In Memoriam: Emilio del Rosario, 1934-2010
I begin each day at the piano with a collection of scales, chords, octaves, and arpeggios. Many prefer to simply slide into sections of the music instead; to me, this routine has become akin to brushing my teeth in the morning. During these sessions, a soundtrack in my mind accompanies the double thirds and sixths. An emphatic voice exclaims mysterious syllables that I once could not decipher. "Thumb under! Loud! Use the wrist!"
A newly minted eleven-year-old student of Emilio del Rosario, I had just come from Odessa, Ukraine, with my parents, and I did not speak enough English to comprehend the word "thumb." But a great teacher makes you understand and feel things you may not yet know. I knew that Mr. D. wanted a smooth legato, a singing and direct sound, a scale that would be music.
I still don't know how he did it. It seemed so simple, the way he coaxed students, all under the age of eighteen, into making music that was direct and convincing in expression and flawless in execution. With an ever-present sparkle, he would conjure up the exact emotion of a lyrical Mozart phrase, just by closing his eyes, pausing, and then saying, "Now...like a great singer." He would respond to imperfections of any kind by pursing his lips and clicking his tongue. We feared the click. The click communicated a plethora of ideas about discipline and expectations. In short, it meant, "A musician strives for perfection, music deserves no less. If you can't work for it, don't do it."
Backstage, before some of my early concerts or competitions, he would smile gently and tell me to "just think about the music." How easy is that now? Who cares about attendance, reviews, other impending gigs with wholly different programs, the commissioned work, the under-practiced second movement, the flight, the less-than-perfect piano, a bad lunch, and other junk? Just throw all that stuff out, and put every ounce of yourself into bringing the music to life. The music is more important, it is better than you and your issues.
His wisdom stayed in our systems. So many Emilio del Rosario students attest to that fact by saying "He made me who I am," even if they have gone on to other professions. Mr. D. had a sui generis talent for teaching piano, but it had to be combined with his gentle kindness and his childlike sense of wonder at life, in order to shape us as it did. Yes, being a pianist—a musician—requires inexorable discipline, rigor, and sacrifices, but it would be impossible without whimsy, humor, and a sense of everlasting childhood.
I once was in self-imposed isolation in a studio next to Mr. D's, preparing a big program, when Mr. D knocked on my door and said "Let's go for some sugar-free ice cream at Homer's." As I started to protest, putting into practice the very discipline he was responsible for, his expressive features took on the scowl of a disappointed child. Of course I dropped everything and followed him to his green Jaguar.
We all immediately fell in love with Mr D. for his goofy jokes: we treasured being teased by him, and exchanged anecdotes about it for years. As children and teenagers, we could not fully appreciate how enormously selfless he had to be to put off his own practicing until the wee hours of the night, to teach all weekends and holidays, to schedule double triple, even quadruple lessons to help us get ready for performances, and to spend every Saturday night of his life at the repertoire performance classes we called "workshops." (My great grandmother, who did not speak English, always referred to this activity with reverence as "workshock," and, sometimes, after sitting through twenty concertos and playing two, you felt like that was indeed the right word.) At these Saturday evenings, we learned to love playing for audiences. He always put his students first, he lived for them and gave them everything he had, including the understanding of and passion for the art of performance.
Going back to those warm up scales—when I teach them to students, I make it clear that it is one of the gifts of discipline, focus, and joy that I got as an eleven-year-old from Emilio del Rosario, and I am now passing this gift on to them. The passing of this amazing man is a surreal and impossible thing for me to grasp, but as long as we are making music and teaching, striving for the highest level possible, with dedication to perfection, with kindness, humor, and love, we keep him and his legacy alive. Rest in Peace, dear Mr. D. We all love you.