Lesson of the Day: ‘A 92-Year-Old Piano Teacher Won’t Let Students Miss Bach in the Pandemic’

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Lesson of the Day: ‘A 92-Year-Old Piano Teacher Won’t Let Students Miss Bach in the Pandemic’

Cornelia Vertenstein, a Holocaust survivor, is still teaching piano lessons over FaceTime from her Denver home. In this lesson, you will consider the ways students sometimes learn more about life from their teachers than just the subject they are studying.

Have you ever played a musical instrument? If so, did you take lessons? What did you gain from the experience? What did you learn about yourself beyond the music you practiced and played?

Have you been playing an instrument during the coronavirus pandemic? How have social distancing restrictions affected your lessons and practice schedule? Have you been able to continue learning and growing as a musician?

Read the article, then answer the following questions:

1. According to the article, what does Cornelia Vertenstein say about continuity and persistence? How does she embody those things?

2. What do you think Ms. Vertenstein means when she says about her students, “I try to teach them not only how to learn, but how to work”?

3. What has Ms. Vertenstein learned about her students during the pandemic? Why do you think knowing a little bit about students’ lives might be helpful for a teacher?

4. What did Ms. Vertenstein do while her students performed in their virtual recitals? Why did she do that? What does this action tell you about her?

5. What happened after the recitals? What is different about the FaceTime piano lessons versus those Ms. Vertenstein taught in person at her house? What is the same?

In the article, John Branch writes:

The children do not know much of Ms. Vertenstein’s past — the yellow star she had to wear as a teenager during the war, the rocks thrown at her, the fist of fascism replaced by the slogging brutality of communism. She only hints at them.

“It’s very painful to talk about,” Ms. Vertenstein said in a FaceTime interview. “Besides this, why should I tell those kids such sad stories?”

But the stories silently inhabit her lessons.

Do your teachers ever share anything about their own pasts? Do their life stories have any meaning for you?

Now, watch the first video embedded in the article, a prerecorded introduction by Ms. Vertenstein for one of the spring recitals. Here is the transcript:

With great pride, I introduce my students who prepared themselves with discipline and determination in difficult circumstances. When I was a little girl, I could not go to public schools because of my religion. And they created a little school in the basement of an old building, which sometimes had heat and sometimes didn’t. Great minds and achievements came out of that school, which taught me that in any situation you can strive, learn, look ahead and have dreams.

Why do you think Ms. Vertenstein chose this moment to share some of her personal history with her students and their families? What do you think she hoped to achieve with her words?