Updated: Jul 22, 2022
On June 30, 2022, two days after her 97th birthday, my piano teacher and one of the biggest musical influences in my life to date, Professor Blanche Abram, transitioned out of this world.
I spent days and weeks trying to figure out the right combination of words to express how exactly to honor someone like Blanche, who was so much more to me than just a piano pedagogue. There are already countless touching tributes out there I’ve already read from those who knew her — whether written by fellow Hofstra alumni, musicians I met through her occasional musical gatherings, or people I just knew from the greater musical community of which she was an active part on Long Island. The litanies of posts and online tributes in her honor have already articulated many thoughts I share.
Blanche was my primary piano instructor for all four years of my undergraduate work at Hofstra University — and, more than that, she was a family friend and a profound influence on my musical upbringing at every stage. I feel beyond fortunate to have been a direct part of the last tiny percentage of her almost-century-long life of work.
In this blog post, I attempt to illustrate my personal and specific relationship with my former piano teacher, which hopefully provides some unique perspective as to the truly one-of-a-kind role she occupied, certainly in my life.
Some quick disclaimers:
It's important to understand that, at the basis of this writing, is the conviction that, as I saw it, everything about Blanche Abram is extremely interwoven and non-chronological. Yes, for clarity's sake, I separate the "periods" and contexts by which I knew her over our time together; but, more than Blanche Abram was any label, she was the storied legacy of herself. She was consistently Blanche Abram in all scenarios with all people. She embraced the world in her own distinct and joyously contrarian way — and it is impossible to compartmentalize any part of who she was into disparate categories or time periods. This post attempts to do the difficult job of capturing Blanche through her moments and relationships.
A special "thank you" to Alexis and Rachel Wiener, and my mom, Maryann, for clarifying some pertinent details about Mom/Grandma/Ms. Abram. The more I discovered about Blanche, the more I wanted to write about her (and, of course, as I find more pictures/videos in my archives, I will continue to update this post).
I am just one of the many lucky narratives that has witnessed to tell a very small part of her legacy in writing. This is my written tribute.
A portrait of Blanche painted by her husband Irving. Title and date unknown.
Blanche in My Early Life
I am fortunate to have been mentored, very early-on in my life, by a community of people who were direct pupils under the pedagogical legacy of Blanche Abram.
There is a great number of consummate professionals in the arts and beyond that interacted with her over her almost century-long career; over time, a large number of these people spread themselves around the country/world and formed their own communities of impact based on the various tenets of her example. But much of Blanche's community can be found on Long Island, where she was based for the great portion of her life and career.
This includes my mother — incidentally, my very first piano teacher — who went through the same exact four-year program in Music Education at Hofstra that I completed, but 35 years ago.
Flashing back to 1977, amidst their four years of lessons together, Blanche is responsible for much of my mom's early career as a music teacher, freelancing pianist, church musician, and beyond. In addition to her studies and recital preparation with Professor Abram, my mother was involved on- and- off-campus as an accompanist for quite literally everything — whether it were dance classes, musical-theater classes, jazz band, or choral performances. A lot of this was through the recommendation or suggestion of her teacher, Blanche.
My mother has always had a keen ability to pick up a piece of music and learn it by ear immediately, and, because of this, Blanche would throw a lot of freelance off-campus work her way, "cocktail piano" or otherwise. This included a residency four nights a week at an Italian restaurant in Valley Stream named "Villa Marbona," where Blanche would visit often as a patron with her husband, Irving, to see my mom perform. This also included a long-standing appointment my mother had with acclaimed African-American dancer/educator Betsy Dickerson, where my mom was the accompanist for the musical theater classes she held in Freeport, Long Island. In all circumstances, Blanche took immense pride in my mother's hustle and was a key figure in supporting every part of my mother's early professional/artistic career.
Standing between my two musical giants (who happen to be under 5') — Blanche (left) and my mother (right).
Photo credit: Dan Wright (Wrighthots); Taken after my Junior Recital
When we flash forward to the early 2000's, almost uncannily, my three older siblings go through the same exact program in Music Education at Hofstra and study with, are coached by, or intersect with Professor Abram in some way. Each of my older siblings has their own disparate circle of musical friends/colleagues, and, from an early age, I come to learn vicariously about Blanche's ubiquitous presence in the Hofstra Music Department.
In fact, I was at Hofstra often for much of my childhood; one of my treasured memories as a clunky ten-year-old was attending a faculty recital of her’s, hosted on the top floor of Hofstra's Axinn Library. It was this random afternoon that I fondly remember listening to someone perform Gershwin's Second Prelude, while I stared out the window into the distant NYC skyline. And there were many other evenings I spent at the Fortunoff theater in Monroe Lecture Center, attending a performance that was performed or coached by Blanche in some way.
Blanche/Irving and my immediate family circa 2005 (ish); Most likely after a "piano party" or chamber recital hosted at the top of Axinn library, and where my brother most likely performed a piece or two.
