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Thursday, February 17, 2011

From Buchenwald to Carnegie Hall

I want to write you a different type of story today. Last night I was checking my blog analytics, and I noticed that someone had found me using the search term "Marian Filar." This brought back of flood of exquisite memories for me, and I wanted to share this incredible story with you.

Many of you may already know that I am a pianist as well as a violinist. In fact, I began music lessons as a pianist at age 3, when my mother taught me several little songs or Christmas Carols on our grand piano. At age 5 I began formal instruction with a teacher other than my mother, and I continued private lessons all the way through high school. My junior and senior high school years, I had an excellent piano instructor, Merle Freeland, who was a retired university professor and a lovely gentleman. I added violin to my repertoire when I was 9.

Although I was a violin performance major at Temple University studying under Helen Kwalwasser (another excellent teacher and the best violin instructor I ever had!), I kept up my piano work. We were required to take a class piano, but I easily passed out of that. At first I was assigned with another student to "share" a lesson with a private instructor, but I didn't like that at all. I made little progress, and in fact, I don't remember anything more about that semester of piano. I complained to my old piano teacher, Mr. Freeland, and he apparently knew the piano dean at Temple. I don't recall if Mr. Freeland made a call or if I just made an appointment to talk to the piano dean, but I remember having that meeting with Dr. Wedeen and being reassigned to Marian Filar as my piano instructor.

I loved my lessons with Professor Filar. This was a time period in my musical growth when I became aware and discovered what musicality and musical expression were. I fell in love with music beyond just enjoying the physical playing of it. I attended concerts of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy, and I heard world-class soloists on a regular basis. I heard things in the performances I attended that touched me emotionally and very powerfully moved me to individual emotional expression. I started copying the musical and physical gestures of the performers I watched.

I studied some beautiful works of music with Professor Filar: Beethoven's piano concerto no. 2, Bach's Preludes and Fugues, and Chopin Nocturnes. One of my fondest memories of Professor Filar was when I asked him to play the Chopin Nocturne op. 27, no. 2 in Db Major. As I sat listening in a chair by his side, I was mesmerized by the beautiful sounds and expression he put into the music, which is gorgeous in itself. I was moved to tears because it was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. To this day, when I contemplate making "music" out of a piece of music that I'm playing, I think back on that day long ago when my eyes were opened to what true musical expression is and how powerful it is on the listener.

Professor Filar was a lovely gentleman from Poland. In the arrogance of youth, this is all I knew about him until last night when I searched his name in Google. I was lead to and a link for a book: From Buchenwald to Carnegie Hall by Marian Filar and Charles Patterson (University of Press of Mississippi 2002). I had no idea that my wonderful piano teacher was a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, the concentration camp Buchenwald, and the Holocaust. I sit here now as I write this and just cringe at the thought of my wonderful teacher's horrific memories from that terrible time. Professor Filar did not talk about his past experience in the 40 years before this book was published. Now his story is laid bare for others to consider.

Every person we meet and every thing we encounter in our lives become teachers to us when we open ourselves up to a learning experience. For me, Professor Filar taught me about making music and touching the hearts of the listeners. I will never forget my listening experience in his studio as he poured his Chopin Nocturne over my soul. I hope that I get a chance to tell him how much I appreciate the beautiful gift he gave me that day in his studio.

As a teacher now, I myself appreciate those moments when I hear from a former student (or a current student) about their learning experience in my studio. If you haven't thought about your own special teachers in a while, why not take a few moments today and remember the gifts those teachers gave to you. Even better, drop them a note and thank them for the time and care they invested in you. It's never too late to show appreciation.

I have been blessed by many wonderful teachers over the course of my life, and Professor Filar was one of my most memorable teachers. I am reading the rest of his story now, having bought the book last night. I will write him a letter soon and tell him about his impact on me. I still think about him every time I play piano. That Chopin Nocturne has been my personal favorite since the day Professor Filar played it for me.

"At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us." -- Albert Schweitzer


  1. Paula - Waaaaay deeeeeep. I can't help but think of the Polish connection between his heritage and Chopin - and - his emotional experience of being a Holocaust survivor. All that poured into his music.

  2. Yes, it's a great book too! I'm enjoying it. In fact, I've been enjoying his stories so much that the horror of the moment for him sometimes doesn't sink in. What a sweet man he was and a magnificent musician.

  3. I too had the privilege of working with Marian Filar at Temple for my masters degree and many years beyond that time in private study. Every year I present each graduating senior in my high school piano studio class with a copy of his book and share with them my experiences as his student. During my years as his student, he did share with me glimpses into his past and sometimes reflections of these remembrances. Your testimony to his exquisite musicianship and performance is heartwarming and true.

    (On another note, as a Texan, you may be interested to know that Dean at UNT James Scott also studied with Marian Filar.)