Natalia Pressman, a pianist who specializes in chamber music, made her home in Hollister several years ago. She is a professional musician, working as both a private piano teacher and a piano accompanist for The New Ballet School in San Jose. But she started her music career in another hemisphere. Pressman was born in 1978 in a tiny central Argentine town called General Pico. It is in an agricultural region, with a climate similar to San Benito County's and today has a population of 42,500. Her unusual childhood and determination created a deep bond with her beloved instrument, the piano.
Pressman’s parents were not musicians. Her father was a factory worker and union leader who had a framing shop when Pressman was born. Her mother was a secretary.
Her father preferred to sing tango songs, so there was not much classical music played around her house when she was growing up.
Pressman’s rural life was an early challenge to her classical music passion. “I was born in a small town like Hollister,” Pressman explained, “but in Argentina, everything is very spread out, so you don’t have the chance to attend performances or… have a good teacher, or anything like you could have here because of the closeness of San Francisco… So I had to kind of find my way, on my own.”
Pressman was only four years old when she first encountered the piano. Her mother’s boss had a huge piece of farmland with a very big, old house at the center of the property. The home was filled with unfamiliar things and Pressman believes that the house was furnished with pieces from the Basque Country, a region that sits between northern Spain and southwestern France. In the home was a very old, abandoned piano.
“It was a very old instrument… the piano had the chandeliers, all those old features… nobody played it after the owner died I guess," Pressman said.
After her family showed an interest in the piano, her mother’s boss offered to restore the instrument and moved it to Pressman’s home. At first, he gave it to her sister because she was interested in playing. Pressman remembers the lengthy restoration; they visited the piano frequently and she became “curious about the whole process.”
Once the piano was fixed and in their home, she practiced constantly. Pressman said that she “felt very attracted to [the piano] because of the smell of the wood. And then [she] discovered that it made some noise, and was fascinated by it.”
She said, “I started playing piano very early… Mostly because I was visually impaired… so the music world and the sound world was very attractive to me. That was my way of expressing myself.”
Pressman had been born prematurely, and she was nearly blind. “My eyes were not developed… my muscles were too short,” she explained. “I couldn’t control my eyes, and I had very little vision.”
Thankfully, she is now able to live what she calls a very “normal life". Pressman wore glasses and endured many surgeries and treatments as a young girl. But she never allowed her poor vision to prevent her from practicing the piano.
In Argentina, Pressman began studying with a series of eccentric piano teachers who lived around General Pico.
“At first, I couldn’t see, but [my teachers] didn’t realize that I couldn’t see because my teacher would play it once, and I would just imitate. So they were not really aware that I was not able to see… And then I would get the music very, very close to my eyes and see it once or twice and then do it. So the process was very tedious, but I managed to do it,” she said.
Her very first piano teacher was, Pressman suspects, an alcoholic, “so he wasn’t very nice."
Then she transferred to another man who was also visually impaired, so her parents thought it would be a good fit. But after awhile, Pressman explained, “he would take a nap” instead of teaching her.
Next she found a former nun who played in church. “She would treat me like the military,” Pressman said. “I would ring the bell. She would open the door, look at my whole outfit and see if I had any wrinkle. And if I did, she would turn me back home.” Despite the incompetence of her teachers, Pressman still says that “for [her] it was heaven” to simply have the chance to share her love of music with another person.
“I did learn to love music even in the worst possible scenarios, and I also learned how to be the best teacher I could be for my students… I survived all that, so I guess my love for music was very strong,” Pressman said.
Finally, when she was about 15 years old, Pressman began to travel to Buenos Aires to take private lessons with a teacher, Claudio Espector, who had just returned from studying music in Russia. Espector was also very strict, and Pressman says he would “yell and bang on the piano,” but after years of unusual piano teachers in General Pico, this behavior seemed “natural.”
Despite his imperfect teaching methods, Pressman realized that she had finally found a teacher who motivated her to do better and he “pushed [her] to do a lot” and even explore a career in music. Through him, she met the best musicians in town from the symphony and saw performances firsthand. Those experiences gave Natalia a "perspective into what [she] wanted to do as a musician.”
Eventually she moved to the city and entered the Conservatory of Music in Buenos Aires. There, she finished her degree, becoming a professional pianist and teacher, in only 5 years.
At first, Pressman would barter lessons for living necessities, but she was eventually hired by a school, and teaching music became her main source of income.
“Sharing the music, and learning through [teaching] everything you know, every time you teach it… it was amazing,” Pressman said.
She taught three-year-old children in preschool, adults, and everyone in between. “I love having both sides” of the musical perspective [teaching and performance], “because I can relate so much better to what my students are going through.”
After studying and teaching, Pressman decided to leave Argentina. “I wanted to experience firsthand the music education in Europe, because that’s where classical music comes from,” she explained. Pressman went to Europe and lived and studied in Italy, then Spain. “I lived in Barcelona for many years and got to experience wonderful artists and take master classes with people I’ve admired my whole life," she said.
Ten years ago, Pressman came to the United States. “I was searching for new horizons,” Pressman said. “I needed a change… and somehow, I am American at heart. American in terms of accepting every race and culture and diversity… and you don’t have that much in Europe… so I was craving that.”
She met an American man in Barcelona and moved with him to the United States to see “what the American experience had to offer.”
She first started working for a school in Mountain View and then eventually for the San Jose Ballet. After the San Jose Ballet went bankrupt about two years ago, Pressman joined The New Ballet School, which puts on about three performances every year. Her daughter, who is seven years old, is also a dancer at the New Ballet School. Pressman continues to teach and has added skills like improvisation and other music styles to her classical repertoire.
Pressman still loves to perform and this fall, she put on a private performance of several songs for BenitoLink's "Donor Thank You Night", including a few from her homeland. She especially enjoys playing Latin American classical music and said, “All the complex rhythms are fascinating to me." That autumn evening, surrounded by the Lompa Lemon Grove, Natalia performed both classical and spirited, regional pieces that celebrate both sophistication and living close to the land. Although many miles away, she says San Benito County reminds her of her first home, the pampas of Argentina and the memories that are never far from her heart.
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