Friday, January 4, 2008

For Mrs. Tossoff

Fame was on TV this morning. I saw it the first time on the big screen - 1982, I think it was. I remember thinking that the fictional New York City High School for the Performing Arts was very different from my own music school. My music school was more... what's the word? Oh yes, ASIAN.

I only caught the last 30 minutes of Fame this morning and it wasn't until the final scene - the graduation concert where the entire Scooby Gang performs I Sing The Body Electric that I saw her, and remembered her for the first time in many years. My voice teacher, Ilse Sass. She played Mrs. Tossoff, and when asked about the movie, she always expressed mild annoyance that her speaking lines had all been cut.

About 5 years ago, I looked for her unsuccessfully. Google presented me only with countless sites referring to Fame. When I called my music school, I was informed that she no longer taught there and that they only keep records from 10 years back.

This morning, however, with her image fresh in my mind, I tried Google again and found this:

The New York Times Obituaries, published: November 21, 1992

Ilse Sass, a pianist and voice teacher, died on Wednesday at Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan. She was 84 years old and lived in New York City

She died of a pulmonary embolism, said her sister, Leine Seligmann.

Miss Sass was born in Cologne, Germany, and studied at the music conservatory there. She taught piano for many years at the Henry Street Settlement and taught voice for 20 years at Juilliard and at the Manhattan School of Music.

She gave concerts for the blind and worked with blind singers. She also appeared as a piano teacher in the movie "Fame."

Her sister is her only survivor.

Miss Sass had an astonishing gift for transposition. Her hands were always cold, heavily veined, and when not at the piano, she always wore knit gloves. She was convinced that I was a coloratura soprano and bullied me into pushing my upper range ever higher. She was the one who first told me that Mozart loved his sopranos. No matter how horribly I sang a piece, she would let me finish my first run-through before then breaking it down. She had me sing lying flat on the floor so I could feel and hear the effect of posture, she made me sing at a candle flame to learn control. She loved Paganini, had a bust of him on the mantel of the fireplace in her teaching studio, and being childless, she saw all of her students as her family.

When I was in Hong Kong, I took voice lessons from MH, my first vocal coach since Miss Sass. This was after more than a decade of attempting to retrain my voice to better suit that 3-pack-a-day sound so desired by a cappella singing groups. MH pronounced me an Alto and that was the end of it, except for one day when he had me doing vocal exercises and he heard something he didn't expect in my upper range. "Do that again, and let's keep going higher," he said to me.

"Were you once trained, REALLY trained, as a soprano?" He asked me, with surprise.

That pleased me; Miss Sass had left a recognizable mark on me.

I start my fast this weekend, but tonight, when I am out with my friends, I'll toast to Miss Ilse Sass. She should be remembered.

And she will be.

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