Thursday, June 24, 2010

First Lesson with Sally Thomas (Ch.5 Pt.3)

At Meadowmount, I began studies with Sally Thomas, Ivan Galamian's first associate, as she preferred to be known. She was reputed to be "tough as nails" by Meadowmount campers, and with her cropped hair and reserved nature, Miss Thomas could be intimidating, especially to an eleven-year-old. Rumor had it that she kept a pet crow and unleashed it on lazy students. The crow struck terror in me; I knew that due to homesickness, my first week of practicing had been a half-hearted attempt.

Our first lesson began with a pencil in place of a bow. I was to learn the right-hand technique, as taught by Ivan Galamian and his disciples, which was based on the Franco-Belgian school of violin playing. Slowly, I became aware of the right hand and thumb mechanism. Miss Thomas took the pencil away and slipped the bow into my hand.
"Bend the thumb, release the thumb. Round the fingers, lengthen the fingers." We worked on open strings with slow strokes, paying close attention to every detail, then a one-octave scale. Finally, a two octave scale was introduced with an assortment of bowing patterns, and then three octaves. 
"Square the bow in the middle, angle at the frog. Draw the bow out at the tip. Out, in, down, up, bend, release," Miss Thomas reminded. 
I missed my former teacher, Sarah Scriven. Before summer, we were about to step into the late Classical and early Romantic repertoire. Knowing Mrs. Scriven, she would have shrieked, sighed, and groaned at my mistakes, but her eyes would have shined with luminosity for the music and me.
I took a deep breath and looked longingly at my watch. The hour had seemed like an eternity.
"Are you late for something?" Miss Thomas asked, with narrowed eyes.
I felt like crying, and glanced at the box of Kleenex on the piano. Miss Thomas strode to the studio door and gestured for me to pack up. Our first lesson had ended.

I walked along the pebbled parking lot back to the Main House, dragging each step. Everyone was busy at work during morning practice hours. Shuffling past Sharan's room, on the way to my lonely room, I heard whispers and stifled giggles, but also the violin. I knocked softly on Sharan's door. I detected rapid footsteps, someone whispering "shush" and the sounds of tuning. Sharan opened her door with the violin propped under her chin and bow by her side. Her frizzy hair cascaded down to her waist. Sharan heaved a sigh of relief. "Oh, thank goodness. It's only Smudgie. Janna, you can come out now." 
Janna, a thirteen-year-old Main House violinist, tumbled out of the closet.
"What's going on?" I scanned the room. It was palatial compared to mine, with a bay window over-looking the gardens.
"Shhh. Be quiet. We thought you were Fannie, the house mother," whispered Janna, smoothing her sleek, black hair into a long ponytail. "Gosh, the way she sneaks around spying on us with that whistle around her neck, gives me the creeps. We wouldn't want to get in trouble around here for not practicing—but we don't want to practice, either, right Sharan?" 
"I could have sworn you were Mr. G. Sometimes, when he's not teaching, he stands behind the door and listens. It's spooky. I can see his shadow." Sharan blew a wisp of hair out of her face. "I swear, Galamian looks like Count Dracula."
"What are you guys up to? I heard actual playing."  
"We've recorded ourselves practicing, and let it playback during the hour," admitted Janna. "Sharan's idea."
 "Smudgie, don't you have a cassette player?" Sharan's dark, brown eyes gleamed with mischief.

I returned to my cell above Galamian's studio and lifted the Sony from a drawer. I pressed record, and got down 50 minutes worth of scales and etudes, replete with the bowing patterns suggested by Miss Thomas.
During the playback, I tiptoed back to Sharan and Janna's room. They sat on the bed cross-legged while reading Seventeen and Cosmopolitan Magazines. Kreutzer number two played   in the background with glaring mistakes and obvious self-corrections. They sipped Coke and dug their musical fingers into a box of Entenmann's chocolate-chip cookies.
"Are those good?" I licked my lips.
"Don't tell me," said Janna, gliding her tongue over her braces, and holding up a tiny, chocolate-chip laden cookie. "You never tasted an Entenmann? Oh my gosh. Where have you been kiddo?"
And just as I was about to experience the pleasures of an Entenmann, there was a loud rap at the door, and a dark shadow.
in photo: Sally Thomas with me in 1970

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Phone Call (Ch.5 Pt.2)

Josef Gingold, formerly concertmaster under George Szell with Cleveland Orchestra, was chamber music professor par excellence at Meadowmount. His studio on the first floor of the Main House was directly opposite Galamian's room. Gingold, having been a protégé of the legendary Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaye, was a much sought after teacher and chamber music coach. Charming and forever patient, his students adored him. Gingold invited everyone to his studio for a warm welcome. "Come children," he said, his voice deep and gruff, "vee'll play chamber music!"
He opened a cupboard filled with sheet music. "Look vot I found. Bach's beloved Brandenburgs!"
Gingold's excitement was infectious. 
"Let's begin with number three."
The students cheered.
The newcomers sat on the floor and watched as the older campers, many in college, grouped into a semi-circle—three violinists, three violists, and three cellists.
Lynn Chang sat first chair. I remembered how he tore into the Tchaikovsky Concerto at Boston's Symphony Hall and was curious to hear him play chamber music.
Lynn brimmed with confidence. The house mother's daughter, Stephanie, sat next to him. "Ready?" He darted a sly look around the room.
"Ready!" shouted the students, their bows held in mid air.
The Brandenburg Concerto pulsated with vitality.  

