Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Abandonment (Ch. 15)

It was the day after my seventeenth birthday, summer of '76. We had sold our house, driven cross country to Los Angeles, and rented a place on La Cienega before my father made this declaration:
"Frances, we're getting a divorce. I've had it."
My mother and I learned eventually, through Uncle Harry, that my father had been involved with another woman, a Swedish masseuse, during the years I took lessons in New York. The affair began when Kris, the Swede, had strutted into Kransberg's Furniture to purchase a highboy, and offered each of the Kransberg men a massage for a discounted price on the piece. My father lowered himself onto a LaZBoy recliner, and succumbed. After the massage, Kris got the highboy, wholesale.

I imagine that my father must have felt somewhat conflicted about dropping us off in Los Angeles like two duffel bags. The moment we arrived in the smog-filled, sprawling metropolis, he must have missed his sweetheart, Kris, who probably plied and tugged his body like a lump of dough. My father begged to be let out of the prison that was his marriage, to be relieved of the ball and chain that was his violinist daughter, to finally start a new chapter and, borrowing a line from Frank Sinatra: "To do it his way."

My mother called him crazy, told him that he was exhausted, over-wrought from retirement, the relocation, the sale of our house. At the time she knew nothing of the extra-marital affair. My father responded by pounding his chest like a penitent Jew at Yom Kippur. Our small living room on La Cienega had turned into a Wailing Wall. I covered my ears hoping the neighbors would be spared.
"Forgive me, forgive me, Frances! I waited all these years. I waited till Marjorie finished high-school and turned seventeen. She's gonna take care of you from now on. I can't go on pretending—"
My fifty-five year-old mother slumped to her knees on the brown shag carpet, sobbing. An eternity seemed to pass before she found strength to respond.
"You're sick! Cruel! Mixed-up in the head, John. We've been married thirty-seven years. No, wait." Her lips moved frantically as she counted. "We've been together over forty years. I was thirteen, you were fifteen—I'd walk all the way from Derby Street in Salem to Cabot Street in Beverly just to be with you—remember? The Willows. Forest River Park. Our parents, may they rest in peace, never knew from a divorce in the Old Country! It's a shande, a disgrace. You can't abandon Margie and me at a time like this in a foreign city. Oh God, why, why, why are we here?"

I threw my arms around my mother. Her shoulders convulsed with grief.
"Please, please," my mother barely caught her breath. "At least stay for Margie. Our baby just turned seventeen. She needs us both. I'll be good. A good wife—"
"Mum, it'll be OK," I cried. The man standing at the door was a stranger; he meant nothing to me now. "Shhh! Really, let him go," I pleaded. "Can't you see? Daddy doesn't want to be with us."
She reached for my father; hands out-stretched. "I thought—I really thought, John, that we were to begin life anew." Her voice broke between sobs. "But as a family."
Moments later, he stepped out the door. The man that had been my father was gone.

♭♩ ♬♮♬ ♯♪♮♩ ♯♬ ♮♩ ♫ ♯♪♭♩

About a month after my father's grand finale, I sat in the backseat of the car while my mother drove to Jascha Heifetz' house in Beverly Hills. It was a deliciously warm afternoon. I rolled open the window of our Oldsmobile to catch a breeze and feel the sun on my face. My father had left the car to my mother, along with a six figure check from the sale of our New England home. She cried the whole way, through stop signs and traffic lights. "Your father will return, precious dolly. I know he will. Almost forty years of marriage. You don't just throw it all away. He'll come back. He will." A few miles later. "Won't he?"

I alternated between chewing my nails and practicing the scales mentally in the car.
G Flat; yes, six flats. E Flat, the relative minor. Starting in first position and immediately to third, all the way up and down three octaves. I had worked diligently on the bloody scales, for I had to make it into the masterclass, had to. I dressed for the audition in the manner that Claire Hodgkins, his former assistant, had suggested: skirt slightly below the knees, about two inches, blouse with 3/4 sleeve, hair loosely tied back, eye-glasses replaced with contact lenses. Jascha Heifetz would not accept a female that looked like a male, especially a bespectacled one into the class. Light mascara and lip gloss had been dabbed but not coated. I wore flat-heeled and well-polished shoes.

My mother lurched along Sunset Blvd; drivers honked and swore. "Yo! Dudette. Step on it, will ya?" "Let's see," she said, ignoring the rude gestures and comments while holding notebook paper up to the windshield. "This says: Turn right on North Beverly Drive to Coldwater Canyon. Right on Lindacrest which becomes Lloydcrest. Up the winding hill to 1520 Gilcrest Drive." I was beginning to feel carsick from the sudden starts and stops. "Almost there."
She tapped her foot from gas pedal to brake, gas pedal, brake.
"Look, dolly. The wooden security gate!"
My mother announced our names into the intercom; I folded my hands prayer-like: calm down, calm down, calm down.

At the audition, I tossed whatever scales Heifetz requested with uncharacteristic ease. To my surprise, it felt as if we were engaged in a game of ping-pong, his favorite leisure activity. Heifetz served a key and I returned the scale. He inquired as to what else I had prepared, and I replied with the Vieuxtemps Fifth Concerto. Ayke Agus, a beautiful Indonesian woman, accompanied me at the piano. Heifetz tapped against his desk with a TV antennae for us to stop right before the cadenza.
"Marjorie Kransberg, Marjorie Kransberg," I heard him say, slowly at first, then faster, as if recalling my initial audition from years back. I was thirteen at that time and had failed the scale test.
"Is that your name?"
I nodded apologetically. "Yes."
"That's rather a mouthful, I would say."
 And I found myself wondering: Why did I have to get stuck with such a crummy, polysyllabic name? Kransberg, the name of our ancestral village in the Ukraine, was bad enough; worse, it reminded me of my father and all the other cantankerous Kransbergs.
"Do you have a middle name? Most people do."
"Jill." My tongue rested against my front teeth.
"Marjorie Jill Kransberg," he said, accenting the Jill. "An even bigger mouthful."
I agreed whole-heartedly.

"Well, Ayke? What's your verdict?"
I glanced at her from the corner of my eye.
She smiled up at me, then at him, and nodded. Her voice was soft and kind. "I thought Marjorie's audition went very well, Mr. Heifetz."
There was an awkward silence as he fidgeted with the antennae and gazed out the expansive window. After clearing his throat, he said matter-of-factly, "You will begin in the fall."
I nodded. Ayke nodded. Heifetz nodded.
"Well, since we all seem to be in agreement here— Ayke, you may inform her mother."
"Shall I bring Marjorie's mother into the studio, Mr. Heifetz?"
"No, Ayke. You may not."
"Yes, Mr. Heifetz."
She raised herself from the piano bench, and stepped gracefully out of the studio.

While I went to pack away my violin, he edged near. "Who, may I ask, have you studied with—recently, that is?"
I gazed up at him, trying to read the piercing blue eyes. Had he noticed a marked improvement in my playing from my prior audition, because, if so, it was the result of Erick Friedman, his protégé's teaching.
"Erick Friedman," I stated, and loosened my bow hairs.
"Erick Friedman," I repeated, thinking Mr. Heifetz must not have heard.
 "I don't know the name," he said.

Class party at Heifetz' beach house in Malibu

I was to become enlightened at the first session of the Heifetz Masterclass. Mr. Heifetz entered the room without fanfare at the Thornton School of Music at U.S.C, took a seat behind his large desk, and, after wishing us all a good morning, had the students introduce themselves to one another: Jacqueline Brand, Sherry Kloss, Tony Sen, Christian Bor,  Daniel Mason, Barbara Nord, and Stacey Phelps. Mr. Heifetz then made an attempt to ease our jitters by espousing his philosophical views about teaching. He said that he hoped to inspire the class to learn and never stop learning, for that was, in his opinion, the goal of every dedicated teacher. The students, lined in a row against the wall, listened with rapt attention. Mr. Heifetz concluded his brief introductory remarks by urging us to remember that each and every human being is, indeed, a member of the animal kingdom.

Perhaps that explains everything.


Thursday, January 6, 2011

Warnings (Ch.14 Pt.3)

Backstage at Carnegie Hall, I watched as my father inched up the receiving line to speak with Erick Friedman. As he made his way to the violinist, surrounded by enthusiastic audience members waving program books to be signed, I huddled closer to my mother. I had an inkling that my teacher would be upset by the news of my departure from his studio. It was all so sudden. Mr. Friedman took notice of my father, smiled, and then cast a glance in my direction. I could tell that he was expecting the kudos he well deserved for having played three concertos splendidly plus an encore in one evening. His eyes signaled to me, "If I can do this, you can too someday." But then, my father whispered something into Mr. Friedman's ear, and my teacher stepped back, wounded.  I could imagine my father's words. "You understand Boychik. It's for the best. We're talking Los Angeles and Heifetz now."

David Oistrakh sketched by Friedman
The following Saturday I went to my lesson, as usual, with my mother. The man that towered over six feet, and opened the door to the apartment resembled Erick Friedman, but his manner was aloof. My mother, sensing his displeasure, was full of apologies.
"I know Erick. I know. It's difficult to lose a fine pupil. But my husband. Well, if we don't mind him, there's no predicting what he'll do. This is sort of a mid-life crisis, I suppose."
Erick Friedman paced from piano to music stand, the mezuzah pendant bouncing across his broad, hairy chest. I glanced up at the wall while unpacking and noticed my teacher's drawing of violinist, David Oistrakh, next to the nudes. I wanted to inquire about the picture but felt inhibited.

"It's not that I wish to prevent your daughter from studying with Jascha. Quite the contrary.
She should, of course, have the same opportunities that I myself had. It's just that—"
And his voice broke off. I already missed being called "Margie dear." I'd return to Erick Friedman someday though; this much I knew.
"It's just what?" asked my mother.
"Your daughter's not prepared. This is all premature."
My mother looked askance.
"What—what do you mean?"
Mr. Friedman turned to me. "Begin with a three-octave F Sharp Major scale in single notes, followed by arpeggios, then thirds, sixths, octaves, fingered octaves and tenths."
I propped the violin under my chin.
"You better dispense with that shoulder rest. Heifetz won't tolerate it."

The sudden irritation in Mr. Friedman's voice rattled my nerves. My hands turned cold. I unclasped the pad from the back of the violin and set it down in my case. I attacked the scale going up but fell apart on the way down, as my fingers stiffened.
"Again. Start from the top," Mr. Friedman ordered. I lingered on the first note.
"In tempo!" And he tapped against the piano lid which he had never done before.
I resumed the exercise and stumbled.
"You're going to play for Heifetz—like that?"
The tears came. My mother dug into her pocketbook for a hanky. I reached for it.
"We have much work to do," he growled. "I don't want another one of those phone calls from him."
I wiped the tears and blew into the hanky. "What do you mean?"
"I set up an audition for a former student of mine not long ago. And I warned her about the scale test. Oh, Jascha was perfectly polite to her, but me..."

Mr. Friedman began to pace more agitatedly, and thought aloud. "Imagine, I get a call at two in the morning. Half asleep, I pick up the phone. He doesn't even announce his name. Never does. I hear the familiar clipped speech. 'Erick', he says, 'you have no respect for me'. And he hangs up. Just like that. All because my student wasn't prepared—"
I heard my mother gasp. "My Margie'll be prepared! Don't you worry!"

Mr. Friedman persisted. "You'll see. The man is fantastically dedicated to perfection. He's a martinet when it comes to those scales."
"I know," I said through tears, as I recalled my audition from a few years ago.
"I have a theory, actually, that Heifetz's attitude toward scales is predicated on the need to reduce his own emotional tension. Inside, he's a seething volcano. But I learned to cope with this because I observed and analyzed his playing."
"Margie'll learn too," reassured my mother from across the room.
Mr. Friedman shook his head. "The shoulder surgery was unsuccessful. Heifetz can no longer lift his right arm to demonstrate. It's not the same, his playing; in fact, he can barely play at all. Your daughter won't have the benefit of analytical observation that I had."
My throat went dry. What a cruel fate for a concert violinist.

"He's not one to spoon feed his pupils, Marjorie. You'll find out. One time when I lifted the stand up in his studio to conform to my own height, he lowered it to the original height and said, 'It's fine for me.'"
Mr. Friedman paused.
"And if you're accepted into the class, but fail to meet his requirements at any time, you'll be out.  Students are dismissed at the slightest provocation, including romantic relationships. I felt as if I was living in a convent when I studied with him. What, I was supposed to be married to the violin? I'm going to turn into a monk all of a sudden?"
Words failed me.
"All right. I should have heeded his advice and not entered the Tchaikovsky Competition. He called me up, middle of the night, in that cryptic manner of his, and emphatically advised me not to go. 'Erick, you'll see what will happen there.  I'm warning you—' But I went to Moscow anyway at the insistence of David Oistrakh. I figured since Oistrakh was head of the jury and a friend—"
I gazed up again at the sketch of the Soviet violinist, and admired the likeness.
"That's a beautiful drawing," I muttered.

Ignoring my compliment, he continued. "Heifetz suspected that I was being set up by his detractors; after all, he was anti-Soviet, and they were anti-Heifetz. I was rather naive back then in the 60's. After the competition Heifetz phoned me. 'You see, Erick. I told you this would happen. You have no respect for me.'"
I bit down on my lower lip. It pained me to find my teacher so upset; I knew that having placed sixth in the Tchaikovsky Competition, at a time when he already had a concert career along with a recording contract, was a terrible setback.
"My relationship with Jascha was never the same after that," he confessed.
I looked up at Mr. Friedman, sensing the desperate yearning he felt for his mentor's validation. I wanted to throw my arms around my teacher. And, most urgently, I wanted to repair the trust that had been broken between Heifetz and him. I was determined to play a successful audition with scales backwards and forwards, if that's what it took.
"Always remember, Marjorie. A student grappling with difficulties is, to Jascha Heifetz, a contaminant; an infection to be gotten rid of."

Thursday, December 30, 2010

At Carnegie Hall (Ch.14 Pt.2)

I'll always remember Erick Friedman's appearance at Carnegie Hall back in 1976. He performed three concertos in one evening with conductor Izler Solomon and the American Symphony Orchestra. I sat in parquet level sandwiched between my parents. We had spent the better part of the day in the car driving from Boston. My father planned his strategy of announcing my departure from Mr. Friedman's studio with cunning finesse. "Here's what I'm gonna tell him, Frances. It's not as if it's a lie. I'll be taking early retirement from Kransberg's Furniture and we'll be selling our mausoleum-of-a-house to move to a warm climate. Marjorie'll re-audition for Heifetz. Simple as that. Puff! A new life."
My mother heaved a long sigh. She knew that Erick Friedman had plans for me through college. During the past six months of lessons, we had merely skimmed the surface together.

I felt anguish at the thought of leaving Mr. Friedman's studio, not to mention being saddled with my parents just when I was about to start life on my own. But after my father had suffered months of depression and, for dramatic effect, threatened suicide by holding a kitchen knife to his throat, my mother begged me to continue my college studies where they could follow and begin their golden years. "We need to  stay together," she had cried. "Your father and I'd be lost without you. A change to the West Coast is our best hope as a family." And I sensed that she was afraid to be alone with my father; he was a string about to snap.

Isaac Stern
The orchestra was tuning on stage; throngs of audience members—young and old—took to their seats. I wondered how my teacher was coping with the fervor of the moment.  He had shared his conviction that violinist Isaac Stern, president of Carnegie Hall, was on a mission to destroy his solo career with an agenda to belittle Heifetz's teaching. Erick Friedman was collateral damage; a victim of Heifetz's foes, real or perceived. But one thing was for certain. Stern could make or break a career. He'd regularly travel to Israel and listen to young talented violinists. With glasses perched on top of his head, in an avuncular manner, he'd point and say, "You and you. Come to America." Those who were chosen became soloists; the ones left behind, and not chosen, would eventually become orchestra musicians.

Erick Friedman had covered the finances of booking Carnegie Hall, the American Symphony and the press coverage for two evenings of six concertos. He had invited us to the first of the two performances, with hopes that I'd learn from him how to conquer stage fright. The house quieted; the lights dimmed; out walked the concertmaster to tune the orchestra. My stomach knotted. And then my teacher, with the conductor trailing behind, strode on stage in his black tailcoat; his footsteps were bold and determined. He stood beside the conductor's podium and blew onto his curled fingers to warm his hands. He placed the violin and bow in his left hand and shook out his right, to help loosen. Then he switched his violin and bow to the right, and shook out the left hand. He leveled his gaze at the audience while slowly readying the instrument. I heard the rise and fall of my mother's breathing and my father's quiet belch.

The first concerto to be served was the Vieuxtemps Fifth. Mr. Friedman had taught me the composition down to the most subtle detail. "Balance the bow here, and let it bounce there," he had reminded patiently at lessons. "Find the sounding point and sustain. Bel canto as opposed to cantorial." At the concert, I observed as his bow arm, now poised above the strings, moved in broad, masterful strokes; the same strokes that he had imparted to me. I looked down and realized that my fingers were moving while he played. The passages were executed with fine-tuned precision, yet, at each extensive orchestral passage during the rests, Mr. Friedman cupped his hands and blew into them. I shivered. There must be a draft on stage, I thought to myself, and wished only to help.

Like a prize fighter, Erick Friedman completed one concerto, acknowledged the applause, and threw himself into the next. Sibelius was the second work to be featured that evening, and was performed with staggering virtuosity. The audience went into a frenzy with stomping and cheering.

