Thursday, April 29, 2010

Harry Ellis Dickson with Lynn Chang (Ch.2. Pt.2)

My mother often spoke about the conductor and violinist, Harry Ellis Dickson. She referred to him as a Bostonian musical treasure. A first violinist in Boston Symphony, he was also music director of the Brookline Civic Symphony, conductor and founder of Boston Symphony Youth Concerts, assistant conductor to Arthur Fiedler of the Boston Pops, close friend to actor Danny Kaye, a raconteur, and an accomplished writer, all rolled into one human being. My mother idolized Mr. Dickson, who everyone called 'Harry'.  "Oh, that Harry," she would say, clicking her tongue against the roof of her mouth. "What a sense of humor. I just finished his book, Gentlemen, More Dolce Please!  You know, my dolly, he writes the way he talks. Such wit. When I was pregnant with you, I sat in the back row of the first violin section in Brookline Civic, and you know what Harry would say?"
"No Mummy, what?"
"He'd turn to all the violinists, point to me, and remark 'pregnant women are the most beautiful'. Of course, I didn't look too bad in those days. I kept my hair off my face, in a chignon, and watched my weight during the entire pregnancy. Then, when his buddy, the comedian and famous actor Danny Kaye would come to watch Harry conduct during rehearsals, Harry would seat him right next to me. I couldn't get over it. Danny Kaye was supposed to pay attention to Harry but the whole time he made eyes at me. Danny was a you-know."
"A what?"
"A flirt." She sighed.

It was Harry Ellis Dickson who championed the extraordinary young violinist Lynn Chang, and showcased him as soloist on numerous occasions with Boston Symphony. My mother was all too eager to have me follow in Lynn's footsteps.
"When will my Margie have the opportunity to audition for Harry?" my mother asked Mrs. Scriven one day at a lesson. I was ten years old.
"I'd give it some time, Mrs. Kransberg. Marjorie's not quite ready yet."
Mrs. Scriven had acquired a patient tone of voice with my mother, for I had become Mrs. Scriven's pride and joy. My musical progress had been rapid, and I had won several awards of recognition from the National Federation of Music Clubs performing works of Viotti and Mozart. I was regularly invited to perform in youth concerts throughout the New England region, including as soloist with New Hampshire Philharmonic and Wellesley Symphony Orchestra, and I had performed "Ave Maria" at Linwood Scriven's memorial service. Although I found it exasperating to practice several hours a day with my mother pointing out errors, I enjoyed the distinction of being a prize pupil. Even my father boasted about my accomplishments to his customers at Kransberg's Furniture. He'd arrive home from work with a cigar box full of candy as my reward. "Keep your mother happy," he'd say with a wink.

Impatience reflected on my mother's face at the lesson. "But Sarah, Harry'll remember me from Civic Symphony when I sat there in my ninth month of pregnancy with Margie. He'll get such a kick out of hearing her play." Then, in a conspiratorial whisper. "I had to quit Brookline Civic because I got fenumen with this little one. You know what I mean, Sarah—busy, busy, busy."
"My dear, Mrs. Kransberg. I assure you," said Mrs. Scriven slathering her hands, wrists, and arms with talcum powder but restraining herself to a sotto voce. "I'll let Harry know about Marjorie when the time is right. You need not push. Please, Mrs. Kransberg. Don't turn into a stage mother."
"A stage mother?" My mother looked quizzically. "I could never—"

