Friday, December 4, 2020

The Man Who Loved Cats and Jazz Music

On November 29, 2020, a beautiful soul left this world. His name was Amos Roe, and he was my high school piano teacher. He was also my mentor and friend.

It’s been almost 20 years now since my twin sister and I had our first piano lesson with Amos, but I remember it like it was yesterday.

Amos lived near North Freedom, Wisconsin, in an old weather-beaten white house set deep in the woods. He had several barns and a windmill, and a small pond that he liked to ice skate on in the winter. Parked in front of the garage was a small blue car with a bumper sticker that said in all caps, “KILL YOUR TELEVISION.” The long gravel driveway plummeted down so steeply that I always wondered if our car would make it back out. Whenever we arrived for our lessons, a warm light would be on in the kitchen, and smoke puffed cheerfully from the chimney of the wood-burning stove. You would walk in through the kitchen first, perhaps the tidiest room in the house. Then you would take a left and immediately get swallowed up by the music room. One might describe it as “obsessive genius meets hoarder.” In this room were two Steinway baby grands positioned back to back—one for everyday playing, the other he was fixing to sell someday. He said the pianos were worth more than his house. The room might have been spacious were it not for these two pianos, and the countless shelves and file cabinets crammed tight with tapes and CDs, sheet music and books. He had run out of shelf space long ago, so the overflow went into independent stacks of books and files, packed from floor to ceiling. He consumed music in a way I’d never witnessed before. When he wasn’t teaching, he was listening to NPR and had the entire weekly radio schedule memorized. He had every episode of Garrison Keiller’s “Prairie Home Companion” on tape. From the moment we met he was asking, “Have you learned… “ and would name some classical piece, or “have you heard the recording by… (insert Glenn Gould or Barenboim or some other classical artist), and Emily and I looked at each other in amazement. His wealth of knowledge was unmatched.

When we asked him his musical background, he replied, “I’m pretty much entirely self-taught.” Once upon a time he had been a classical guitar player, but when he discovered that the guitar has technical limits (which he had reached), he switched to the piano and quickly became obsessed. He loved to teach. His star student was a boy named Kyle, who once performed for the queen of Sweden. Even though Amos only taught classical piano, he immersed himself in jazz music for his own enjoyment and personal development. As 16-year-old kids, Emily and I knew nothing about jazz, but Amos would put a record on and play it over his booming, high-tech sound system, and patiently explain to us how jazz musicians improv and communicate with each other during a performance. It was all so fascinating.

In that cluttered, magical music room, you would sit down at the piano for your lesson and begin, or in our case, we’d take turns. While one had her lesson, the other would wait in the living room, which had a couch and more bookshelves filled with volumes of Amos’s many other interests, including animal encyclopedias, books on U.S. presidents, and Gary Larson’s “The Far Side.” Emily and I were both allergic to cats, but Amos owned two of them (“Jazz” and “Louie”) and they were constantly trying to win our affection by crawling into our laps or sidling up next to us on the couch.

Amos was tall and thin, with a mop of thick black hair that he kept trimmed in a straight line across his forehead, a look which only enhanced the youthful glint in his eye. At our first piano lesson, he was immediately able to tell the differences between Emily and me, which was a nice surprise (sometimes our “identical twinness” still stumped even the closest of family friends).

He was extremely intelligent, but also kind and insightful. He quickly developed a special relationship with Emily and myself, knowing that even though we were twins, we each had our own unique personalities and gifts. So he related differently to each of us. Emily took her piano studies very seriously (and was therefore always the superior player!); I was less motivated and found that sometimes, our philosophical conversations about other things like art, politics, and current events, were more interesting to me than learning a new chord progression or scale. Still, I was often hard on myself. Amos had very high standards and never failed to challenge me, using whatever tactics he could. Sometimes he would secretly record my playing during a lesson. As soon as he flipped the switch on the stereo system I knew what he’d done and I’d exclaim, “You DIDN’T!” With a huge grin on his face, he would retort, “I did.” And then he would make me listen to the recording, mistakes and all. But it wasn’t to mock or correct me. “You can always correct the mistakes. I just wanted you to hear how good this sounds.”

During high school, my sister Emily composed a lot of her own music. At our very first piano recital with Amos, he surprised her by having a musician friend of his (who happened to play for the Madison Symphony Orchestra) perform one of Emily’s pieces on the harp. He was full of these kinds of thoughtful and wonderful surprises. And his sense of humor was unmatched. I still don’t know how he put up with two obnoxious teenage girls. We often talked back, got emotional, or were just plain irrational, and he handled it with humor and grace. He called us “Maniac #1” and “Maniac #2.” Sometimes our frustration with him was justified. He had more than a few quirks. He talked to his cats and believed that they talked to him too. He couldn’t stand the sound of fingernails clicking on the piano keys, so if our nails got too long he would whip out the trimmers and cut them himself.