We remained in our seats during intermission. My father nonchalantly unrolled a packet of Tums. My mother asked if I needed to use the bathroom, and I replied, "No". She asked my father if he needed a cigarette, and he said, "No". The two discussed the housing market in Wenham and began to quibble about an asking price. I studied my teacher's photograph in the Carnegie Hall booklet, and when nobody was looking, pressed it to my heart.

The Brahms Concerto had been programmed for the entire second half. Mr. Friedman appeared more at ease on stage. He no longer expelled warm breath onto his hands, and as a result, my own hands became warm. His tone conveyed a white heat intensity reminiscent of his master. At the conclusion of the Brahms, the audience rose to their feet. Applause surged. After a third curtain call, he quieted the house by raising his violin and turning to the audience. "I'd like to dedicate the second movement of the Korngold Concerto to my beloved teacher, Jascha Heifetz, the greatest violinist and influence in my life." And Korngold's lush melodies soared above the orchestra and floated into the proscenium.

The concert had ended. I watched helplessly as my father reached for his hat and coat. Couldn't the news of leaving Mr. Friedman wait? Perhaps this was not the best moment, as everyone else was rushing to congratulate the artist.
"C'mon. Follow me," my father said, eyes narrowed like a mobster. "We'll find our way backstage. Just do me a favor. Let me do all the talking—"

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Professor Klimt (Ch.14 Pt.1)

I was sitting in the lobby of Mr. Friedman's Lincoln Plaza apartment alone, without my mother. I waited for the doorman's signal at the front desk to go upstairs. My father had stormed out of the house that week, driven all the way to Virginia, and finally returned days later, heavily intoxicated, only to proclaim that he had every intention of beginning a new life—with a shiksa. My mother was beside herself with panic. "I'll stay home this Saturday, Margie, to be with your father. Do you think you can get to Erick Friedman's apartment and the Manhattan School of Music by yourself? It means taking the bus and navigating your way around New York City."
"I know," I said.
"This, you've never done alone."
"Don't worry, Mom. I'm old enough to handle it. Sixteen."
She packed a huge shopping bag with woolen sweaters, music books, an egg salad sandwich, two cartons of juice, and a banana. There were tears in her eyes. She whispered so my father wouldn't hear. "I'm afraid if I leave this time for New York, he'll walk out again for good. Margie, your father's not well." And she looped circles with her index finger by her ear.
I nodded in agreement. "Really, Mom, I'll be fine."
"And don't you worry about Harry Dickson's letter. He was just cranky. Harry's Harry. What more can I say? You'll have other opportunities—"
I closed my eyes to extinguish the memory of Symphony Hall.

Meantime, I was eager to prove my autonomy to Mr. Friedman. Instead of a mama's girl, I felt suddenly  transformed into a young woman about to explore Manhattan on my own. Before I left, I had taken my mother's Maybelline set from the bathroom and packed it in my bag. In Mr. Friedman's lobby, after the five hour bus ride, I held up a pocket mirror and swabbed Blue Freeze over my eye lids. Next, I dabbed Mauve on my lips and applied a few quick strokes to my cheeks, as I had watched my mother do on occasion. I undid my shoulder length braids and held strands of frizz between my fingers, letting them fall against my face. I reached into my coat pocket for the Binaca and sprayed a few blasts, then breathed into my hand and sniffed.
"OK, young lady, Mr. Friedman says you can go up now."
"The professor's waiting for you," said the doorman. "Elevator's straight ahead."

I rang Mr. Friedman's buzzer and listened for the sound of his deliberate footsteps. The door opened and he peered down at me with soft espresso eyes. My heart pounded with pleasure as I gazed up at his unbuttoned white shirt and rolled up sleeves which exposed a dark tan and enormous biceps.
Mr. Friedman glanced across the hallway. "Where's your mother?" His voice was so low that I thought he had swallowed the last syllable.
"She couldn't make it today," I said, thrusting back my shoulders.
 "Is—is everything all right?"
"Fine." I tried to keep from smiling. At the moment, I couldn't imagine better.
The way he studied my face, I wondered if there was something wrong with my make-up.
"Please, dear, how rude of me to keep you standing there. Won't you come inside? May I take your coat?"
I walked past him, as if the apartment belonged to me, or as if I belonged to him. I peeked inside the kitchenette and couldn't help but notice a pile of dirty dishes in the sink. There were remnants of chicken bones and mixed vegetables in the garbage pail. He obviously hadn't been alone the evening before.

Klimt: sketch for The Bride, 1917
I took a few steps near the sofa by the coffee table, and placed my violin case within eye-shot of Mr. Friedman's art work. His drawings of nude ladies reminded me of a book of sketches by Gustav Klimt at the Boston Public Library that I had seen, but decided not to check out. Mr. Friedman's sketches displayed a striking similarity to Klimt, and I found them fascinating. Did women really pose like that? I wondered.
"I've been thinking of you," he said.
"Really?" I felt blood rush to my cheeks as I slowly unbuttoned my coat.
"Yes, sweetheart." His eyes lingered on my fingers unclasping the buttons.
"I've been thinking about you because your father telephoned me regarding the concert with Boston Symphony. He mentioned something about a letter, or a critique."
"Oh God." I finished unbuttoning my coat and threw it on top of the violin case.
"I don't want you to feel demoralized. Because I too—"
Just then, the phone rang. I had been spared.