"But, you know," said Mrs. Scriven, smoothing her white hair away from her face. "As I think of it, I have two tickets for this Saturday evening's Boston Symphony concert. My husband Linwood, may he rest in peace, loved the symphony. We were season subscribers for as long as I can remember. The tickets are not front row, but pretty darned close. Lynn Chang will be performing the Tchaikovsky Concerto with Harry conducting." Mrs. Scriven held a steady gaze in my direction, and narrowed her eyes. "I think it might be useful for Marjorie to hear Lynn. What do you say, darling?"
I looked helplessly at my mother without uttering a word.
♪ ♩ ♪
"Marjorie. There you are. I was looking all over for you," Mrs. Scriven said, after my father had deposited me on the steps of Boston's Symphony Hall. He forbid my mother to drive into the city at night.
Mrs. Scriven grabbed my hand and pulled me into the venerable, brick building through throngs of people. "Come on, darling. Let's go inside."
Mrs. Scriven handed her tickets to the usher and we stepped into the hall. I had never been in one place with so many seats. Glancing up at the balconies and crystal chandeliers made my head spin. My stomach knotted, as if I were the one having to perform in front of thousands of people.

Mrs. Scriven clomped down the aisle to her seat, and gestured for me to take my chair. She took off her brown fur coat and spread it over her lap, then peeled off her leather gloves, dug into her pocketbook, and sprinkled talcum on her hands. Mrs. Scriven lifted her bifocals from her bag and placed them on the tip of her nose. She licked her fore-finger. Slowly, she began turning the pages of the Boston Symphony program booklet, and lingered on the photograph of her former student, Lynn Chang.
Mrs. Scriven pointed to the name Joseph Silverstein in the program. "He's the concertmaster—leader of all those violinists. Important job."
Awkward pause.
"He won the Naumberg Prize, not long ago. Do you know what that is?"
I shook my head, no.
"Well, it's a coveted musical award which establishes international solo careers. Joseph Silverstein could have become a world famous soloist, but instead he chose to be Boston Symphony's concertmaster."
I nodded in agreement.
"And to tell the truth, he's come a long way, that Joseph Silverstein."
I smiled.
"What I mean is—that he keeps improving. Do you understand how vital that is to an artist?"
I shrugged my shoulders.
"Marjorie Kransberg," snapped Mrs. Scriven. "The day you open your mouth and say something to me is the day I'll probably drop dead from shock."
One by one, a few musicians strutted onto the stage. A beefy violinist sat down in the first violins. He nodded to Mrs. Scriven, and grinned. "That's Rolland Tapley," she said. "Rolland which rhymes with Holland. He's such a sweet man."
A bald cello player took a seat, pulled up the music stand, and stabbed his end pin onto the floor. A horn player shook spit out from his instrument. An oboist swabbed his oboe with what appeared to be a turkey feather. Musicians were fun to watch, like exotic animals at the zoo. As more players made their way onto the stage, the cacophony of  squeaks and honks created a painful crescendo. I looked around at all the elegantly dressed people swarming into the hall, and chewed my thumbnail. I said a silent prayer for not being the evening's soloist.
Finally, the magic moment arrived when the house lights dimmed. Audience members applauded as concertmaster Joseph Silverstein took center stage.  He cued the oboist for an  A.
Mr. Silverstein sat down, and twitched his bushy eyebrows. They looked like two caterpillars. As Harry Ellis Dickson strode to the conductor's podium, the orchestra stood up, and Dickson enthusiastically shook Silverstein's hand. "William Tell Overture" broke the spell of anticipation. The overture made me want to gallop away on a horse, march in a parade, or at least perform cartwheels in the aisle. I didn't want the music ever to end. After an eruption of wild applause, the hall quieted. A rustling of Boston Symphony program booklets could be heard, and a few coughs. "Oh look here," I overheard a lady behind us remark. "A child prodigy violinist is about to perform the Tchaikovsky Concerto."
Mrs. Scriven's eyes were glued to the stage. My hands turned clammy. Silverstein raised and dipped his furry eyebrows. The orchestra tuned. A giant wave of orchestral sound crashed and receded.

