Lessons From Erna: Remembering a Talented Musician, Teacher, and Friend

In a black and white image, bordered by a simple silver frame on my piano, she is seated behind the wheel of a classic roadster. Coyly sporting a riding cap, cream-colored driving gloves, and her trademark smile is a woman who not only taught me about arpeggios, flats, and sharps, but also about life, its remarkable coincidences, and values that we should hold dear.

We first met in March 1987. I was nearly ten, and my piano-teacher to-be, Mrs. Erna Blonek, was 86. I remember thinking that the diminutive elderly woman, with wavy hair as white as snow, spoke with a funny accent. My mother later explained that Mrs. Blonek was originally from Czechoslovakia.

Over time, I learned that she had been widowed in the 1960s and that she and her radiologist husband, František, had immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s.

Mrs. Blonek’s bust of Brahms (left) and her Taktell metronome now have pride of place on my piano. In the years since I posted this article, several of Mrs. Blonek’s former piano students have emailed me. Some of them took lessons a decade or so before me. One pupil even mentioned that her grandmother crafted Mrs. Blonek’s set of composer statues, including this one of Johannes Brahms.
Piano Recital Rock Island Illinois
My mother, Mrs. Blonek, and me.

On the same minimalist couch that I now serenade guests on in my own home, I once awaited my lessons in Erna’s second-story apartment unit, situated in a boxy brick complex in Rock Island, Illinois. There were always magazines, books, and newspapers strewn about her Art Deco table. Most of the literature was for mature readers. I immersed myself in the children’s comics instead.

During my first springtime lesson, Mrs. Blonek introduced me to the Middle C. Under her aquamarine-blue gaze, as well as the watchful eyes of ceramic busts of Mozart, Brahms, and Chopin — masters whom Mrs. Blonek would later playfully refer to as “her men” — I tentatively learned how to navigate my fingers through a shiny sea of black and white.

Soon, I wasn’t just playing for composer statues and Mrs. Blonek. Within a month’s time, she had prepared me for my first recital. I tickled the ivories of the antique baby grand piano in Moline’s elegant Deere-Wiman home with Old McDonald as well as a rudimentary version of Haydn’s Surprise Symphony. Mrs. Blonek’s addition of a C-major chord at the end of the piece — my first chord ever — was empowering!

Erna and Francis Vintage Portraits
Erna and František. The embossed stamp references a photo studio in Praha, or Prague.

During her students’ performances, Mrs. Blonek proudly sat on a high-backed upholstered chair with swirly, dark wood trim. She sported a suit with a corsage pinned to her jacket.

Afterward, students and their supporters sampled delicate cookies and sipped punch served from sparkling crystal bowls. On the back of every recital program was a cartoon rendition of a custodian sweeping away missed musical notes from underneath a grand piano. The witty image was taken from Mrs. Blonek’s beloved New Yorker magazine.

Erna and dog Dolly
Dolly, Erna’s dog (left) and Erna sewing (right).

Mrs. Blonek’s feistiness came through if I didn’t practice. In order to remind her students about their duty to practice, she pinned a rendition of the well-known Uncle Sam recruitment poster above her piano. However, this patriot’s directive read: “I want you… to practice every day!”

Mrs. Blonek was not shy about counseling my parents about the necessity of purchasing a real piano for me. In time, they replaced my electronic keyboard, which lacked several octaves, with an antique upright.

Several months later, when my parents purchased a circa-1872 home outfitted with two pianos, we became the proud owners of three pianos. Finally, I had a piano with touch sensitivity. Nevertheless, Mrs. Blonek continued to attempt to ingrain in my fingers a graceful arch. Her aid was an apple-red rubber ball which she had me grasp in my hand before positioning my hands on the piano.

Erna Blonek
Erna. The photo studio mentioned in the lower right was in Wien (Vienna), Austria.

Over time, we bid farewell to Old McDonald and greeted such classics as Chopin’s Minute Waltz, Mozart’s Fantasie in D Minor, and Diabelli duets. Though classical music was what she held most dear, Mrs. Blonek also introduced me to jazz as well as ragtime master Scott Joplin’s lively Entertainer.

