Category Archives: professional musicians

The Surveyor.

Bill hadn’t played his cello, for years.

We’d both studied with the same first teacher, Dimitri, but several years apart, never crossing paths coming up. However, about a year ago, in that roundabout random way, somebody hooked us up and Bill became yet another adult member of the studio of multi-aged students I’d established back in 1989 after my first trip into the world of Suzuki-based musical instruction at Stephens’ Point, WI.

The two of us, Bill and I, were now nearly 65 years old.

We private teachers of musical instruments run the gamut. Some are self taught, promoters of their own unique styles and approaches; others are conventionally and soundly trained by conservatories; still others come by their skills employing a mixture of acquired pedagogies and “shoot from the hip” instinct.

But, we all take on students, and that for reasons both selfish and noble. Some do because it’s easy money, no accounting for quality; others want to produce the next Perlman, Botti, or Ma; but among us authentic, Suzuki-registered devotees is a collective desire to help each, young or old, grow to enjoy the ability to make good, solid, beautiful music.

Bill was immediately likeable. He had the twinkly eyes, a clean cut presence, and a gentle demeanor. And, he said, his daughter (with whom I’d collaborated while she’d been a college student) wanted him to get some help with intonation. Sure thing, I told him; he’d come to the right place.

We set about some serious ear training. Dimitri had always been about tone, the bow trajectory, himself tall and lean, striding back and forth before us with puffing pipe, declaring with sweeping, long armed gestures: “Seeeng mit de chellow! SEEEEENG!” And, seeeeeng we did. We sang with our bows, drawing full resonance, sound albeit perhaps sourly out of tune, but big and glorious for Dimitri.

Bill already knew how to produce full, Dimitri style tone. So, the two of us worked on his ear, via his muscle memory, with keen aural attention. Pitch by pitch, Bill mastered the G major scale, pocket by pocket, until he could get through a whole Book I tune without losing its tonal center.

We moved on, into pieces which had more complex structure. He’d played some pretty advanced works of music by master composers, in the years between our lessons with Dimitri and the day we’d finally met. They’d been out of tune then, and they were now as well. We addressed all that, phrase by phrase, and there was no denying how much he cared, how earnestly he applied himself, and how each week he’d demonstrate noticeable improvement.

But, once we were all forced to go virtual, and Zoom et al afforded us zero opportunity to play together, I began to pick up on another curious feature about Bill. When playing alone, he seemed completely devoid of any internal rhythm. Even when counting, he’d start out fine but lose it midway, either accelerating or dragging until the steady beat was a vapor.

Bill understood note values. He realized that they each had specific duration. He just couldn’t express duration, when he played. Relative recognition, but complete imprecision, there was no steady beat in his consciousness.

Before anyone reading this thinks that I am in the habit of denigrating or throwing shade on any of my students, stay with me; there’s a point, here, and it’s probably not what you might be thinking.

Teachers are supposed to care about their students, hands down. But, I believe we should also strive to know them. Know them, fully. Get into their heads. And, with adults, this necessitates getting into their histories.

What was Bill about? How had he spent the bulk of his adult life?

Not as a cellist. Nope. Bill was a Security guard.

In fact, he’d begun his career as a policeman, in one of our outlying counties. From there, he’d moved to Baltimore MD, joining a force of about four thousand. Then, he became a Federal Marshall, spending decades in this field and, now, in retirement, Bill was the lone Security Guard for a major, local medical center.

As I sat listening to Bill play, I tried to get deeply into his brain. I wanted to become familiar with how his lifelong habits informed everything about him. Why was he unable to stay focused on the steady beat, even with the metronome pounding into his left ear?

I followed him from the beginning of the song to the end, and then it hit me. Bill had been trained to employ a global view. He was all about the entire scope of the environment, not the details. Any officer caught fixating on one aspect, one person’s behavior, is a cop waiting to be overtaken by a crafty criminal specializing in slight of hand. No wonder he couldn’t stay with the pulse; about a minute in, his brain would go panoramic. To the observer, his mind may have appeared to “wander”, to have “lost concentration”; but, in Bill’s world, he was merely returning to his job — as grand surveyor.

Bill being more than just pleasant, but gallant, he took to my confronting this with grace and deference. In fact, he concurred completely. I posited that he might, at work, entertain the occasional interchange of small talk with the proverbial smile and nod, but that absorbing conversational content was all an act. Again, he concurred. He didn’t like big parties, he said. He couldn’t concentrate on anything anybody ever said to him. At this point, surprise; I told him I was exactly the same. Relatability, the essence of common ground.

So, now Bill had a plan. He could harness his widely scanning, revolving, weather vane of a brain to the task of actual focus for 3 solid minutes during the passage of time required to produce a musical tune. He knew now when during the piece he’d likely veer off, and would set his intent with resolve to stay with that pulse through to the end.

