Or, “the True Judge.” We say, “Blessed are you, the True Judge” when we hear of a death. It is a reminder of who’s Who and what’s what; I don’t believe it implies acceptance, approval, or anything of that nature. Which is good: I do not accept, I do not acquiesce, and I bite my thumb at fate, and the laws of physics and medicine that took from us a monumentally humane, influential, gloriously productive, learned artist who taught, inspired, and collaborated with so many…while continuing to suffer so many abject morons, poisonous, hurtful, sub-insect lifeforms, to survive and flourish.
Today I heard that my piano teacher in high school, Paul R. Bishop, died in his sleep last night. I imagine it happened after midnight, so I am writing on the very day (well, posting on the day after) he took his bow and went on to his next Engagement. As always, I am reminded of Liszt, who to the end of his life mourned the premature death of his student Carl Tausig, and that God suffered so many fools to continue living while removing Tausig from this mortal coil. Paul spent his life teaching and accompanying and being a musical force around Claremont, California, my hometown. In recent years, Paul and I had had the pleasure of reconnecting through Facebook; on one visit to Claremont perhaps three or four years ago, I was able to hear a concert he played in and to talk to him after, perhaps thirty years after I’d last seen him. It was a joy to be in touch again; he told me that he remembered what I first played for him (Mendelssohn, Rondo Capriccioso—this was 1971, and I was 14) and that he had thought, “my God, this kid is prodigious.” He was a young teacher then, and I assume he later came to understand that fast fingers with no brain don’t mean nuffin’, that I wasn’t all that impressive.
I’d begun studying with Paul because the relationship with my childhood piano teacher had begun to deteriorate. Eloise Wilder was a fine, lively, nurturing musician, but as a tween I was finding the old-lady-piano-teacher thing … well, you can imagine. My mother said, “Well, I wonder if it isn’t time for you to study with a man,” and I thought that would be a good idea. (This is, I suppose, sexist: I recently brought it up to Mom, now 91, and she said, “Listen, Eloise knew exactly what I meant,” and that was that. Mom is a trained teacher, and says what she thinks and for the most part that’s how. it. is., and she got it right that time.) So Mr. Pierce, at Ralph Pierce Music, recommended Paul, who was one of the new teachers in the studio that was opening next door to his music store. Early on, Paul asked me if I wanted to make music my career, or at least major in it in college, and I was sure I did not—I’ve always been wonderfully self-aware!—so he said fine, I could study whatever I wanted. This meant, then, loads of Bach little preludes and fugues, Scarlatti sonatas, and he introduced me to the sonatas of Antonio Soler. Also Scott Joplin, before The Sting came out, and he even let me play a dismal 1894 potboiler called “The Great Chariot Race March” by E. T. Paull, a piece later associated (somehow) with the silent movie version of Ben-Hur. I believe a colleague of my father’s found it and brought it to me—he had a thing for Lew Wallace and Ben-Hur—and I learned it. I even played it in a recital, to Paul’s amusement.
Such long-forgotten, disrespected consumer-market music has resurfaced in my life, in recent years, thought that’s a story for another day.
Paul was the first music teacher I ever had who made me aware that there was cool stuff out there beyond the notes on the score—a knowledge side, in other words. He was an organist and harpsichordist in addition to being a pianist: Baroque player, in large part, and he one day drove us out to Kasimov’s Pianos in Pasadena in “Golda,” his campily named, gold-colored Mercury Capri, a car I coveted much as I coveted his sight-reading ability, German fluency, knowledge of every goddamned musical thing, etc. Kasimov’s was one of two U.S. importers of Blüthner pianos at the time, an East German brand, and they handled Neupert instruments as well. Now, Neupert is known, today, for the metal-framed, plucked-Steinway school of harpsichord construction, models that were quite ahistorical in many ways, but I certainly didn’t know any better. For me, that day, the musical world blew open. I played harpsichords, I played Blüthners, I played a clavichord, I played the Neupert version of a Mozart-era fortepiano, and each instrument was a revelation. We went out for lunch afterward, and talked it all over, and I was pretty much beside myself. I’m a high school kid, but this is something much bigger: suddenly there was this secret side of music, encompassing languages, stuff to know, strange ornaments to figure out, scholarly disagreements on what Elizabethan ornaments meant. Suddenly my native academic world and my acquired musical world intersected, and beyond gibbering I really didn’t know how to respond.
