Saturday, September 08, 2018

There are giants in your life. And there are GIANTS in your life.

Norita was the giant who towered with loving influence and musical joy over all others while always elevating everyone around her to her level.

As my decade-plus piano teacher, she instilled in me the essential importance of learning technique and mastering both basic scales and fundamental theory; the artful balance of metronomic rhythm and emotional phrasing essential for playing even the simplest of Bach Preludes; a healthy respect for the rigid mechanics I needed to master before I could enjoy the brilliant ornamentation of Mozart; and a lifelong love/hate relationship with the ungainly accidentals layered over the impossible key signatures behind what was undoubtedly her—and subsequently my—lifelong love of the shimmery musical evocations of Debussy.

Her introductory description of Debussy and the Impressionists—that their work wasn’t as constrained by meter as it was driven by emotion—gave me a helpful (albeit transparently clumsy) crutch when she assigned me their pieces: Their works were among the hardest to master and therefore the most frustrating to learn and the easiest to avoid practicing, so I’d often show up for my lessons COMPLETELY unpracticed and try to use the I’m-not-unprepared-I’m-really-just-deeply-caught-up-in-the-emotion-of-these-chords-that-I’m-playing-so-slowly school of rationales as I secretly struggled to wrap my hands around their unfamiliar tangles of notes in front of her. I’m sure she totally saw through my strategy, but she patiently let me struggle there at her piano, no doubt secure in the knowledge that I was still playing the music at least once a week ... even if it was on her time.

First Lutheran Church—where she influenced literal generations of singers as the universally beloved director of children’s choirs from kindergarten through high school—once bought out a production of Forever Plaid that I was doing at Theatre Cedar Rapids 20+ years ago. There’s a moment in the show where I sit at the piano to play a very complicated arrangement of “Heart and Soul” while the other Plaids search the audience to bring me an unwitting duet partner, and on the FLC night they completely randomly selected Norita to bring on stage for our impromptu duet. When I looked up from my playing to find her sitting next to me, both of our hearts soared; I was so proud to show her what her years of lessons had taught me to do, and she was thrilled at the opportunity for us to perform together. And the audience—all FLC members who knew us well and who knew that she’d been my teacher since early grade school—roared with approval over sharing our moment together. I’ve accompanied the FLC choirs she’s directed, I’ve played duets with her at recitals and I’ve been behind the piano at many concerts she’s attended, but that brief, unexpected moment next to her at the keyboard in front of 500 people we both knew and loved remains one of my two favorite memories as a pianist. (The other is conquering the mighty Wilhousky “Battle Hymn of the Republic”—with her considerable help and guidance—and being able to accompany my mighty high-school choir as they sang it at my graduation.)

Norita had been in the ICU this week after complications from heart surgery. My sister had been to see her, but I wasn’t able to get to the hospital until this morning. I brought my sister with me, but the door to her room was shut when we got there as her family met with her doctors. We moved to the waiting room and eventually learned that they were saying their goodbyes, and Norita died soon afterward. While I’m sorry I wasn’t able to see her to maybe hold her hand and say my own goodbyes, my heart continues to soar over the loving memories of her that people are sharing all over social media. She was the patient, loving church mother to thousands of kids who spent their entire childhoods singing in her choirs. She was the consummate musician who tirelessly shared her love of choral and piano music with performers and audiences alike. And she was always a supportive friend to generations of students and choir members she always called “my kids,” even as we reached our 50s and 60s.

Among her many legacies are the careful phrasing and fingering notes she copied from her well-worn piano scores into her students’ new books before she started teaching us new pieces. She had beautiful handwriting, and I—along with countless other pianists—have stacks of music books filled with her thoughtful, helpful notations. And since I can’t find a good photo of the two of us, I’m instead posting this image of Edvard Grieg’s “Papillon”—an Everest of late Romanticism that I regretfully never *fully* conquered—covered in her bright red markings. Just finding and photographing my sheet music filled me with joyful memories of her excitement over introducing it to me, my delight over slowly unlocking its beautiful secrets, and her growing pride over my milestone accomplishments as I became more deft at its mechanics and more expressive with its emotions.
It’s always sad to say goodbye to a beloved friend and mentor, but it’s extremely comforting to know that Norita is being loved and celebrated so happily and so genuinely as word spreads of her passing. Her “kids” will always love and remember her every time we sing in a choir or sit at a piano. And she’s no doubt already spreading her joys of music to hosts of heavenly choirs.

We’ll miss you, Norita. But you’ll always be with us.

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