Life Lessons at a Keyboard: Writer Dennis Read Reflects on his Pint-Sized Piano Partner

We learned to play duets, but 10-year-old Michelle taught me things that had little to do with music.

Dennis Read
A photo of writer Dennis Read with his piano teacher, Ida Goldberg, and fellow student Michelle Bar.

When I was 63, I started taking piano lessons. My teacher, Ida Goldberg, usually limited herself to children, but she made an exception with me. One of the kids had her lesson right after mine, and Ida thought it would be fun if the two of us played duets. “That girl is so strong. So determined,” she said. “She wants to play the piano so much. She couldn’t wait to get out of the hospital so she could start her lessons again.” 

That’s how I met Michelle. 

Michelle was pint-sized. We shared the piano bench, angling it so she could reach the keyboard and I had room for my comparatively gigantic legs, and we worked our way through “Yankee Doodle” and “Skip to My Lou,” gaining mastery each time. Improvement was very important to Michelle. It wasn’t so important to me. I simply valued sharing time with her. I was awed by this little girl, 6 years old, a woolen watch cap covering her head made bald from chemo, boldly playing her part with her tiny hands. Continued treatments for her leukemia had bloated her little body, stunted her growth and made her bones fragile. She wore a plastic corset under her blouse to protect her ribs. None of this slowed her down. We were an unequal pair, separated by half a century and several feet in height. The next time we angled the piano bench, I said to her, “You grow or I’ll shrink.” She laughed and laughed. 

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Michelle was born on Sept. 18, 1997, less than three months after her parents, Mark and Yulia Bar, and her sister, Janie, arrived here from Israel. Mark and Yulia are natives of Russia and Janie was born there. In 1991 they immigrated to Israel, and six years later they came to Columbus. 

Michelle started learning the alphabet when she was 2. By 4, she was reading with facility. She was conversant in Russian as well as English. She was less fluent in Hebrew but could read it pretty well. Janie taught her sign language after learning it herself in high school. She says that by the time Michelle was 5 or 6 she was the queen of multi-tasking. “She usually watched TV, read, was on the computer, and had a Gameboy or something out all at the same time,” Janie remembers. “On top of that she would be fully aware of every conversation that was happening in the room next door.” 

Michelle was only 2 years old when she was first diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. ALL is the most common form of cancer among children, affecting one out of 1,500. Remarkable progress has been made in treating the disease, with a survival rate for children rising from under 10 percent in the 1960s to 90 percent in 2015. 

After one round of treatment, Michelle was in remission. When she was 4, she suffered a relapse, necessitating a bone marrow transplant. We started our duets when she was not yet 7. 

Ida and her husband, Gene, also are Russian Jews and immigrants to the U.S. from Israel. For many years, most of Ida’s students were children of the Russian Jewish community in Columbus. Janie Bar began her lessons at 7, just when her sister Michelle came into this world. Ida remembers Michelle’s shining eyes and alabaster skin and curly, dark hair. When Michelle wore a pink snowsuit, she “looked like a puffy ball.” 

Janie quit taking piano when she took up ballet in a big way. Michelle was ready to do both. “She wanted to do everything Janie did,” Ida remembers. When Michelle was 4, she asked Ida after temple, “When are you going to start teaching me?” Leukemia confinements delayed her start until she was 6. 

She was an eager student, starting off with two lessons each week. Ida arranged her time to be separated from the lessons of other students so she wouldn’t be exposed to any of their germs. Michelle would climb onto the piano bench, and Ida would put a stepstool under her feet. Ida wrote notations on the music in Russian, and Michelle would notice when Ida misspelled a word and would correct her. 

Compared to me, Michelle was a veteran pianist. She got the melody, and I got the accompaniment. We shared part of an hour together every week, playing duets at the end of my lesson and the beginning of hers. Making music together was a radiant moment, when all that existed were the notes on the page and the melody we made from them. 

