AN INTERVIEW WITH ARETHA FRANKLIN’S PIANO TEACHER

New York City, NY: Piano School of NYC faculty member, Melissa Manning, was recently featured on 20/20: Aretha as she was Aretha Franklin’s piano teacher. Manning honored Franklin in the tribute and shared personal stories about the “Queen of Soul.”

Manning received a call in 2008 from her office assistant mentioning that Aretha Franklin left her a message saying she wanted piano lessons. Manning was in the middle of a music rehearsal of a children’s version of The Sound of Music and asked if she could take a break if Franklin called. Her co-workers excitedly responded, “Of course!”. Her first thought was that it was a hoax until her phone rang, and the voice on the other end spoke; Manning instantly knew that Franklin had called her directly! Franklin explained that she found Manning on the internet and wanted to learn the Juilliard method. Manning replied, “Sure. I would be honored to work with you.”

Melissa Manning is a Juilliard trained concert pianist who attended Manhattan School of Music and Montclair University as a piano performance major. She was chosen first runner-up to Vanessa Williams, Miss America, and was crowned Miss New York State, 1983. Her talent in the pageant was playing “Rhapsody in Blue” on the piano. She has music directed musicals, played in orchestra pits, worked as a church organist and choir director, produced Opera Night Concerts at L’arista Italian Restaurant, accompanied opera singers, music directed, and taught music to countless students, including celebrities for the past 38 years. She has been a faculty member of the Piano School of NYC for 7 years.

A representative from ABC reached out to PSNYC founder, Vera Anselmo, after seeing Melissa’s bio on the Piano School of NYC website. ABC wanted to feature Manning as Ms. Franklin’s piano teacher on her special one hour 20/20 tribute and asked Anselmo to put them in touch.

“It all happened so fast,” Manning stated. ABC asked her to be interviewed for their TV segment the following day, so Manning quickly went to the beauty parlor and did a google search to find out what one should wear on TV. The following day, she styled her own hair and made the drive to NYC for the interview. She found out on the drive to film the tribute that Ms. Franklin passed away. She was grateful she did not have mascara on that day, as her eyes welled up with tears on the drive.

ABC interviewed Ms. Manning at the beautiful Merkin Concert Hall in NYC on Thursday, August 16th. The special tribute aired that evening. The segment features Manning at a Grand Piano sharing her experience and playing the piano. Manning mentioned that one of the things that did not make it into her segment was that of her demonstrating what Franklin had come in already knowing on the piano. Franklin came in playing gospel harmony chords to which she would sing the melody over, and Manning taught her a new technique of playing with curled fingers to allow for classical playing.

Her experience meeting the iconic legend made her palms sweat and made her question if it was really happening. She thought, “If I see her face, I’ll know this is real.” The wait to meet her felt like forever and included a game of chess with one of Franklin’s security personnel, and then the door to Aretha’s private suite at the Trump International Hotel opened. Ms. Franklin, in her 60’s at the time, was respectful and slightly reserved at their first lesson. Manning recalled that she quickly felt at ease while teaching Franklin, as she became like any other student, and Manning had a job to do. Manning fairly charged Ms. Franklin her regular teaching rate that she charged all her students.

Franklin liked to have longer lessons, lasting 1.5-2 hours. She often took little breaks, and one day, during such a break, Manning sat down at the piano and playing a Chopin song. She could overhear Franklin in the distance saying, “Ah! That’s what I love to hear.”

Manning never asked Ms. Franklin for a picture or an autograph, as she wanted to respect her, as Manning herself had had tastes of celebrity from being Miss New York State. Despite not considering herself to be a “groupie” to celebrities, Manning holds on to many wonderful memories of time spent with the “Queen of Soul.” She asked Ms. Franklin to trim her nails to be able to improve her technique, and they were trimmed by the 3rd lesson! In 2011, Ms. Franklin even fit in a piano lesson the day before she was set to record “How Do You Keep the Music Playing” with Tony Bennett on his album, Duets II. Manning also recalled what she termed an “opera jam session” where they each sang pieces of Puccini’s aria “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca. Manning felt this was a special experience and a declaration that they shared the same anthem described in the aria. The English translation reads, “I lived for art. I lived for love.”

The 20/20 segment can be viewed at abc.com.
Melissa Manning is one of the Piano School of NYC’s esteemed faculty members.

About Piano School of NYC: The Piano School of NYC is a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing affordable music education to all throughout the greater New York area. The Piano School brings 17 years of experience and offers private, small group, and Skype lessons as well as in-school programming, and lessons for students with disabilities. The Piano School aims to foster self-esteem and offers early, direct participation in music that might not otherwise take place due to income inequality and insufficient musical instruction in schools. More Information about The Piano School of NYC can be found online at www.pianoschoolofnyc.org or by contacting vera@pianoschoolofnyc.org or 212- 665-9051.