I only had two (2) piano teachers before I got to Hofstra to study directly with Blanche Abram. After I studied with my mother for the first 15 years of my life, I became acquainted with another piano teacher local to my hometown (Joseph Graziose), who then coached me throughout high-school.
If you could believe it — yes, he, too, was a student of Blanche Abram for a few years. And certainly, one could assume that my mother/siblings and musical mentors alike had her own professional entourage of colleagues in their circles that were also impacted, directly or indirectly, by this same master pedagogue.
One of my favorite pictures of Blanche and me; right after my Junior Recital in 2017 (and, coincidentally, to the right of me in this picture is Joe Graziose)
Photo credit: Dan Wright (Wrightshots).
When writing it out now, it's almost comical that many of my direct teachers throughout my childhood on Long Island were "secondary sources" who adapted the philosophy/teaching style of Blanche; the "nature-versus-nurture" school of thought in biology would say that her impact during such critical periods of my life is hilariously indisputable. After all, my mother always says the role of Professor Abram in my life is similar to that of the grandmother I never had growing up — one who knew me before I was born and, quite literally, influenced the world that raised me. In a way, Blanche knew me more than in my 25 years I know myself.
And here’s where the tribute could, honestly, begin and end; this absolute epicenter of an educator was a formidable part of my upbringing and was responsible for training so many people I consider mentors.
But it wasn’t until I got to Hofstra as a 17-year-old in 2014, and signed up for "C-level" weekly piano lessons with her, that I started to embark on what I consider a truly remarkable relationship.
The Undergrad Years (2014–2018)
Those of you who knew me in undergrad know exactly the role Blanche played in my day-to-day life.
For those who are less familiar, the relationship I had with my piano mentor encompassed at least a one-hour lesson every week (which often ran off the clock), several weekly calls and email exchanges, and, at busier points in the semester, additional weekly one-hour coachings for various chamber-ensemble/recital projects of which I was a part. Throughout my four-year degree program, Blanche oversaw me perform two full piano recitals and one smaller "honor's" recital, all amidst several chamber performances peppered throughout each of the eight semesters. Between all of this was a great number of casual and colloquial run-ins I had with her on a regular basis, extracurricular concerts of hers I attended that were held on Hofstra's campus, and a handful of lessons I scheduled each Winter/Summer break between semesters held at her home in Baldwin, Long Island. It's safe to say Blanche was a part of my everyday life for four straight years — and certainly beyond that of just a piano coach.
I mentioned before that who Blanche was at the most surface level boiled down to how she dealt with nuance at its most molecular level. Many would agree: the way each note related to the next in a piano lesson was addressed with the same layer of conviction as anything else in her life — whether it was talking to her Cablevision service provider on the phone or mindless chit-chat over finger foods after a student concert at Hofstra. As her student, I noticed there was absolutely no divorce within her style of mind; her internal values were profoundly uncompromising, and she maintained the same attention to detail that reinforced such values in any interaction.
Everything deserved attention. We would lightly converse at the beginning of the lesson about a harmonic progression I was writing for a class, I happen to plunk out a chord to demonstrate my point, and she would critique the intention with which I play the chord.
"You play the piano like a composer, mon!"
And when it came to her approach, Blanche was more than generous in providing her students with the tools they needed to play with such intention. She had codified tools ready to use, particularly in technique and internalization, which were often tailored to the needs of each individual person who studied with her. The way she was became her teaching, which represented a very obvious and comprehensive vision for music and life (but more on that later..).
The “nuts and bolts” of our four-year relationship through my college years came down to discussions about the intensive, incisive technical detail required to achieve the “illusion” of playing the piano — and contained within the hour slot of our lessons was this world of practical nuance appreciated by, but completely foreign to 17-year-old me.
Here's a general outline for starters: from when I started studying with her, our piano lessons would often begin with a simple regiment of scales and arpeggios, where of course we paid special attention to the mechanics of the way the hand moved. Rotating one's wrists under when transitioning to a higher octave during an arpeggio needed to be rehearsed as a phrase, akin to one’s repertoire, and it was expected that her students would drill these every day for at least fifteen minutes before they dove into their repertoire. (mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa).
Then, of course, we would talk about the repertoire at hand: in most cases, carefully chosen music that Blanche would assign or approve for each student. If it wasn’t repertoire, I would bring in some tricky piano excerpts from chamber repertoire I was performing at that point in the semester. Or, in some rarer cases, I would bring in some original piano compositions in varying styles for her to evaluate and critique.
Used throughout the lesson was her esteemed "textbook" method of technical tools. It was reflected in a curriculum she developed and refined for the decades of classes she taught on piano pedagogy. Many of her students who are piano teachers continue to use these in their own curricula.
Blanche had unique physiological concepts that she adopted and expanded from her teacher, Isabelle Vengerova. One of these postulated that to achieve a balanced sound ("touch"), one's fingers must "extend from the armpit," where they are then placed into the keys. From this, all pressure could easily be concentrated into the fingertip, itself an axis of balance.
This same sort of idea applied to the whole system of the arm, but in ways where other components could relax, such as the wrist and the arm itself. Blanche's approach contended the wrist should not collapse if one has total control the mental state of "weight" he or she imposes from the "armpit" to the fingers. If the distribution of weight is thought about correctly frequently enough, the wrist and arm muscles (which extend from this core relationship of the "armpit" and fingertips) can be inconsequential and relaxed. Weight distribution was everything in executing a phrase.
Understanding how to manage one's physics came with its own set of challenges; this includes, obviously, the very basic task of rehearsing the physics of the arm through a passage at its varying tempi and transformations.
One of the most useful, effective, and easy-to-remember regiments Blanche taught me was her infamous "doubling" technique, which worked exceptionally well for me when bringing music up-to-tempo. At its very simplest form (there were expansions of it I came to know later), it dealt with a way of rehearsing fast strings of notes (particularly sixteenth notes, or any up-tempo phrase in a simple meter) by imposing on them different metrical groupings. Let's say a passage with a string of sixteenth notes ran as follows:
And the technique would be rendered as follows:
*I liked to add my own "fourth" one as such, though Blanche never gave explicit instruction for me to use it in practice.
As two of the four notes would be "doubling" in value, the value of the quarter note would ideally remain the same throughout. But, of course, the exercise itself became flexible with each scenario, and I found myself (more often than not) slowing it down from "at tempo".
It was really only after each of these above versions was totally secure that one could move back to playing the figure in its normal rhythmic structure; what I like to do in my own practicing is to bring the metronome in only at this juncture after the "doubling" is completed, start super slowly, build up-to-tempo and Voila.
This technique works for a few reasons: firstly, it obviously rehearses the music to an higher level of comfort to allow for meaningful and challenging instruction to overtake it. (Duh.) Secondly, it gives each finger ligament in the phrase the individual attention it deserves — and it does so by setting up an infrastructure where each fingering has to go through the same rhythmic procedure of three consecutive fast notes (or two consecutive quick spaces in-between, however you think of it) to reinforce, eventually, the full phrase.
Another benefit is that it conditions the mind to accept other phrase groupings. When embarking on the "doubling" technique, I found myself dancing with the music differently than I would have done with just a straight metronomic approach.
And it's fun! The very individualistic "second-doubling" regiment stands out to me — mainly because of its symmetry and how it [approximately] resembles a 3:2 polyrhythm (especially when the left hand is superimposed "as is" when running the exercise), so some beautiful compositional ideas have come to me out of this one.
The last, but not least, of her technical tools I remember was the one that pushed me to start thinking beyond technical function: "inner phrasing." "Inner phrasing" referred to, well, a phrase's inner phrasing (your check's at the door, Rob, brilliant).
Well, more seriously, it is less-so a technical tool than it is a way to understand the constancy and momentum that makes music.
Instrumentalists, piano players especially, often have a natural tendency to group a phrase based on its intrinsic meter: for example, placing a presumed accent on beats 1 and 3 in a measure of 4/4, or instinctively grouping 6/8 measures by their compound subdivision, etc., etc. "Inner phrasing" is the result of study that marries the weight of the whole arm to its implied phrase — pulling into the apex of the musical line before retreating out of it, immediately into the next one. Through this concept, the bar-line is all but obfuscated, the music is never complacent, and all is seemingly constant through its own internal motion.
Blanche even had a special mnemonic device she used to give context to strings of even notes: "and-now-go-here-and-now-go-here-and-now-go-here-and-now...." There was to be absolutely no separation or breath — that was the whole point! It is the perfect union of the above-mentioned technical devices.
I could spend a year continuing to write to you just about how these techniques (and the hundreds more) applied to the way we dissected piano literature (as is always the case, the specifics rely on the demands of each piece of repertoire!). But, perhaps a more effective M.O. would be to continue to describe the larger image that, to me, defined Blanche's overall teaching style — one that I began to see, certainly through the façade of "inner phrasing."
One of my many joyed excursions with Blanche: the entire Brahms Op. 117 Intermezzi (The opening four measures of No. 2 in Bb Minor, pictured above). A lifelong study in inner phrasing.
Another joy-filled excursion. Fantasiestücke, Op. 12, No. 2: " Aufschwung" (or "Soaring" — not to be confused with "Soreing," as Blanche would clarify).
Bach French Suite No. 6 in E Major, BWV 817. No I: "Allemande."
And another one, and another one, and another one, and another one...
(But I'd be remiss if. I condensed it even to three or four things... if you have actual interest in learning more about a selection of the literal rep. we studied together, have at it below!)
Often in education, there are structures of a lesson plan where the technical work comes first and the "musicality" second. But it bears repeating once more that Blanche was all but compartmentalized like this. Blanche was not concerned with moments of technicality for technicality's sake. From the beginning to the end of a lesson (and from the beginning of someone journeying into a piece of music for the first time), the full, comprehensive artistic vision of the music would reign as absolutely tantamount, and was used to inform one's technique — not the other way around. The way in which notes communicated to the listener were kept the highest priority — from every minute of the repertoire-learning process, to their demonstration, to daily warmup regiments, to beyond.