Lynn Chang charged onto the stage, a small kid with longish hair. Mr. Dickson trailed behind. He lifted his baton in the air, jerked his head, and the orchestra tutti began. The young violinist launched into the third movement of the Tchaikovsky Concerto. Confidence exuded from Lynn Chang's face, as if his performance was mere routine. The Tchaikovsky began slow, and then, like a steamroller, took off. Lynn Chang's left hand whizzed up and down the fingerboard. His violin bow ricocheted off the strings like a spray of fireworks. Sweat flew from Lynn Chang's face and dripped onto his violin. I had never seen anyone wipe his forehead during one bar rest with a sleeve. The audience gasped. I was certain the concerto was about to end, but the music had only reached a cadence. I felt dizzy; my hands gripped the arm rests. Notes spiraled and clustered into fiendishly difficult passages with double stops. How could anyone play so perfectly? As Lynn Chang dug into the final chord, the audience burst into a resounding ovation.
Harry Ellis Dickson spun around, grabbed the soloist's left hand and raised it high, like a champion. As the audience cheered, Mr. Dickson kissed Lynn Chang's forehead.
Finally, Mr. Dickson reached for a microphone. It hissed and buzzed.
The audience quieted down.

"Will the wonderful parents of Lynn Chang please stand?"
A Chinese couple slowly rose from their seats, and smiled with deference. 
I turned to Mrs. Scriven and whispered into her ear. "How did he do that?"
"What?" she asked. The ovation endured.
"How did he do that?" I repeated.
"How did he do what, darling?" Mrs. Scriven smiled warmly, and smoothed my hair.
"How did that violinist, I mean Lynn Chang, play so fast without missing a single note?"

The rest of the concert was a blur. To this day, forty years later, I can't remember the second half of the program. All I could think about that night was the wizardry of Lynn Chang.

My father arrived to pick me up after the concert, impeccably dressed in a gray suit. He stood in the foyer with a cigarette loosely held between his fingers. 
"How was the concert?" he asked Mrs. Scriven.
"It was remarkable."
"You mean, that Lynn Chang's something else, huh? Frances talks about him all the time. She says he's a wunderkind."
"I mean, Mr, Kransberg, that your daughter sat enraptured the entire evening. Watching her face during Lynn's performance was the highlight for me."
My father took a deep puff of his cigarette, and blew out a perfect smoke ring. I knew he liked Mrs. Scriven because the normal edge to his voice mellowed whenever he spoke with her. "May I offer you a ride home, Sarah?"
"No," she said. "I have a taxi waiting."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm sure."
"Thank you for taking such good care of our little Marjorie. She's lucky to have you for a teacher." 
"She's a wonderful girl, Mr. Kransberg. And you know what else?"
"What else?" 
Mrs. Scriven's neck disappeared as she raised her shoulders. "The greatest surprise yet. Your Marjorie can even talk!"
Photo of my mother while she was pregnant with me

Thursday, April 22, 2010

First Lesson With Sarah Scriven (Ch.2. Pt.1)

"Sing a scale for me," Mrs. Scriven insisted at my first lesson. My mouth opened but not a sound came out. "She's shy," my mother interjected, sitting off in a corner, furiously knitting.
"She'll have to get over shyness," said Mrs. Scriven. "Singing is an essential tool for understanding music. Besides, of all instruments, violin is closest to the human voice."
"Do it, Sweetheart. Sing for Mrs. Scriven." My mother set aside her knitting needles, reached into her pocketbook, and shook a box of Vanilla Wafers.
A thin, uncertain scale emanated from my lips.
"Not bad," said Mrs. Scriven. "Definitely not bad. You don't have perfect pitch but a good sense for intonation. Now play the same scale with your violin."
Four or five notes later, "Ouch!" Mrs. Scriven's hands flew to her ears. "That was out of tune. Fix it!"
I tried again.
"Look darling. Don't be so easily satisfied. If you're out of tune—you do have ears, correct yourself. The ears lead the fingers, not the other way around."
Mrs. Scriven heaved a long sigh.
"We have a lot of work to do. You play like a mouse."

