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Letters from Readers

February 05, 2009

Professor Kilbuck Remembered

I took harpsichord lessons with Miss Kilbuck for nearly sixteen years. Though she was often hard to please and we didn’t always understand each other very well or see eye-to-eye on some things, she was an excellent teacher, and I can’t thank God or Miss Kilbuck enough for all I’ve learned from her.

Miss Kilbuck willingly took on the challenging task of teaching a visually impaired person and treated me as a normal human being from the start. That first day, she used my fingers to demonstrate and help me to understand how a harpsichord works. Year after year, aided by her fantastic sightreading skills and an amazing ability to comprehend and make clear even the most complicated musical structures, she carefully, patiently recorded piece after piece, phrase by phrase, right hand, left hand, together; then on to the next phrase. If it was a fugue I was learning, then she’d split it up voice by voice, then pairs of voices, so I could truly understand and make clear in my performance how that fugue was put together. And of course she’d always record a complete performance so I’d have the big picture to refer to as I went along. The memories I treasure most are of sitting beside the harpsichord hearing and watching her play as she recorded these works or sightread through a book to help me discover pieces I wanted to learn.

Miss Kilbuck’s sense of humor sometimes popped out during these recording sessions: She’d make me wait to the point of painful need for resolution before playing that last note of a phrase, enjoying my reaction. Or, she’d play a muddily unclear chord in the bass instead of the single note actually in the score just to watch my eyes get big and hear me say, “huh?!” But other than those playful moments, I never had to worry about whether she was being faithful to the music.

Her sense of humor was also very much in evidence when we performed a skit for an April Fools concert in which our roles as teacher and student were reversed. When I had libbed a line not part of the script, she was right there with me. It was glorious!

Miss Kilbuck often went the extra mile for me and was good at solving problems in creative ways: She called me when I was in the hospital. When I was temporarily wheelchair-bound but needed to somehow get on stage for that day’s music hour concert, she put me in the freight elevator along with her and the harpsichord and we went up on stage pretty as you please. When I ruined a good performance of Handel’s E Major Suite with a ghastly, unfixable clunker right at the very end, Miss Kilbuck–true to her character of being utterly supportive and positive on the performance day and in her evaluations afterward no matter how hard she’d been to please before–was empathy and kindness itself. And then, without my even asking her to she set it up for me to re-record the suite so I could resolve the trauma of the experience. How many other teachers would have thought to do that?!

She also blessed me with three special opportunities: When Lewis & Clark was making a film about the college’s educational programs and they wanted to show her teaching, she chose me, expressing great trust and confidence in my ability not to get distracted by the cameramen. When she arranged a concert at her house celebrating Handel’s music in 1985, I was given the privilege of being one of the performers. And she gave me in 1989 the joy and much needed resolution of being able to play at her retirement party, a precious chance to honor her and to express my tender gratitude.

One day I was playing for a friend and lost track of time. When she came in for our lesson and saw this precious musical moment in progress, instead of interrupting and ruining everything, she quietly stayed out of my sight until I’d finished. When I thanked her afterward, she said, “I’m here to serve my students.” I was just awed and floored! From time to time, she also spoke of learning from her students. This kind of humility and openness are always a sign of a good teacher.

Miss Kilbuck was usually deliberate and thoughtful in her actions and speech, yet when I–unable to keep my feelings about the music to myself–would suddenly break forth with some passionate, enthusiastic remark, her quick, equally enthusiastic response of “Yes!” or “Isn’t it, though?!” would show she truly understood and felt just like I did about that piece. With a rush of joy and gratitude, I’d know we’d become for the brief moment kindred souls.

Sometimes we discussed nonmusical topics. One day, she began a lesson by reading some Native American poetry from a book she’d been perusing. Another time, we were just talking, and she told me she loved watching football.

The one thing we always saw eye to eye on was our mutual love of and passion for the harpsichord and its music. Miss Kilbuck played with way more energy and expressivity than most of the harpsichord virtuosos whose recordings I’ve heard. She used articulation within phrases and appropriate pauses at the ends of cadences to make both the music’s structure and feelings shine forth. And she didn’t take fast pieces at the insane tempos so many performers seem to consider necessary. This way of playing made each recital in that legendary well-tempered clavier series I was blessed to attend a timeless, enchanting experience, and each prelude and fugue performed a moving revelation of Bach’s heart and musical gifts as I’d never known them before.

As far as I know, Lewis & Clark no longer offers harpsichord and the only person teaching it in the tricounty area has more students that she can handle. Maybe someone else will start teaching harpsichord again because, despite how well electronic keyboards can now imitate the sound and the fact that music of that era can be learned and played on any decent keyboard instrument, I miss the joy and fun of playing an actual harpsichord and performing such music on the instrument for which it was intended. In the meantime, I continue with joy and gratitude to use and share with others the precious knowledge and playing tips Miss Kilbuck’s given me. Both I and they will be enjoying the benefits of her instruction for the rest of our lives.

Rebecca Reise B.S. ‘83
West Linn, Oregon

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