by Pia K. Hansen
It wasn't the thunder of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," the majesty of Bach's "Brandenburg Concertos" or even the thrills of Chopin's magical compositions that attracted pianist Margaret May Ott to her favorite instrument. No, it was the simple sight of two hands playing the piano
"The first time I ever saw a piano was at a friend's house. I was little, shorter than the keyboard, and I stood there and watched the fingers playing right at my eye-level, and I was fascinated," recalls Ott, now 82.
Today, from the sunlit apartment she shares with her husband Franklin at the Rockwood Manor, Ott can look back on a life full of music, of great performances, of meeting some of the 20th century's greatest musicians and of spreading the joy of music through teaching piano and voice lessons to scores of Inland Northwesterners.
But Ott wasn't born under the crystal chandeliers of a South Hill mansion. For the first 15 years of her life, she lived in Mt. Hope, south of Spokane, where her parents ran a small store. An only child, the young Ott traveled to her first piano lessons on horseback. "It was great," she chuckles, "I had my own transportation."
Later, at the ripe old age of 11, she began teaching piano at the Fairfield Grange Hall.
"You are not going to believe this, but at 11, I drove the car over there, and there were five little kids gathered for lessons," she says, followed by her contagious laughter. "I knew more than they did, so I was the teacher. That's how it goes."
That was the beginning of what would be a lifetime of music. She graduated from Lewis and Clark High School in 1936 and headed out to Cheney for her first year of college when she was only 16. She went on to the University of Washington and, through a scholarship, finally attended Mills College in Oakland, Calif.
"That was a wonderful place for me," Ott says. "Late one Saturday night, the other students kept asking me to play something they could dance to. Then this fellow, who was tall, blond and blue-eyed, came over and sat down next to me on the bench. Five years later we married."
Before she married, Ott spent time in New York at the Juilliard School of Music, where she earned a master's degree in music and piano in 1943.
While in New York, she studied under and later became the professional assistant to famed pianist Olga Samaroff-Stokowski (the first wife of famous conductor Leopold Stokowski). Ott also studied privately with Moriz Rosenthal, the last living pupil of Franz Liszt.
But when World War II ended, Ott found herself back in Spokane as a newlywed. Her husband went into business with her dad, and soon she had two kids and, as she puts it, "got busy." Never looking back to the bright lights of the big city, Ott was soon back to teaching the piano, something she has done ever since -- including 25 years at Whitworth College.
Over the years, Ott has worked with acclaimed opera singer Frank Hernandez, who still returns to perform with the Spokane Symphony, and with internationally known pianist Steve Drury, who now teaches at the New England Conservatory.
"I still have students by appointment," says Ott of her current routine. "Some of my former students now bring their students here, and I also teach a few people here at the retirement center who always wanted to learn how to play the piano and now finally have time."
One of Ott's countless students is pianist Greg Presley, who now teaches piano at Gonzaga University. "She teaches pianists how to listen to themselves," says Presley. "This may sound odd, but it's one of the most important things about learning how to play the piano." Presley also says Ott has been one of the most valuable supporters of the classical music scene in Spokane.
"She certainly had her fingers in all the musical pies," he says. "She's a local girl, and even if she came back sort of by accident, she was just so committed to expanding the musical life of this city."
"She's impressive," concurs Verne Windham, who, among other things, conducts the Spokane Youth Symphony and was himself taught by Ott back in the early 1970s. "She begins with a highly analytical mind, but she doesn't stop there. She takes it all the way to completely understanding the whole situation, and then she decides what to say and what not to say to the student.
Today, two pianos fill one end of Ott's living room, a bust of Schubert perched on one. "Yes, I managed to make room for them, when we moved in," she says.
As she talks about her career, and about how she's still learning new things while playing the piano, it's as if Ott and music have somehow intermingled.
She glances at her pianos, nestled together like yin and yang. "You get lonesome for it if you don't play," she sighs, adding that, "as long as I can wiggle my fingers, I know I'll be fine."