MY GREAT TEACHER / Keyboard wizards


Los Angeles area, 1960s-70s

MS. BRANDT, REDONDO BEACH. The rickety wooden stairs were formidable to a five-year-old. They led to an old door with a glass knob, and to a cramped apartment that smelled of mothballs and rosewater. I was eager to learn to play like my dad, who led the family in song around the old black upright with the weathered ivory keys.

old piano keyboard

Ms. Brandt, her gray hair piled in a bun and her glasses perched on the end of her nose like a librarian, watched me closely over the weeks and months as I labored through Hanon exercises (does anyone like practicing these?) and whizzed through the instruction books. She drummed good posture into my core: wrists lifted off the wood frame, small feet together and properly positioned on the pedals.

With large sweeping motions, she marked problem passages in black pencil. If I still had trouble after several weeks, out came the dreaded red pencil. My goal was to receive zero marks plus a star so I could run down those steps to the waiting vehicle and show my mom I had moved to the next level.

As my legs grew longer and the stairway less ominous to climb, my tastes turned to classical music. I mastered the third movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. By then, Ms. Brandt had to move out, which meant I had to move on.

MR. GILMORE, TORRANCE. Robert Gilmore was a semi-recluse whose tiny apartment reeked of beer and the cigarettes he constantly smoked. Where Ms. Brandt had used her pencil to mark up the music, Mr. Gilmore used his to conduct, occasionally rapping the dusty old piano hard enough to leave indentations. Out came Rachmaninoff, Bach fugues, more Beethoven, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, and my favorite, Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto. We loved to play the classics together. He had a way of bringing out musical expression at the same time as encouraging technical mastery.

Maria Alvarado

Lasting impact: Those teachers have helped me keep music in my life for almost sixty years.

Favorite quote: “Life without music would be a mistake.” — Friedrich Nietzsche.

Maria Alvarado
Human services administrator, musician
Riverside, California


Accordion lessons, Los Angeles, 1970s
Anthony Galla-Rini and his accordion

His fee was astronomical — $10 an hour, instead of $2.50 like my old accordion teacher — but it took me about five minutes with Mr. Galla-Rini to realize I had only been receiving two dollars and fifty cents’ worth of musical instruction. It turned out you didn’t have to play the accordion like somebody wrestling an air conditioner into a tight window. You could actually coax some sweet sounds out of those Swedish-blue-steel reeds. Croon tenderly, or play with real bite. Whisper or exclaim. Even add vibrato. If you got really good, like Mr. Galla-Rini, you’d breathe through the instrument as if it were an extension of your own lungs. All these things he taught by patient example. Also theory and harmony if you wanted it. He was 66 when I met him, and I felt I was learning from a wizard who had devoted a lifetime to the craft — or what I considered a lifetime at 13, little guessing I would attend his hundredth birthday party in 2004 or that he would see another two birthdays after that.

A former child prodigy who entered Vaudeville at the age of four, Tony Galla-Rini became a trailblazer in adapting orchestral classics to the accordion (Finlandia, anyone?), a standardizer of the modern instrument, a conductor of accordion orchestras and organizer of music camps, a regular on classic movie soundtracks (Laura, High Noon, The Gunfighter, etc.), a composer of concertos, and mentor to generations of accordionists. And for one hour every Saturday throughout my teens, he gave me his undivided attention.

One thing I learned about music: The music lives in the playing, not on the page.

One thing I learned about life: Patience!

David Brittan
Writer, editor, musician
Newburyport, Massachusetts


  1. David,
    I loved this first article. I also love the picture, especially since I still have that accordion in my possession, my parents scraping together a lot of money to purchase that extended keyboard Gian Scala. Your words took me back several decades to the times when we also had lessons with Mr. Galla-Rini, some wonderful times we had traveling with other accordionists and being looked at in awe when, as an accordion orchestra (seriously?) we performed so many classical pieces, from the Blue Danube to La Boheme, to Debussy’s “Sunken Cathedral”. Pitting ourselves against other accordionists during those wonderful days of competitions will be something I’ll never forget. Our exposure to these classics as well as the perfectionism that Mr. Galla-Rini required (or at least tried to elicit during our many, many hours of practice) helped us to attempt to seek nothing less in our own lives regardless of what we did. Practice may not have always led to perfect, but we did learn that it takes hard work to be good at anything and recognized for our efforts…. and to be good at something, regardless of what it was, brought a special kind of accomplishment to our lives that no one can ever take away from us. Thank you for the trip down memory lane.

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