How important was the piano to Nelly Berman? Important enough that, in 1978, when Berman and her two children moved to Philadelphia from Odessa by way of a two-year stop in New Orleans, procuring one was her top priority. It even trumped sleeping arrangements.
“The Jewish Family and Children’s Service lent us $3,000 to buy a Steinway piano from a gentleman who was selling it very, very cheap,” Elana Berman, Nelly’s daughter, recalls. “My mother and I had to sleep together in one bed, feet to head, but we had a grand piano.”
There was a good reason for the privation: Nelly had devoted her life to teaching classical piano, and that first tiny apartment in Overbrook Park was to pull double duty as her first place of instruction in the area.
Today, the Nelly Berman School of Music is home to 350 students and 50 faculty, and has its own building on Lancaster Avenue in Haverford. To honor her mother’s three decades of teaching, Elana Berman has organized “Celebrating Nelly: A Tribute to a Life in Music.” The event, which takes place on May 11 at the Haverford School’s Centennial Hall, will feature a short documentary on Berman’s life, dozens of musical performances by current students and alumni, and an appearance by the 74-year-old Nelly herself.
For Berman, who was born in Odessa in 1938, her path to music was established when she was selected at age 7 to become a student at the Stolyarsky Special Music School in her Ukrainian city. The school, founded by the legendary instructor Pyotr Stolyarsky, who counted among his star pupils names like David Oistrakh, Nathan Milstein and Boris Goldstein, was created and supported with the assistance of the Soviet government.
Through bitter experience as a student and, later, a music teacher herself at Odessa State Music School, she learned that, while the state supported music schools, it did no such thing for Jewish students. Just as anti-Semitism was a cruel constant for her as a child, so it was for her daughter, Elana. “I remember coming to a little girl’s house,” Elana Berman says, “and her mother came to the door to tell me, ‘My little girl doesn’t play with kikes.’ People say to me today, ‘You’re Russian.’ I say, ‘No you’re mistaken, I’m Jewish.’ ”
The final straw for Nelly Berman came when one of her piano students, a 10-year-old Jewish girl, was awarded first place in a competition, only to have it taken away from her when it was learned that she was Jewish. Soon after, the divorced mother accepted the offer of a former student’s family living in New Orleans to sponsor her and her children to immigrate to the United States.
Berman and her children weren’t destined to remain in the Crescent City, though. After attending one of Elana’s piano recitals in 1978, Susan Starr, a former pianist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, offered to teach Elana for free if the family ever came to Philadelphia. With the help of JFCS, the Bermans made the move.
For students like Daniel Schlosberg, Berman’s methods, learned at the Stolyarsky Special Music School, took some getting used to. “I had been taking piano for five or six years, but nothing too serious,” recalls the 25-year-old, who is working on both his master’s and doctorate in composition at the Yale School of Music. “I came in for my first lesson with Nelly, and she basically trashed everything I was doing — but she said I had a bit of promise.”
Despite the high expectations and daunting workload (the school’s students are encouraged to practice three hours a day), Schlosberg was sold on her methods. The Merion resident, who will perform pieces by Rachmaninoff and Earl Wild at the tribute to Berman, was a student from the time he was 10 years old until his graduation from Lower Merion High School in 2006.
“I have to credit the school for inspiring me to be a musician,” he says. “That’s pretty big, but true. Nelly really instilled in me a work ethic and a love for what I am doing. ”
For the past two decades, Elana Berman has worked with her mother at the school, first as an instructor and now as the director of the school, as Nelly Berman continues to recover from a stroke that resulted in her contracting thalamic syndrome, a rare condition which causes the body to be hypersensitive to pain and sensation.
Her daughter says she never planned to become the head of the school. But despite the occasional tensions that can result when family members work together, she emphasizes over and over again how much she enjoyed working with her mother. “We have an amazing synergy, and an incredibly enriching connection through music and education. I greatly admire her and have learned so much from her.”
One of the most important lessons imparted from mother to daughter was about tikkun olam. The family experienced it first-hand when they came to the United States. “Jewish Family and Children’s Service found an apartment for us, helped my mother learn English, got my brother into high school, helped us get to Philadelphia,” Elana Berman declares. “If not for the Jewish community, we would not have survived.”
Until suffering her stroke, Nelly Berman had made it her mission to repay the kindnesses by helping more recent Russian immigrants find places to live, getting furniture for them, co-signing on their loans and more. And that need to give back extends to her students as well, with around 40 students receiving merit-based scholarships each year thanks to the school’s nonprofit arm, the Nelly Berman School Classical Music Institute. Elana hopes to continue her mother’s legacy through the event: Even though it is free and open to the public, she is encouraging people to donate to the institute as she tries to raise $1.5 million in order to permanently endow the scholarships.
The younger Berman recognizes that it is a huge sum, but, she reasons, there is no arguing with the results of a classical music education.
“Music teaches about beauty and all sorts of emotions. It gives you much more ability to connect with people, it helps you deal with fear of failure, and you have to have a great memory, all of which will serve you well later in life,” she says. “The majority of our students won’t become professional musicians, but they will bee amazing at whatever they decide to do.”
Celebrating Nelly: A Tribute to a Life in Music
May 11 at 7 p.m.
The Haverford School
450 Lancaster Ave., Haverford