"Hello?" asked Mr. Friedman. "Yes, baby, I know. Yes, of course, we'll have lunch on Thursday. I'm sorry I didn't get back to you but my parents—you know. My father erupted into one of his tirades. And I worry about him. The man eats like there's no tomorrow. He'll have a heart attack one of these days."
A high-pitched voice at the other end rattled away.
"I promise I'll call later, baby. My student is here now."
He hung up.
"As I was saying, Margie dear."
The phone rang again.
"Will you excuse me?"
"Sure," I said, as I pretended to mindlessly gaze at the sketch of a reclining nude lady with a bouquet of flowers between her legs.
"Hello sweet!" he said into the mouthpiece. (I gathered it was a different girlfriend). "How are you? Yes, I know we have a date for Friday. What about a bite to eat first and then the movie?"
He paused for a while.
"OK, OK. I'll give you a buzz later. I have a student here and she's traveled all the way from Boston."
Mr. Friedman placed the receiver back on the phone and stepped closer toward me. The gold rope chain and mezuzah pendant laid across his black-haired chest and gleamed in the early morning sunlight.
"I'm so sorry. As I was saying—"

The phone rang again. "Just ignore it," he said, waving it off as it rang endlessly.
"Again, it all comes back to the question of muscular relaxation and knowing what to do during the pressure of a performance."
"I don't get it," I said, as I had week after week, and looked up at him pleadingly.
"Let me offer you an analogy."
I waited.
"Defensive driving."
"I don't drive."
"Well, imagine operating a car during, let's say, a snowstorm.You need to understand how to apply the brakes and manage the steering wheel. Initially you might find yourself gripping the wheel but then, the moment you take control, you begin to relax. Before you know it, you're just driving; well, not just driving, but enjoying. Margie dear. Take out your violin, and we'll begin, so that you practice control."

I had brought the slow movement of the Brahms Concerto. We worked on the opening phrase for almost thirty minutes. "Balance the bow," he said. I felt his large hand over my own, to help guide the stick. "Save at the beginning of the stroke. That's right. Otherwise you might feel yourself running out of bow at the end which squelches the sound and induces panic. Think directionally. Again, like driving a car."
He pointed to the notes on the page.
"This phrase begins here and arrives there; a destination."
"Oh, I get it!" I started again.
"Now raise your elbow higher at the frog."
"Like this?" I signaled while playing.
"That's correct. That way the control is eased away from the hand and directed into the arm to minimize tremor. The hand may tremble if you're anxious, but not the elbow."
"Mine does," I quipped.
He laughed softly. "You're such a pleasure to teach. Just relax. Consciously."
He picked up his del Gesu, tucked it tenderly under his chin, and offered the first theme of the Brahms. Phrases opened like flowers; glissandi lingered as embraces; Erick Friedman's resplendent tone could melt the coldest of hearts.

Later, he put the violin down and took his seat by the piano but not without the requisite lecture. "I know all this can be demoralizing—the technique of defensive playing— because, as one becomes aware, one often feels worse before getting better. I tried to explain this to your father but I'm not sure he understood. Funny man, your father."
I looked down at the floor and didn't laugh.

Mr. Friedman continued after an awkward silence. "When you're a child, you don't know any better, you just play in front of an audience as you're told. No nerves; completely unselfconscious; that's how it was for Menuhin and many, many others. Now, if you happen to be an exhibitionist, again no problem. Because exhibitionists actually get a thrill, or a rush, from parading in front of others stark naked. But Margie dear, that's an anomaly. It's normal to sense fear and feel trepidation at your age. The adrenaline kicks in and we have a fight or flight response. Unless—"
"Unless what?" I asked, gazing into his eyes, completely absorbed.
"I'm telling you, some people are just too stupid to sense anything—"
"Really? I wondered about that," I said.
"I hope you'll attend my concerts at Carnegie Hall. I'm performing six concertos in two nights, including Brahms, Sibelius and Tchaikovsky. Korngold, too. I want to play the Korngold as an encore for Jascha. He won't hear it, of course, but never mind. And you think I'm not going to feel pressure? Ha! If the Stern Mafia could silence me—"
I looked at him quizzically.
"Yes, that's right. Isaac Stern. If he had his way, I'd no longer be concertizing."
"What happened?"
Mr. Friedman stopped, remembered.
"Between you and Stern?" I pressed.
"Too long a story for today—but I'll share it with you another time."

I completed the Brahms Concerto with Mr. Friedman accompanying at the piano. Even while he stopped numerous times to point out corrections, my spirits soared. He apologized for the fistfuls of wrong notes at the keyboard, but I found them charming. "I'm a clunker," he said.
"No, you're not!"
"We'll continue next week."
The session ended much too quickly. When I glanced at my watch, I realized that we had spent two hours together, and if I didn't hurry, I'd be late for a Mendelssohn Trio coaching with pianist Joseph Seiger, the esteemed accompanist and friend to Mischa Elman. Mr. Seiger was a munificent pedagogue, able to unlock  hidden details in the score. I packed up my violin, tossed my coat over my shoulders, and looked searchingly at Mr. Friedman. If I quit playing, as I had thought about doing, I might lose him.

He got up from the piano bench and reached for the door.
"Put on your coat," he said, "it's cold outside."
As I brushed past him to leave, he stroked my cheek lightly with the back of his hand.
"You're so talented," he whispered.
Halfway down the hallway near the elevators, Mr. Friedman opened the door again and called out, "Marjorie?"
His bass-baritone voice filled the hall.
I turned around immediately, eager to return. "What? What?"
"Do you need money for a taxi?"

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Letter (Ch.13 Pt.5)

Harry Ellis Dickson
I never felt as small as I did while standing on the stage of Boston's Symphony Hall. Conductor Harry Ellis Dickson had announced my name and offered a bit of information about the legendary violinist, Niccolo Paganini to the school children. I heard whistles and shouts before walking on stage to play my solo, for the young audience was thrilled to be on a field trip, away from school, and in a famous concert hall.

I remember tuning lightly (Emanuel Borok sat concertmaster and offered a quiet A) before signaling to Mr. Dickson to begin the piece. My knees were shaking. I heard the familiar swish of his baton, and readied my violin for the third movement of Paganini's Violin Concerto in D Major. I watched my fingers as they fell upon the strings like feet hopping over fiery coals. The devilishly difficult double stop harmonics lost their purity; sequences became reconfigured. My tempo must have rushed for Mr. Dickson broke into a cold sweat; his beat grew more agitated. After each passage, I resolved to do one thing, and one thing only: to get through the performance. I dared not look up at Mr. Dickson, or out into the audience (especially at the balconies and chandeliers which made my head spin), but kept my eyes glued to my now frozen fingers.

