Back to school: My most influential teacher

For our back to school mini-series, author and scientist Daniel Goodman discusses his piano tutor

As many children and young people return to schools and universities this fall, we are particularly aware of the efforts of educators who, in addition to teaching, have been tasked with managing the safety and mental wellbeing on their students.

In this mini-series, we asked some of our authors to honor the educators who have had a significant impact on their life and work. In this piece, Daniel Goodman, author of Find Your Path: Unconventional Lessons from 36 Leading Scientists and Engineers, talks about a teacher who inspired him outside of his life in academia: his piano tutor Professor Frederic Marvin. 

Professor Frederic Marvin of Syracuse University had more influence on me than any of my other teachers, and I am happy to honor his memory by writing this piece. Frederick died in 2017 at the age of 96, having passed on a legacy of artistic and technical understanding of the piano to generations of students. 

I grew up in Utica, NY and studied piano with local teachers. When I was in tenth grade, Professor Marvin accepted me as a student. It was quite an experience for a 15 year old. I was in awe of the professor and scholar who had studied with famous pianists and won awards.

In order to study with Frederic, my mother and I spent an afternoon each week traveling for an hour to and from Syracuse. My mother and Frederic became friends. They were the same age and Frederic reminded her of some of the sophisticated artists she had known in New York City. So this article also honors my mother, who made my musical education possible.

Professor Marvin taught me about piano technique, musical vocabulary, and style. He taught me to pay attention to details, to internalize the music and to have a positive attitude. He had me practice passages using dotted and triplet rhythms until they were smooth. When we were working on Chopin Etudes, he taught me hand motions that allowed me to play even the fastest passages. Some of what he taught me he attributed to his own teachers, Claudio Arrau and Artur Schnabel. Through Professor Marvin and his teachers, I could trace my musical lineage back to Franz Liszt, to Czerny, to Beethoven. Professor Marvin was also a musical scholar, best known for rediscovering the works of Antonio Soler and Jan Ladislav Dussek.

I attended college at Princeton University where I had some fine piano teachers, but none the caliber of Marvin. While in graduate school I had the opportunity to perform the Rachmaninoff second piano concerto with the MIT Symphony. To prepare, I took a coaching session with Frederic. He said, “Dan, you’ve forgotten everything I taught you.” He said it with a smile, but then we got to work. 

After I earned a Ph.D. in physics, I continued to give piano concerts at MIT, and I kept in touch with Frederic. We exchanged letters about concerts and repertoire. In one of his letters, he asked if I could arrange for him to perform a concert at MIT. His request made me uncomfortable. I feel bad about this, but I never answered his request and we mostly fell out of contact.

In 2012 I was reading the book Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom. In the book, Albom writes about reconnecting with his dying college professor and learning lessons which completely changed his life. After reading Albom’s book, I knew that I had to reconnect with Frederic. I was actually afraid that I might have waited too long.

I looked Frederic up on the internet, and to my delight, found out that he and Ernst Schuh had gotten married in New York once state law changed to allow same-sex marriage. They had been partners for more than 50 years. Such wonderful news gave me an opportunity to reconnect. I sent my congratulations and Frederic invited our family to visit. 

Goodman and Marvin

In the fall of 2012, our 10-year-old twins Seth and Hannah and I made a trip to Syracuse to visit Frederic and Ernst. On the way, I told stories from my youth and what Frederic had meant to me. Seth brought his violin, and the two of us performed a short program in their living room. The house was unchanged, and the action of the German Steinway was just as I remembered it from my lessons 35 years before.

Meeting Ernst for the first time was wonderful. In the 1970s I had seen Ernst in the house, but at the time it was not considered appropriate to be introduced. I am happy to see our society become more accepting of LGBTQ+ people, although there is still a long way to go. 

Frederic was a formal and sophisticated artist but approachable, and always wore a smile. He had high standards for himself and for his students, to be achieved not with grit, but with grace. Frederic did not believe that getting older meant he had to slow down or make compromises – Frederic was ready to schedule concert performances long after retirement age and to get married in his 90s.

I have recently started a weekly on-line concert series, sharing some of my favorite piano music with friends and family. In addition to writing this article about Marvin, I decided to honor Frederick by dedicating a concert to him. The concert includes a Sonata by Antonio Soler from an edition that Marvin edited, and I prepared by listening to Marvin’s own lovely recording of the piece. I felt that the most appropriate way to honor my teacher was to let others learn about him and also get to hear the music he cared about so deeply. 

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