As my family and I got to know Mrs. Blonek, we learned that she was not just a conservatory-trained classical pianist from Prague, but she was also the epitome of activity. In addition to teaching as many as 20 students at a time, she was an avid swimmer at the YMCA and a regular walker along the Sunset Marina. She was also fluent in Czech, English, French, and German.

Despite her advanced age, she regularly traveled to London to visit her niece, Trude. Erna would never return to her native Czechoslovakia in the 60+ subsequent years that passed following her transition to a new life in the United States. Unfortunately, the memories there were too painful.

Erna Blonek in Prague
Erna and František (left) and Erna on the ski slopes (right).

Mrs. Blonek was raised in a Jewish family in a small village called Kladno on the outskirts of Prague. She was the daughter of a flour mill owner. In 2000, my parents and I would journey to Kladno, hoping to find some genealogical information about Mrs. Blonek’s family. We visited the town hall, and were told by somber-faced city hall employees that Kladno now had no Jewish residents and that official records had been destroyed during the Nazi occupation.

Years earlier, we had learned that many of Mrs. Blonek’s brothers and sisters — a family just shy of ten — had perished in Europe’s concentration camps. The sepia images on Mrs. Blonek’s walls of her brothers playing in a string quartet came to mind as we explored Kladno. What stories surrounded their deportation? What concentration camps were they sent to? How did Mrs. Blonek learn of their deaths? These are questions I would never ask. I had always thought it particularly remarkable that Mrs. Blonek had been able to mostly sit through a screening of the film Schindler’s List. I recall hearing that she left during one of the scenes in which prisoners are led to a gas chamber.

Erna and her husband had led privileged lives in Prague and Dr. Blonek was a well-respected radiologist. Among his patient list was Czechoslovakia’s first president, Masaryk. Erna told us tales of an increasingly frightening climate brewing for Prague’s Jewish residents in the 1930s. At one point, she and her husband snuck down to a bank to withdraw funds. There were also tales of safeguarding her husband’s golden coins, which are traditionally immersed in a newborn baby’s bath water. The Bloneks also watched from their home’s balcony as Hitler marched into Prague. Erna had remarked how he was a foolish man, but František noted that he was also very smart.

Prague Charles Bridge at Dawn
Prague’s Charles Bridge.

The Blonek couple, unlike many of Erna’s relatives (Beck was her maiden name), were fortunate to have escaped Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s. With their social and financial connections, they attained safe passage to the United States by offering up their fashionable Graham Paige automobile to a Gestapo officer. The necessary paperwork — their tickets to a new life and rather an assurance of life itself — were covertly placed underneath a dinner plate in a Prague restaurant. Erna said that when she and František arrived in the United States, she corresponded with her family for a time. In letters they remarked, “Everything is fine here… It wasn’t necessary for you to have left.”

As I entered high school, I left behind my weekly piano lessons. Mrs. Blonek had expressed dissatisfaction that in pursuing other activities such as tennis, I wasn’t devoting as much time to the piano. A stubborn sophomore, I decided to quit. Years of silence followed.

After my high school graduation, a newspaper image of me standing beside the Eiffel Tower prompted Mrs. Blonek to pen a message. “I knew you’d make it back to Europe,” she wrote, in her distinctive European swirls. She knew that her native continent had been close to my heart and that it was my dream to travel there again. We reunited in 1996; it was as if no years had passed us by.

Erna Blonek Venice

Though I did not embark on formal piano lessons as a young adult, Mrs. Blonek and I met regularly to play our beloved duets. The sessions were often interrupted by laughter as we tried to keep in time together.

My mother and I would also meet Mrs. Blonek on early afternoons to sip tea and listen to her tales of life in Prague’s golden days. Vintage hardback books featuring black and white images of Prague’s Charles Bridge and the city’s cobbled lanes quickly developed over-extended spines because they were sprawled out across Erna’s dining table.

