The keys to success

Marlita Weiss works with one of her students, Venkatesh “Venkat” Sivaraman.

BY MITCHELL SCHNEIDER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

For more than three decades, piano teacher Marlita Weiss has taught several generations of St. Louisans, using music as a basis for communication, careers and camaraderie.

“I have been teaching piano for 35 years and it has been very rewarding,” said Weiss, 77, who began playing the piano herself when she was five. Her teaching career began by happenstance, when another piano teacher asked Weiss if she would be interested in teaching some students. As people heard Weiss’ students play at various events and through word of mouth, her student base grew and grew, she said. Now, she estimates she has taught well over several hundred youngsters and even some adults. She currently teaches 35 students.

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“I try to give them a foundation, and encourage them to keep music part of their life, even if they don’t pursue it as a career,” Weiss said. “I try to tailor the teaching to their personality and abilities. It’s a building process that takes time.”

Weiss stresses technique and theory, making sure her students fully grasp the fundamentals. “I teach mainly classical, but we look at a range of styles,” she explained. “I like Stevie Wonder… but Beethoven is my all-time favorite.

“There is a saying that classical music is music that extends beyond the life of the composer, and I think that’s right.”

Just as her students’ interests and talent levels vary, Weiss says her teaching incorporates both the fun and the serious, knowing that some of her students are good enough to excel at highly touted piano competitions. “I only let them participate (in competitions) if I feel they are in the league (to do so). They have to be willing to put in the time. I have a practice chart, and they tell me how much they practice each week.”

Last week, Weiss returned from the World Piano Competition in Cincinnati where four of her students competed. It was the 29th consecutive time she has taken students there. One of her youngest charges, 7-year-old Hannah Vli of Chesterfield, won a gold medal at the competition while another received an honorable mention.

Students must pass an exam in order qualify for the World, and then compete with approximately 150 students from across the United States and other countries. Winners perform at a recital at Carnegie Hall, which Hannah will do later this year. In 2009, three of Weiss’ students, including gold medalist Venkatesh “Venkat” Sivaraman, played at the legendary hall.

Venkat, who will be a seventh grader at Parkway Northeast Middle School, conducted his school’s orchestra as a sixth grader in an original composition.

In addition to placing first in his age group in ragtime at the World in 2009, Venkat placed first at the Scott Joplin Ragtime Competition in St. Louis in May. He’s been playing piano for eight years; four with Weiss.

During a recent lesson, Venkat began with a ragtime piece, before moving onto arrangements by Mozart, Liszt and Bach. As he played, Weiss offered praise as well as advice. A metronome set the basic beat of the music for much of the 45-minute lesson. The two also worked on fingering and hand arch techniques.

For Weiss, one source of great pleasure is staying in touch with former students, some of whom return to her as the parents of students.

“There are some people that were students eight or 10 years ago, and I still hear from them. I recently attended the wedding of one student, and I recently took a trip to Israel for a reunion with one former student who is now a graduate student in archeology. I currently have two students that are the children of former students. They are like my ‘grand-students,'” Weiss said. “I sometimes will tell them stories that begin with ‘When your father was a student…'”

Not only has Weiss taught the children of former students, but she has also taught students from across a wide spectrum of cultures.

“They are all American now, but I have had students whose families came from almost every country including the Philippines, Israel, India, China, Japan, Korea and throughout Africa,” Weiss said “My students have been Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Muslim. Music crosses all lines.

“In Israel, if you get a group of people together, they start playing, and through music they become friends. Many of my Chinese students speak English here, but there is often Chinese still spoken at their homes. There is a theory that part of the reason why many Chinese are good at both music and at math, is that in math and music, there is no language barrier.”

Another source of pride is the success that her former students achieve, whether in music or in other fields.

Melissa Guller, who studied with Weiss for approximately nine years beginning around the fourth grade, is now a sophomore at the University of Miami on a full four-year music scholarship.

“Mrs. Weiss always had an extremely strong showing of students at the World Piano Competition, both in numbers and quality of performance,” Guller said.

“One of my favorite competitions was the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival, where I placed second as a freshman in the high school category. I had never played ragtime music, but after Mrs. Weiss introduced me to the ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ I was hooked. That’s just one example of a priceless opportunity I never would’ve had if not for Marlita’s guidance and encouragement,” Guller added.

For Guller, who was a four-time semi-finalist at the World Piano Competition, and who also missed a perfect ACT score by just one point, Weiss’ influence has continued to play a major part in her life.

“Mrs. Weiss helped me prepare for all my auditions, she wrote letters of recommendations for various schools, and was a huge help in the whole (college) application process,” she said. “I know she wants the best for me, and she was so supportive of all the decisions I made.”

Guller’s sentiment was echoed by her mother, Joanne. “Marlita is a gifted teacher and knows how to motivate each of her students in such a way that they can reach their fullest potential as a pianist,” said Joanne Guller.

In addition to teaching piano, Weiss has an interest in the harpsichord, a similar instrument that pre-dates the piano. She also enjoys swimming, reading and participating in an investment club. She and her husband Stuart, a clinical professor of neurology at Washington University, live in Westwood and have three children and five grandchildren. They are members of Temple Israel, where she has served as a member of the temple’s music committee for 40 years.