By KYLER SUMTER
When Martha Faulhaber was six years old you might’ve found her hiding under a piano. Her father Harry Finke was a self-taught pianist who played musicals and composed Christmas songs and songs for the local high schools and universities in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio. Naturally, Faulhaber began taking piano lessons at age six and her introduction to piano wasn’t pleasant.
“My first experiences were with a very mean, difficult teacher who used to slap me on the hand with a ruler, it was terrible,” Faulhaber recalled. “I used to hide under the piano and luckily she left after the first year, then I had a wonderful teacher.”
Since her early days of learning piano, the 90-year-old Hyde Park resident has gone on to accompany the Chicago Children’s Choir for 25 years, including a 6-week European tour, teach at the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School for children facing emotional challenges and Head Start, co-write three children’s music books, play at Orchestra Hall, and more.
She majored in piano and music theory and graduated from Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana in 1948 and moved to Hyde Park that same year to get her master’s degree from the Chicago Musical College, which is now housed in Roosevelt University. There she met her next piano teacher: world-renowned Swiss pianist, conductor, and composer Rudolph Ganz.
“He was a great, he was a recognized pianist in those days,” Faulhaber said.
At the time she didn’t know that one-day she too would become a recognized pianist, here in Hyde Park and in the city.
After meeting her husband Robert Faulhaber here in 1950 -they both missed their graduations to go back to Dayton to get married -they traveled to Europe where she attended a music school in Paris: Ecole de Normale de Musique. Upon her return she started her 25-year-long journey with the Chicago Children’s Choir, which currently over 4,600 youth participate in.
“A lot of the older children from the Children’s Choir, when I’ve seen them they’ve come up and said hello and it’s a nice feeling to have people remember,” Faulhaber said. “I remember one especially, there was a young woman who still plays the piano, she plays for ballet dancers and she’s in New Hampshire now.”
Kathleen Finke, Faulhaber’s niece and a schoolteacher, recalled how a colleague at her school remembered Faulhaber from his days in the choir.
“In one of my first years of teaching in Chicago I mentioned that my aunt had played and he was so excited he got this big smile on his face and went ‚ÄòOh Martha’,” Finke said. “He was so excited to know that I was Martha’s niece.”
Her dedication to music education for children was clear due to her teaching and leadership roles as well her role as a children’s music book author. The advice she would give to children aspiring to be musicians is to remain focused.
“They have to work hard. And keep at it,” she said.
She has four children of her own and started them all out on instruments at a young age, her oldest daughter Roberta studied piano, her son Peter studied violin, her daughter Christina studied viola and her daughter Elizabeth studied cello. With starting them out so young Faulhaber didn’t know what sizes they would grow up to be so to her surprise Christina ended up being the smallest of her children, too small for a viola, and her son Peter ended up being the tallest so he would’ve been perfect on cello.
“I was hoping to get a string quartet,” Faulhaber laughed.
Faulhaber also embarked on a musical journey of her own, accompanying more singers than she could count, performing classic works at venues like Orchestra Hall and the American Conservatory, and gaining a duet partner in fellow pianist Laura Fenster.
Fenster recalled that she was drawn to Faulhaber’s music because Faulhaber is always sensitive to what is going on harmonically in music and is always trying to figure out, “what the music is trying to say.”
“She has a very good sense of color, she’s a very visual person so when we work together it’s interesting because she thinks in terms of picture, what is the visual thing, whereas I think of the dramatic thing, what would it be like if someone was saying it in a drama,” Fenster said. “But she has a very visual sense.”
Faulhaber and Fenster met while they both studied under Rudolph Ganz and began performing together in the 1950s. They were known to perform classics like The Variations on a Theme by Haydn, by composer Johannes Brahms, and Visions de l’Amen (“Visions of the Amen”) by composer Olivier Messiaen, of which they were the premiere performers.
“At first I was living in South Shore and she was living in Hyde Park but then we moved to Hyde Park just a few doors away,” Fenster said. “So we’re kind of sisters almost, we did a lot together besides the piano.”
“Yeah it’s been a long time because we’ve been playing together since the 1950’s really,” Faulhaber said. “And I just stopped playing recently (in the last 5 years) because my ears are not good.”
Even with her continuous travels to Europe over the years, with specific trips to Paris that resulted in her and all her children knowing French and her daughter Roberta moving there, Faulhaber believes it was because of her move to Hyde Park that she became the pianist she is today.
“[Hyde Park] offered so many playing opportunities and that isn’t true of a lot of other neighborhoods, it was a big advantage,” Faulhaber said. “I think it was a great place to raise my kids too because it was an integrated neighborhood which was what I liked about it.”
Faulhaber continued on about her love for the neighborhood’s diversity, all of the different people she was able to meet here, and the neighborhood’s proximity to the University of Chicago where she attends lectures and concerts. While she’s optimistic about moving she will definitely miss the neighborhood where she got her start.
“I have lots of friends here who are musicians and there was a Hyde Park Music Club and I was a member of that group so they’ll all remember me and I’ll remember them,” Faulhaber said. “I’ll still have contact with all of my friends here.”
Faulhaber’s husband passed away in 1986 and all of her children have moved from the city, two have also followed in her footsteps and pursued the arts. As she gets older she believes it’s important to be close to her children and grandchildren. For these reasons she plans to move to Denver at the end of the month to be with her daughter Elizabeth and one of her grandsons.
In her past few years in Hyde Park she’s been able to connect more with her niece, who also went to college at Saint Mary’s, her alma mater.
“We graduated 50 years apart from each other,” Finke said. “So we’ve gone back for reunions on the same years but when I was there it was a very proud moment for me because my freshman year she was invited back to perform as a distinguished alum and I was a freshman in college and to have my aunt come and play, it was a big deal.”
Finke also talked about how important it was for her to have a familial connection with Martha in her adult life since she didn’t know her as well because she grew up in their hometown of Dayton.
“We meet for dinner on a bi-monthly basis, and there aren’t any other Finkes in town, so that’s a big part, to have that connection,” Finke said.
For Fenster, having Faulhaber in her life has shown her what true kindness looks like.
“Oh her,” Fenster replied when asked what she would miss most about Faulhaber. “Her personality, her kindness. She’s just totally kind and there’s a sense of understanding what the world is like at the same time. It’s a lot more than a personality trait, she’s just really a good person.”
Faulhaber is passing her talents, and her grand piano, onto her grandchildren.
“I have two grandsons who are really good at the piano. It’s nice to see them develop, and I’ll be with one of them in Denver,” Faulhaber said. “So we’ll probably be doing a lot of duets.”