Erna’s stories also made the once-anonymous travel prints on her apartment walls come to life. On those afternoons, we also tasted her versions of the Czech koláče (cookies), and marveled when she serenaded us with her signature piano pieces: Valse in E Flat by Durand, and Edelweiss. Her chromatic scales up the piano’s treble octaves seemed effortless.

Erna Blonek Vintage Car

During our 13-year relationship with Erna, we experienced remarkable coincidences. In 1990, my parents and I were visiting New York for my father’s college reunion. Ever the chatterbox, my mom struck up a conversation with an elderly woman named Helen in a Manhattan hotel lobby.

The pleasantries exchanged about the woman’s accent (my mother learned it was Czech) evolved into mention of my Czech piano teacher in Illinois. It was not even ten minutes later when Helen fleetingly asked my mother the name of my piano teacher. Upon hearing the reply, Helen’s face went ghostly white. She and Erna had been friends in the Eastern United States shortly after the war, but due to Helen’s marriage and subsequent name change, they had been unable to find each other in later years.

Erna was astounded when she learned that we had met her long-lost acquaintance in New York City. Despite Erna’s playful insistence that “Helen always had a crush on (her) František,” Erna and Helen reunited in Illinois. Shared traits of independence were evident during that reunion.

Erna at Angkor Wat Exposition

Another fluke occurrence happened in early 2000. Motivated significantly by Erna’s tales of lovely Prague, my parents and I decided to venture there to trace her roots. Sadly, Erna had become unusually ill and weak with the flu prior to our departure. Nevertheless, she was excited to hear we’d be tiptoeing through her homeland very soon. We promised her home video footage of her birthplace, Kladno, as well of Prague. In the 1920s, Erna had attended the music conservatory in Prague and also met her husband while at a grand ball at a neo-Renaissance gallery called the Rudolfinum.

Due to her illness, we hadn’t been able to ask her about important details, such as her former Prague address, or her family members’ names. We winged the trip and relied on our memories to guide us in our basic research.

Returning about one week later, we were devastated to learn that Erna’s condition had worsened. Fortunately, we were able to share with her our video images, as well as koláče and oplatky cookies, and a CZ automobile sticker for her baby-blue car. Coincidentally, the footage depicting a now-blighted grey Kladno, watched over by ominous nuclear towers, did not work. In some respects, we were relieved that Erna would not see how her once-charming village had evolved. The Prague footage flowed without flaw, though, and Erna clasped her hands in delight at the sightings of the Charles Bridge statues, and of the Golden Lane’s miniature buildings.

Furthermore, she was ecstatic that, unbeknownst to us at the time, we had chosen to stay in her former neighborhood. To us, Vinohrady had just been a residential area with diamond-in-the-rough apartment buildings awaiting their rebirth. Now, the quirky Prague neighborhood took on new meaning. Somewhere in that neighborhood was where the Bloneks had lived. Only later would we learn how fate had gone so far as to lead us to her very apartment building!

Sadly, Erna’s energy was not to last. In time, the once perpetually active woman succumbed to pneumonia. She died shortly after our return, in a hospice bed placed by her beloved piano in her cozy apartment.

Erna’s friends and students were devastated. Of her two remaining family members, one niece, Doris, was able to come for her funeral. After the burial and memorial services were finished, Erna’s circle of friends, along with Doris, took on the task of emptying out her apartment. I accepted a towering stack of yellowing sheet music and books. Assessing my musical weaknesses — keeping correct time and proper hand-positioning — I also latched onto her vintage caramel-colored Taktell metronome and rubber ball. The latter brought a smile to my face as I remembered sessions atop her cushioned piano bench, squeezing the ball and desperately trying to arch my hands. Erna’s “men” also were divvied out to different homes. I chose Mr. Brahms as other pupils had already adopted Mozart and Chopin.

Erna Blonek Vintage Photos

As we helped to clean out her home, many of us were struck by the realization that Erna had been self-sufficient up until her death at age 99! Yet, as we rummaged through her familiar items, we also caught a glimpse into her younger days.

