One week ago today, on my grandmother’s birthday, September 18th, Charles Aschbrenner passed away.
One week ago today, I ran my second half-marathon. Despite arduous circumstances, including humidity and a hilly course, I earned a PR, running six minutes faster than my first race.
I do not think these two events are unrelated.
Charles taught at Hope College for 53 years, a feat that is almost unimaginable in today’s higher education environments, where budgets and tuitions swell along with the number of untenured adjunct faculty members. His Eurhythmics class was my very first college class, held at 8:30 on a Tuesday morning, in Snow Auditorium. There we were, a room full of wide-eyed freshmen and wizened sophomores (those were the dance majors, who were also required to take the class), walking around the room in a big circle, bouncing a tennis ball to the beat of whatever piece he happened to play that day. I had serious doubts about being asked to do such activities, especially as a self-conscious flannel-clad freshman, but my sense of timing and rhythm was pretty decent, which could not be said about several of my classmates.
He was also my piano professor. Since I entered college planning a major in music education, I would only be taking a two-credit lesson with him. About a year later, after several successful performances and a few unsuccessful education classes (Educational Psychology, or “How to Organize Eight Billion Pieces of Paper While Learning to Manage a Classroom Full of Hyperactive Kindergartners”), he convinced me that a Bachelor of Music degree in piano performance was much better suited to my skill set. Charles was very persuasive.
I remember only two instances when he was upset with me; I’m sure there were more, but these two stick out prominently in my mind. The first was when I skipped his performance of the Rachmaninoff 3rd piano concerto with the Hope College Orchestra. I don’t know what I was doing instead; I don’t even think it was a conscious snub on my part. I just didn’t know that one NEVER missed their teacher’s performances. I NEVER did that again.
The second time was during my junior year, when I was starting to develop an attitude – okay, continuing to exhibit a poor attitude – and the interim Chapel Choir director rubbed me the wrong way. I was the choir’s accompanist that year, but choir music was not at the top of my practice priority list, and I had every excuse under the sun as to why the music wasn’t ready. The director finally reamed me out at rehearsal one day, in front of the entire group, and I stormed into my lesson afterward and immediately started ranting. Unfair! Mean! What a jerk! How could he do that to me, etc.
Charles looked at me cooly, clearly displeased. “Well, were you unprepared?”
“Well, yeah, probably, but – ”
“Because you need to learn that every time your hands are on that keyboard, your reputation as a pianist is at stake.”
He didn’t take my side. He didn’t join me in complaining about how unjustified the director’s scolding was. He AGREED with him, and worst of all, I knew he was right.
I still had a long way to go when it came to being professional, but he helped me navigate those challenging waters. Competitions, graduate school auditions, recitals – all of it unattainable if it hadn’t been for his calm, unflappable demeanor and quiet support. Or not so quiet. That guffaw, whenever I said something funny, or when he sat next to me and demonstrated a passage – it just bubbled out of him, uncontrollably.
I’m thinking it was maybe five minutes after I officially graduated that he told me to call him Charles. We went out for a meal with my parents at some fancy restaurant whose name escapes me, and we stopped by his house afterwards. I remember his cat, Chopin, who made me sneeze almost as soon as I walked through the front door. I remember being overwhelmed by the art that crowded the walls, the Steinway grand overlooking the beautiful gardens in the backyard, the immense decorum and beauty found in that organized clutter. Tears, a huge hug, promises to stay in touch, and he told me how proud he was of me.
I have dozens and dozens of emails we exchanged over the years that I will now start to sift through, and there is his newly published website on Pulse Patterning that he finished working on this spring, even as cancer was weakening his physical body. I visited him many times after I graduated, most recently in early August of this year, right after he began chemotherapy treatments. I spent a little over an hour with him, holding his hand, making him laugh (carefully), showing him pictures, and best of all – I was able to tell him just how much he had meant to me, and changed my life for the better. I was able to say goodbye. How many people are fortunate enough to be able to do those things?
I am a professional musician today because Charles Aschbrenner took a young, naive, talented but undisciplined kid and turned her into a pianist. I took that leap, and once I did, I never looked back.