Paul had studied at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and that was in large part why I took interest in that school and eventually went there (my parents were really not very helpful in terms of higher-ed guidance in music, which I eventually did decide upon as a major)…the faculty were almost all different from those he knew by the time I got there, but I think it was the only place on earth I belonged at the time. That I’d spent so much time playing Baroque music and early Classical music in high school meant not that I was a Baroque specialist, but rather—far more importantly—that I had something I liked, something to which I was drawn. Paul fed my sense of being excited by something. So although that “something” later changed—at UCSB, I was drawn more to medieval and Renaissance music, and then to nineteenth-century piano music, and so of course the world blew open again and again—it was that I knew how to be drawn to things, whatever they were, to reach out and grab them, without being placidly limited to what my piano teacher next handed me. Paul was no dictatorial Master; my crazes and weirdities, though it may seem surprising, were not typical among piano students, and Paul had a good sense of how to handle someone as wildly undisciplined but energetic as I.
(I remember the lesson where we talked about the Left Banke’s “Pretty Ballerina,” which I had just discovered—“OK, so it’s a raised fourth,” he said, “and the strings…” To me, it was magic, and the idea that a piano teacher, of all people, would be willing to discuss a 1960s pop-song with me blew my mind.)
If I found his reaction a bit calm, there was a good reason. At UCSB, he himself had been in a band called Jaim—they even released a couple of singles, and an LP. My record-collector brother subsequently found me the singles, though I never owned the LP (Paul loaned it to me long ago, but I never recorded it). I had the pleasure of giving Paul my copies of the singles within the last year or two; he was grateful because his copy of the album had been borrowed by a “friend” and not returned. He had no recordings of that material. The songwriting (which he had nothing to do with) was, unsurprisingly, iffy, but the arrangements were charmingly folk-progressive: variations on the first Bach prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier as background in one song (“Ship of Time,” the single, I think), and earnest playing throughout. I do have mp3s of the four sides of the singles, which I made before I gave him the records.
And so we came back in touch, exchanging jokes and memes and recordings we liked and so on. In recent months Paul had had an operation—cancer-related, I think, though he didn’t advertise—but he was looking forward to completing his chemo, he saw the light at the end of the tunnel, and he was, so far as I could tell, optimistic. Once, recently, he was less than clear (in a drug-addled state, as he later admitted), he referred to me to a mutual friend as H. Pr. Bellman or something. Sweet, but sorry: to Paul Bishop I would forever be a student, not H. Prof. anything.
And so I read of his departure. “Can you believe I’m going to be 65??” he had asked when we met, a few years ago. I was in my mid-to-late 50s then, I think, and I’d studied with him when I was in high school, so yeah, I suppose… But I’d assumed we might have a couple more decades of exchanging jokes and musical material. After all this time, right? Isn’t that how the story would go?
There’s a particular kind of pathos, for me at least, when I as a teacher lose one of my own teachers. I don’t blubber and sob, but as one who chose to spend, and was privileged to spend, his professional life in the Great Chain of Teaching, there is something of the sense of being orphaned, somehow, whenever one of my beloved teachers takes the Next Step. I have received such wonderful inspiring stuff, such nissim, that it seems that the people who gifted me with it will always be present, somehow, available to answer questions and chat.
And, indeed, so they will: they with me always, as my father is, and chat with them and thank them is something I do regularly. But Paul: one of my unfinished projects is an article on Scarlatti—“Three Scenes from Scarlatti,” I was going to call it—and I was going to dedicate it to you. I still will, but since you introduced me to Scarlatti I’d hoped you would read it. Damn it.
Forn gezunt: go well, Paul, fly high, soar. You touched so many of us, and it is our privilege to try to pay it forward. I will never play Bach, Scarlatti, or Soler without thinking of you, with gratitude. For now: find rest and renewal, and the multitudes here wish your soul a glorious journey onward.