Charles Blank: spreading harmony
It takes Charles Blank a minute or two to settle on the couch as Duffy, the family's rambunctious year-and-a-half-old West Highland terrier, enthusiastically attempts to lick his face. His response to the young dog's activity seems to confirm what Mr. Blank's first impression implies; that the 69-year-old musicologist is patient, easy-going, and good-natured. Mr. Blank stares at Duffy, then with wry humor and a straight face, explains that he's been trying to teach the dog the piano for months, but the little terrier refuses to practice.
Music has always had great significance for Mr. Blank, who began playing the piano at the age of four. Although he wound up having a career as the regional director of the public library system in Hagarstown, Maryland, it is listening to his father's phonograph records he reminisces about, and about playing the viola for close to 15 years. He recalls, "The happiest day of my life was when I gave up the viola and started playing the piano."
Mr. Blank holds a master's degree in piano and music history from Indiana University. Ten years ago, after being seasonal Islanders for 35 years, he and his wife, Nancy, became year-round Islanders, and without fanfare or fuss, began generously sharing their expertise and talent with Islanders. Ms. Blank, is an artist and art teacher at Featherstone Center for the Arts. Mr. Blank teaches beginning and intermediate piano to adults, as well as offering a series of music history and appreciation programs at Island senior centers.
Speaking slowly and thoughtfully, Mr. Blank explains that it is important for people to have at least one of the arts in their lives, otherwise their lives are never fully complete. "One of the reasons Nancy and I got married was because of our love for the arts." He smiles and says, "And there must have been something because it's lasted 35 years."
He says, "I was in Bunch of Grapes today ordering some books, and they say they only sell maybe half a dozen Shakespeare plays a year." He punctuates the statement with a look of disbelief, and says, "If anyone would be interested in forming a small Shakespeare society, I would be really interested in talking to them.
Anyone who has listened to one of Mr. Blank's lectures on classical music can vouch for how fascinating the classical composers become as he describes the drama of their lives and work, including intrigues and gossip along with explanations of musical theory and patterns.
But it is teaching he loves. Mr. Blank admits he likes teaching piano so much he would pay people to take lessons. He laughs, then adds, "Fortunately, no one has taken me up on it. But that's really the way I feel. I feel that I'm getting as much from students as they're getting from me."
His piano students come to the spacious studio in the Blank's contemporary, art-filled Oak Bluffs home. Lessons are given on Mr. Blank's105-year-old Stieff grand piano, completely restored and rebuilt by David Stanwood and Jim Legando. But when his students sit on the piano bench, he's likely to begin by inquiring about their day, even finding time to offer bits of philosophy and wisdom.
"The nice thing about piano is if people approach it the right way, it's not something they're going to be graded on. It's just something they can do for themselves, no pressure. The biggest problem that we have is overcoming tension. People are so afraid that if they hit one wrong note they will cause World War III." He speaks with slow deliberation. "I try to take a positive approach. It's not my job to criticize. Anyone can tear someone apart. Learning an instrument should be a reasonably pleasant experience. People have just forgotten how to relax, their day-to-day life is so tense. There are some people I get to relax, and others I just can't." He laughs and adds, "There are a lot of things you can torture yourself with and not spend the money."
There is a brief silence as Mr. Blank tries to recall a quote he cannot quite remember - something about how music affects life. After a few moments he simply observes, "I feel the key to a satisfactory life is helping other people, and this happens to be the area in which I can help them. All I can say is I enjoy teaching piano tremendously, and you often form a bond with students that you do not usually form with anyone."
Samantha McCoy is a student at Cornell University.