As swirls of rhythm filled Mr. Gingold's studio, a teaching assistant barged into the room, and gestured for the playing to cease. "Is Marjorie Kransberg here? Has anyone seen Marjorie Kransberg?" Mr. Gingold glanced up. His broad smile faded. Lynn Chang stared blankly. The room fell silent.
I couldn't imagine why I was being summoned, and slowly raised my hand. 
"There you are," said the assistant hurriedly. "Marjorie, your father is on the phone. There's been an emergency and he needs to speak with you right away. The pay phone is open in the booth. It's just by the entrance way. Here, I'll show you."
I could feel the blood rush to my head. My mother had died. I just knew it. Why else would my father call? I began to whimper.
My legs, now made of rubber, followed the assistant to the phone booth. Her face darkened as she handed me the phone. She turned around and left me alone in the cubicle.

I held my breath.
"Margie, precious darling—it's Mummy and Daddy. (They were on the phone together). We had to say it was an emergency or else they wouldn't let us speak with you."
Perspiration soaked my shirt. I could hear my father inhale from his cigarette.
"Tell your mother you're ok. She didn't sleep all night worrying that you're homesick, and I'll tell you, your mother is driving me crazy. You are Frances. You're making me—"
"My sweetheart, precious darling, are you alright? Do you miss Mummy and Daddy?"
"No," I said, feigning calm.
"That's funny. Last night, your first night at camp, I sensed that you missed us. I was sick with worry, my dolly. I miss you, I miss you terribly. Do they serve vegetables at Meadowmount? Enough milk? Are you kept warm at night?"
"Yeah," I replied, secretly grateful to know that my mother was worried sick but had not died. "I'm listening to Lynn Chang play the Brandenburg Concerto in Mr. Gingold's studio." 
"The wha?" asked my father, taking another puff of cigarette.  
"Oh, how phenomenal. John, did you hear that?" My mother's voice leaped. "She's with Lynn Chang! I always wanted the two of them to play duets together."
 "Mum, I've gotta go."
"Don't forget to eat your fruits and vegetables. They'll make you strong."
"Frances. This call's costing money. Marjorie, if you should need to reach us, call collect. Say to the operator, I'd like to place a person-to-person call to John Kransberg. Ok, little pisher?"
Mother was about to say something. "Marj—"
"She's fine Furr," I heard my father gasp, and then a click followed by a dial tone.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Starting Meadowmount (Ch.5 Pt.1)

It was summer of 1970. High school and college students at the Meadowmount School of Music were jittery after the Kent State massacre. They huddled around the one television set in the Recreation Room of the Main House, and listened intently for news updates as President Richard M. Nixon launched a Cambodian invasion. Endless debates ensued regarding the anti-war movement. Being eleven years of age, not only was I oblivious to political events and the world stage, but I was home-sick. I had never in my life been away from my parents, not even for a one night sleep-over. At Meadowmount, a world renown summer school for string players nestled in rural Westport, New York, I felt conspicuously out of place. I didn't know any of the campers or faculty members, and was at the time, the youngest student. I was in awe of the distinguished individuals in Meadowmount's history: Joseph Gingold, Gregor Piatigorsky, Leonard Rose, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Michael Rabin, Paul Makanowitzky, and David Nadien, among a long list of others. Ivan Galamian had loosely modeled his Meadowmount after the Stolyarski School in Odessa, which produced a whole galaxy of formidable violinists. In my eleven-year-old mind, I understood that to study at prestigious Meadowmount was a privilege. But, in my eleven-year-old heart, I missed my parents and wished only to return home.

My room was a tiny cubicle directly above Ivan Galamian's teaching studio in the living quarters of the Main House. If I put my ear to the floor, as my mother had insisted before she left, I could hear Mr. Galamian transmit secrets of violin playing to his students. The strains of violin and Mr. Galamian's mutterings wafted up through the vents into my room. "That's the best way to get ahead, my dolly. Get down on the floor and listen, listen, listen. Those are precious secrets to guard for life."

The morning practice regimen began at eight o'clock sharp, and continued until noon. Ten minute breaks were allotted between each hour to rest fingers and ears. They were also a preventative for the harmful habit of mindless practice. I had never studied without my mother's supervision, and as a result, was at a loss for how to begin. Reluctantly, I propped the Galamian scale book on the wire-rimmed music stand. The scales, along with Kreutzer Etudes were mandatory for all first time students. Like many other violinists at Meadowmount, I had been assigned J.S.Bach's Concerto in A Minor, a staple in the repertoire.