Always at play was the idea that there is something larger beyond one's physical environment — that art is simply an intercessor between the human and the Divine, what Blanche would refer to as the "vibrations of life." This remained true through every regiment of her lesson.
On a weekly basis, her piano students were tasked with the duty of tapping into the "magic" that was at the crux of this relationship — one where the physical mechanism of playing the piece was married to the metaphysical — where musical phrases become conversations, where technique becomes only a catalyst to a higher sense of dialogue. Between whom was the dialogue — was it between the living and the dead, two lovers?
How do layers of melodic counterpoint interact with each-other? How does one voice develop itself?
How does repeated thematic material reiterate when it comes back a second or third time?
Thousands of questions comprised the umbrella of the "illusion" — whether it was the magic of crafting a "singable" melody, or creating contrast in musically periodic structure. The relationship between the musician and the composer was sacred. And of course one of her gifts was that she had a way of communicating this idea very differently to each student.
Blanche's pedagogy was seemingly cross-curricular (Hofstra has a strong multi-year curriculum in Music Theory and Form Analysis, and I always felt Blanche's teaching complemented this perfectly). Beyond that, Blanche knew I had a decently varied background in composing, played viola with the Hofstra Orchestras, and sang with the university choral ensembles, so at every appropriate opportunity, she restructured her teaching approach to relate to me in a way that would enrich my understanding. The piano itself had the potential to be "de-centered" from the conversation, which all-the-more reinforced its power to encapsulate the conversation around it.
“Think of the line as you would sing it," she would say, or perhaps she would encourage me to voice the left-hand "thumb tenor voice" in a way that resembled an appropriate orchestration for the upper-divisi viola section in an orchestra. No matter the background of the student, Blanche had a beautiful way of relating her teaching practices to each student as a holistic person with varied backgrounds and experiences.
And the way Blanche internalized with her students was through her memorization process.
She would often encourage her students to memorize the repertoire they were learning, even from the beginning of its learning process. Between a Socratic-style method and her empathy-based instruction, she would invite the student to find characteristics of each work that stood out to them individually. Maybe it was the melodic or harmonic movement within each hand, or the way a phrase continued linearly across the keyboard. For a student who was also a vocalist, it could be that one of the melodies resembled a line to be sung. Or, at times, it could have been worth memorizing even the variability of a particular phrase, allowing it the vulnerability to shift with each performance. Whatever "it" was, students were encouraged to pay special attention to such details and to play them over-and-over again until it was reinforced "in the brain."
I eventually came to realize that memorization was synonymous with the learning process; it was up to us, as her piano students, to engage with art never just at face value— but rather, to identify such meaningful details from the beginning, to be disciplined to refine them on a regular basis; and to understand that in internalizing them, we of course idealize and constantly strive towards a larger purpose beyond ourselves and the confines of our instruments.
This was, at a very casual glance, her teaching style.
And in an interconnected soirée with all of her incisive attention to detail was the "playfulness" of it all.
So much of her teaching was rooted in pragmatism, which used an empathy-based teaching style to achieve the desired outcome for her students. Yet one of the things I learned to adore most about Blanche was her sense of joyful existentialism that accompanied everything. When push came to shove, it wasn't her or the piano's issue that I couldn't make the left-hand melody sing and vibrate like a cello — it was mine, and I was to figure it out. Blanche taught me to reject narrow modalities of thought, firstly in myself, then in others – the chutzpah of possible versus impossible.
The journey of an interrogation like this is what made our time together all-the-more interesting. Being that she was such a strong advocate for the internal joy that accompanied the way she taught her students to search for details, her insistence and her humor always felt so incredibly one-in-the-same.
Firstly, her use of descriptors during lessons was clever. Blanche would always tell me that, to achieve legato phrasing, one's hand should move "like an amoeba" — that, as a pianist, I should be able to "get in the mood" of the music and "feel the vibrations." (Which, in her very proprietary vocal cadence, was rich enough to carry its own subtext).
Blanche had the ability to (cheerfully) jump down my throat over any small mistake and was not reserved in doing so. At various points when we would drill passages together, she would make comments on the state of my "brain," comparing its efficacy between weeks.
And I can't begin to count on my hands the amount of times she broke into dance during a lesson... an above-and-beyond masterclass on how to play a Tango with conviction. (Rightfully so — this awkward, white 17-year-old Long-Islander could use a lesson or ten).
A Queen and her jester. Circa February 2017, right after the jester's Junior Piano Recital at Hofstra (Photo Credit; Dan Wright, Wrightshots)
I also soon came to realize Blanche's concern for me musically matched her concern for me physically.
