Cornelia Vertenstein, a Holocaust survivor, is still teaching piano lessons over FaceTime from her Denver home.

John Branch

By John Branch
May 15, 2020
New York Times

For more than 50 years, Cornelia Vertenstein, 92, has taught piano lessons from her home in Denver. Every week, through all those years, a parade of children came to her door, books in hand.

They practiced for an hour at the Chickering & Sons piano that Ms. Vertenstein and her former husband, both Holocaust survivors from Romania, bought for $600 in 1965, two years after landing in the United States.

And when the children left, at least the little ones, Ms. Vertenstein gave them a sticker for encouragement. They gave her a hug.

The coronavirus has put an end to those visits. But Ms. Vertenstein would not let it put an end to the lessons. And she certainly would not let it cancel spring recitals.

“I believe strongly in continuity,” Ms. Vertenstein said. “My students learn to be persistent in what they are doing. I try to teach them not only how to learn, but how to work.”

Cornelia Vertenstein posed with her piano in Denver this month. She has been teaching piano since she was 14.

Cornelia Vertenstein posed with her piano in Denver this month. She has been teaching piano since she was 14. Credit: Rachel Woolf for The New York Times

Friends call her Nellie, she said, but most students and parents respectfully call her Dr. Vertenstein, a nod to her doctorate in music and her formal manner. She has been teaching piano since she was 14, first going door-to-door in war-torn Romania.

She has about 30 students these days, ages 6 to 17. Normally, they come to the house on Fairfax Street, one at a time. Some come as early as 6:30 a.m., some as late as 7 p.m., some on the weekends.

“It’s very nice to see children at the door,” Ms. Vertenstein said. “They come, and they are smiling and ready for piano.”

When the coronavirus swept in, most people were forced to stay at home. Special concern was reserved for older adults. Ms. Vertenstein was suddenly alone.

She insisted that the lessons would continue. She called the students on their cellphones, using FaceTime on her iPad, at the exact time when their lessons were scheduled.

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