Mrs. Scriven's voice was shrill. Her studio smelled of talcum and sweat. She sprinkled Johnson's Baby Powder on her hands to smooth them. She leaned forward at the upright piano and scrutinized every note, as if peering into a microscope. Her eyeglasses rested on the tip of her nose.
During our one-hour lesson we went through an assortment of shifting exercises and Wohlfahrt Studies. By the time we got to the Seitz Concerto and a passage of double-stops, my eyes glazed over.  
"Any questions?" Mrs. Scriven asked.
Dazed, I tucked my long, brown hair behind my ears. 
I stared straight ahead at the music stand. Why did I get stuck with vanilla wafers instead of chocolate ones? At least chocolate-chip cookies would have been better.
"Can you talk?" she hissed.
"She's my baby," my mother said, gently. "I was terribly shy as a child, too. Nobody heard a peep from me when I was growing up. Like mother, like daughter, I suppose."
"Yeah? Is that so?" Mrs. Scriven's voice rose in pitch and dynamic. She whirled around on the mahogany piano stool.
"Tell me, Mrs. Kransberg. Do you always speak for your daughter?"
My mother shook her head. "Of course not."
"Marjorie's mind wanders," snapped Mrs. Scriven.
My mother looked quizzically at me.
"I understand," she said softly, while rolling up the ball of rose and pink yarn. "I assure you, Mrs. Scriven. We'll do better next lesson."

Later, in the car on the way home, my mother reasoned aloud why it was that Sarah Scriven was cranky: number one, being an artist meant that she was entitled to be difficult. Therefore, it was essential to just  accept her "artistic temperament" and not take the outbursts personally. Number two, Sarah never had children of her own. My mother paused, scratched her wig, then continued her analysis. Given that reason, how could Sarah help but become impatient with youngsters? And why hadn't she had children, anyway?
My mother glanced in the rear view mirror to catch my eye. I sat munching in the backseat, and feigned rapt attention. As she talked in circles, I bit into another wafer.

"Not only was Mrs. Scriven's husband too old by the time they were married, an almost thirty year age difference—thirty years, just imagine, Marjorie Jill," she said, clicking her tongue against the roof of her mouth. "But back in those days a woman had to choose between career and family. Not like today. And you know what else?"
I wasn't really sure whether my mother was talking to me or to herself.
"What?" I asked, my nose pressed against the window.
A driver honked, swerved, and sped past our car. "For Christ's sake lady, step on the gas!" he yelled.
 Another driver blared his horn, too, and slammed on the brakes. 
I slid down on the backseat, clutching the box of cookies. My mother drummed her fingers against the steering wheel. 
"I know," my mother said, her forefinger pointing upwards. "I should have brought Mrs. Scriven a snack, a nosh. She was probably hungry after a long day of teaching. My little dolly, why else would she get cranky with us?"
Sarah Scriven in the late 1980s

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Meet the Scrivens (Ch.1 Pt.3)

What felt like an interminable journey on Route 128, with drivers rolling down their windows to cast spiteful glances, resulted in a crawl into Boston. A final lurch and we were on Commonwealth Avenue, just a few blocks from the Boston Music School. Unlike the somnolent suburb of Wenham, Boston was a cacophony. Cars blared horns as they careened around corners, policemen blew whistles and hollered at pedestrians. Long-haired men with protest signs against the Vietnam War waved two fingers in the air, and shouted "Peace, Man".

"See Margie," said my mother, pointing as we walked. "Over on Newbury Street, is the Berklee College of Music. I studied there for a while, too, in the Adult Program before you were born. Then your father came up with every excuse for me to stop. He said, Frances, you have three children to worry about, and a home to take care of. You're ignoring your responsibilities as a housewife." She shook her head. "I was a young mother those days. Had I known better—" She paused while looking longingly at the row of buildings that belonged to a school.
"My parents were in a hurry to marry me off, I guess. So I became a mother at the age of nineteen." She reached for my hand. "But now your sisters have families of their own, and you know what?"
"What, Mummy?"
"I don't think they need me any longer. To them, I'm a nuisance."
I gave her hand a squeeze, trying to make up for every loss. "No, Mummy, you're not."
She looked at me adoringly. Little tears welled in her eyes. I knew right then and there that I was her last hope.
"I'll channel my energies into you, Sweetheart, and see to it that you have beautiful music in your life. What can your father say to that?"

