Love of Mozart led to a talented pianist and teacher, and a trusted friend

I love the music of Mozart, especially what he composed for the piano. My dream has always been to play much of it skillfully, but, at age 92, I fully understand that you can’t play that way unless you have the talent to do so. I do not, and I prove this every time I play.

Despite this depressing reality, I have been taking weekly lessons for 14 years with Stephanie Ben-Salem. The lessons have recently come to an end because of a problem with my eyes, and that decision has me thinking about why she is my ideal piano teacher and how she has become a very kind friend.

A native Philadelphian, Stephie began studying piano at age 4 with her mother, from whom she apparently inherited her talent. At 8 she was on her way to becoming a nationally honored student at Settlement Music School, where she has been teaching since 1998.

With a full academic scholarship to Carnegie-Mellon University, she studied with concert pianist Eugene List and performed solo throughout the United States. She went on to the Manhattan School of Music, where she studied with the Austrian pianist Karl Ulrich Schnabel. She also studied privately in Europe with Aldo Ciccolini, from 2008 to his death in 2015.

When I was 78, in 2003, I became Stephie’s weekly student at the Wynnefield branch of Settlement Music School. From our first lesson until our final one this past spring, the experience has been delightful.

I am grateful for the enthusiasm she showed at the prospect of being my teacher. She fully appreciated my love of Mozart’s piano music, understood my limitations, and would assign me his simpler works to perform, knowing they were manageable for me. Her criticism was always helpful and never painful. Courtesy was ever present. Her report cards were models of professional discretion and honesty.

Like her teaching, her friendship has been unfailingly helpful. She has always agreed to any request to change a lesson time and date. Whether, for example, it was for my medical appointments or because of the busy work schedule of my caretaking daughter Connie, Stephie always graciously rescheduled. When a fairly recent back injury made my use of the piano stool painful, she promptly gave me her teacher’s chair to use.

Stephie’s care of her students goes far beyond her one-on-one piano lessons. For example, throughout the year she emails me online links to video performances of gifted pianists. At the close of every semester she assigns older students music to perform for each other in the school’s concert hall. At the end of these recitals we always call upon Stephie for a solo performance, after which there is a delicious buffet lunch she has prepared for her students and their guests. And whenever her students gather, we feel moved to speak enthusiastically of her as a teacher and friend.

At 92 I can forget what I had for breakfast, but I’ll always remember how much Stephie has contributed to my gratitude for making it this far in life.

Seymour I. “Spence” Toll is an author and retired Philadelphia lawyer. spentoll@aol.com