Doris smiled as she paged through a leather-bound concert attendance book from the 1920s. In it, Erna had recorded details about the classical concerts she regularly attended in Vienna and Prague, noting the names of composers and the pieces. One page, unlike the other formulaic entries, spilled onto other pages. It was the day that Erna became engaged to František. With youthful delight, she practiced her signature-to-be, repeatedly writing: “Today, I am engaged!!”

Other albums with suede-like marbleized covers, documented the Blonek’s grand tours of Europe. There were images of Erna atop wooden skis by a chalet, another of her in billowy palazzo pants on stairs leading to the grand Monte Carlo Casino, as well as one of Erna in Venice’s San Marco Square, surrounded by hundreds of Venetian pigeons.

Later, Doris presented my family with a charcoal-like abstract sketch, which was elegantly finished in an antique gold frame.

“Be sure to research this artist,” she said. “Max Švabinský is very well-known in the Czech Republic.”

Upon delving into Czech art history literature, we became increasingly curious how the Švabinsky and Blonek paths had crossed. Švabinský was a well-known artist who designed Czech banknotes as well as the prominent stained-glass panels in Prague’s Saint Vitus Cathedral. We would later track down Max Švabinský’s step-daughter, and exchange several letters. It is a personal regret that we never met Zuzana Švabinska. She died in 2002.

Erna Blonek Vintage Photos 3

On the day of our last cleaning session at Erna’s apartment, her niece, Doris, a petite concentration camp survivor with a tattooed number still visible on her arm, approached me with a photograph.

“You wanted to know where my aunt lived in Prague. This is her apartment.”

Stunned, I took the photograph in hand and studied it closely. It certainly resembled a building my father and I had paused in front of during our visit to Prague just weeks before. During a morning jog through Vinohrady on that crisp morning, we had stopped by a brown-grey structure with friezes of male figures by the ground floor entrance. I’d remarked that I thought the word identifying the building — materská škola — meant “mother’s school” or “preschool.” We had then continued on our way.

With a map in hand to trace our jog earlier that year, along with the exact address of Erna’s apartment building, my father was able to confirm that we had stopped in front of Erna’s very apartment building that bitterly cold January morning. How remarkable given that Prague is a city of 1.2 million people!

This coincidental discovery served as an incredulous diversion of sorts as we came to terms with Erna’s death. It was hard to begin to imagine our lives without Erna’s easy laughter, her gift of music, and her positive attitude. All of this in spite of a life of earlier loss and sadness.

In 2007, I resumed piano lessons with another talented European conservatory-trained instructor named Corina. We often delved into the same books from which Erna used to play and teach. There were times when Erna’s swirls, abbreviations, and dynamics markings left us confused.

“What did she mean?” Corina asks.

And then an epiphany, a deciphering of her instructional intent:

“Ah, she was highlighting that as the melody!” Or, “she blocked that part of the measure’s notes because she didn’t like the sound. Brilliant! I can tell that she was a brilliant musician.”

I once got a bit teary as we deciphered those codes on her trademark Edelweiss. This Sound of Music classic is one of my favorite pieces to play, not only because of its unique arrangement, but also because of the special woman whom it brings to memory.

Though Erna has been physically absent from my life for many years, I still feel as if her gift of music and her zest for life surface regularly. I recall her once saying that despite being widowed and living alone for more than 30 years, she never felt alone because she always had the memories of the special people who had been a part of her life. I shall carry her lessons and memories of our interactions throughout my life, too.

Erna Blonek Vintage Photos 4

Etched into a plaque and prominently placed in her apartment for all the years that I knew her was one of Erna’s favorite mantras:

“Life without humor is no life at all.” 

In the mid 1990s, when the time came for her to bid farewell to her outgoing piano and welcome a new one, Erna penned a witty poem. Most of her students have copies of it today. My copy of the Adieu to the Piano is placed prominently on my piano, beside a candid image of my mother and me with Mrs. Blonek. We are giggling about a piano recital happening.

I can still hear her mischievous little laugh even today.

