Shirley Margurita Beckett (née Power) of Newton Highlands died Dec. 17, 2019, after a brief illness, at 88. Born in New Zealand, she had a distinguished career as half of the two-piano team called The New Zealand Piano Duo, and later as a Boston-area piano teacher.
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Beloved wife of the late Kevin Beckett, she leaves many friends of all ages, extended family and friends in England and New Zealand, devoted neighbors, colleagues from her many years as a teacher at Longy School of Music, and students inspired by her kindness, quick wit, good cheer and passionate love of classical music. A practicing Catholic, music was her spiritual nourishment. Not long before she died, she told a young friend: “Music empowers my being.”
Born in Auckland, Shirley showed a precocious talent for the piano, which was nurtured by her teachers and parents. Early on she committed herself to ensemble rather than solo playing, primarily with her close friend Judith McDonald, as a piano duo. They joined forces after leaving New Zealand to study at the Royal College of Music in London, giving their first performance in 1955 in London. In 1961, they continued their studies in Stuttgart, working under Kurt Bauer of the well-known two-piano team, Bauer and Bung. Their performing
activities took them to Germany, the UK, Australia and back to their home country, New Zealand, where they returned in 1963. Their performances were broadcast on the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Radio Bavaria, and Southwest German Radio. They also performed with the New Zealand Symphony and recorded an album called “Music for Two Pianos.”
In 1965, Shirley moved to Massachusetts to marry Kevin, a microbiologist she’d met years earlier in New Zealand who left there to study at MIT and Harvard. They married in New Hampshire, enjoying many summers at Lake Winnipesaukee where Kevin had a small boat. They lived in Malden and Cambridge before settling in Newton, their long-time home. Here Shirley taught lessons in her small living room on her upright Steinway, as well as at Milton Academy from 1965-1969 and then at Longy for about two decades, into the 1990s.
She was proud to say she traced her musical lineage back to Ludwig van Beethoven: She studied intensively in London with prominent teacher Mable Lander (who also taught piano to the young Princess Elizabeth.) Lander had been a pupil of the celebrated Polish pianist and pedagogue Theodor Leschetizky who had studied under Austrian composer and pianist Carl Czerny, who’d been a student of Beethoven.
And there were elements of European pedagogy in her teaching style which her former students describe as strict, formal, thorough, with impeccably high standards but infused with soulfulness and joy. She was willing to work with students at any level -- even those who were less than enamored of the piano – and was always convinced that their next musical breakthrough was just around the corner, and always striving for artistic perfection and musicianship. She wished everyone to see the art within the music, no matter how simple the piece. Her private teaching continued well into her 80s.
Shirley was deeply curious, cheerfully opinionated, laughed readily, was a devoted newspaper reader, gifted storyteller, and a prodigious maker of friends including walkers who passed by her house on her busy Newton street. She liked everyone – with the exception of a few orchestra conductors and music critics. Neighbors depended on her to collect their mail or keep watch over their homes when they were away, and though she was steadfastly opposed to social media and computers which she called “just one more thing to go wrong in the house” it was Shirley, ironically, who kept her neighbors connected with each other, sharing updates and news, both happy or sad. She loved birds and other wildlife, even tending to the squirrels
in her yard. One squirrel, whom she named “Sophie,” reliably came when she shouted for it, and ate right out of her hand.
Shirley attended BSO concerts regularly, was familiar with all the players, and adored BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons, clipping newspaper reviews of the concerts she’d seen and mailing them to musician friends in England and New Zealand. Once she recognized bassoonist Suzanne Nelsen on the MBTA Green Line -- they were both heading to a concert at Symphony Hall -- and introduced herself. The two quickly became friends. Up until the last BSO concert she attended, Shirley would wave to Nelsen from her perch in the second balcony when the musicians stood to bow. Nelsen always waved back.
A funeral mass will be said on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020, 9 a.m., at Sacred Heart Church, 1321 Centre Street, Newton, MA 02459. At Shirley’s request, donations can be made to St. Francis House, 39 Boylston St, Boston, MA 02116.