Irma Hincenbergs and her husband had a nice life in Latvia. She was an accomplished piano teacher and he a banker. But everything changed when Latvia became occupied by the Soviet Union from 1944-91.
Under the Soviet occupation thousands of Latvians were sent to Siberian camps, killed or forced into exile. According to Wikipedia, many Latvians fled in fishermen’s boats and ships to Sweden and Germany, from where until 1951 they drifted to various parts of the Western world (mostly Australia and North America). Approximately 150,000 Latvians ended up in exile in the West. Irma and her husband were among those exiles, eventually landing in Los Gatos, California. My home town.
Over the years they managed to craft a new life. Irma began teaching piano again and her husband found work. They settled into a quaint Victorian house in downtown Los Gatos. This was before the emergence of Silicon Valley, when home prices were still within reach.
Around this time, my father had invested in a baby grand piano that my mother enjoyed plinking on. Before long, she decided that piano lessons were in order. One way or another she discovered Irma Hincenbergs and began taking lessons.
My mother’s nightly piano playing sparked my own curiosity about music. Soon I was experimenting on the piano. I had a good ear for music and a natural facility on the keyboard. It didn’t take long before my mother drove me down to meet Mrs. Hincenbergs. That lead to several years of weekly lessons every Friday after school.
Mrs. Hincenbergs was a disciplined but kindly woman. She shepherded me through my scales, sheet music and repetitive exercises. She would often blurt out “No, no, no…” in the middle of a piece. She’d grab my fingers and reposition them. She’d look me in the eye, explaining the mood or intent of the music. It was often over my head but I nodded in agreement and began anew.
She had the softest hands I’d ever felt. Her voice was soothing and tranquil. Tried as I did to focus on the music, her gentle comments and hand repositioning often made me feel sleepy. But I did learn, and eventually was able to play works like Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.”
Irma Hincenbergs taught me three keys to better music and a better life.
1. Practice makes perfect.
2. Consistency is key.
3. Have a soft touch.
I learned the absolute value of practice. Proficiency and high art cannot be achieved without long and disciplined practice. There just aren’t any shortcuts to excellence.
It soon became apparent that consistency was the companion of practice. Inconsistent practice slows one’s progress. Only with consistency can practice produce real progress. And Irma Hincenbergs always knew when I fell short with either.
During my time with Mrs. Hincenbergs I discovered rock music, much to her chagrin. As a result I became a bit too exuberant on the keyboard. This invited a series of lectures about the ugly sound of “pounding” on the keyboard.
I was told that it was far more eloquent and refined to develop a soft touch. Less, I learned, was often more. Such that when an expressive note was called for, it held so much more impact and feeling.
I was too immature and unsophisticated back then to understand the broader context of Mrs. Hincenbergs teachings. Which is too bad. Because she passed on before I ever really got it. Before I realized that practice, consistency and a soft touch have value beyond playing the piano. They are key attributes to a better life.
Irma Hincenbergs was an elderly Latvian immigrant, whose entire life was uprooted by the Soviet invasion of her country. She had a right to be angry, and surely did voice her hatred of the Soviet Union at times. But her love of music never faltered, nor her knack for shaping young pianists.
Beyond the scales and keyboard exercises, my weekly lessons and consistent practice instilled some important disciplines in me. And I learned to have a soft touch not only on the piano, but in life too. My piano playing taught me other things, like rhythm and cadence. Qualities that inform my writing and creative efforts.
I never got to say goodbye to Irma Hincenbergs. I went off to college and somewhere in those years she passed on. But her life lessons still manifest in my habits today. Her soft hands, Latvian accent and affectionate presence live on in my memory. Thank you, Irma Hincenbergs. May your heavenly piano serenade the angels through eternity.