L.A. Affairs: The music teacher who stepped up and became my father when I needed one

I would learn so much more than just how to sing professionally.
(Jonathan Bartlett / For The Times)

Like so many baby boomers I know, I grew up in a home with an absent father. He was brilliant and handsome and had served in the U.S. Air Force. My father had seen too much, lost too much. After World War II, he wanted to forget the horrors that made him grow up so fast. He wanted to forget anything and everything that touched his emotions.

He married my mother too quickly and too young. Life didn’t play out well for either of them, so he threw himself into work and studies to support his family and avoided any type of conflict. I saw him only a few minutes each day and rarely on the weekends. There were no holidays shared together, no father-daughter nights out, no time spent chatting. Never support nor encouragement. He was just too busy, always working.

I moved away when I was 18. I saw him only a few times again after that before he passed away.


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Many years later, an accident changed my life for the better. The back-and-shoulder injuries I suffered prevented my return to my job as an attorney working in downtown Los Angeles. I decided to re-invent myself. An idea came to mind: Could I make a living using my voice?

The first day my prospective new voice teacher opened the door of his West Los Angeles home to me, we fleetingly eyed each other with suspicion. I knew nothing about the skills I was about to acquire, and here was an expert, a maestro. I had heard of his incredible reputation as a musician, and I was in awe. He quickly beckoned me to open my music book and start. He warned me that vocal training was going to be a long and arduous journey, taking years to master, but that I would learn so much more than just how to sing professionally.

He was right. He would go on to teach me music history, composition and interpretation. He would bring those lessons to life by sharing his personal connections with famous musicians and his life experiences.

What I never expected during those early lessons was that, for the first time in my life, I would acquire a real father; perhaps not a biological father but nevertheless a father figure.

I was an adult when I began to train with him, but that didn’t matter. We all need a father.


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In the beginning, I rarely spoke to him about my life. But music, specifically in voice lessons, is personal. Singing reveals one’s soul.

He told me all about his childhood, his parents who immigrated from the Ukraine, and how he supported his family through his music even as a child. He told me about Los Angeles before all the freeways and high rises, when the city was young and fresh. He told me about marrying young and being naïve, about losing his job when he was falsely labeled a communist and blacklisted, so Hollywood turned its back on him; about having to abandon his music to sell burial plots to support his family.

Little by little, a friendship grew.

And then it grew into something more.

When I became engaged, he told me he was licensed to officiate at weddings and would be honored to perform the ceremony — if we’d have him. I remember that day now, with tears in my eyes. It was perfect.

When I was starting a family, he talked to me about parenting, including mistakes he had made that I should avoid. He was happiest when he told me about the joy of fatherhood, of nurturing a new life and building memories.

He told me that we had adopted each other too and had become family.

When I lost my first child midway through my pregnancy, I was able to rely on him for solace. And when my son was born, he insisted on being among the first to see my newborn. He arrived with a special gift, a tiny silver bear engraved with my son’s name on it. To this day the little silver bear sits on the shelf next to my son’s bed.


Years later, his daughter died. When it came time to bury her, he asked me to sit with him during the funeral service.

As the years went by, I never wanted to complete my lessons. There was so much more to learn and discuss, even after he found me my first job as a singer. But things, of course, changed. One day, he told me that he and his wife were moving out of state, where the cost of living was more affordable. My heart sank, but we agreed that my lessons would continue by phone, and that we would meet each time he returned to Los Angeles.

And that is exactly what happened. We would meet every time he returned to Los Angeles, for a lesson, a meal or for me to attend one of the concerts he continued to perform in. Each time I’d say goodbye, there was a pain in my heart that perhaps we would never meet again. As his health deteriorated, he traveled less. We would speak by phone more often. His pride prevented him from letting me travel to see him. “I don’t look well,” he’d say.

Then one day he phoned to give me a lesson. After about five minutes, I could hear the fatigue in his voice and knew he did not have the strength to continue. I told him we should reschedule for another day. I think he knew this might be the final goodbye. Before we hung up, he told me that he loved me and added, “Even when I am gone, remember that you are strong and you must carry on.”

He died a few days later of heart failure. He was laid to rest at a cemetery in Los Angeles. I visit him there as often as I can. He loved animals, and for some reason a female coyote often appears while I’m laying flowers on his grave. She sits quietly under a nearby tree, and once even walked with me back to my car, as if to remind me that I am not alone and that she’ll watch over him.

I cherish that I finally had a father, even though our time together was short.

He taught me to value music at a spiritual level, to dig deep into the meaning of prayers where each word and each musical note meant something. He taught me to not be afraid of making a mistake in life and in singing, and always to be your own person. He could be a tough taskmaster, but always stressed: “Singing is not about perfection. It’s about interpretation.”


And he also taught me that love can come in many forms and quite unexpectedly. I did carry on, but it’s not the same.

Maestro, I miss you. Happy (Adopted) Father’s Day.

The author is an attorney, musician and animal welfare/environmental activist.

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