Behind the double doors of the Boston Music School, a black lady with an Afro sat in the foyer at a large desk. I had never seen a black person except on television. I stared.
"May I help you?" 
"We're here for an audition," my mother declared.
The lady smiled and glanced at me. "What instrument do you play, Honey?"
I looked up at my mother.
 "She's a violinist, and here to play for Mr. Linwood Scriven."
"Are you sure he's expecting you?"
My mother nodded. "Oh yes. I had telephoned the school earlier, and was given this time."
"Very well. Someone else must have been here when you called. Go on upstairs, then—that away." The woman pointed. Her spangled bracelets jingled.

A broad, winding staircase with a dark banister led to Mr. Scriven's studio on the second floor. My mother, clasping my burnished leather violin case led me up the stairs. "I can't wait for Mr. Scriven to hear you play. This ought to prove that his time spent teaching me was not wasted."
She knocked on his door. It creaked open.
There stood a ghostly figure. Mr. Scriven was so frail and elderly that it seemed we might blow him away with our breath. 
"Do you remember me, Mr. Scriven?"
My mother resembled a dancer in her swirly, navy-blue skirt cinched at the waist with a beige, puffy-sleeved blouse. Her thin hair was concealed by a shoulder length brunette wig—the one my father affectionately called the Sophia Loren. Everyone agreed that my mother was beautiful. She had olive skin and almond shaped eyes. Her facial features were delicate and smooth.
Linwood Scriven stared through thick lenses that magnified his blue eyes into jumbo marbles.
"I want you to meet and hear my youngest daughter, Marjorie."  
No response.
"She'll play for you," my mother repeated, louder.
My mother's heels clicked against the oak floor. A large bust of Beethoven rested on top of Mr. Scriven's upright piano. Placing my violin case on the piano bench, my mother whispered, "Margie, play the Vivaldi Concerto. Show Mr. Scriven what you can do. He might be just a bit hard of hearing, my dolly, so play strong. It was many, many years ago that I studied with him." 
Mr. Scriven tottered to his rocking chair and sat down. I readied my violin and began the opening bars of the Vivaldi. Glancing at Mr. Scriven, his feet tapped the first motive while I played. He hummed the tutti sections.
"You're sweet," he wheezed, after the movement ended. "An angel." He turned to my mother. "I'll be going away to meet my Maker soon. Will you join me?"
My mother gasped.

At that moment, the studio door bolted open. A large-bosomed, white-haired woman with shoes worn by the Wicked Witch of Oz, landed into the room. 
"What's happening here?" the old woman asked wringing her hands. My mother shot up from her chair.
"I'm Frances Kransberg, a former pupil of Mr. Scriven's. And this is my almost eight-year-old daughter, Marjorie. She's auditioning—" 
"Is that so?" asked the old woman. "I'm Sarah. Linwood's wife. Had I known, I would have auditioned your daughter."
"So you're Mrs. Scriven. I've heard many wonderful reports about your teaching from my friends in Brookline Civic Symphony." 
"You're a violinist?" 
"An amateur. My daughter is the talented one."
My mother turned to me and coaxed sweetly. "Dolly. Play your concerto again. This time for Mrs. Scriven." 
Though it was the last thing I felt like doing. I had no choice but to start over, having been warned by my parents never to argue with either of them in front of others.

