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JUNE 2010

Married Music Teachers Les and Abby Learn From Each Other
By Joan Baum, Ph.D.
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Performers and music teachers Les Horan and Abigail Lumsden not only finish each other’s sentences, they knowingly and lovingly take each other’s “measure” and riff on intuitions. That’s “measure” as in musical measure, a bar of music that one of them starts — on the piano, violin, viola or drum, or just sings — and the other moves into, improvising, playing with the beat, changing the mode, maybe going from classical, to jazz, to blues, to Latin, to rock, to gospel, to Broadway pop, even a bit of hip hop. They’re Upper West Side New Yorkers — urban, informal, community-minded and passionate about music and about culture in all its diversity.

Their home is their studio, a comfortable, high-ceilinged warren of rooms on West End Avenue equipped with a grand piano, keyboard, percussion, upright, recording equipment and knick-knacks everywhere that speak of their separate lives, now conjoined, never to be put asunder. And to think it all began in a laundry room of the spacious apartment building they share as man and wife and musicians. We started to talk, I asked if I could try his piano, says Abby. And two hours later, Les adds, we knew this would be It. A marriage of true minds, as Shakespeare might say, that admits not impediments, but innovation. Indeed, one of the marvels of the Horan-Lumsden relationship is how each cherishes individual style while yielding to, and learning from, the other. This unusual partnership is, they think, what makes them effective educators. What they allow each other, they invite from their students.

Both trained in conservatories but early on pursued different career paths. Les, with advanced degrees in music, psychology and education, has been teaching, composing, playing, arranging and writing about music in the metropolitan area for over three decades. (He is also working on a memoir, tentatively titled I’m Not Jewish! Yes You Are about his surprise as a youngster, brought to this country by his family fleeing Nazi Czechoslovakia, to discover his origin.) Describing himself as musically looser than Abby (“she’s more serious” he laughs), he credits her with sharpening his technique. She works more on the “technical stuff,” he says, while she argues for his wider arsenal of songs and ease at improv. At times they refer one of their own students to the other for a lesson — to Abby for a session on fingering exercises, perhaps, or to Les for self-expression in blues.

Though a U.S. citizen, Abby studied and lived for a while in Holland, concentrating increasingly on conducting and voice coaching. Back in the states a few years ago, she cut down slightly on the number of choruses she was conducting and arranging pieces for because of an increasing dedication to Heart’s Journeys, now into its 11th year, an ever-expanding, ever-shifting multimedia “show with a story line” that usually includes dance and visuals. Staged at various venues around the city, including Symphony Space, she speaks of “Heart’s Journeys” as “therapeutic.” She was thrilled when an audience member at a health facility once came up to her saying, “You’ve warmed my soul.”

Nowhere is their goal of community and communion more apparent than in the responses they get from students challenged with physical or mental difficulties, such as the autistic boy, now 14, with whom both Les and Abby have been working “moment to moment, exactly at his pace — showing him the songs he loves best.” After five years, they report, he’s finally learned to practice on his own and “as is very proud of it.” Abby also has two autistic men in her Peace of Heart choir, ages 20 and 24, who love the “warm social atmosphere” of the group, and their deepening connection with it has made their respective parents “ecstatic.”

Their mantra is “At Your Own Pace — In Your Own Way,” and they subscribe to it for all their students who range in age from 3-and-a-half to 80. Students come to them largely by word of mouth and from viewing their videos on YouTube. There, at least a dozen musical performances can be seen, including Abby doing what she calls her “vocalantics.” One joyous video features Les bopping with a Japanese classical pianist, another shows Abby with bongos.

What do they think they do that makes the difference as music teachers? As Les says, they create lessons around individuals, but also go with the musical flow. On request, they thread their way into the main piano room to demonstrate, he at the 88s, she taking out a violin. They do a bit of Bach and then “Happy Birthday.” “Let’s do it in E-flat,” Abby suggests, “with a little bit of D and F,” and they do, their enthusiasm instinctively prompting a visitor from Education Update to join in, harmonizing. #



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