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Adela Bay Taught Me to Play the Piano

When Heather Andrews, Associate Editor of TC Today, arrived with Photographer Erica Staton to interview and photograph TC Alumna Adela Bay, she greeted them warmly and invited them to eat lunch with her. After a hearty bowl of Matzoh Ball soup and some chicken, Andrews lifted her pen and started to ask Bay questions about her life. But Bay wouldn't have it. She didn't want to talk about her life's work, she wanted to
demonstrate it.

  Adela Bay at the piano.

Adela Bay plays one of the songs she played after her liberation in 1945.

  A young Adela BayAdela Bay graduates TC in 1955

A young Adela Bay, and Bay at her graduation from TC in 1955.

  Adela Bay in New York City

Bay at home with her
piano in New York City.

  Adela Bay and Heather Andrews.

Adela Bay with the author
and student Heather Andrews.


"It's easy . . . once you know it," said 97-year-old Adela Bay quoting one of her seven-year-old piano students who took lessons from her years ago. She looked at me sheepishly as I sat next to her at her piano trying to pick out the notes that she requested. She didn't want me to interview her or to take notes, she wanted to show me how to play the piano.

Bay, a TC alumna (M.A. 1955, Professional Diploma, 1964) and a piano teacher for about 50 years, saw me as her latest challenge. She was determined to show me that anyone-even people who aren't mathematically or musically inclined-can learn to play music for enjoyment. Even though I've never played a song on the piano before in my life, Bay taught me scales and simple songs within a short amount of time.

Armed with degrees in Chemistry and from the Music Conservatory from St. Bat. University in Vilno, Poland, she earned before World War II, Bay came to Teachers College in 1954 to learn more about music education. Although she spoke very little English, she studied with James Murcell and Robert Pace at TC and quickly rose to the head of the class. Pace knew Bay's brother, Emmanuel, who accompanied the famous violinist Jasha Heifitz. She learned English along the way, but her music has always spoken for itself.

She has written many essays and has given presentations on how to teach music. Her publications include: "A New Approach to an Old Problem" in the Music Education Journal, 1964; "The Time Problem" in the Music Education Journal, 1966; "Improving the Curriculum" in The New York State School News, 1979 and her book, A Method and Techniques for Understanding Music Notation, 1980. She also created a teaching kit to go with her invention, the tonometer, called, "The Tonometer: A Self-Teaching Device for Clarification of Tonality and Key Signature (1957)."

During our impromptu lesson, Bay showed me that her love of teaching had not faded. Immediately, she began to struggle to find a language-or analogy-that we could both understand.

After trying to relate music to math and time, she realized that unlike her, I don't work well with numbers. She finally settled on relating music to writing and literature. She said the musical phrases were like sentences and the compositions were like pieces of literature.

"People read literature, but not everyone likes what they read," she explained with a thick accent. "The same thing happens with music, sometimes it affects you, sometimes it doesn't."

With each of her students, her goal is to make them understand and feel the music, not to just make them Carnegie Hall recitalists. Bay keeps trying different strategies until her student understands. Her book reflects this philosophy.

To help students learn, she invented several different visual aids that help a student to see the mathematical correlation in music. In her book, she illustrates the use of her inventions and her theories. Also, it shows the pattern of pitches, intervals, and chords with their notation in initial writing.

Her favorite innovation is the "Tonometer." It is a ruler showing all the keys of the piano side by side, even the black ones. The distance between the centers of the keys on the ruler represents the interval of a semitone. This demonstrates the linear arrangements of the notes and why certain keys are "blacked out" or skipped in certain scales.

Using a cardboard sliding piece with holes cut out appropriately, the keys that are skipped in the different scales are blocked out while the ones you play are visible through the holes. Bay opened up the piano and played the notes together to show how even though they aren't side by side on the keyboard, they are side by side inside the piano.

The sliding pieces come in different scales, chords and triads like the major scale, the harmonic minor scale, the major triad and the dominant seventh chord.

Time is another key to music, said Bay. If you play the same notes but change the time you have a different song. In a visual display that she made for TC in Main Hall several years ago, she showed the importance of time in music by a display of clocks.

Learning music is like buying a dress, she said. You don't buy a dress that doesn't fit, you keep trying on different ones until they fit you. Her teaching is tailored to each student. She varies her examples and changes them until you get it.

"If you don't learn it, it's my fault, not yours," Bay said after I struck a painfully wrong chord. Her patience and humor helps ease the pain of trial and error in learning music.

However, she frowns upon repetition of incorrect musical phrases. "Think before you play," she said emphatically from her chair across the room. "Don't play it if you can't hear it in your head-repetition of incorrect phrases will make them stick in your mind."

She strongly believes that the music is in your head, not in your fingers. Living in a concentration camp after she was forced out of Poland during World War II taught her that music would stay with her even if she couldn't practice every day.

"It was lucky, or I don't know if lucky is the right word, but I met a cellist at the camp that I knew before the War-meeting him showed me some continuity," she said. "He asked me if I could still play the piano and I said, 'I don't know, give me a piano and I'll see.'"

Needless to say, Bay hadn't forgotten how to play the piano after the War. She played a concert in Poland the day after she was liberated in 1945-without practicing at all.

Even though she is nearing the century mark, she hasn't lost her passion for the piano or for music. To prove it, she played an elegy by Rachmaninov on the piano, her hands flying delicately across the keyboard. It was one of the same songs that she played on that day in 1945.

All too soon, my lesson was over. As she shut the door, she winked and said, "See? It's easy. . . once you know it!"

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