Jane Smisor Bastien died at age eighty-two on March 27. She “revolutionized the way piano playing for beginners is taught,” says Teachers College Associate Professor of Music and Music Education Lori Custodero, and “to this day, her instructional approach and strategies are very relevant.”
Smisor Bastien and her husband, James Bastien, were best known for authoring more than 500 piano method and technique books that were translated into sixteen languages and sold millions of copies worldwide. Their publications, such as Bastien Piano Basics, utilized their innovative, gradual, multikey method that teaches beginning students to play without the intimidating and difficult task of reading music. Instead, students learn to play child-friendly compositions by following a set of finger patterns that introduce them to the full range of piano keys, and then later learn musical notation. This enables students to play musically from the start.
Born in Hutchinson, Kansas, Smisor Bastien once said she couldn’t remember a time when she didn’t play the piano, having taken up the instrument at age three; her mother was a piano teacher. When it became clear that Smisor Bastien was a prodigy, she began performing at the State Fair and Rotary Club, and even had her own Saturday radio show.
She moved to New York to continue her piano studies. At Barnard, a classmate asked her to substitute-teach piano at the Hudson Guild Settlement House. The classmate never returned, and Bastien kept the job, calling it a pivotal experience that affirmed her vocation and passion for teaching children. “I think that job, teaching immigrants from different places at the settlement house, was one of the most meaningful to her,” Smisor Bastien’s daughter, Lisa Hanss, said. (Hanss and her sister Lori Vickers continue the family tradition by working as piano teachers, and both collaborated with their mother on a new series of books titled Bastien New Traditions.) “Students lined up to practice on the Hudson Guild’s one piano, and their enthusiasm and dedication inspired her.”
In addition to her diploma from Barnard, Smisor Bastien received a master’s degree from Teachers College, where she studied piano pedagogy. Newcomb College, the women’s college at Tulane University in New Orleans, recruited her to establish its Preparatory Piano Department. There, she met her future husband and collaborator, though he was engaged at the time. After James Bastien returned to New Orleans in 1961 to see her play the Schumann Concerto with the New Orleans Symphony (conducted by Aaron Copland, no less), the couple married and went on to perform and compose together and to publish their innovative teaching techniques.
“As a pedagogue, she was incredibly specific and communicative,” says Elan McMahan, music director at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, who was Bastien’s first student after the family moved to La Jolla, California, in 1975. “There was just a clarity in her language that was uncanny. She was warm and loving and never falsely so.” McMahan adds, “She was also an incredible pianist. When she played something like the big Beethoven sonatas, she could just rip it out.”
Friends like Annette Clark Waite ’57 remember Bastien for her “bubbly personality and genuine warmth,” not to mention her love of flowers. She was a voracious shopper and traveler who taught workshops all over the world, including in China, two years ago. “When we both turned eighty, I asked Jane if she’d ever give up teaching,” Waite said. “She told me, ‘I couldn’t do that, I would just die if I didn’t have my students.’” •