Sight-singing sign-up sheets are stuck to my studio door

William Newbrough was easy to mythicize. He was exceptionally tall with a wide stride, Lisztian hair and a bashful smile. From a distance, one could recognize him merely by his walking pace. We affectionately called him Dr. N.

Whenever he sat at the piano, Dr. N brought musical notes to life with his physics-defying pianistic touch and soaring yet anchored phrases. Upon final chords of his musical offerings where momentum comes to halt, the tension of grandeur is released in applause. After he plays, he would point above, an indication of service to God, his gifts also from above. Dr. N set apart a large part of his vocational practice towards sacred music, which was puzzling for many of us college students, because he could play all the “greats” just as convincingly. His Liszt was fiery just as his Beethoven was cosmic. But perhaps part of the emotive force of his playing was the intersection between worship and performance. To him, there was no boundary.

It was one thing to admire a modern Lisztian and another to walk into his studio with something prepared every week. His studio was impeccably organized, every fixture angled precisely where he intended, every book and CD with only one designated place to belong. Perhaps I was the only one that didn’t belong in this studio, I would think.

Dr. N loved alliteration and analogy. It wasn’t unusual to find studio notes like these waiting to tickle us.

Salutations Students!
Sight-singing sign-up sheets are stuck to my studio door. Simply sign your signature somewhere on said sheet sometime sooner than Sunday, and sight-singing will be sung spanning the subsequent sunrise to sunset. If stated schedule slots are not suitable, see me or suggest a substitute selection to re-schedule.
Study sufficiently, and see you soon!

“You are a bear with a back itch, and that tree you’re against isn’t hitting the spot!”, he’d say during our group sessions. And my personal favorite that I have over the years developed a penchant to quote out of context, “It’s not that difficult to be perfect”. Tales from his studies with Leon Fleisher and his struggle with carpal tunnel accompanied these discussions on technique, musicality and interpretation. Dr. N was as fun-loving as you could imagine a concert pianist to be, epitomizing the possibility that genius and kindness could co-exist. He invited us to his home and genuinely cared for us. We only had to reckon with reaching a standard so unattainable. While it was nothing of the Whiplash sort, there were rounds of nervous laughter over mention of the box of tissues in his studio that had to be constantly refilled.

My nineteen year old self would walk into his studio every week, heart pounding, fingers frozen, often after freshening up from a bout of panic tears from not bringing enough to the piano. One day, as I left the studio feeling desolate, a senior Emma found me and said, “Jern, you are not your hands”.

Of course it wasn’t all tears and derailment, we had particularly inspiring lessons. In his effort to contextualize for me, I have somewhere in my Mozart score written, “nasi lemak”. Somehow he felt I emoted a deep longing most perfectly with the evocation of the aromas of coconut milk tinged rice with fragrant sambal. My senior recital is enshrined in my mind as one of the most transcendental experiences to date. No substances involved, we were no jazz department.

Dr. N was also my college advisor and was extremely supportive of my non-musical endeavours. While some of his students have unsurprisingly gone on to be concert pianists, some of us have less performance-centric careers, and even non-music related careers. I did not realise it then, that he gave me the gift of being myself.

After graduation, I had a lot to sort out. I was uncomfortable in my own skin, and was consumed by crippling insecurity. That “I was not my hands” had to stay with me the number of years I needed to recover from acute imposter syndrome. I fixated on never living up to the expectations of someone who had the depths of the extraordinary to offer. In fact during my final semester, I owe much to art professor Ted Murphy, who was an antidote to the pressure of living up to note-to-note perfection and who played an equally significant role in the shape of me, but that is a reflection for another day.

Art never demands that it be replicated, it is a gift handed down, takes unexpectedly new forms, and is passed along. Dr. N’s musical sensibilities and pedagogy bore a life of its own. More than a decade later, I think of him saying, “Strike up on a key, not down”. Because Dr. N struck up and not down, the reverberations of his tones have lifted beyond where they originated, they have found new homes, new starting points.

 Quite contrary to expectation, anticipation accompanies me to my teaching studio today. More so with the online format we have all been coping with, as a result of the pandemic we are in. Where will we go today? What will we discover today? Lately, my students and I have traversed new(almost scary) terrain in the form of pop songs, Tiktok and exotic scales. While the past year and a half has been extraordinarily new ground for teachers and students and no doubt fatiguing, it also occupies the sacred space of possibility.

I don’t know if I’ve done this possibility justice, but I dwell upon these words of Emily Dickinson as I, together with teachers from around the world hold virtual classrooms, figuring out the best ways to learn together:

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

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