As her student at Hofstra, there were many times I was spreading myself too thin, packing my schedule, and not allowing myself the breathing room before her lessons to take a proper lunch break. So, very often before we began our lesson, Blanche would force me to sit down at a nearby desk, open my lunch-box, and hastily scarf down a mouthful of something while she lovingly stood over me. "You need to eat, mon." And when it came to both C- and D-level recital preparation, she always knew the best words of wisdom to prevent me from sulking in performance anxiety: "Whatever you do, keep going... just don't fall off the bench."
Words I remember (and continue to impart on my future students) to this day.
I said earlier that Blanche was the grandmother I never had. We shared many laughs (often at my expense) and developed a really special relationship that created these sort of vulnerably hilarious moments. I also mentioned before that the voice of Blanche carries its own subtext, and it's near impossible to envision any of this accurately unless you really knew her voice. Well, her joyful idiosyncrasies continue to spill through, even as I sift through the dozens and dozens of voicemails I have from her saved on my phone.
Here's one of them:
"Is that you, breathing?"
Even with my mother, the three of us would share countless laughs over the years. Blanche had an affinity to my father, who would report frequently to Blanche about my mom not spending enough time at the piano each day. "You know, Maryann hasn't been practicing". To which, of course, my mother retorts to referencing Blanche's advice that my mom shouldn't be wasting her time with any housework in the first place and that it should be on the husband. That put my dad back in his place.
But perhaps one of the funniest experiences I can remember was her interaction with my grandfather (my mother's father and last living grandparent from both sides).
The old Italian goomba jokester that was James D'Amato meshed very well with Blanche and her husband Irving (keep in mind that my grandfather also knew Blanche, indirectly, through my mother when she studied with him in the 70’s). There was one afternoon in 2014 when my grandfather accompanied me (and my mother) to my lesson at Blanche's home in Baldwin. Almost in an instant, the trio of Blanche, Irving, and my grandpa clicked, and, at some point later on in that visit, the three of were on a roll telling dirty jokes to one another. My mother (the impressionable 54-year-old that she was at the time) was uncomfortable to be embarrassed like this in front of her former piano teacher, to which Irving replied, "It's OK; she's a tough cookie."
For the few stories I listed above, there were hundreds, if not thousands, more of hilarious moments we shared. These were just some instances unique to my and my family's experiences with her — and I was happy that I even got to experience some of these ridiculous memories, especially that last one, as both my grandfather and Irving passed away shortly after in 2015.
I'm sure, for decades to come, we will hear many more stories that came from such a joyous person.
A stately smile on January 3, 2017. My first time using Portrait Mode on the iPhone.
Through her life and music, Blanche was a metropolis of community.
Firstly, she was extremely generous with offering me and many others her living space in Baldwin (2320 Surrey Lane — an address so familiar that both my phone and car recognized it as a "top location").
A slice of Long Island life, once bustling with people, situated peacefully on a cul-de-sac with a scenic one-acre garden that overlooked its own pond.
On off-periods when the semester wasn't in session, Blanche insisted I take "off-the-book" lessons in her home to make sure the important work we did during each semester was not lost from my fingers.
I came to know and appreciate her space pretty often, from its spacious living room inundated with books to its garish 60's bathroom decor. Blanche was kind enough to let me overstay my welcome past the lesson when I needed to — especially when I would be there until late hours chatting with her and/or helping her move some furniture. I can remember a few tranquil moments I spent in there as a snowstorm raged outside or where I would just decide to hang around after a lesson on a summer day and sit out back.
A rainy moment at Blanche's home in June 2017.
As is the case for many of us, Blanche's home was an artifact very much connected to the relationship she had with her community.
Through my time at Hofstra, I was also a regularly-participating performer in her hosted "piano parties." Essentially, these were informal social gatherings held at her home in Baldwin multiple times throughout the year, where many of her current students would prepare and perform selections of repertoire for each-other. A handful of us — varying ages and levels of experience — would meet in her beautiful living room, which was set up like a quasi-recital hall with chairs found from around the house. She had two grand pianos (with their soundboards "interlocked") in her living room, which made it easier to play repertoire that was for four-hands, accompaniment parts for concerti movements, etc.
The repertoire for these gatherings was varied, programmed "ad-hoc," yet always presented in a meaningful narrative of music — without restriction of style or any time period. It was and is a great way to meet other pianists who studied under this absolute zenith of a pedagogue and to hear new repertoire. After each piano party (which could go on for hours and hours), there would be an array of snacks/desserts in her dining room area, and people would chat, munch, and share their kind and detailed thoughts about the music.
I was fortunate to discover a lot of meaningful piano literature through these experiences. One example is listening to Kevin Tims, a teacher and a virtuosic student of Blanche for many years, perform a beautiful rendition of the first movement of the Bach Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D Minor. From there, I continued to fall in love with this authoritative multi-movement work, and resolved to perform the entire concerto then for my Senior Recital at Hofstra.
The regime of "piano parties" still exists and thrives to this day; since the shift to online learning that lined up with Blanche's move from Baldwin to Oregon, one of Blanche's students, Ellen Johansen, has taken the initiative to continue these gatherings in a partially-remote format.