In time, Michelle got to know my two youngest sons, Austen and Andrew. We all were invited to a birthday party at her house, a festive event attended by a big crowd. Michelle had collaborated with Janie to put on a play with all the young guests playing parts. After a quick rehearsal, the adults were treated with a performance. Austen remembers that he was a Greek god who made coins disappear. Andrew remembers the cake. 

I was an anomaly among Ida’s students, especially conspicuous at the twice-yearly recitals: a bald man with a white beard, older than the parents in the recital hall. The program was arranged according to our ability, with the virtuosos, teenagers who had been studying with Ida for most of their lives, performing at the end. I was always near the beginning. I dreaded those recitals. I was always so nervous that, no matter how much I had practiced, I usually flubbed my performance. 

Unlike me, Michelle loved performing. Ida remembers that Michelle called all the medical staff she knew from Nationwide Children’s Hospital to come to her first recital and was thrilled when they turned out in large numbers. She and I performed duets, and her impatience with imperfection came out when we prepared our recital numbers. Once, when we were practicing “If I Were a Rich Man,” I bungled the last chord. I looked at her and said in mock horror, “Oops.” Michelle gave me a hard look and coldly said, “It’s not my fault.” I was better at the recital. 

Our repertoire enlarged, and we performed in more of Ida’s required recitals. Our crowning performance was a rousing version of “La Bamba.” 

It has been more than a decade since Michelle and I sat together at the piano. So much about those times has slipped away. But the pieces we played together bring them back. As I hear the lively musical cadence of “La Bamba” in my head, I can remember the two of us sailing along on its notes, Michelle playing the melody with me banging out the bass line. The collaboration—the Mexican song made into a rock ’n’ roll classic and blossoming into rhythmic vitality before a full audience—is just some kind of magic. I grew up knowing all the songs we played together—“This Land Is Your Land,” “Home on the Range,” “Casey Jones”—but now they have been transformed. Like rubbing Aladdin’s lamp, they bring Michelle back to me. 

Ida gave me the best gift when she paired me with Michelle. That tiny girl (everybody at Children’s Hospital called her Shorty) taught me an appreciation of life—of this moment, this opportunity to savor it to the fullest. Michelle was completely immersed in the world, in the people around her, in the beauty and bounty of life. She had fun. Leukemia slowed her down, but it sure as hell didn’t stop her. 

Music was our currency, our medium of exchange, and it made our differences of age and size inconsequential. I shared her friendship with many others—especially the medical staff at Children’s Hospital, where she spent so much time in treatment. She collected the pager numbers of nurses and called them to her room for dance parties. During her bone marrow transplant procedure, she plastered the walls and windows of her sterile room with pictures (especially fish, her favorite creature), letters and stories. She used her IV pole as a ballet barre, practicing her first and second positions. When the bone marrow infusions finally ended, Michelle played the Beatles tape her Aunt Sasha made for her and danced with an oncology fellow, planting her tiny feet on top of his as they swirled around the room. Her rehab therapist named her daughter Sydney Michelle and when she became ill, Michelle worried that it was because of her. The therapist answered, “No, she’s going to get better. And she’s getting through it because she’s named after you.” 

She did get through it. But Michelle didn’t. She died July 31, 2008, a month and half short of her 11th birthday. In the ICU during her last days, she used sign language to communicate with Yulia. She had purple glitter polish on her fingernails. 

Michelle would be 23 now, through high school and college and embarked on a full, vital, productive life. She was denied all of that. How do you measure a life well lived? Michelle measured it every day. 

Sometime during our several years of playing together, Michelle made a greeting card for me. In it she wrote, “I’m so happy that I’m playing with you on the piano! I have so much fun! I was so happy to meet your family! You play so good I can’t even emagine how good you play!” I love her creative spelling. I can hear her say the word out loud. Emagine. Just like I can hear her say the other words. Happy. Fun. Good. Good again. 

She decorated the card with a flower and a fish as round and compact as she was. The fish seems to be swimming away.

This story is from the October 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.