Mrs. Cushman & Me: Fond Memories of a Fierce Legend
People / Sep. 26, 2013 11:52am EDT
When I moved to Randolph in 1978 I had not practiced piano for about 15 years. Within a month, I called Florence Cushman and asked her to teach me. She said no, she was busy; but a week later, she called me and said, “Don’t go to any of the others. I’m the one you want.”
And that was the beginning of my ten-year journey into music.
On my first visit to her, Mrs. Cushman revealed that she was 84 or 85 years old and that she had played at times with the Chicago Symphony.
It seemed as if I had met an elderly eagle who gazed at me in the penetrating manner of a predator. She was searching for music, wherever she could find it: in me, in little kids, in Randolph, Vermont.
I would need to pay close attention and practice a lot to learn everything that Florence Cushman could teach me before she died; which I estimated could, given her age, be any moment. And yet, we had 10 solid years of learning together and she went on another nine after that. She was a wonderful, terrifying teacher.
With patience, she repeated ideas to me, restating them until she could see them land in my brain. But once, she just looked at me and said, “Stop playing wrong notes. Now.”
She had given her life to music, and wouldn’t have any of her students taking it lightly. If we wouldn’t work, she wouldn’t be our teacher. We explored music with one of the best, always mindful that she could and would send a slacker packing.
Scales and Arpeggios
During my son’s elementary school years, I took the phone off the hook and practiced three hours each morning. I was in a hurry. She could expire soon. Daily, I started with scales and arpeggios—forty minutes of playing these routine building blocks in the various ways she devised to surprise lazy fingers longing for routine. She was teaching me the circle of keys and habits of practice.
The first time I stumbled through a Bach invention she said firmly, “You’ve never been taught to play Bach.”
She retrieved the music from the piano, got out her red and blue pencils and began to mark Bach’s themes: right side up, upside down, one hand then the other, and then, God forbid, both hands together. She declared, “No one can destroy Bach.”
There’s a chance, as I pounded out my versions, that she changed her mind.
We worked our way through the Preludes, the Nocturnes and the Etudes of Chopin. She showed me her way to think about and play sonatas of Mozart and Beethoven. We studied Prokoviev, Debussy, but no Ravel. I played Rachmaninov and Schumann and Mendelssohn and Shubert. Brahms became my love because he wrote meaningful alto lines that I could dig out of his chords and present as melody.
The Grieg Sonata
Once, when I had finished a Grieg sonata, it was time to play the entire thing for her. She perched on her office chair beside the piano, looking alert and dangerous. I began.
The Grieg is generous music: melodic and rich and filled with romance. It was going very well.
During the second movement, a slow one, I had time to glance at my teacher, the eagle in the office chair. She was slumped with her head bowed. Though concerned, I continued and played through the final movement exuberantly.
After letting the last chord ring for a few seconds I raised the pedal and my hands together. Turning, I saw Mrs. Cushman, quiet and still in her chair. Had I killed her with Grieg?
Tentative, I reached out my right index finger and gave her a little poke on the arm. She awoke! Not dead! But now we were in an awkward fix. How would we behave?
“My Grieg must have been very relaxing,” said I, grinning like a circus chimp.
She sniffed with dignity and said that actually, it had been quite boring. She was the eagle and she was still alive! At least, we weren’t going to dispute my interpretation of the Grieg.
When I remember my years with her, they come to me as a period of exploration, discovery, and discipline. I still go to the piano every day. I learn smarter now, but I’m old, so playing doesn’t come so quickly.
Still, I never practice that I don’t use the gifts Mrs. Cushman gave me: a head full of music and hands that want to play it.
Florence Scholl Cushman
Florence Scholl Cushman taught piano in Randolph for more than 40 years. Born in Joliet, Ill. in 1893, she first studied piano with Glenn Dillard Gunn, a concert pianist and music critic for the Chicago Tribune.
She made the first of several appearances with the Chicago Symhony Orchestra at age 21 as soloist in the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto; she also eventually played the concertos of Grieg, Schuman, and Liszt.
For several years, she accompanied the Chicago Singverien.
At 58, she married retired physician Charles Cushman, and they moved to Randolph, his hometown. One year after they came to Randolph, however, Dr. Cushman died, but Mrs. C. stayed on and continued to teach here until she was 102. She died on her birthday in 1997 at age 103.