From her June Musicale (June 2015 "Piano Party"); all [or most of] the Usual Suspects
In just the time I knew Blanche, I saw her continue to be an active performer in several satellite chamber projects she spearheaded on and off Hofstra's campus: notably, the American Chamber Ensemble, of which she was cofounder with Naomi Drucker. Even in her later age, she bedazzled her audiences through her performances, some of which I was fortunate to witness several times while a student at Hofstra.
Obviously, Blanche went above and beyond in the role of Professor — attending countless student recitals and shepherding her private students through the grueling process that came with recital preparation. At every Hofstra Music Department function, Blanche wasn't just in attendance — she was the true life of the party, the center of attention, and an excellent dancer.
All-in-all, I feel forever fortunate to have been connected and reconnected with so many like-minded people through her.
I graduated Hofstra in 2018 and went immediately for my Masters', and being caught in the slippery slope of full-time graduate work and working several jobs between NYC and Long Island every weekend caused me to lose touch with her every-so-often. But when I learned Blanche was planning to move permanently to Portland, Oregon, to be with family, I brought myself kind of back into the picture in late 2019.
Specifically, on December 26, 2019— before her big move which was to take place a few months later, I decided (impromptu) to record ten pieces of music she had memorized as an amateur keepsake ("A Blanche Abram Project"), a vignette of the bustling institution in Baldwin that she called home for many years. Her eyesight had been beginning to fail torrentially (even as we were studying together), and these ten pieces were specifically chosen works that Blanche, with the aid of a magnifying glass, committed herself to re-memorize, measure-by-measure, and play through every day.
A Blanche Abram Project
This was a very informal recording session using a singular multi-track stereo recorder (a Zoom H4n) near her piano, as well as some light mixing — all to capture the essence of her famous “living room” sound, as though you were listening to her play for you in the same room. While the recording quality is amateur, and the Baldwin piano on which she played was ferociously out-of-tune (with a closed lid), I still think of the project as a well-meaning chronicle that captured her daily life at the time. Regardless of whether I was there or not (with my $100 used XY-recorder and amateur undergraduate mixing skills), these ten songs were still going to be played as routine. I just happened to capture it one particular day (12/26/2019) in the life of this amazing 94-year-old master (the age she was at the time).
Sonically, there's a certain innocuousness to the "deadness" of the room, which just means that sound-wave refraction is physically obstructed by materials — tens of thousands of books, sheet music papers, magazines, paintings, photographs, poems, love letters, and everything in-between. When consolidating these materials, I decided to include in the project folder, as “bonus content,” some pictures of her living room taken on the day of recording as well as a few informal videos I took of her playing on my iPhone. Hopefully these enrich your understanding of the intimacy of this room and the experience of her playing in such an environment.
And in the past weeks I spent writing these thoughts, I hired a friend of mine who works as an audio engineer to master these recordings once more. Thanks to the great work of Austin Zhang, the remastered versions of these piano recordings make it a bit easier to decipher her finger action.
Here are the remastered recordings of her (then) ten memorized pieces of repertoire, followed by a handful of iPhone YouTube videos I had taken of her as she played some of the selections.
If you want to stop here and let the music do the remainder of the speaking, I would not be offended.
December 26, 2019— Blanche's life work, [almost] packed right up and ready-to-go.
The last time I saw Blanche in real life was in January 2020.
At this time, it had been a series of months (almost half-a-year) that she and her family and close colleagues spent gradually unloading and unpacking her home for her permanent move to Oregon. In January 2020, with just about a few weeks to go before she was to move, I and a few friends (as well as many people in her social circles) were invited to sift through her home to rid it of excess materials and sheet music that she no longer needed and couldn't fit in a moving truck. Even at this point, there was no telling to the sheer volume of items in her home (it turns out the amalgamation of music/books on her tables was just the surface!). When I tell you every crevice of her home was filled with something — gestures and gifts of a (then) 94-year career — you get the idea that her home was a true community center, where people gathered and stayed.
In her generosity, Blanche gave me two full boxes of piano teaching materials and scores — some of which I since donated with her permission, some of which I still have. As you would figure, it was a difficult move for her to leave her environment behind and to move across the country at such a late age, but it was something that needed to be done so that she could be closer to her family in Oregon.
A slideshow of life in Baldwin on January 11, 2020; Blanche, the only member of her "packing crew" that refused to pack.
And the [second-to-] last time I saw Blanche.
There was an afternoon shortly after then in January where I stopped by her Baldwin home between private students, loaded up my car with the remaining boxes of teaching materials and sheet music, and said my goodbyes. That was the last time I saw her.
The Last Two Years (2020–2022)
Even though the timing worked out very well (almost serendipitously) that Blanche was able to be situated and live near her family right as the Coronavirus pandemic hit the United States, I was still worried about her. With the state of the world as it was/is post-lockdown, I resolved to keep in touch with Blanche from the other side of the country at least every week — and, later on, every few weeks.
