Sunday, March 6, 2011

Musical Notes

I spot my parents sitting next to Bill in the audience. I'm not sure they will like the selections of this concert, but they are here, as they almost always are. At intermission, I have a few minutes to talk to them.

"I don't know why you didn't think we would like this program," my mother says. "It's wonderful and very lively." That was true. Brahms' Festival Overture is fast, loud, and full of life.

My father adds, "I was watching your bow and the bow of the man sitting next to you, and I would say that you were going in the same direction about 94-95% of the time." This was a compliment. With multiple snow days before this concert, our sections' bowings were thrown together at the last minute.

For 45 years, my parents, who have never been students of classical music, have attended my concerts as often as they could. Besides Bill, they are my biggest fans.

Sometimes it is good to look back and see who has influenced us to become the person we are today, and what situations came together and gave us opportunities. I was fortunate to have parents who encouraged me to try things in school, then paid for my private lessons, and bought my first violin.

But there were others who influenced me as well. My grandfather always lamented that he didn't have more opportunities as a child. He struggled to play hymns and turn-of-the-20th-century show tunes on the piano, and described trying to teach himself to play in the unheated front room of the Catskill farmhouse where he grew up.

When I said that I was going to take violin lessons, Grandpa told me that the violin was the "most beautiful and most difficult instrument to play in the world." He impressed on me how lucky I was and always asked me to play for him. He was also patriarchal. Since I was the second grandchild and did not look like his side of the family, I had to work harder to please him. His approval meant that I could never quit the violin.

I soared ahead of my peers when I began taking private lessons in the summer with Peggy. Peggy lived down the street and came to our house during her summer breaks from college. After the first summer, my parents agreed to give me year-round private lessons.

Very short with a pear shape, Peggy always arrived late for my Saturday morning lessons. Sometimes we had to call her house and ask her mother to wake her up. Peggy would hurry up the sidewalk full of apologies with the aroma of a quick cup of coffee on her breath. We loved her bubbly personality, easy laugh, and the comfortable way she would poke her face into the kitchen to see what my mother was doing, complimenting each of us and our home with every step.

The violin seemed so easy when Peggy played it. She would demonstrate how I should sound and I knew that I wanted to sound just like her. But sometimes she became frustrated as we labored over my Handel Sonata, trying everything she could think of to help me stick to the beat. Still, as she went out the door, her parting words were always ones of encouragement.

Since we didn't have a piano, occasionally Peggy would invite me to her house so that we could work on my sonatas with accompaniment. What an adventure! Her mother's upright piano was piled high with music books. Stacks of papers topped by a pot of earth and a long-dead plant stood leaning at the end of the piano. Peggy's six siblings' instrument cases stood at odd angles or lay within tripping distance on the floor. One time a nearby carton provided a nest for new kittens.

I watched Peggy's hands glide effortlessly across the piano keys. "Oh," she would say, "I'm not a real pianist. I only had twelve years of lessons!"

When I entered high school, Peggy moved to Boston to pursue her Master's Degree at New England Conservatory. I no longer had a private teacher. Lack of consistent practice, a competitiveness with other students, and high school insecurities played out in orchestra, despite the efforts of a dynamic young orchestra director.

My mother tried to soothe my battered nerves by telling me that I should not expect to compete with other students who came from musical families, and that violin would always be a nice hobby for me. This did not make me feel better. I wanted to be taken seriously.

If I ever had to play in front of anyone, my hands would begin to shake, sending my bow bouncing in uncontrolled scratching across the strings. One day Peggy stopped by while visiting her parents. She could see that I was struggling, and said, "Just stay with it until college. You'll love playing in a college orchestra."

She was right. In college I took lessons, quartet, string ensemble, and played in the Catskill Symphony. I had friendly stand-partners and relished the symphonies that we played. I corrected bad habits, and, once again, considered the violin part of my identity. Still, if I had to play alone, nerves made the bow jump around on the strings. Ensemble playing was where I belonged. My parents drove out for the annual "Cabaret" concert, sitting at cafe tables with drinks and snacks, listening to more casual music that they recognized. They stayed at the Holiday Inn and took Bill and me out for dinner. In the end, I took so many performance credits that I graduated a semester early.

After getting married and moving to the Capital District, I played in the RPI orchestra, then the SUNY Albany orchestra. I stopped when Thomas began private violin lessons at age 6 and Meredith began the same year, beginning piano at age 4. I was intent on having a musical family, and Bill added his support.

Now I play in Schenectady Symphony and at Union College with excellent music directors. In addition, my friend, Cathy, and I have spent more than twenty years rehearsing weekly, and have worked through the entire piano and violin sonata catalogues of Corelli, Haydn, and Mozart, with a sprinkling of other composers along the way.

In the 1990s, we began playing at Barnes & Noble in Colonie where I worked. Bill brought Thomas and Meredith, and my parents came down from Saratoga. For fun, we added Irish ballads performing entire St. Patrick's Day programs for ten years. My father would say, "That other music is good, but this is my kind of music!" My mother said, "I like everything."

Nerves no longer make my bow jump across the strings, but, yes, sometimes Cathy and I still deal with my occasional erratic rhythms. I continue to learn about music wherever I play, even picking up tips from my musical adult children. I like to think that I get better every year.


  1. A very familiar musical legacy, nice to see it written down! I miss those St. Patrick's Day concerts!

  2. I liked this piece very much. It bounced me from my own piano teachers...upright pianos and teachers....your. occasional playing at pine hills...especially at the strawberry festival...and your meeting Kathy at the church. WONDERFUL autobiographical fills out your mother especially and that irrasible old grandfather..