Thursday, May 28, 2015

Frances S. Goldstein

During my first semester at Juilliard I was filled with dread at the thought of my class piano teacher, Miss Frances S. Goldstein. She was very old, very gray, and smoked constantly. One of the two grand pianos in her teaching studio was covered with cartons of unfiltered Camel cigarettes, which she smoked throughout every group lesson.

I remember bringing some Satie to my Juilliard audition, and for some reason unknown to me I was placed in a piano class far above my ability. I didn't know anything about scale fingerings or how to play without looking at my fingers. Frances Goldstein, between puffs on her cigarette, would chant, "tactile, tactile, tactile." She wanted us to feel the keys beneath our fingers as well played scales and arpeggios. I must have failed her class, because the next semester I found myself in a beginner class where I struggled.

I have only shadowy memories of the other teachers I had at Juilliard, but Frances S. Goldstein remains in perfectly clear resolution. I even remember what her hands looked like. Every time I sit at the piano I think of her.

She is a woman of mystery in these internets. All I could find about her was that she was born in New York and began teaching Literature and Materials of Music at Juilliard in 1930. Marvin Hamlish included a description of her in his book The Way I Was that I will share here:
Her name was Frances S. Goldstein. She was an irascible old woman who always had a cigarette in her mouth. She was tough, but she taught me more about music theory than anyone before or since. And when I had finished my scores for The Swimmer and Kotch, I thought it would be wonderful to share them with her. I wondered if she ever went to a movie. Her class at Juilliard was her life, that narrow room in which she kept emphasizing what was good and what was bad harmonically. If she gave you a check on one of our papers, you knew she meant it. If Miss Goldstein said you had done well, it wasn't said lightly to reassure you. You had done well.

I dearly wanted her approval now. I wanted her to know that I hadn't forsaken or betrayed my musical training. I needed that gold star at the top of my homework assignment. With all that was happening to me, I needed her to reassure me I was on the right track. I was hungry for the approval of the heretofore aloof Miss Goldstein and wanted her to see that I was capable of doing serious work.

I telephoned her and said: "Miss Goldstein, I'd love to have you listen to the music I wrote. I really think it's good."

"Marvin, I don't have time to listen to this music of yours. I'm very, very busy."

"But don't you even have time for a cup of coffee?" I asked. "I could bring the music with me."

"No, no, no, no," she insisted.

I was terribly disappointed. I wanted her to know that I understood her values, her virtues, her commitment. She may have been out of touch with the outside world, but in that world she created in her classroom, she believed wholly in what she did. And I was envious of that. I needed to have that in my life. That narrow classroom was an honest place where she devoted herself to the highest standards of music. I needed to get back into that room.

Years later, I learned that Miss Goldstein was in the hospital with cancer. A tiny woman who had always weighed about ninety pounds, she was not expected to live. As I looked down at her frail body in the hospital bed, it was hard to recall the teacher who seemed so tough and formidable at Juilliard.

She told me that her students didn't visit her, and this did not surprise me. She was a killer in the classroom and not immensely likable. Now she could barely speak. Those ever-present cigarettes had ravaged her throat and finally done her in.

We talked of the old days at Juilliard and of my new career. Finally, it was time to go.

"Good-bye, Miss Goldstein," I said, and started for the door.

"Marvin--" she said.

"Yes, Miss Goldstein?"

"I really should have taken time for that cup of coffee."
Since I think about her so often, I would really love to know something about her. Perhaps there are other people with memories of Miss Goldstein who could add something more to the picture Mr. Hamlish paints (yes, I know, with himself in the center), and the one that is in my memory.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if this is the same Frances Goldstein who taught at the "Pardee School of Music" on West End Avenue in the 1950's (changed from the "Community School of Music"). But the description fits (minus the cigarettes during lessons). I was an indifferent student who stupidly resented my musical opportunities. Even so, Miss Goldstein left an indelible memory. If I made a mistake, she would offer an instant exclamation which sounded like physical pain. I was amazed that music could be so deeply ingrained. I admired her selflessness and dedication to the composer's intent. That was her truth. I never found another teacher who taught it better. It was a life lesson I ultimately tried to live up to. May she rest in peace.

Maureen (Hanrahan) Hughes said...

I had Francis S. Goldstein for literature and materials of music in the pre-college. She seemed to take an interest in me. When I moved up from pre-college to the college division, she stopped me in the hall on the fifth floor once, and asked me how did I like it? I started to say it was hard, but caught myself, and said it was very difficult. She looked at me, nodded and said, "Good!" Years later, I walked into my beginner piano class, and there she was sitting at the desk. She was filling in attendance records! I was startled to see her, and asked her if I was late (for my class). She replied, "No, you are early." I sat down like a statue with my back to her. After a while, I turned around and she was gone! A few moments later, my piano teacher came in the room, and asked me did I just see Miss Goldstein? I said yes. He shook his head and looked shocked! It was a few days later that I saw the program for a concert in her memory! I've often wondered if that was a vision of her spirit? I know that sounds nuts, but I don't know any other explanation!

Elaine Fine said...

He must have seen her too. What a creepy story, but I imagine if her ghost were to appear anywhere, it would be on the fifth floor of Juilliard.

Anonymous said...

I too had Miss Goldstein when I attended the Julliard Preparatory Division in around 1960. I was about 7 or 8 years old and she terrorised me. But, she was a superb teacher and to this day (I am 64) I remember everything she taught me. And yes, she never stopped smoking!

Peter Randall said...

In one class she asked me to play a scale (nothing complicated). Very slowly I played the scale as smooth as could be. When I finished. she asked about the fingering in the left hand. She was standing on the opposite side of the room and unable to see the piano. I looked up behind me to see if there was a mirror. I swear no one could tell the scale was magnificent. But Frances Goldstein was absolutely right and as everyone obviously recognizes (comments above) she raised the bar no matter what your level.