If I had a question about my lessons, I would sometimes send him an email and he would respond with a long, well thought out response. For example, here are some of his (many) opinions on various recordings of Debussy, who was my favorite composer at the time:

“Philippe Entremont playing Debussy? I think I have a tape of him wielding his butcher knife on this composer, but it would be too painful to listen to it again to refresh my memory. Unless I’ve totally lost it, he is an infamous example of a “modern” (back in the 60’s or whatever) school of playing French music with a detached dry tone. That was the “heartless” feeling you mentioned concerning the First Arabesque. (The parallel would be to Americans earlier in this century who imported priceless antique oriental rugs and then paid to have the rich colors bleached out). Entremont has absolutely nothing to do with the way Debussy conceived of his music, and this is especially inexcusable because A) there is first hand writing which documents how Debussy wanted his music to be played and B) even more important, the fundamental character and sensual beauty of the music is so completely ruined by this approach. Debussy’s music is the musical embodiment of Impressionism (albeit with a strong classical backbone) –washes of color, not Czerny-like exercises, and he suggested that the pianist approach the keys as magnets which pull the fingers down. (To get the effect he wanted, he also played his music with the lid down). The pianist who is in a class by himself when it comes to Debussy playing is Walter Geisiking. Totally amazing control of color through his pedaling and touch – someone actually wrote a full length book on the pedaling he uses in playing Debussy. He was a pre-WWII pianist, so the clarity of the recordings are not what they are today, but I’m sure they’ve all been reissued on CD. Anna, some listening to Entremont and check out Geisiking!” – Amos Roe, from an email on May 15, 2002

These emails became more like friendly conversation and I saved many of them, because they were wonderful insights into his thought process and personality. He would also bombard me with questions and make me justify everything I said in great detail. You couldn’t get away with anything around him... He would either demand an answer to his “why?” or tease relentlessly. When I shared the good news that I had gotten my driver’s license, he said, “Wonderful! But if you didn’t get a perfect score, I need to know why so that I can warn my neighbors.”

For someone who related so well to young people, he often surprised me with his cluelessness. “Ok, answer a question I have had for several years,” he said one time. “What the heck does LOL mean?!”

When I was applying for a summer student ambassador program, which would land me a 3-week trip to Europe, I asked Amos to write a recommendation letter. He said, "I'd love to! I promise I won't tell them about your jail time."

In one of my emails I was brazen enough to ask him his age (broaching the topic since it was my 17th birthday that day). To me he seemed eternally youthful. “How old am I?” he responded. “Are we talking in spirit, wisdom, knowledge, body, what? Ok…you guess and I will tell you next email. If you are right, I will give you some sweet tarts. Did you know that sweet tarts are my currency? I would have offered you and Emily these in lieu of $ for cleaning my house, but somehow I didn’t think that either of you would go for this. My student Kyle, on the other hand, has a price for everything as calculated in sweet tarts. Tonight I gave him one for every 3 moth eggs he found in the carpet (he was especially pleased when I said he could boil them in the water on the wood stove). A little later, he yelled in from the other room that his brother owed him some sweet tarts for making mistakes in his playing. This was during the time when he wasn’t trying to strangle me or hit me with the wooden mallet. Hmmm… is this how most piano students treat their teacher? I know that some parents think I’m nuts when it comes to how I teach… good thing they only know a fraction of the truth!” – Amos Roe, January 29, 2002

We stayed in touch for many years. Amos came to my wedding, and we continued to exchange emails every now and then. Although I did not pursue music professionally and went into an art career instead, he was always incredibly supportive of my endeavors. The last time I saw him was several years ago. He had married a wonderful woman named Cherity, and she had a son whom Amos adored. He had left the bachelor pad in the country and moved to the city with his new family. He was happy and healthy, the youthful glint still in his eye. His mop of black hair was turning grey but otherwise he had not aged one bit. It seems appropriate that he would go so suddenly, and not suffer a long, drawn out ending. With Amos, most things were black or white, like the keys on the piano... there was no in-between. Hot or cold, good or bad, right or wrong. He was a force. He was a great man and a great teacher, and he was my friend. May his legacy will never be forgotten.

For more on Amos, see also this beautifully written obituary by one of his former students, Clay Disney:

Anna, Amos Roe, and Emily (circa 2002)

At our senior piano recital, spring 2003. I SOOOOOO wish we'd gotten a photo with our beloved teacher but as usual, he was bustling around making sure everything was perfect and never held still even for a second. :-) 


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