I hurried to the last bars of the concerto, lowered the violin, and stared at my feet.
Sarah Scriven bent down to my face.
"So, you want to be a violinist when you grow up?"
 I nodded.
"You're a talented young lady. You like to practice?"
"Uh-huh." I lied.
"Because playing the violin takes not only talent but guts, and lots of hard work,"she said.
The unkempt appearance of Mrs. Scriven's whitish hair gave me the giggles. 
"What happened to your front tooth?"
"Fell out."
"Did you get  money for that tooth?"
 "Naturally," my mother ejaculated. "The tooth fairy always brings gelt."
Their eyes met, and they laughed, having found a common heritage in Judaism.

"Mrs. Scriven, don't you have a phenomenal pupil by the name of Lynn Chang? A Chinese boy?"
Mrs. Scriven tilted her head back and sighed. "I did. A major talent, that Lynn. He's off to Juilliard every Saturday studying with Ivan Galamian."
"How about that," said my mother, sucking in her cheek. "I was hoping my little Marjorie could work with your husband, Linwood, or study with both of you together. You know Sarah, I'll tell you a secret." 
My mother's voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. "Of all my violin teachers—and I had many, including members of the Boston Symphony—Mr. Scriven was my favorite."
"How's that?" asked Mrs. Scriven, eying my mother cautiously, as if examining a specimen from the Museum of Natural History.
"Well." My mother paused. "Your husband was demanding but kind, exacting but patient. A mensch. I would've thought—I mean, if he hadn't aged so—that he'd be the perfect teacher for my Marjorie."
"Linwood no longer accepts students," Mrs. Scriven snapped. "He's too frail and his mind is going, as you can see. I was Lin's pupil way back when, and then, well, we fell in love and married. But there's a thirty year difference between us. Obviously, I'm willing to take on new students to pass along my husband's repository of knowledge."
"That would be wonderful," my mother gushed. "You were your husband's prize pupil, Sarah, after all. May I call you Sarah? And, as we speak of lineage, I'm aware that your husband studied with a famous pedagogue but I cawn't remember the name—"
"Linwood was a pupil of the eminent French violinist Henri Marteau, who was a pupil of Léonard, a disciple of de Bériot." Mrs. Scriven replied. "That's what's known as yikhus, or pedigree."

My mother and Mrs. Scriven swapped tales peppered in Yiddish. Their heads bobbed at the tempo of Allegro. I didn't like the guttural sound of Yiddish. As they spoke, Mr. Scriven, alone in his rocking chair had slumped forward. Was he dead?
Mrs. Scriven glanced in her husband's direction. "He's like a child nowadays. We enjoyed our music together all those years; I idolized him. He was so devoted." She took out a handkerchief from her pocketbook and blew her nose. "Did you know that Linwood's favorite composer has always been Beethoven? He loves the Violin Concerto for its spirituality. Beethoven soothes the soul."
"I understand," said my mother, softly.
"Life is a circle, Mrs. Kransberg. So sad—"
"So true," my mother agreed.
"It's settled then," Mrs. Scriven said. "Lessons for your daughter beginning this Saturday."
photo of Sarah Scriven and me

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Looking For A Teacher (Ch.1 Pt.2)

My father, a husky man with balding gray hair owned a furniture store, Kransberg's on Cabot Street in Beverly, with his elder brothers Sam and Harry, and nephew Eddy.
"Frances," he said, eying the dining table after work. "When's supper? It's been a long day."
"After practicing," she said. Half a year had passed since the Suzuki Masterclass, and my mother was determined to leap ahead with my studies. My father grew agitated at the sound of the violin first thing after setting foot inside the house. Music seemed to take priority over all else. He darted me a look. I stood with violin and bow tucked under my arm, waiting for my mother's directive. The aroma of pot roast smothered in onions and garlic wafted from the oven. 
 "Do a good job with the music," he growled. "Make your mother happy or our lives are gonna be hell."
"We're working on Bartok Duets. They're fun. Do you want to listen, Johnnie? You might get a kick out of us playing together; the Bartok Duets are like a musical jigsaw puzzle."
 "Naw," he said, hugging the TV Guide and making a mad dash to the bedroom. "Call me when supper's on the table and the scratch box is put away. There's a new episode of "Gunsmoke" that I don't wanna miss." 