Adieu to the Piano

by Erna Blonek 
Adieu Mr. Koehler
You have been good to me and I am very sorry to see you leave.
Your company made my life richer and my technique better.
You shared with me my sorrows on those dark days and then came better days and we could laugh together.
You did not mind it when I hit wrong notes, because you knew I did not mean to hurt you.
That’s what friends are for.
Your keys are still in quite good shape, except for a low “A”,
Which has a congenital history of numbness and did cause some grief to the tuners.
Your treble octaves are quite tinny and do not react to any touch.
But as a whole, you still have a good life ahead of you and shall give pleasure to many.
Welcome Mr. Chickering
Be good to me. I fell in love with you at first sight.
Your beautiful bass is strong and warm.
If my “forte” gets too loud, please remind me that there is a way to change to “mezzo”.
Your treble octaves are brilliant. I know that this, my new piano-forte, will make my “piano” to become my forte.
I shall treat you with respect.
I shall dust you every other day and polish you in the English way.
My dear Mr. Chickering, you can be sure no Steinway and no Yamaha shall claim to have a better home.
We two shall become friends.
Erna Vintage Ski Photos
Erna Blonek Vintage Photos 2

© Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

Published by Tricia A. Mitchell

Tricia A. Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. Born in Europe but raised in the United States, she has lived in Valletta, Malta; Heidelberg, Germany; and Split, Croatia. An avid globetrotter who has visited more than 65 countries, she has a penchant for off-season travel. Tricia has learned that travel’s greatest gift is not sightseeing, rather it is the interactions with people. Some of her most memorable experiences have been sharing a bottle of champagne with distant French cousins in Lorraine, learning how to milk goats in a sleepy Bulgarian village, and ringing in the Vietnamese New Year with a Hanoi family. She welcomes any opportunity to practice French and German, and she loves delving into a place’s history and artisanal food scene. A former education administrator and training specialist, Tricia has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in international relations. She and her husband, Shawn, married in the ruins of a snowy German castle. They’ve been known to escape winter by basing themselves in coastal Croatia or Southeast Asia. Her writing has appeared in Fodor’s Travel, Frommer’s, and International Living.

16 thoughts on “Lessons From Erna: Remembering a Talented Musician, Teacher, and Friend

  1. You are so blessed Ms Trish, for having such a wonderful lady in your life! AS USUAL, LOVED TO READ YOUR MEMOIRS; AWAITING FOR MORE! MAG :)

  2. Thanks, Mag. I have so much more to create — if only there was more time in the hourglass each day. :-) Hope you’re well and enjoying special times with your lovely little granddaughter…

  3. Tricia, Wow! I really enjoyed reading this little bit of history. It brought back great memories of your early years, as you were growing up with Mom and me. Nicely written, very entertaining, and a great tribute to your special piano teacher, and to you. Thanks for sharing. Love, Dad

  4. Tricia, this is one of the most beautiful tributes I have ever read. I had goosebumps reading the coincidences. What an amazing woman Erna was. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Judy, your kind comment really means a lot to me; I’m also very happy that you enjoyed reading about my family’s fantastic friend, and my first piano teacher. With the holidays here, and me playing some Christmas tunes from one of Erna’s sheet music books yesterday, your timing is also fitting. I’m glad that others can ‘meet’ her through this piece. :)

  5. Tricia, you’ve written a great dedication and tribute post to your music teacher. I especially enjoyed very much reading about the strange and wonderful coincidences along the way and over the years. I can now imagine you and your family seeing Prague and the Czech Republic somewhat differently, and partly through the memory of Erna Blonek. I feel a little sad she never went back home, but given the depth of those experiences, I also understand she could never go back. Her memory lives on through you and her students. Thank you for writing your post, and for pointing your post to me a “mere” two-plus years after posting. :)

    1. Henry, thanks for reading and for sharing your thoughtful feedback. Your comment that “her memory lives on through her students” especially resonated, because I think of that often when I play. I’m grateful to have known her, and that she shared her gift of music with me and so many others.