When the concerto came to a merciful conclusion, and the audience erupted into applause, I tore away from the stage. Sure, as a child performer, Mr. Dickson had spun around and kissed the top of my head after the performances at the Esplanade, as he had with violinist Lynn Chang. But this time, I sensed that I had let him down. I turned away before even shaking his hand, the customary gesture after a performance. Behind the stage door stood my mother with a yellow sweater over her shoulders which matched her Eva Gabor wig. She grabbed me. "My dolly! I was too nervous to sit in the audience. I got such shpilkes from this performance. How did it go? Did you give it your all?" Then a moment later. "The audience is still applauding! Go—go take another bow on stage!"
"I need to get back to school," I said while suppressing tears. "I have a final in Geometry."

It was to be my last year in high-school, having compacted four years into three. My classmates were preparing for their SAT's, and trying to figure out what they wanted to do for careers, while I continued to practice for solo competitions and college auditions, as my profession had been predetermined. Erick Friedman was under the impression that I'd pursue my violin studies with him at the Manhattan School of Music. However, there was also an opening for the Heifetz Masterclass at the University of Southern California.
I packed up the violin and ordered my mother to hurry. "Please," I begged. "That test determines my grade."
"Ok," she said, after thinking a while. "Let's hope to hear a glowing report from Harry later—"

I tried to shake all thoughts about the performance and put it behind me. It had just been an off day; better luck next time. Mr. Friedman would cure me, and I'd overcome stage fright. And, I thought, thank goodness my mother hadn't sat in the audience and listened to the concert, for she may not have recognized the piece.

But days later, my father returned late from work, clasping an unsealed envelope which was addressed to me yet delivered to his store: Kransberg's Furniture at 301 Cabot Street in Beverly. He waved the envelope in the air. His voice thundered. "Right or wrong. I read this note from Dickson that he wrote to you."
"From Harry?" my mother asked with anticipation. She quickly put on her reading glasses. "Maybe he's arranging an audition for Marjorie with Ozawa. Let me see."
"Frances. Let her read it to you herself."
I could tell from the look on my father's face that the letter was a missive. My eyes welled with tears. I slid the note from the opened envelope, unfolded the paper, and held it in my shaking hands. I began the letter aloud in a thin voice.

Dear Marjorie,

It is out of respect and profound admiration that I write this letter, for you are a remarkably talented young lady. I suspected you were not pleased with your performance last Friday, which I well understand, for it did not go as well as either of us expected.  

At this point I continued silently.  

In which case, I cannot help but offer unsolicited advice. To the chagrin of my colleagues, family, and friends, and perhaps to my detriment, I have a stubborn habit of speaking my mind, and sharing with others my convictions whether they wish to hear them or not. 

As you begin to explore opportunities for your future in music performance (as you should), I hope you'll recognize that there are numerous ways to succeed in a musical career besides becoming a soloist, which, in my humble opinion, can be rather one-dimensional and fraught with high pressure demands. You may find this hard to believe, but I struggle whenever I perform a solo. My concerts never go as well as they do when I'm alone in a practice room. When I'm all by myself, I feel as if I can surpass the greatest violinists, even Heifetz. My imagination lifts me to towering heights. But in front of an audience, I lose about 30% of my capabilities. Soloists require nerves of steel; I have not been endowed with that trait, but it hasn't prevented me from enjoying an amazing life in music. I can't help but wonder; is a solo career what you really desire, or are you being pressured by your parents? Because it is you that concerns me, not them.

Speaking from my own personal experiences, a position in the Boston Symphony has been stimulating and rewarding; I continue to pursue other interests on the side (such as chamber music and conducting) in conjunction with my BSO responsibilities. I enjoy working with my colleagues, many of whom hold outside occupations and hobbies in addition to their busy musical careers. I haven't even mentioned the role of pedagogue, which I regard with the highest esteem. So you see? There are many paths to consider for your future, which I'm sure will be bright.

As I stated earlier, I hope you will accept these thoughts as an indication of my deepest respect for all you have accomplished thus far and will continue to do. As artists we must, first and foremost, remain truthful to ourselves, though it is easier said than done.

Harry Ellis Dickson

I finished reading the note with tears streaming down my cheeks. I wanted to crumple it up, toss it in the garbage and beg my parents to let me quit the violin, for if I was not to become a soloist by age sixteen, I felt as if I had turned into a failure. I lunged toward my father who, after all these years, had remained almost a stranger. My arms were outstretched. "Daddy," I cried. He thrust me aside and  glared resentfully at my mother. "How many times did I try to tell you Frances?— but you never listened to me, and you never will. She's not gonna make it—"

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Nerves (Ch.13 Pt.4)

Erick Friedman's words haunted me. "Let's imagine a surgeon patting himself on the back after an operation. 'I did everything I could and followed procedure', the surgeon gloats. 'It was a success. Unfortunately, though, the patient died.'"
I had laughed at first. Mr. Friedman had a knack for dramatizing. He occasionally launched into a soliloquy replete with theatrics at our lessons. "The surgeon's attitude might be analogous to a teacher who has taught a student to play but not to perform. What good is it, Margie dear, to play well if, in the end, you can't face the public? If you walk on stage and experience a sudden burst of adrenaline, how do you over-ride this?"
I nodded my head without saying a word. I loved studying the violin and wanted to learn all I could about music. But the pressure for becoming a soloist was mounting with competitions on the horizon. I was beginning to have doubts about a lifelong career. I glanced at my mother, dutifully scribbling notes in the corner, but kept my thoughts to myself. The last thing I wanted was to let her down, for her heart was set on my becoming a concert violinist.

