A couple of centuries ago, the idea of learning to play was thought to have been largely the domain of men. Then, after all, if there has been no one to teach or inspire or guide us, how do we know what to do? Well, some of us can now learn to sing. Let’s take a look at a few examples.
It’s an unusual story — the first person to learn to play the piano was Francesco Tommaso.
Tommaso came to the United States in 1789 and was granted freedom after serving four years in the Italian army. The first American piano teacher came to Chicago just one year before Tommaso arrived, and he was a young man named James B. Sturgis.
According to the Chicago Sun-Times, “After five years of learning on Mr. Sturgis’s new piano, Francis Tommaso learned to play the instrument” and “was able to sing like anyone else.”
On the other hand, a letter published in the April 10, 1848 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal reads: “The last recorded performance of Mr. Tommaso was at the public library. It proved an impossible task to explain it to a crowd of three thousand… [but] Francis Tommaso played his first recital with equal facility.”
That’s a remarkable, if somewhat unusual, story. Tommaso was a woman, trained in a woman’s instrument, and the person who first taught her to play. She played to an audience. She won.
In fact, one of America’s most renowned music educators was an 18th-century woman trained in the bow and harp, and the first violin concerto she ever performed with was with Mr. Sturgis in Chicago.
And, in fact, the first violin made in the United States was performed with a man — and played to a male audience.
In 1822, a Frenchman named Benjamin St. Jardin was hired at the Philadelphia Conservatory for a three-year term. His job was to study the instrument of a violinist who had died. And, he did, learning to play several important instruments such as “a harpsichord, a cello, a violin, a bass bow.” He also mastered the violin “for unaccompanied solo performance, consisting of three pianos connected as shown in the drawing entitled ‘St. Jardin’s Violin,’ and a bass violin