  6. The opening photo is a perfect introduction ~ and then you took me on a ride into history, what a story and what a life Mrs. Blonek lived. It makes me think of the people I knew in my home town when I was a kid who had an accent…I wonder what stories they could tell. It is heartbreaking to hear about her family and struggles in Kladno and their reasons to immigrate…but it is also inspiring to read of the successes and lives she touched and brought together. You’ve created something special in this relationship, and thank you for sharing. Take care, Tricia, my best to you and Shawn as you finish up the year.

    1. Randall, thank you for your thoughtful comment and for reading Mrs. Blonek’s story! As you said, she touched many lives and brought people together. I think that’s something we can all aspire to.

      “Děkuji” also for your best wishes as we wrap up 2018. Do you think you’ll be spending some of next year in the Czech Republic?

  7. Erna was my first piano teacher too. I happened to google her name on a whim today and found this post! What a treasure! Your description of her apartment (I recall reading her Archie comics, the only option for kids!) and of the recitals with the delicate cookies and man sweeping up notes on the back of the programs was just perfect. I remember how my little brother used to set out dishes in front of those busts of composers to “feed the little men” during our lessons. I think it is Mozart who is still at my parents home, along with an object or two from her windowsill and a couple treasured photos. Thank you so much for sharing this story!

    1. Hi Anna,

      Your comment brought a big smile to my face this morning! I had forgotten which comics Erna had, and now I remember that Archie was among them. Thanks for bringing back that memory and for sharing the cute anecdote about your brother “feeding the little men.” :)

      I remember you from the piano recitals at the Butterworth Center / Deere-Wiman House. One recital, I played The Lonely Goatherd duet from The Sound of Music (perhaps with my mom one year and Erna another year?) Some of the younger pupils and kids stood alongside the piano as we played. They had puppets and stuffed animals in hand, bringing to mind the puppet scene from the movie. Were you one of the puppeteers?

      You’ve inspired me to scan the back of a recital program with the note-sweeper! In hindsight, it was charming that Erna typed many of those early programs up on a typewriter.

      Wishing you a lovely day, and thank you again for getting in touch. I miss Mrs. Blonek a great deal. It’s a joy to be in touch with others whose lives she touched.

  8. Tricia, it is so good to connect with you again in this way. What a beautiful and loving tribute to our dear friend, Erna. I think of her so often, when I look at my little ceramic bust on my piano, the print of Prague that Doris gave me, or the picture of her hugging my kids. Just yesterday I used her electric can opener, amazed that it still worked and that she had been gone so long, and I also thought how amusing she would find it to be remembered by a can opener! I was with her when she passed, and she was still making light of all the fuss around her, saying “tant des oeufs pour faire une omelette.” She was one of my very best friends, and reading your blog made me so happy. Thank you, Tricia

    1. Hi Melita,

      It’s wonderful to connect after all these years! I’m so glad that you — and Anna — happened to stumble upon this tribute to dear Erna.

      Reading your delightful comment about Erna brought a tear to my eye. Thank you for bringing back such wonderful memories. Indeed, I can imagine her giggling about you thinking of her while using her can opener, or me still using her utilitarian tiny cabinet to hold pot holders and dish towels. It makes me wonder how many other former students think about her on a regular basis. Lots of students, I suspect!

      About seven years ago, a former pupil named Pamela wrote via my website to say that she was headed to Prague and hoping to find traces of Erna. I put her in touch with Doris. I should touch base with Pamela to see if she uncovered anything in the Czech Republic. When my husband and I were last in Prague in 2014, we arrived by train, just as a pianist was playing beautiful music on a piano inside the main terminal. This made me think of Erna, of course.

      And recently, another pupil named Daren touched base to say that she actually helped her grandmother make the set of composer statues. She took lessons in the 1960s through the late 1970s and wondered if I had any more pictures of the other statues. I got in touch with Marilou, who touched base with Darcy. They still have the Chopin and Wagner busts.

      By any chance, do you have any of Mrs. Blonek’s cookie recipes? Do you still play piano? I certainly miss playing duets.

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