"Do you ever think how many talented artists fall into oblivion because they cannot get over their fear of public performance?" Mr. Friedman picked up his violin. "Learn to balance and guide the bow properly or this could happen—" He drew the bow so that it trembled uncontrollably from frog to tip. I recognized immediately one of the crippling symptoms of stage fright. I had recently viewed a performance of the Beethoven Concerto with violinist, Yehudi Menuhin, whose bow ricocheted along the strings in what was supposed to have been slow sustained passages. The audience granted him a standing ovation nonetheless, as he was a legend. Was Menuhin's disease in late life the result of improper training, undiagnosed childhood trauma, or a medical condition?

I had never really thought about anxiety till that point. As a matter of fact, in all my youth, whatever tremulations I experienced on stage might have been classified as garden variety nerves. In the past, I had weaved the technique known as visualization into performances. I didn't know what I was doing, but I invoked composers and made up libretti to help set the varying moods. I conjured up seasoned performers, such as violinist Joseph Silverstein, alongside of me on stage. They were guides, so to speak, and their imagined presence helped to soothe and calm. I'd then lose myself in the magic of the moment. But at these lessons, I had fallen under Erick Friedman's spell, and absorbed the flow of his words like a sponge soaking up an unstoppable leak. It occurred to me, suddenly, that perhaps I never understood what it was that I was doing in all my years of playing. Whatever confidence I had in myself was beginning to evaporate. I was no longer merely a pupil of Mr. Friedman's, but a stricken patient in dire need of rehabilitation. Perhaps my disease had progressed too far.

I listened to Mr. Friedman with rapt interest, as if in an altered state, hoping to cling to any cure. My eyes never left his when he spoke. I tried to memorize his face, for it was one I loved.
"There is nobody more high-strung than Jascha Heifetz," Mr. Friedman said with conviction. "I can recall when he sometimes played passages for me at lessons that his face would flush; can you imagine? He was obviously grappling with anxiety. But Heifetz always played perfectly because his muscles were so relaxed and controlled that he could surmount any discomfiture. As a matter of fact, when I watched him I was almost afraid to breathe; I thought I might blow the instrument right out of his hands. Nathan Milstein was the same way. Whenever you find a great player, you'll find a relaxed player, and one who understands the instrument."

Looking back, Mr. Friedman's observations were both liberating and crippling. I learned to practice in a state of hyper-awareness with relaxation as a goal. Passage work became effortless as a result. My left hand began to unclench; the fingers moved with precision and ease. I could play faster than ever before. But keeping the inner control to draw the bow slowly and delicately produced terror in my heart. The seed of fear had been planted in my brain, and I couldn't shake it loose. It dawned on me that to have a solo career would be like exposing myself naked to the world; I was hardly an exhibitionist.

I won the Boston Symphony Young Artist Competition performing the Paganini Violin Concerto. The competition was mainly an audition for conductor Harry Ellis Dickson, who had selected me at the age of ten to appear with the Boston Pops at the Esplanade. To perform for Mr. Dickson by this time, at age sixteen, felt as if I were playing for an old friend. I wanted him to hear my progress. The following day Mr. Dickson telephoned the house and, according to my mother, spoke of my audition with keen admiration. He was delighted to learn that I had made a switch from the Galamian factory of violin playing to Erick Friedman, a concert artist whose approach to teaching might prove refreshingly unconventional. Mr. Dickson reminisced about the collaboration between  Friedman and Leinsdorf during the recording sessions of Prokofiev's Violin Concerto with Boston Symphony for RCA in the 60's.

I was engaged to perform at a youth concert at Boston's Symphony Hall as soloist on November 7th, 1975. Mr. Dickson had requested the final movement of the Paganini, which I had barely learned. The young audience, he felt, would grow restless with a lengthier composition. And he assured my mother, who by this time had soared up to the clouds, that he'd offer a glowing recommendation to Boston Symphony's music director, Seiji Ozawa, for future performances.

Meantime, I checked off the days on the calendar as my debut at Symphony Hall drew near. At school, my heart pounded every time I thought about stepping on the venerable stage. My blood ran cold as I imagined performing for an audience of thousands, even if they were mostly screaming school children. I understood what Mr. Friedman was suggesting in terms of conscious relaxation, but wondered if I could put his remedy into effect during the heat of the moment. I felt that everyone would be disappointed if I failed to succeed: my parents, Mr. Dickson and my beloved teacher.

I wanted out. I wanted out of becoming a concert artist. Or at least I wanted a choice. But after all the years of sacrifice, the hard won praise, the family quarrels, the commuting back and forth to New York from Boston, I dared not tell a soul, least of all, my mother.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Diagnosis (Ch.13 Pt. 3)

Heifetz teaching Friedman
"It's just what I thought," Erick Friedman said after I finished the first movement of the Paganini Concerto. He got up from the piano bench. I glanced at my parents huddled on the sofa. They sat stock still, as if awaiting a life or death diagnosis from a prominent surgeon about to wield his knife.
"The gifted ones tend to exhibit tension in their playing and are the most at risk."
"What?" I asked.
"I hear it. The squeezing and over-pressing; symptomatic of improper training. I'm amazed you don't suffer from tendinitis. Set the violin down and let me examine your hands."
I lowered the instrument to its case, feeling self-conscious. Afterward, Mr. Friedman gently took my left hand into his own. The backs of his were covered with thick black hair all the way down to his knuckles. His hands felt strong and protective.
"Let's take a look." He lingered a bit on each finger, then went on to caress the callouses. "Good length. Even the pinky. And there's just enough padding—"
I looked up not knowing how to respond. The mezuzah around Mr. Friedman's thick neck flickered against the lamp light.
"I recognize all the tell-tale signs, though," he stated with perfect conviction.
"Of—of what?" I asked shakily.
Mr. Friedman's face darkened with concern. Was I about to be dealt a fatal prognosis?
"That charlatan."
"Oh no. I haven't studied with Galamian but with DeLay." I slid my hand away from his and wiped it on my skirt. Gazing into those smoldering charcoal eyes, I realized that Erick Friedman was the handsomest man I had yet to encounter. I'd have believed anything he said, for it was as if I had fallen under the spell of Svengali.
"DeLay. Galamian. Same defects." Friedman's baritone voice filled the room. His vowels were from New Jersey.
"They teach how to press, how to squeeze, how to tighten and force. Tell me, Marjorie dear. Have you ever heard Dorothy DeLay play?"
I reached back into my memory which was a stockpile of music lessons. I recalled the one time that Miss DeLay offered a couple of notes to demonstrate vibrato. "Not really," I found myself admitting.
"That's right. And you won't."
"Why not?" I asked.
"Because she can't."
"But, but—she could."
"There's a dichotomy between teachers and doers," he said.