Keeping in mind the time delay between New York and Oregon, and knowing the late hours Blanche notoriously kept anyway, I'd phone her at 1 or 2 AM EST on a random weeknight, and she would literally always pick up. We would kvetch about the increasingly despondent state of the world and share our recent artistic projects/personal stories, sometimes for hours. Hearing her voice every-so-often helped pass the time.
First and foremost — here's what I know regarding the last few years of Blanche Abram's life: she kept going until the very end. What was ten memorized pieces of repertoire in early 2020 evolved to twelve or thirteen (she added the three infamous Gershwin preludes and a piece by Lecuona to her repertoire).
She took her Steinway grand piano with her (the piano she bought herself for $1500 as a teenager), all the. way cross-country, to her new place of residence — Terwilliger Plaza, a community for artists in Portland. Unsurprisingly, from an early point, this community recognized her talent as a pianist and showcased her playing quite frequently. After all, Blanche persevered in playing her memorized works daily, regardless of her mental state or where she was in the country.
She told me on the phone that her community would host series of ecumenical faith services, and the lead visiting pastor there always made a conscientious effort to feature a selected piece from her repertoire as an opener, whichever one of her memorized works fit best with the liturgical "theme." Another fun item I remember is that Blanche spearheaded the "Happy Birthday Club" on the floor where she and others lived, and when it came to someone's birthday, all would gather around, and Blanche would play a rendition of "Happy Birthday" for them on her piano (I'm gonna guess this club was the very last "arts council" on which she served). And I didn't know much about the relationship she had with her neighbors, except I do know that at one point one of them "had her eye fall out."
Right-on-par for expectation, Blanche became a superstar in a short amount of time there.
She was of course now a bigger part of her family, who lived in Portland. Blanche was there for the early childhood of her great-granddaugther, Isley, whom Blanche would always tell me referred to her as "ChiChi". I was told many stories of both Isley and Great-Grandma "ChiChi" misbehaving in unison.
Over these 30-or-so months, we would talk for quite a bit. It was actually through these phone calls that I got to dive more into the history of Blanche Abram that I otherwise didn't know from my time at Hofstra. In some cases, I'd add a friend (or occasionally, my mother) to the call, and Blanche would recall stories of her early life living in New York, her engagements with fellow artists and boxers alike, and her work as an advocate for civil justice — whether it was on-site protesting or, later on, advocating for the integration of races in schools as the founder of the Roosevelt Community Relations Council in 1962. I came to learn more about the role of her home in Baldwin as a community center: a commune that occasionally hosted visiting artists, a place that held Gatsby-esque New-Years-Eve masquerades back in its day. There was a gigantic handful of new material to un-dust with each conversation. I imagine that, in the coming months and years, as we continue to tell the life of Blanche Abram, we will continue discover the worlds we didn't know about her. I've already read so many from other people...
We frequently took an interest in each-other's lives and what we were up to. In addition to this, and in between phone calls, Blanche always selflessly made time to listen to any new recordings/compositions I sent her, where on our next call, she would offer her support and honest feedback. I told her about musical projects for which I spent a lot of time preparing. While much of my repertoire is connected to my work as a conductor/bandleader/organist these days, she would also constantly audit me keeping up on my classical piano repertoire (...again, mea culpa).
Earlier this year, there was a distinct period where the tail end of our conversations shifted from, "Take care, Professor Abram," into "Love you, Professor Abram." There were some remarkably tough moments for me over this time period, but the voice of Blanche over the phone was the same voice that sat next to me in her piano studio in Monroe 024 — a consistent pillar of support that wasn't afraid to hold her loved ones accountable. Even when I was (and continue to be) unsure of myself, Blanche would reiterate her pride in the work I was doing, which meant so much to me.
I’ve been writing this post intermittently over the span of weeks since her departure, and I’ve certainly felt that urge to call and feel Blanche’s support quite a few times. (If only I was a day earlier for her birthday call!) But, with all this being said, I take respite in knowing that at and until the very end of her life, Blanche was surrounded by people who love her.
Doing some basic calculation, I guess I could say I only knew Blanche Abram for the last 9% of her life. Being that my very first lesson with Professor Abram was when she was 88 (!!!) years old, I still have to convince myself that these final eight, almost nine intimate years I spent with her are just the tiniest fraction of a rich and flourished life.
Those of us affected by Blanche’s decades of work as a pedagogue know that she set very important precedents in her teaching style. Generations of Blanche’s protégés continue to embrace students from all walks of life, differentiate one's methods of instruction based on the needs of the student, and prioritize joy in learning and uncovering all the details. A student of Blanche stands out based on the unique way they engage with music — but those who replicate her pedagogical practices have stood out by enacting great change in their own ways and communities, certainly beyond just the piano.
