Ansel Walter Sherman, the online piano-lesson phenom, is a hero to many people, but not to me. I, who am closer to him than they are, see through his presentation. They want to be shown a hero. I want to be shown a mentor.
We were built on trust, jubilation, companionship, transparency; all of this strengthened by time. Attendees of his master classes feel a kinship with him that is derived from connecting to his celebrity. They forget that celebrity does not endow character. He is a talented pianist—a virtuoso, even—and a meticulous teacher, but he is a human. Flawed by pride. Fueled by expectations. The worst kind of celebrity. But they see him as a hero, because that’s what they want.
Mr. Sherman—because I can’t call him anything else, even in my adulthood—infused piano education with life, and life with piano. He gifted me a pillow for my high school graduation that read, “Life is like a piano. You only get out what you put in.” If he wasn’t a musician, he would have ended up in some kind of life coaching profession. Or maybe he would have been a preacher. He liked to talk, and to steer.
Ansel Walter Sherman was born to a high-school educated American father and a PhD-holding Filipina mother whose degree had become worthless upon her immigration to America. Mr. Sherman prided himself in…well, a lot of things, but career-wise, that he chose not to be rich when he pursued music in college. He had amazing grades in high school, laser-sharp focus, an uncanny ability to read people, and an instinct for turning the tables in his favor. He could influence the orchestra director’s concert selections so that the piano had the most impressive solos, and his other teachers were so amazed by him that just his name at the top of the page earned him high grades. He made himself a star. He could have been rich, as he told me many times.
The life story of Ansel Walter Sherman was the side-curriculum accompanying his piano lessons. The two were inextricable. Again, it was never just about music, but about life.
I started taking lessons from him when I was nine years old. My mom hired him because his rates were low. I was scared of him until I was eleven. His method of positive reinforcement required me to feel like a failure first, so that he could bring me back to my feet. The hero. I was in awe of him by the time I turned fourteen. At that point, I couldn’t imagine having another piano teacher. And then the good reviews started pouring in.
My sophomore year of high school, Mr. Sherman’s clients had more than doubled from the ten he’d maintained during my early years of lessons. I felt dwarfed by the growth of his business. Anyone who was anyone in my high school’s musical programs took lessons with Mr. Sherman. Except they called him “Sherman”, because it gave him an aspect of coolness. Some of them would call him “Ansel” behind his back, as if it made them seem “in” with him. That always made me cringe.
His days were booked solid, but his praise, wisdom, and critiques held more weight, even for me. I felt proud to have been one of his original students, and he still treated me as such, like I was different than the others, which I appreciated because I never felt a kinship with the other kids he taught.
Then came his complaints. By the time I reached my senior year of high school, he started to think of me as a young adult, and a confidant. He gave me less slack, but he morphed our relationship into a friendship. I didn’t like it. It felt one-sided, because he essentially used me to vent about his other students. How Alyssa never practiced. How some students were taking lessons because their parents wanted them to, so it was a waste of his time. How Vinny had been working on the same Sonata for two months with limited progress. How I was much easier to work with than Ashley. How I made his job less like work, and more like life, compared to some of these kids who are all about competition.
But admittedly, the competition aspect of the high school music community started to seep into my mentor. He became less satisfied with small progress, whereas he’d always rewarded me when I sped up a piece from Moderato to Allegro, even though the composer had called for Allegretto.
The heat of his high school students—kids, mind you, who shouldn’t be a professional’s guiding voice—formed his ambition. Every time Mr. Sherman gained another level of intensity, I shrank a little farther away from her. But we were tethered, like I said, by the time I was fourteen. You can hire and fire teachers, but you can’t replace a mentor.
The first student of his who got into Julliard broke me. I’d already been attending state college, but Julliard had been my dream in high school. I was scared he’d have a new prodigy. Someone else who he deemed more worthy of his attention. Meanwhile, I craved his guidance. How did he get that impossible internship with John Williams’ team? How could I get something remotely comparable? How did he bounce back after he failed his solo performance evaluation?
Ansel Walter Sherman is an online piano-lesson phenom, revered by piano students of all ages, all across the United States and afar. He shaped me to the brink of greatness, but then seized onto the deceitful promise in the eyes of greed, and he soared away from me, although he isn’t aware of the distance between us.
He thinks he is humble, perceptive, and generous. He thinks I am happy, thriving, and youthful. I feel like I have aged with every rung he climbed. Being close to a hero is exhausting work, and yet, I will let myself gray to keep him in my life.