Many teachers might question this conclusion. Excessive over think. Unnecessary analysis of basic inability. I stand in challenge, to all that. To my seasoned experience, there is no such thing, inability. There is only absence of informed understanding. The brain, and the mind which governs it, continues to produce – new cells, new blood vessel pathways; the mind, who is kidding whom, here? is as infinite as the God Who created it.

As we age, let’s remember that our successes are never either defined or limited by years.

Bill, the cellist, will tell you.

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© 1/11/22 Ruth Ann Scanzillo/littlebarefeetblog.com. All rights those of the author, whose story it is and whose name appears above this line. Thank you for respecting rights of authorship, and for being the better person.

Show Up And Play.

Nightmares.

Some are so soul crushing that the relief which occurs upon waking is akin to epiphany.

I’d found myself back in the cello section of the Erie Philharmonic. (That alone, to those who know the history, was already a foreboding dream marker.) Herewith, the scene unfolding.

First, the orchestra was performing in the pit not of the spacious and soon to be reborn Warner Theatre/Erie, PA but of Grover Cleveland Elementary School, a site never before graced by this orchestra (although the Erie Chamber Orchestra would find its way there a year or so before its own demise). Further, my position in the cello section was outside last desk (which had almost never been my seat) and the cellist sitting inside was a student, the only private student who had left my studio during my actively performing years and who, during this scene, was no longer my student. Given this arrangement, the dream concert would likely have been a Jr Phil “side by side” performance, no doubt inspired by photos posted on Facebook which I’d just perused before retiring to bed the night before.

I’d taught at Grover Cleveland School for twelve of the twenty five in total dedicated to related arts, public education. My seat as outside last desk in that pit put me very near the spot of the place where, twelve years earlier, in full view of an auditorium filled to capacity with young children and their teachers, I’d flown from the stage edge to smash to the floor, breaking my hip and sacra.

Now, in that very place, the orchestra sat in dress rehearsal. My former student was sustaining sound on one note noticeably beyond cue of the conductor’s baton, affectionately known by seasoned professionals as “the stick”. Watching the stick had been something to which I’d been absolutely loyal for nearly 30 years. This was a feature of my own contribution to the ensemble which I’d been sure established my value within it.

I gave my former student a sidelong glance of teacherly disapproval.

Suddenly, the dream scene changed. The conductor was at my elbow, leaning across me, lavishing the student with praise – and, ignoring me. This conductor, that is, none other than the Maestro to whom I’d been most devoted, the one and only Eiji Oue who, as a Bernstein protege, had filled our hall every concert for five glorious years.

I looked up at Eiji – bewildered, frustrated, and sad. Then, I spoke. “Maestro, do you…….should I just leave the orchestra?” With snide condescension, almost irritated by the question, he responded.

His reply was affirmative. I don’t remember what he said.

Rehearsal having ended, audience had begun filing in. Standing up, preparing to buck the encroaching crowd, I spied my younger brother already seated in the auditorium. I called out to him, declaring that I was being eliminated from the orchestra. He gave me a challenging look, the kind he presents when he’s about to wordlessly act. Then, he turned, and ushered his couple boys out of the row.

I looked over the throng, beginning to feel the panic. Was I carrying my cello in its case up the steep aisle toward the foyer? Once there, the space resembled the inside of a local parking garage near the Warner, all cement, with painted steel rails. I had to find my brother; he’d transported me to the event. Didn’t his truck have my housekeys in it?!

My brother, because this was a dream, could not be found.

I returned to the inside of the auditorium, which was filling fast. Heading down the aisle was a strange young woman with long, thick, honey colored hair, carrying a cello case. Reaching the last desk, she began unpacking her cello. Her face was one common to my dreams, clearly identifiable but totally unrecognizable by me. I called to her. Refusing to look at me, but with a knowing smirk, she continued setting up her instrument.

That fast, I’d been replaced for the performance by a sub willing to “show up and play”, the moniker for those whose entire performing lives are dictated by a willingness to wait for a call at any moment, said calls tabulated and reviewed and documented for income tax purposes.

I turned. I looked back over the audience. I looked back at her. The room was closing in. I spoke to a woman near. I’d been eliminated from the orchestra after three decades. She looked back at me, as one looks at a sad stranger. I looked around the room. I stood. The sounds in the room increased in volume around me to a maddening pitch. I woke up.

Eyes opening, sticky from sleep, I felt the weighted blanket hugging my hips. The bedroom chair, dimly seen, the bathroom doorway, the music room through the bedroom door with my cello laying on its side by the piano… I’d returned to the haven of my own reality. I was intact.

Most dreams linger, their images gradually fading as we move through time. This one was different. This time, with a clarity as yet never experienced, I knew something.

No one other person, however importantly perceived, however grand in sphere of influence, however innately capable, determines another’s value.

No single moment within time determines destiny.

None, perhaps, except epiphany.

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© 4/8/2021 Ruth Ann Scanzillo All rights those of the author, whose story it is and whose name appears above this line. Sharing permitted via blog link, exclusively; no copying, in part or whole including translation, permitted. Thank you for being a good person.

littlebarefeetblog.com