By Allison Scola
As a piano student at Mannes Music School in the early 1940s, Miriam Kartch ’70, ’77GSAS, and ’80GSAS was identified by Co-Director Clara Damrosch Mannes as having a gift for pedagogy, and thus began an inspired, 70-year career as a music educator.
“Ms. Karch cares greatly for her students,” said percussionist and Mannes College of Music graduate Daniel Mallon, who was a student of Kartch’s in the mid-1980s. “I’ve been honored to know her for the past thirty years, first as her student, and now as a colleague on the faculty.”
Known for her dry wit and unconventional personal style, during the post-War 1950s, Kartch was ahead of her time. “In my day, girls married in order to get married. I was teaching [Mannes Preparatory] and Extension School piano lessons, and then I was Director of the Prep school. I had a calling,” said Kartch.
One of her Extension piano students was Vernon W. Hughes ’41CC, ’50GSAS, a PhD candidate in physics at Columbia. “He came to Mannes for evening lessons; since we lived two blocks apart, we became acquainted and dated.” At the time, Hughes was interested in getting married. Kartch had other ambitions.
A few years later, in the summer of 1962, her then fiancé died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. The loss was shocking. A year later, seeking a countermeasure to her grief, a bereft Kartch was encouraged
by music theorist and then dean of Mannes Carl Schachter to visit Donald Klein at the School of General Studies at Columbia. “I had to do something that nobody could take away from me, and that was education,” recalled Kartch.
GS appealed to her. She started taking one class at a time, and eventually two. “Completing my bachelor’s took me seven years because I could only do a little at a time.” Kartch said. “GS was a wonderful place—it was a mind-opening experience. We were all working hard to fit courses into our schedules. We were all trying to enrich our lives.”
After completing her undergraduate degree, Kartch went on to pursue a master’s, and subsequently, a doctorate in musicology at the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences (GSAS), during which she taught Music Humanities and piano at Columbia. Then, in 1979, her recently widowed, old boyfriend Vernon Hughes, by now Sterling Professor of Physics at Yale University, called. This time, she accepted his marriage proposal... meanwhile, she failed to earn her doctorate.
While fulfilling her new role over the subsequent decades, Kartch continued to teach piano to undergraduates at Mannes and courses in music history in Mannes Extension Division. She is still a member of the faculty.
At age 90 and after decades of teaching, her influence on current and former students runs deep. She receives letters and visits from all over the world. “Everyone needs a grandmother,” she laughed. Well, if that is a succinct way to sum up that Kartch is an inspirational example of grace, style, perseverance, and humility, then it is a marvelous tribute to her.
For Kartch’s full story, including a wonderful account of her experience studying Italian Renaissance painting with Columbia’s legendary professor Howard McParlin Davis, please visit Miriam Kartch '70's Several Lives.