Feature Writer Steven Famiglietti – A Tribute To An Old Friend

When I was in the third grade, I became interested in the piano. I liked the wide range of sounds you could make by pressing the various keys on it. We went into our local mall one day, where they had opened up a piano store. My parents signed me up for piano lessons with the teacher they had on staff. After a few lessons, the teacher told me that they had replaced her with a new teacher. We decided to continue to work with her and she moved to a new studio. After a few months, things didn’t work out.

My mother did some research and found a new teacher for me. She spoke with him at length on the phone and explained that I was legally blind and she also explained what happened with the former teacher. A week or so later, I met Craig, my new teacher. He was an animated man with a good sense of humor. He lived in a 3 family home on the third floor with his roommate, Lewis.

They had a black upright piano and a house full of clocks. During our first lesson, Craig did some exploration with me to see how I had been learning to read music and also spent time getting to understand the nature of my vision. We moved through lots of little exercises in learning to read music and he assigned some homework for me to complete by our next lesson.

Our lessons were to take place at his home at 11:00 AM on Saturdays, for one hour. As we worked through our first lesson, I had brought my music with me that the former teacher had given to me. He informed us that this woman was not a good teacher. I recall that he was quite upset with the fact that she had done such a poor job with me, but he didn’t want to say too much and come off as unprofessional.

As our lessons went along, Craig became a good friend to my family and me. He encouraged me to practice each week and he always reminded me that I could do anything I wanted, as long as I put my mind to it. We not only had our weekly lessons, but, many times, we would all chat and laugh together and the lessons would run longer than expected. As we worked through the piano books, he would also look for songs that interested me as a special project. I was allowed to work on the special project, as long as I kept up on the other music and scale exercises that were in the regular piano books.

A few years later, Craig moved into a huge Victorian house up on a hill. The house was very old and he took it upon himself to fix it all up and make it livable. He also bought a baby grand piano to replace the upright that we had been using for several years. It was a lot of fun to play on his grand piano and sometimes we would attempt to play a duet piece together. This actually always resulted in both of us making lots of mistakes and laughing for several moments before we ever got to the end of a song. I don’t think we ever actually were able to complete one of those pieces together, but it sure was a fun experience.

Whenever he would assign a new piece to me he would always play it so that I knew how it was supposed to sound as a finished piece. Sometimes he would point out places where there were new notes and special timing that I needed to be aware of as I learned the new piece. One day, I had asked if I could learn “We Are the World”. So Craig did some research and found a version of the song that happened to match my skill level. He gave it to me under the condition that if my other work suffered, he would take it away until I continued my usual pieces in the regular books. After a few weeks, he asked me to play what I had learned. As I played, he suddenly ripped the music away from the piano stand and I continued to play the rest of the song from memory. He was astounded that I had memorized the entire piece. He didn’t mind that I had memorized the piece, but he wanted to make sure that if I were to memorize pieces that I did it correctly. Sometimes, I would get something wrong and he would take a red pen and circle the part that needed work. Many times, I would ignore the red pen and do it wrong for a few weeks. I recall an occasion when I had deliberately missed a few notes for several weeks. He took the red pen and circled the notes so many times that it made a huge imprint in the page. Needless to say, I learned the correct notes after that incident.

At some point in 1988, Craig found out that he had cancer. He began to take treatment for the cancer. Things went well for the most part. The treatments made him very sick and quite tired. We continued our lessons and he seemed to be doing ok through the treatments. One Monday, we went for my usual lesson at 5:00 PM and he wasn’t home. Later that evening, my mother spoke to him and he told her that he had started a new medication which had made him sleep for several hours. He asked us to call him the following Monday before we left to go for my lesson. Since we had missed the lesson from the week prior, Craig said that he would give me this lesson at no charge.

I called his home the following Monday before we left and thought I had dialed the wrong number because an unfamiliar voice answered. I hung up and dialed again. The same voice answered. I told the person that I was supposed to have my piano lesson at 5:00 PM. She asked me if she could speak to my parents. My mother took the phone and spoke to the woman. She quietly hung up the phone and told us that Craig had died in a car crash. I was shocked and sad. I cried for hours, it was unbelievable and so sudden. There was an article about the crash in the newspaper and there was no funeral or calling hours.

It took many years before I would touch a piano again. I didn’t want to have a new teacher because I knew it wouldn’t be the same as when Craig was my teacher. This was one of the first times as an adolescent that I had to deal with losing someone important to my family.

When I attended college I had to complete some common core courses. In 1994, I decided to take Piano Class to fill this requirement. Even though the class was for beginners, I figured that I would start over again and see what I could learn from the beginning, since it had been several years since I had read music, or played the piano.

I did all of this in tribute to Craig. The course was amazing. The instructor was a world renowned pianist who had played at the White House for several of our Presidents. When he played on location, he had his personal grand piano flown in to use. I learned a lot of new things in his course and it was a lot of fun to work with him. He could play anything at anytime, without even having a piece of music present. My final project was to pick a piece and play it from beginning to end. This piece was supposed to be challenging, but not too difficult. As we searched for pieces, he came around and approved our choices. My choice was to play “Silent Night”, in honor of Craig. I practiced it for weeks. There was a rough spot in the middle where I always messed up. Finally, I got through it with no problems. The day came for my final exam and I played it for the instructor and it went perfectly. I got an A on the piece and an A in the course. Since it was December, I went home for the semester break and played the piece for my family on our piano. It was a nice way to have some closure from the passing of Craig.

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