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A few words of encouragement from his music teacher changed Karl Goldstein's life

Karl Goldstein nearly gave up playing the piano, but then a word of encouragement from a tough teacher put him on a lifelong career path.
Karl Goldstein
Karl Goldstein nearly gave up playing the piano, but then a word of encouragement from a tough teacher put him on a lifelong career path.

This story is part of the My Unsung Hero series, from the Hidden Brain team, about people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else.

If you were one of those kids who decided to stop playing a musical instrument and your parents never got over it, you may want to skip this story.

That's because this is the tale of a man whose musical career is the stuff of your parents' most wistful "what-could-have-been" daydreams – a career that almost never came to pass.

When Karl Goldstein was a young child, he took piano lessons every Saturday morning with a family friend. She'd feed him breakfast, and Goldstein would get to check out her husband's stamp collection. Eventually, they'd get around to playing the piano.

"And we would joke around and pretty much take all morning just to have a lesson," Goldstein remembered. "And I loved it."

But when Goldstein was 12, his teacher told his parents that he needed better instruction. So his mother took him to a music school in the Bronx, and enrolled him in classes with a teacher named Alice Shapiro. This new teacher was known for being tough, and she quickly lived up to that reputation.

"One time, she said, 'You need to memorize that movement of the Beethoven Sonata for next week.' And my first reaction was, 'Well, I don't know if I can do that.'" Goldstein said. "And she snapped at me. She said, 'Well, if you say you won't do it . . . then you won't be able to do it. You need to do it. I want to hear it memorized next week."

This was nothing like his lighthearted Saturday mornings with his former teacher, and it wasn't long before Goldstein decided that he didn't want to take piano lessons anymore. He figured he'd pick up another instrument, or maybe just teach himself the piano.

At one of his last lessons of the semester, Shapiro turned to him and said something surprising: "You're not ready to stop."

Then the reluctant student did something surprising in return: he said, "Okay."

"It was as if all I wanted was just this little sign, a sign from her that she cared about me," Goldstein said.

That moment transformed their relationship. Within a few weeks, they were having fun and giggling during lessons. And within a few months, she was teaching him things about music that he'd never known before. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship.

"She became my mentor and my confidante. I went into music, went to Juilliard, became a musician, [and] became a piano teacher," Goldstein said. "And that's what I've been doing for the past 50 years. And I owe it all to that one precious moment with my unsung hero, Alice Shapiro."

My Unsung Hero is also a podcast — new episodes are released every Tuesday. To share the story of your unsung hero with the Hidden Brain team, record a voice memo on your phone and send it to myunsunghero@hiddenbrain.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brigid McCarthy
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.