Shirley F. Silver, who during her eight-decade career as a piano teacher taught hundreds of children and adults, died Tuesday of heart failure at her Cheswolde home. She was 98.
The former Shirley Elinor Freeman, the daughter of Harry “John” Freeman, and his wife, Minnie Freeman, who owned and operated grocery and candy stores, was born in Baltimore and raised in Northwest Baltimore near Park Circle.
She was born into a musical family, with a father who performed in operas and sang cantorial music and a mother who enjoyed listening to classical music.
As a young child, Mrs. Silver began playing the piano and studying at the Peabody Conservatory of Music.
“The pianist Alexander Sklarevski, described by The New York Times as a ‘musician of serious purpose and solid attainments,’ became her teacher as she entered her teen years,” wrote a son, Marc Shelby Silver, in a biographical profile of his mother. “He saw her talent and encouraged her to consider a career as a performer, and she did indeed blossom as a pianist under his tutelage.”
She began performing in public and accompanying her father as well as giving solo performances. After a performance at the Baltimore Music Club, a Sun critic wrote, “As a piano soloist, there was a young Shirley Freeman, whose interpretations of Mozart were done very effectively and which were really a pleasure to hear.”
After graduating from Western High School in 1937, she studied piano at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, where she earned a bachelor’s degree. Deciding against a career on the concert stage, “she found her great calling as a piano teacher,” her son, a Chevy Chase resident, wrote. “From her teens through her 90s she gave lessons from her home, sharing her music with many generations of Baltimoreans, and holding recitals that filled her living room.”
Adina Kravetz, a former Pikesville resident who now lives in Jerusalem, studied with Mrs. Silver from 2004 to 2010.
“Mrs. Silver was very, very encouraging, which is rare in a music teacher. Normally, they are very strict, but she was very positive and had a way of correcting me that was not negative but positive,” Ms. Kravetz said. “She left you feeling good about yourself. She showed me how to fix things and always in a positive way, and she had so much patience.”
Ms. Kravetz said Mrs. Silver liked to chat before starting a lesson.
“Mrs. Silver was a very caring person. Before we began a lesson, we’d talk about school, family or the music she had selected,” she recalled. “Her lessons could be very long and often went beyond an hour. She taught me lots of music and she knew so many different genres that ranged from ragtime to Baroque. She had a vast knowledge of music and could teach anything."
Far from being a demanding teacher, she believed it was essential for her students to practice in “small pieces,” Ms. Kravetz said. ''She’d say, ‘Go slowly and then you’ll get it.' She knew how and when to push a student."
Mrs. Silver was known for guiding her students forward with what they called “Silverisms.”
“She’d say, ‘Inch by inch and it’s a cinch,’ or ‘Yard by yard it’s very hard,'” Ms. Kravetz said.
Mrs. Silver liked teaching her students proper phrasing and explaining how some notes were to be louder than others. “If you played everything the same, you end up bringing out nothing,” Ms. Kravetz said.
“She instinctively understood how to reach a student and expanded her repertoire to keep them engaged. Some students thrived on classics. Others need a bit of pop music or ragtime to keep up their interest in piano,” her son wrote. “She told them that practice makes perfect but it doesn’t have to be perfect practice. That’s why they call it ‘practice,’ she’d say. ‘Mistakes are allowed.’”
Marcie Handler, now of Cincinnati, studied with Mrs. Silver from the age of 8 until 18, when she graduated from high school.
“The musical foundation that she taught me has stayed with me my whole adult life; I owe my continued love of classical music to her as well,” Ms. Handler wrote in an email.
Recitals were another component of her student’s musical education.
“She got me into competitions and recitals, and I sometimes didn’t want to do them, but she built me up,” Ms. Kravetz said. “She invested so much in her kids and would work with them for months before a competition.”
Ms. Kravetz recalled a Sunday competition that she had spent a great deal of time preparing for that was being canceled because of a lack of enrollment.
“She got a call several days before saying they were calling off the competition but Mrs. Silver wouldn’t let them. I was the only performer and she saw how much work I had put into it,” she said.
“Of course, she didn’t tell me beforehand and only when I got to the hall. In her world, her students came first. She wanted them to have a sense of accomplishment and confidence,” she said.
After her last student departed at 6 p.m., Mrs. Silver made dinner for her family and ended her day playing her Steinway grand piano.
“Her hobbies were music and reading,” her son said in a telephone interview. “After dinner, she’d then go and play her piano for two or three hours. With her, it was music, music, music.”
Her passion for music also took Mrs. Silver around the world, as she traveled to Italy, Spain and other countries attending piano workshops, her son said.
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Mrs. Silver had not retired and was still teaching at her death.
In recent years as macular degeneration claimed her eyesight and left her unable to read music, she relied instead on her hearing.
“She would use her highly attuned ear and encyclopedic musical knowledge to instantly respond to the wrong note, saying something like, ‘Shouldn’t that be a C instead of an E?' She was always right,” her son wrote.
Her husband of 26 years, Donald Leon Silver, an automobile dealer, died in 1975.
Funeral services will be held at 10 a.m. Friday at Sol Levinson & Bros. Inc., 8900 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville.