Monday, October 27, 2014

Music To My Ears

She was determined to give us the benefit of a classical music education...whether we wanted it or not.  

She was the principal violist (and no, that's not a mis-spelling, it's a different instrument) in a symphony in a town in the shadow of San Francisco.  We were the unfortunate few who had taken up string instruments, cello, viola and violin.   

Looking back I wonder if she was looking for the next Yo Yo Ma (altho at the time he wasn't a famous cellist, but really, how many of you have ever heard of Pablo Cassals?)  Or if she was hoping we would eventually feel the joy she felt from playing.  

I had taken up the cello quite by accident.  I wanted to play the guitar, it was Peter Paul and Mary days, the heady summer of love, and although I was too young to participate in the love part, and lived in the suburbs, not San Francisco, those currents blew thru my life.  I was thrilled by the daring, the thought that you could defy your parents and live.   That being young didn't mean being subservient.  That we didn't have to wait to think, that we could make a change.  Heady stuff.  

The local private music teacher knew just enough guitar to stay ahead of me, no more.   I think she was studying the same book I was, just a few pages ahead.  But she knew a great deal more about the cello, and about manipulating children, and so I was shunted coerced convinced propagandized browbeaten into playing the cello.  And eventually into buying more and more expensive cellos from her.  No cello sold in this valley for fifty years without passing thru her hands.

Consequently I found myself, at age twelve, in the District Orchestra.  We were horrid.  

Unlike the piano, a string instrument needs to be tuned each time you play it, and sometimes in the middle of playing.  And if you can't hear if you're sharp or flat or right on pitch, then you can't tune it.

Violins and violas and cello also lack frets.  Those are the little crosswise ridges that tell you where to put your fingers.  So we not only  had to hear if we were in tune to tune up, but we had to hear - and adjust - while we were playing.  

Now imagine half a dozen of these twelve year olds (who'd much rather be sleeping in, or playing with their friends, but were too polite or too intimidated to say so), sawing away for an hour before school.  Twice a week.  Frightening.

We gave concerts.  Only the parents came, and it was painful to watch their faces.  

This was at a time when schools had music programs, closets full of instruments to lend, music for us to play, space to practice and perform.  And music teachers.

A few of us kept going, partly because we were obedient children, partly because we got better and began to enjoy playing.  By high school we were pretty good, and having fun.  I wonder how many are still playing?  

I can still distinguish the sound of a clarinet from an oboe, a French horn from a trumpet.  I can pick out - and hum - the cello line in almost anything.  I know what the open strings are tuned to (and yes I know you do not end a sentence with a preposition.  Deal with it).  Heck, I know what an open string is.  I know which instruments are tuned to A, and which to B flat. 

I still love Vivaldi and Bach and Mozart, and pretty much any music up to and including Beethoven.  I have a mad pash for 
Medieval music , the stern structure and the complicated harmonies.  

So I did get a gift from her, just not the gift she thought she was giving.

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