The right chord

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In key Joan Willoughby encourages her students to discover their own interpretations of a musical piece
In key Joan Willoughby encourages her students to discover their own interpretations of a musical piece

Passions Over the years piano teacher Joan Willoughby has met many remarkable people, but it is in India that she believes one finds the friendliest people

Being an optimist Joan Willoughby doesn’t believe in the label ‘accident prone’. But she has broken more bones over the years than she cares to remember: an ill-advised attempt to ‘break a wild horse’ in her youth, a freak road accident on the way to school, a nasty fall at a luxury hotel… And it was also an accident of sorts that brought this American piano teacher, now 76, to India in September ’97. It has been an extraordinary eleven years since, and now Joan feels that it is high time she returns home to family in Seattle, USA.

It all started when an initial plan to travel to Europe did not work out. Instead, a friend’s suggestion that she teach music at the Kodaikanal International School caught her fancy and the adventurous Joan decided to “scrape (herself) off the ceiling” and give it a shot. Even if it meant giving up a full time job with the State, teaching positions at two universities and her own public recitals.

A few emails were exchanged with the school president and, within a month, she found herself in a country about which she knew next to nothing outside of the stereotypes (poverty, mystics, snakes) that are in popular western currency. However, before long, she made up her mind not to leave any time soon.

Full of admiration

Her association with the Bangalore School of Music goes back eight years and she is full of admiration for the school and its director, Aruna Sunderlal. She found Indian students more enthusiastic and hard-working than their American counterparts but as she always tried to impress upon them: “It’s not always hard work, it’s also about sitting down to create.”

As Natasha, one of her students puts it: “She encourages you to discover your own interpretations of a musical piece, even if it differs from her own. And she’s always so much fun!” Joan’s sense of fun rarely abandons her. She recalls entertaining some friends who came to visit her at a hospital until a nurse came in and protested, “Sick people aren’t supposed to have this much fun!”

During the course of a peripatetic childhood spread over 38 states (her father was an army officer) Joan found a true friend in the piano. “When a road accident at the age of 13 temporarily hampered my ability to walk and talk, I discovered I could still play the piano as before.”

Indeed, she found herself moving inexorably towards a career in music. And though her parents were ostensibly supportive, she recalls overhearing her father say “But how will she ever earn a living that way?”

But such was her determination that at one point she even considered not marrying. But she soon realized that the piano could sometimes be a cold companion, and it was in college that she met her future husband.

Although her children were not too musically inclined (she had to kick her own son out of her music class once for dozing off), her grandchildren are and one of them studied jazz at college.

Memorable encounters

As a student herself, Ms Willoughby was fortunate to come across many great teachers and musicians. One of her most memorable encounters was with the towering virtuoso Artur Rubinstein who had taught her in Chicago.

Although mesmerised by his personality, she couldn’t quite come to terms with the goofy photograph of his that he signed and gifted her. “I insisted that he was a dignified concert artist and tore it up!” Learning under Burro Rubinstein, his brother, was a different experience altogether. Even 10 to 11 hours of daily practice scarcely satisfied him.

Over the years Joan met many remarkable people, but it is in India that she believes one will find the friendliest people in the world. After more than eleven years, she is hard pressed to put into mere words what India means to her. And although the date of departure draws closer, she is uncertain about future plans. She leaves those to that same improvisational strain that brought her here.

This column features those who choose to veer off the beaten track





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