[Photo: Mayim at the piano as a young child]
I have been a piano player since I was four years old. I played trumpet from 10 years old through the beginning of high school, when I traded in my trumpet to learn bass guitar.
This might sound like hyperbole, but it’s not: One of the greatest joys in my life and one of the greatest ways I have commanded my emotions – and brought joy to myself and others in my life – is through music. So I wanted to take this opportunity to thank the three women who brought music into my life in school.
1. Dorothy Ancona. Miss Ancona, who was my kindergarten teacher at Gardner Elementary in Hollywood from 1979 through 1980, passed away last year. Miss Ancona was everything a kindergarten teacher should be: warm, loving, and incredibly creative, and she had a tremendous sense of fun combined with a measured sense of healthy discipline. I only have good memories of my time in her class, and I happen to have a very short memory so the fact that I remember a lot also says a lot about her impact! I remember we hatched chicks in an incubator. I remember that she assigned every child a letter of the alphabet and that our moms had to bring in a food that began with the letter we were assigned and that’s how I learned the alphabet. (I was assigned “b” for “Bialik” and my mother and I churned butter and made biscuits.) But mostly I remember how Miss Ancona taught us to play the piano. Here is a picture of me in her class in my formative years learning to play the piano. Yes, I used to stick my tongue out when I played the piano for concentration purposes. I saw Miss Ancona throughout my life all the way through high school. My mother would invite her to birthday parties and some of the prominent events in my life. She was a gracious and graceful woman and she left a legacy in the students whom she touched. She taught me to play the piano, a gift I am forever grateful for.
2. Mrs. Debnikoff. In the 1980s, when I was in fifth grade, I was part of the public busing system which allowed me to attend Wonderland Avenue elementary school, a prestigious public elementary school in Hollywood, instead of my local elementary school which was in a not-so-great neighborhood. This system gave kids like me opportunities that elementary schools in better neighborhoods could provide. One of the things that Wonderland Avenue provided was a woman named Mrs. Debnikoff.
I honestly don’t know that I ever knew her first name or that I can even say that I knew her well. What I do know is that through fifth and sixth grade, Mrs. Debnikoff taught me how to play the trumpet. I originally told her that I wanted to play the trombone because it looked super cool, but she discovered that my arms were simply not long enough to play the trombone. She handed me a trumpet and she taught me to play it. I played in concert band for two years and while I wasn’t an exceptional player, I enjoyed it very much – so much that I continued to play trumpet all the way through middle school. I am so grateful to Mrs. Debnikoff for taking so much time to teach us all to play. We were not always easy to wrangle, but through it all, she persevered and my trumpet playing brought me tremendous joy for the years that I played it.
During my years as a child actor, many talk show hosts didn’t enjoy interviewing children so you were encouraged to bring a talent to a talk show and my trumpet-playing fit right into this. I played the trumpet on the Tonight Show and the Arsenio Hall Show. When the Rabbi at the synagogue that I attended when I was 13 years old saw me playing trumpet on the Arsenio Hall show he reached out to me and asked me if I had ever considered blowing the shofar – a ritual ram’s horn which uses the same embouchure (mouth-positioning) as trumpet playing does. Since then, I have blown the shofar every year and for that great honor, I again thank Mrs. Debnikoff.
3. Ms. Gardea. I continued to play trumpet in middle school. I attended a public junior high school in Studio City, Walter Reed Middle School. Our band teacher was Ms. Gardea, a feisty Mexican-American who stood approximately five feet tall but had a personality five stories tall. Ms. Gardea could play every single instrument in the orchestra. She was a master conductor and a firm disciplinarian. One of the challenges of an orchestra is teaching 75 middle schoolers to all raise their instruments at the same time before we begin a piece. It made Ms. Gardea very frustrated when we did this in a sloppy fashion. There were some days when we spent the entire hour of band picking our instruments up and putting them down and picking them up and putting them down until we looked and behaved like a proper orchestra.
Ms Gardea could be absolutely hilarious, but she was always incredibly professional and never allowed us to do anything but our best. I was not a phenomenal trumpet player and I botched the one solo she ever gave me – “In The Mood”- so badly that she never gave me another solo again. But it turned out that that was fine with me. I didn’t like being singled out as a musician and mostly I enjoyed learning to play as part of a group in concert orchestra band and in jazz band as well.
My time in band was literally the only time in my school experience where I had a group of friends I hung out with. We would walk to the corner liquor store and buy candy bars after school before band rehearsal started and I remember the time in Ms. Gardea’s class as some of the most pleasant times of my teenage years.
We need music in our schools in the same way that we need music in our lives. My family never would have been able to afford private classes or even a rental fee for the instruments that all of us learned to play in school. Music is good for your brain, it’s good for your soul, and the process of learning to play music in a group teaches invaluable lessons about cooperation, blending, and competing interests which, when managed well, can truly create a symphony.