What makes a young pianist spring to life?

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Anthony Gargiulo Jr.

While all the Tiger Mom hysteria was bubbling up earlier this year, I noticed an obituary story about George Shearing, the blind British jazz pianist. Shearing died on Feb. 14, and subsequently I considered my personal connection between him and the heated debate over parenting methods that Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has engendered.

My own mother's intent in trying to get her six kids to learn the piano was born out of her love of jazz. Piano as a childrearing method — a central theme for the Tiger Mom — was secondary but no less important.

But talk about battles. We gave my dear mother all she could handle. We were as rebellious and as uncooperative as ever in learning the piano. And being the oldest, instead of setting the good example for the others, I did just the opposite. I protested, rarely practiced and provided many moments of embarrassment for my mother as our piano teacher, Mr. Gersh, upon visits to our River Forest home, often halted the lessons after five or ten futile minutes.

During this period, my parents would often expose me to live piano performances in hopes of sparking my interest. I recall the Count Basie concert we attended at OPRF in the spring of 1976. I somewhat enjoyed it and often look back on that event as a starting point for my appreciation for jazz. But I still wasn't going to play the piano.

Another not as joyous occasion was being "escorted" downtown to see George Shearing perform at the London House. As my parents sipped their crème de menthes, I sat smoldering, purposeful in my negative mood and oblivious to the special talents this man possessed and the obstacles he overcame. I now regret that insolence.

On the way home that night, my mom tossed back a volley. "If a blind man can play the piano, then why can't you?"

The remark was not typical of the loving mother I knew. It was the result of utter frustration. She'd reached her limit, and I gave her reason to react this way.

But I remained stubborn and intractable and dug my heels in further.

Finally she gave up. A truce of sorts came later when in college I voluntarily took up guitar.

As we become parents, few of us admit that we go blind into the adventure. We remember what we think our parents did wrong and vow not to repeat it with our kids. And we are ignorant of what the poet-philosopher Khalil Gibran espoused in "On Children." "Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself." And later, "You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts."

My daughter Naomi has enthusiastically studied the piano with one of Oak Park's best teachers for several years now. I've been hands-off in the process. My wife manages the lessons and practicing. But remembering that the positive aspect of my mother's efforts with me started my interest in jazz, I thought I'd vary the approach.

Naomi agreed to my suggestion of experiencing some live jazz piano in the city. In late February we headed to the Jazz Showcase and watched Chuchito Valdes, son of the famous Cuban piano virtuoso, Chucho Valdes.

She enjoyed the performance and has since developed a liking for Latin Jazz. Whether or not she will catch the jazz bug will be entirely up to her.

What she got out of the evening was something simple. As we researched Chuchito's music later, we discovered a song title on his latest CD, "Naomi." That was all it took to make both of us smile.

Anthony Gargiulo Jr. is a lifelong resident of Oak Park and River Forest (currently Oak Park).

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