Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany in December 1770—250 years ago. A long-awaited celebration for music aficionados, over 300 concerts and other projects had been planned in Germany, and many others around the world, to celebrate one of the most performed of all classical music composers. Unfortunately, the pandemic resulted in events being postponed or adapted for a virtual audience.

This significant date, 250th birthday of Beethoven, was the nudge I needed to write the story of the family tree that includes my daughter, Jessica, as a direct descendent of Beethoven—as a piano player.

Jessica played piano from her Kindergarten year until she entered high school under the tutelage of Ceil Brown, 1953- 2010. Ceil learned to play piano from Marie Ducey, who she spoke of so highly. Marie Ducey took piano lessons from James Madison Tracy, 1837-1928.  Tracy and his wife established the Liszt School of Music in Denver in 1910, named in honor of his piano teacher, Franz Liszt.

Franz Liszt, 1811-1886, one of the greatest pianists of all time, a Franciscan lay associate, was known to have never charged his students for piano lessons. Liszt learned from Carl Czerny, 1791-1857, an Austrian composer, teacher, and pianist of Czech origin whose vast musical production amounted to over a thousand works. His study books are still widely used in piano teaching. And….drumroll, please….Czerny was trained by Ludwig van Beethoven.

Our family is proud to be in this distinguished family tree of musicians and lovers of music.

Jessica describes Ceil, her piano teacher, as patient, gracious and calm. Ceil was an extraordinary teacher who appreciated individual student strengths and abilities. I delighted in hearing the conversations between her and Jessica. Ceil treated her as person, not like a kid as so many adults can do. When Jessica did not like a piece of music Ceil had selected for her to learn, Jessica was not afraid to say it. Ceil would go to her bookcase and look for another piece. I remember one occasion when Ceil looked three or four times for music that would suit Jessica’s style and interest (in a 45-minute lesson!)

Ceil would recognize student accomplishments each year at an honors banquet. At the 2004 Honors Banquet, Ceil read this anonymous quote, which epitomizes the values she sought to instill in all of her students:

“Why do we teach music?” Not because we expect you to major in music, not because we expect you to play or sing all your life, not so you can relax, not so you can have fun. But so you will be human, so you will recognize beauty, so you will be sensitive, so you will be closer to an infinite beyond this world, so you will have something to cling to, so you will have more compassion, more gentleness, more good–in short: more life. Of what value will it be to make a prosperous living unless you know how to live?”

Jessica and Ceil at the 2004 Honors Banquet

Ceil was a lover and teacher of music, but she also taught life lessons that made such an impact on not just Jessica, but on her dad and me. In elementary school, Jessica was a very competitive student and athlete—her idea of achievement, accomplishment and doing her best work was to be FIRST to finish a task. It was Ceil that encouraged Jessica to stay with a task a bit longer, to practice just five more minutes or one more song. Ceil could have shamed Jessica for not wanting to practice more, but instead she gave Jessica ideas and incentives for practicing longer. She would write her little notes in her piano books, give feedback, and have conversation that was individually tailored to her. Ceil did not just teach piano, she was a lover of teaching and life. She laughed a lot, had a passion for music, was attentive to detail, and she listened fiercely. She taught music history, the discipline of practice, and the joy of learning. She was teaching my little girl how to be a lover of life and music, to appreciate beauty and gentleness and to work for good.

Ceil was proud of her piano lineage and she wanted her students to understand and know their place in history as well. Ceil was a gift to my child in so many ways. Jessica still loves to play and listen to piano. I will never forget how Ceil honored the uniqueness of Jessica and how she accompanied Jessica in her becoming.

“Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy. Music is the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents.”

― Ludwig van Beethoven

Other posts on music:

St. Cecilia, Patron of Music—November 22 Saint of the Day

Music as Prayer ♫ This Journey Is My Own

The truth is that music is not a melody, it is a place in time. It is somewhere to go where no one else, no noise, no interruptions can intrude. It takes us in and closes us off from all the clamor of the universe.
 It gives us balm. It touches our souls. It saves us from the straggle and cacophony of the world. It takes our noisy, crowded lives and quiets us in the orbit of the sublime. 

–Joan Chittister, The Monastic Way