My mother and I played "Counting Song" several times. Like a scientist, my mother dissected the piece for hidden clues, relentlessly unearthing details.
"Do I have to play it again, Mummy?"
"One more time," she said.
"But you always say one more time," I said, lifting the violin to my chin.
"Counting Song" derailed. The syncopated off beats confounded me. My mother lowered her violin and rested it on her lap.
"That's a dotted quarter note," she said, pointing at the note with her violin bow. "You turned it into a half note."
"Eeew," I said. "We cawnt have that."
Every now and then I mimicked my mother's New England accent, just to spite her. When I felt frustrated, she looked to me like a creature from "Lost in Space" with a long thin neck and spindly fingers.
"Marjorie Jill. Don't have an attitude—"
"Don't you have an attitude."
"Ok, smarty pants. I'm calling your father!"
"No! Don't," I begged, my legs turning to rubber. "I'll try again."
My father, when hungry, resembled a wild beast. When he stomped through the house the walls shook.
We played "Counting Song" from beginning to end, flawlessly.
"Good," said my mother, closing the book of duets and raising herself from the piano bench. She placed our violins in their cases. "Tomorrow we'll prepare for an audition. It's time for you to have a teacher more equipped than your mother, and I have just the person in mind."
♪ ♩ ♪

"Marjorie's ready for a professional teacher," my mother intoned at breakfast. "I'll drive her to Boston for weekly lessons with Linwood Scriven. He's the best. Remember, Johnnie. I studied with Mr. Scriven several years ago. I asked him to teach me the Brahms Concerto but he told me that I didn't have the technical facility, and that I'd never be capable of playing such a demanding work because I started the violin too late. That won't happen to this one here." She winked in my direction.
My father was rushed for work. A shipment of La-Z-Boys were due, and an order of recliners needed to be returned to the factory. The topic of violin lessons irked him. Our suburban home on Lord's Hill in Wenham was thirty miles north of the city. My mother wasn't known for reliable driving skills. She drove below the speed limit until the police pulled her off to the side.
"I can't let you drive into Boston every week, Furrances," said my father, stressing the first syllable of her name. He polished off an onion bagel in three mouthfuls. "Find someone local. She's just a kid. Lessons in Boston are expensive. What—Frances—you think I'm made out of money?"
"John. There's nobody adequate for our little Marjorie in the North Shore," she said, stirring a cup of Sanka and nibbling on a Saltine.
"You're nuts," my father said, throwing up his hands and leaving the table.  
Their voices escalated. I sat in the kitchen listening to my parents argue. "Margie," hollered my father, as he stood up to gather his hat and coat. "Tell your mother you don't need to be schlepped back and forth to the city for music lessons—"
"Margie," my mother lamented. "Explain to your father the difference a good teacher makes. Tell him you want to get better, not stay on the same level. Boston has the finest teachers and schools."
I was in the middle of a battle zone, and for what? I always sided with my mother. Hadn't my father insisted I mind her, and do as I was told? 
"I want the violin lessons, Daddy," I said finally.  
"More expenses," my father fumed. "That's just what we need. Your three sisters had to have music lessons, too, but they quit. This teacher, that teacher. She fired them all. That's her style."
The door slammed behind him.
My mother gasped, and threw her arms around me. "He'll come round, you'll see."
My parents, John and Frances Kransberg, in Wenham

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Dr. Suzuki (Ch.1 Pt.1)

