P.E. class, and thought all it would take was for me to tell his high-school principal that he couldn’t participate in sports because of the risk of injuring his pianist fingers. The fact that P.E. was a state requirement for graduation made no impression on her. For Nina, his talent at the piano was the only factor that counted.

Everything changed during his senior of high school, with the start of the covid-19 pandemic. For his final six months as Nina’s piano student, lessons were online, with Jon Morgan on the grand piano in our living room, and Nina at her home in Annapolis, connected by WhatsApp.

Nina and Jon Morgan often disappointed each other, especially in their last two years together. He never practiced nearly as much as she wanted him to, and he refused to set his sights on a brilliant career as a concert pianist. And she frustrated him by refusing to work with him on his goals for himself, rather than her goals for him. She insisted he play the music she chose, not the music he wanted to play.

And I’m afraid he broke her heart by not aiming for Julliard. He was turned off by its reputation for cutthroat competition among its students, and he didn’t particularly want to live in New York City. Where he really wanted to go was Boston Conservatory at Berklee School of Music. She would have settled for that, reluctantly; after all, it’s one of the top conservatories in the country. And he was accepted there. But in the end, he wasn’t offered enough scholarship money for us to swing it, so he ended up accepting a spot at a state school with an excellent music department, at a third the cost.

Nina passed away last week, on Christmas Eve. We were stunned and saddened. We hadn’t seen her since before he left for college, and I’d looked forward to him playing his new compositions for her one day, and maybe having her accept at last that his ambitions for himself as a musician were valid and even important ones. I think he knows that he learned a lot from her, especially in their first few years together. And I know he realizes that as much as she sometimes frustrated him, it was all because of how deeply she believed in him and his talent.

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