It bears repeating that an empathy-based teaching style never settled for artistic compromise: Blanche was sometimes relentless in her pushing of students to achieve beyond themselves, especially when they were on the cusp of doing so. She would bring students carefully close to their breaking point as artists. She frustrated many coddled minds (myself included) who at the time couldn’t bear to see the value of discipline, and she was more than generous with her harshest criticism. But at the heart of Blanche Abram was someone who was invested deeply and exclusively in the well-being of her students and who was always — always — visibly grateful to share with others the joy that accompanied music.
It wasn't until I became more entrenched into my field that I realized she was also a pillar of professional conscience in her own circles: a much-needed antidote to a general culture of artists calloused by intellectual laziness, self-aggrandized elitism, and politics-driven exclusivity (that is, the very-interconnected fields thereof). For Blanche, the music is where it began and ended, and for 97 years and two days, the tens of thousands of souls she empowered through this example continue to rejoice in her.
This was the extension of Blanche Abram I got to know best — the capacity of a highly-effective pedagogue/mentor, and then friend.
But of course she extended into so much more: Blanche was a deeply celebrated matriarch, an esteemed colleague, a community member to Long Island/NYC and beyond, a friend to so many. She was a perfect companion to Irving Abram, who was someone unafraid to match her whimsy for life (and someone I, unfortunately, only knew vicariously through Blanche as an accomplished dentist and artist). From what I grew to learn about her biographically, Blanche was a statistical anomaly in her academic/artistic excellence from a young age, an activist who fought on several panels for the integration of schools, a trailblazer of Russian-American Jewish women for her time.
She was exceedingly clear on where she stood politically. She resented the hand of Republican fascism that ran our country, particularly the Supreme Court Decision to reverse Roe V. Wade which she unfortunately saw unravel in the final weeks of her life. She seethed at the idea of patriarchal, megalomaniacal thugs — like our nation's 45th president and his compatriots — who harbored meaningless conflict and caustic injustices that she spent so much of her life fighting and protesting to improve.
Something I always thought through undergrad was that the artistic philosophy of Blanche Abram also read clear as a healthy contrast to the modalities of capitalism that run our world. There is nothing about the life she led and the music she shared that sought to profit herself or to manipulate others. She did not care about how much money you made nor what your ranking was. Quality consistently trumped quantity, and she had zero interest in social trends that compromise human or artistic integrity.
While this world we left for her had regressed and noticeably jaded her towards the very end, I take comfort knowing that we live in a world that did not deserve the work of Blanche in the first place. There will forever be generations of us affected by her example, and we could venture to serve as a healthy adversity to one's society, firm in one's internal spiritual values.
Blanche was a mosaic of a human, and every part of her reflected the same internal light. She will be an absolutely formidable part of the rest of my journey, as will she be for so many others. For as long as I have the capacity to communicate and revel in the joys of life's music, every part of my organism will contain the storied legacy of Blanche Abram.
July 22, 2022
To Professor Abram—
All I have to say beyond this point is — THANK YOU!
Thank you for supporting me and so many others.
Thank you for sharing with me your flair for life, your chocolate brownies, your laughter, and for teaching your world to embrace its ridiculous into something meaningful.
You have shaped my becoming into a person more than you could ever know.
I hope you're dancing with Irving, always at the center of the dance-floor.
May your memory be a blessing.
"...I love to sit among the trees as I’m doing today. I love to hear the stillness of the air disturbed only by occasional bird songs and the sudden swish of wind sounds making the leaves dance. I love to see the mountains all around me each one a different color grey or green reaching into the sky with jagged curves and points that are sometimes covered by mists or strands of clouds. I love to canoe on the lake and tingle with the sweetness of the air as we glide silently feeling the water stroke the boat beneath us. I love to walk on the trails in the woods where my feet sink into soft earth that springs right up again and the cozy blanket of branches and leaves part here and there for a few sunbeams and for me. I love to see the mushrooms, flowers, butterflies, all trunks with different stripes and the glorious jumble of colors all around me. But I don’t like the mosquitoes and insects that remind me that this heaven is their place! I love to see the loons gliding like a water skier and I love the appraising look of the deer startled by the sight of me. I wish you could also be kissed by the sweetness of nature and know this special joy.
"I also love music. I love to hear the mysterious compositions that other people have composed that explore feelings of happiness or sorrow or loneliness or playfulness or grandeur. I love to play the piano because, I suppose, I’ve learned how to do it well and I love to take something I can’t do, figure out how to teach it to myself and train myself patiently to play it beautifully. It takes effort and time but it is a real thrill when it begins to “play itself”. When I’m playing, I feel as if I am expressing a deeper part of me that we never have time to talk about in real life. Perhaps there aren’t even any words that can tell about those feelings.
"And luckily, I love to teach, to share my secret gardens with other people, - to help them walk through the doors to their hidden places and teach them how to use these special feelings in playing the piano."
An excerpt from the opening page of Blanche's personal autobiography, written in 1990 for her grandchildren, coupled with:
her performance of Chopin's Nocturne (Op. 27) No. 2 in Db Major, and a photograph taken by her granddaughter, Alexis, — both in 2018. A triptych of Blanche.
Permission given by Alexis Wiener to use and share.