My mother taught me to read musical notes before the alphabet. We played countless games and my piggy bank grew full, while hers emptied. But over time, the practicing became more serious. My mother pointed to the little black dots on each page, and placed my fingers on the fingerboard of my half size violin. "Precision," she said. "We'll not play out of tune."
Every day, sometimes two or three times during the day, we'd practice. "The more you practice the better you get," she said. "Do it again."
"Do I have to?" I clenched my teeth.
"You're not in rhythm. This is a Musette."
I repeated the Musette.
"No, that's out of tune. D natural, not D flat. Try open string, Sweetheart."
"I'm using my pinky," I yelled.
"You mustn't yell. Getting angry won't solve anything." Then, in a soft voice. "Let's take a break. We'll come back to Musette later, after cookies and milk."
Short breaks worked wonders.
"Like Mary Poppins says, 'just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down'." She laughed as I licked the cream inside the Oreo.
We returned to our practicing. The Musette no longer seemed as difficult as before. My mother sprang from the piano bench after I finished the piece. "Bravo!" she sang and clapped.
"Was that better?" I asked.
"You're amazing! I told you practice does the trick. I'm telling you, Marjorie Jill—" 
"What?" I asked, inhaling her praise.
"You can do anything you set your mind to."

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During the 1960's, word traveled to the United States that a Japanese violinist educator, Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, had launched an innovative program of training young children to learn violin; an approach akin to learning language. Dr Suzuki's method met with resounding success all over the world. Shinichi Suzuki instructed parents how to practice with their children each day. Through what became known as Talent Education, children as young as two or three were taught to play the violin, dispelling the myth that only wunderkind could be taught at such a tender age. Dr. Suzuki asserted that all children were entitled to play great music, as long as both parent and child possessed the necessary patience and perseverance to work through challenges. Once the seed for learning had been sown in music, reverence for study would accompany a youngster throughout his life, in all facets of education.

My mother could barely contain her enthusiasm when she learned of Shinichi Suzuki's guest appearance at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston in 1965 for a masterclass. I had been studying the violin for a year and a half, and had completed the first two volumes of his books, "Listen and Play". My mother rushed to have me signed up as a participant. To this day, I recall the shy, slender Japanese man sitting on the stage of Jordan Hall, smiling as he greeted each violinist. His wife,Waltraud, stood by his side, pencil and notepad in hand.
"Look how skinny he is, Margie," my mother said as we took our seats. She shook her head. "Doctor Suzuki is nourished by music. That's his food."
A row of polite Japanese children sat on stage surrounding Dr. and Mrs. Suzuki. They had traveled to America with the couple. Each child bowed, then played their violins in unison.
"Magnificent," whispered my mother into my ear. "Dr. Suzuki is a genius. Those children are so young, yet they play the music of the world's greatest composers, and make it seem easy."
Finally, it was my turn.
"Play the best you can for  Dr. Suzuki. Give it your all—show what you can do," she insisted.
I walked slowly towards center stage from the audience. My long brown hair swung from a ponytail as I climbed to the platform. 
This was my first serious performance. On stage, I readied the violin under my chin and gripped the bow tightly. Fixing my gaze on the fingers of my left hand, as my mother had instructed, I played each note according to her directives. The listeners clapped after my rendition of two Gavottes by J.S.Bach. Dr. Suzuki smiled and bowed his head. He spoke in quiet Japanese. His wife, serving as translator, relayed Dr. Suzuki's suggestions to me. But I was so awed by Dr. and Mrs. Suzuki, and all their students crowding the stage, that I just stared.
As I peeked into the audience to look for my mother, I could read from her face that she was proud. Not just proud—beaming.
"What did Dr. Suzuki's wife say to you, sweetheart?" asked my mother when I returned to my seat, the violin tucked under my arm.
I shrugged. "I think Mrs. Suzuki told me to make each note sing. Did I play all right?"I handed her my violin and bow.
"For a six-year-old? I think you're a Wonder." She kissed the top of my head. "Just wait until next year when Dr. Suzuki returns to Boston. You'll play for him a second time—and you know what?"
"What, Mummy?" 
"You'll be that much better. In fact, you'll be the best. Wait until I tell your father—"
Me at six years