The Teacher Who Changed My Musical Life
Raymond Hanson, my beloved teacher passed away on Oct. 26, at the age of 98. He began studying piano at the age of 12. By the age of 15, he appeared as a featured soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The story is that the guest soloist who was scheduled to perform with the symphony got sick, and needed a replacement. Ray’s teacher recommended him to play the Saint-Saëns Second Piano Concerto. It was remarkable that he learned the piece, memorized it, performed it within four days. He went on to perform as a soloist with Hartford Symphony, Boston Symphony and Boston Pops, in concerts and world tours with noted artists such as Roman Totenberg, Pinchas Zukerman, and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.
I immigrated to the United States from Taiwan without my parents when I was 14. I lived with my older sister in Santa Barabara. My piano teacher there, Mary Hsia, heard me play and immediately urged me to study in New York. After six months, I came East and settled in Hartford where we knew some family. I auditioned at the Pre-college division of the Hartt School of Music. I was awarded a full scholarship to study with Anne and Ray Hanson and also four years of full scholarship onto the college division.
Recalling my first lesson with him when I was 15, I brought Beethoven Concerto No. 1 in C major to play. After he heard me, he said, “Let’s play it in D Major!” “What?? D Major?” He proceeded to show off and play it in all different keys. He was trained like pianists from the Romantic era. Chopin, Thalberg, Liszt and others spent many hours improvising daily. It trains your ear to really listen. I went home after the lesson and tried it for a few days. But it proved to be too time consuming, so I would only do it once a while just for fun. With the little bit that I did, it gave me some skills in improvisation which I use often as a church organist. However, I found the skill of improvisation could also create some problems. One time I had a memory lapse in a performance playing Debussy, I began to improvise. I was making up my own piece and getting further away from the real music. It took me a while before getting back on track to finish the piece. Ray would have been proud of me, but I think Debussy would not have been very pleased.
In his late years, Ray could no longer see. At my request, he would play a piece for me before I left. Whenever he didn’t remember a section, he would improvise until the next part that he knew. It made chuckle, but at the same time, marvel at his skills.
Ray never marked my music because he believed that music is constantly changing depending on your state of mind and emotion at the time. He often made me take a different tempo of the same piece, which forced me to express it in a different way. It really shaped me into a flexible and instinctual pianist.
For my four years at the Hartt School of Music, Ray and his beloved wife, pianist Anne Koscielny, organized a piano series for their students. Each year we would study two composers and their major works. We studied all of Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier, Beethoven sonatas, Prokofiev sonatas, and Mozart concerti. We were assigned a recital program to learn and a date to perform in September. For ten weeks in the spring semester, we had a weekly three-hour class to study the works of our project in the afternoon, then Anne would cook dinner for all of us, followed by a recital in a beautiful mansion that belonged to the school. Ray and Anne made us into a very special family.
After college, he continued to be the mentor who could anchor my playing. He came to my recitals at Juilliard where I did my Master’s program, and my solo debut at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall. I visited him often, played my program for him before important performances, including my debut in NYC, any concerto concert with various orchestras, and before a tour. What I loved about our lessons was that he was from the Romantic era where they didn’t follow the composers’ markings as much as we do today. They let their ideas and emotions flow more freely. Therefore, our lessons were always very creative, interesting, liberating, and so much fun! It made me forget about technical things, and only music and its characters.
For years now when I have trouble with a certain passage in the music, I think, “What would Ray say about this?” He has been and will always live in my head and heart. Some of his expressions are: “play pianissimo like a snow flake falling on the ground,” “Play legato like spreading creamy peanut butter on a piece of bread.” I am extremely blessed to have had 40 years of making music with his guidance.
Hui-Mei Lin is a pianist.