"Let me elucidate my reaction to your playing." He stepped nearer to the violins that rested on top of the Steinway. "Given your talent, and remarkable hands, you have the potential for a career. I think we share more similarities than differences."
I looked at him quizzically. Erick Friedman was an enigma, this six-foot-three hunk of a man.
"Like yours, my parents were dedicated to my training. My father played the violin but as an amateur. And he was determined to grant me the finest musical education that money could buy."
"Like me!" My mother interrupted.
Mr. Friedman nodded slowly.
"He'd take copious notes at every lesson. I studied first with a patient of his who happened to be none other than Samuel Applebaum. You know that name?"
"I do." My mother raised her hand as if in a classroom. "I know of Applebaum. I had my Marjorie study all his duet books; we played them together. Wonderful!"
"Take it easy, Frances," my father said. He placed his arm over her lap as a restraint. "Let the man talk. Go ahead, Boychik. Interesting stuff you're telling us."
She thrust her hand up a second time. "Oh, so Mr. Friedman.Your father must be a doctor?"
"Frances, I told you. Enough already," warned my father.

Mr. Friedman laughed softly. "My father's a dentist. I come from a family of medical practitioners, which partially explains, I suppose, my interest in the physiology of violin playing. As a matter of fact, my brother is a  neurosurgeon. When he was younger, though, he was an athlete. I learned through him that the muscles have one active motion: contraction. In fact, there's a strong muscular association between the hands. When the left-hand muscles are squeezed and pressed, the right hand tends to react in the same way, and vice versa."
For some reason I had a flashback of Dr. Ben Casey on TV.
"Let me make myself clear; there's no instrument more unnatural to play than the violin. You have to be like a pretzel!"
Mr. Friedman reached for his "Ludwig" Stradivari and tucked it under his chin. He inclined his left elbow far to the right, and twisted his neck. "See?"
I laughed out loud. Erick Friedman suddenly resembled Quasimodo.
"That's how I used to look when I played."
"No." I shook my head in disbelief.
He laid the Strad gently on the piano.
"I studied with Applebaum until I was ten years old, then alternated between Galamian and DeLay."
"Miss DeLay, really?" I asked.
"Yes. 'Sweetie this and Sugarplum that.' Meantime, so many bad habits set in because, like you, I was talented and worked hard. I was tied up in knots."
 I waited for him to continue, wondering what he might prescribe.
"I don't know if you've ever experienced nervousness. You don't look the type, but—"
I didn't want to respond to this question. I got nervous just thinking about getting nervous, so sometimes it was better not to think. "I—I do."
"Yes? Because I doubt anyone suffers from nerves more than I do," he announced at last.

I stared at Erick Friedman in amazement. Those broad shoulders and large biceps. No way could I imagine a  big man like that battling stage fright. I had watched him in every episode of the Heifetz Masterclass on television. He had performed J.S. Bach's Concerto for Two Violins with Heifetz, and seemed totally at ease, unaffected by the cameras which must have loomed close.
"I don't get it," I muttered.
"I'll let you in on a secret, Marjorie. Would you rather be called Margie?"
"Yes. She prefers to be called Margie." My mother stated from across the room.

"Margie, when I was just a bit younger than you are now, in my early teens, I had a series of concert engagements. My mother was good friends with Michael Rabin's mother. Michael was offered management at an early age, so she, a nice lady, got me signed under contract too."
I heard my mother gasp. "How fortunate!"
"No. I wasn't ready. One evening I was to perform Lalo's 'Symphonie Espagnole' here in New York. I underwent such a panic attack that I wound up not on the stage, but in the E.R., gasping for air. It was awful. I still remember my mother screaming at the doctors for help."
My pulse quickened. "What happened?"

His face turned ashen as he retold the tale. "Well, I was diagnosed with asthma. But, you know, it took years for me to finally understand that this condition was brought on by extreme fear, and it reoccurred every time I had to perform. In other words, my asthma was psychosomatic. Not until I studied with Nathan Milstein and later Jascha Heifetz, and analyzed their playing up close, did I begin to realize that I had been improperly trained, which affected my nervous system. If a young performer is not guided properly, it can cause trauma."
"How so?" I asked, somewhat confused but also impressed by his depth of knowledge.
"We're like athletes. If something is fundamentally wrong, we cannot perform well, or sustain a career for a number of years. By observing those great master violinists, so relaxed, devoid of undue tension, I learned economy of motion, and subsequently, the art of relaxation. But I had to practically start over."
"And the asthma?" I asked.
"It went away."

He leveled his gaze at me, and I thought I might melt.
"But the moral of this story—and I know that I talk too much," he said. "You'll need to protect your playing by consciously allowing the muscles to relax. Let's imagine, for an instant, that you have an important performance, or God forbid, a professional career. A nasty critic shows up with an agenda to thwart your success. You, somehow, become aware of this unfortunate circumstance, and you know what? It makes you downright anxious. Scared, even. Michael Rabin was addicted to sedatives; we all know that. And he died not too long ago, a young man in his thirties. The pressure was too much for him."
I nodded. Rabin's untimely death was a loss for the entire music world.
"Margie dear, take my word for it; I know a little something about this business, which is cutthroat. You'll need to be prepared for such an event as a critic or colleague's determination to crush your career. Because in this field, it's not a question of if, but when."