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In Islamabad, A Rare Piano Teacher Pursues His Mission Quietly


NPR's international correspondents cover wars, politics and global trends. But sometimes we also ask them to tell us about their lives in the field and the extraordinary people they meet. Here's a postcard sent to us from NPR's Philip Reeves in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: I've been trying for ages to learn to play piano. The time's now come to stop twiddling and face facts. I need a teacher. Islamabad's a cosmopolitan place. The piano is a fairly universal instrument. I assumed there'd be teachers around who'd fit the bill. In South Asia, most people learn instruments by ear. There are teachers here who can show you how to do that. Finding someone to teach you to actually read music is another matter.

J. JEROME: Well, if you talk about the Pakistani teachers, I'm the only Pakistani piano teacher here.

REEVES: So you're the only Pakistani piano teacher in the capital.

JEROME: Yes, in the capital. Absolutely right.

REEVES: That's J. Jerome. Jerome was born 32 years ago in the city of Lahore.

JEROME: Basically, I belong to a good family where we - I couldn't have any chance to buy even an instrument to play.

REEVES: Jerome longed to learn the piano since he was a tiny kid. He bugged school friends who owned electronic keyboards to let him play. What he really wanted, though, was to get his hands on an acoustic piano.

JEROME: I was about 17 years - or 18 - when it the first time I touched a real piano, and it was a great feeling. (Laughing).

REEVES: Jerome's family couldn't afford piano lessons and, anyway, wanted him to be an engineer. Finally, a piano teacher took pity on him.

JEROME: He saw the passion, and he said, no problem. You don't have money. You don't have instrument, but don't worry about it.

REEVES: Jerome proved a talented student and decided to make music his career.


REEVES: Now he's on a personal mission to keep the dwindling art of piano playing alive here by passing these same skills along to Pakistani kids who are like he was and have a passion to play. Jerome has to be careful, though. A hardline, intolerant variant of Islam has been growing in Pakistan. Islamist militants have a record of attacking musicians and torching music shops. For Jerome, there is an added risk. He's from Pakistan's tiny Christian minority, who are sometimes targeted in sectarian attacks. Jerome does not advertise in the papers. Nor is there a sign on the door.

JEROME: If we want to keep this mission with us, we have to go silently.

REEVES: Silently in the world of music.

JEROME: Yes. Yes, because, you know, it's not easy to openly teach music here, even though we are sitting in the capital city of Pakistan. But many people - they love it. But many - they don't.

REEVES: So far, Jerome's teaching just a handful of Pakistani kids. They're told to play pianissimo or softly, softly.

JEROME: We only use the little piano for the students. We don't allow our students to play on these acoustic pianos.

REEVES: Because?

JEROME: Because of volume.

REEVES: What do you mean because of volume?

JEROME: Because in digital piano, we have the volume button where we can reduce it.

REEVES: Can you show me where you would set the volume, then, for your students?


JEROME: We stay here. So this voice is not going, you know, across this room. So nobody can hear this.

REEVES: That's pretty quiet.


REEVES: Over the years, Jerome's acquired a couple of acoustic pianos.

JEROME: Well, this is Pearl River.

REEVES: Pearl River.

JEROME: Pearl River. This is spinet category.


JEROME: It is out of tune, so I'm sorry.

REEVES: Jerome's pride and joy is a 110- year-old German Schiedmayer.

JEROME: I love this piano because, you know, no one is making pianos like this. You can see the work and quality of wood. And, you know, it's in the original condition.

REEVES: The trouble is some of its parts are so worn out that Jerome can no longer tune it.


REEVES: Jerome says, there are fewer than 20 pianos in all Islamabad. He knows. He says, he's the only person who knows how to tune them. He also sells pianos. Part of his mission is tracking them down.

JEROME: I want to collect many pianos, actually. This is just the start. So one day, you'll be able to see 100 pianos here. (Laughing) So one by one, we'll do it.

REEVES: Listening to him play, I wonder why Jerome stays in Pakistan. Why doesn't he go somewhere else where you can play as loudly as you like, where there are loads of pianos to choose from? Jerome says, he has had opportunities to go abroad, but has turned them down.

JEROME: I have my heart here in my country, so I want to serve here to my country and people here.

REEVES: After all, Jerome is a man on a mission.

JEROME: I'm just holding the light, so let's see. Maybe it needs years and years to fulfill the mission, but we are thinking that we do our best.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.