The scales perplexed me. The notes rose and fell without stems or bar lines. I let the book drop off the music stand, sat down on my cot, and wept. I missed my mother and father. They may have been nuts, but they were still my parents. During the ten minute breaks, excited chatter crescendo-ed  in the hallway. The Main House students, all girls ages 12 to 15, laughed as they became acquainted with one another. They compared notes about lessons and repertoire, and exchanged anecdotes in an array of dialects. Hesitant to emerge from my cubicle above Mr. Galamian's studio during the breaks, even to use the bathroom, I stifled sobs and waited for the ten minute interval to end. The house mother blew a whistle and hollered, "Back to work, girls!" I gripped my old teddy bear, rather than the violin, and buried my nose in its fur for the scent of home. Before long the stuffed animal was drenched with tears.

After four tedious hours passed, hours which felt like weeks, a blaring alarm rang. "Lunch!" yelled the Main House girls and stampeded down the stairs. I busted out of my cell and raced down the broad, winding staircase to get to the front of the dining hall line. Many hours had passed since breakfast and my stomach growled. Although fearful that I'd have to sit alone again, as I had done at breakfast, or speak with strangers, the aroma of fresh bread and spaghetti with marinara proved a distraction. My mouth watered. I imagined a heaping platter of pasta drowned in rich, chunky tomato sauce with huge, savory meatballs, like my mother's recipe. Just before the dining hall doors opened, I felt a tap on the shoulder. I turned around. A girl that resembled Botticelli's Venus, but dressed in worn-out, bell-bottomed Levis, introduced herself to me.
"I'm Sharan. What's your name?"
I stared back at her. My parents would never have allowed me to wear jeans.
"Certainly you have a name, right?"
"It's Margie."
She blinked. "Smudgie?"
"Margie," I repeated.
"Oh, it's—Mahgie," she seemed to sing. "Are you from Boston? You have a Boston accent."
My face felt flushed.
"Oh, c'mon, don't be shy. At least you don't have an embarrassing hickey on your neck like I do."
"A what?" 
"See?" She pointed under her chin to a bruise.
"Pretty gross, huh. It's from practicing. I know, it looks as if my boyfriend bit me, but trust me, he didn't. I mean, he tried. Do you have a boyfriend?"
My mind reeled. I was too young for boys, and even if I were older, my parents wouldn't have allowed dating. I had a fleeting image of Elliott Markow, though, and how we played duets together in a darkened room at Boston Music School.
"Elliott," I said softly, hoping not to sound like a geek, and for Sharan to like me.
The dining hall doors opened. Everyone cheered and clapped.
"Sit with me at lunch," Sharan said. "There's other stuff besides the violin to learn around here—"
Mom and I at Meadowmount in 1970 

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Saying Good-Byes (Ch.4 Pt.3)

It was a hot, sticky afternoon in early June. Mrs. Scriven's studio, on the second floor of Boston Music School, sweltered from the heat. Mrs. Scriven met us in the foyer for a lesson in the small recital room downstairs. Her friend, the piano teacher Edna Nitkin, was busy fanning herself with a a book of Czerny Etudes. When Miss Nitkin saw us standing at the doorway, she bolted from the room. Edna Ida Nitkin was a proud woman who, in her youth, had beat Leonard Bernstein at the Mason & Hamlin Annual Competition held at New England Conservatory. She had been awarded the prize by Serge Koussevitzky, Harold Bauer and Joseph Lhevinne, and immediately engaged as soloist with the Boston Symphony. But her greatest pride, in later years, was her Rapunzel-length hair; her crowning achievement. Edna Nitkin was short and stooped, and I thought she was about a hundred years old. My mother was determined to change Edna's style, as she noted that Edna's hair made her look like Cousin Itt from the Addam's Family.

One Christmas, during a gift-giving exchange, my mother, eager with good intent, had purchased a short black wig for Edna, who was at the time my piano teacher. As Miss Nitkin dutifully opened the red and green package from Jordan Marsh, her gnarled fingers trembled with anticipation. "Oh, I wonder what this is!" she exclaimed with glee. But after she untied the ribbon, tore open the box, and found a black polyester/nylon wig that resembled roadkill, she screamed with horror. Edna Nitkin flung the wig onto the floor, and fled from the room in tears. "How could you?" she cried. My piano lessons with Edna Nitkin ended right then and there. My mother had tried to make up with Edna each time their paths crossed, at lessons and recitals, even on the steps of the music school. "Oh Edna. Please don't be angry with me. I just thought you might enjoy a new look, that's all, to emphasize your beautiful face. I wear wigs all the time—they're in vogue."
But it was to no avail. Edna Nitkin's memory was as long as her hair. 

"I'm shvitzing," said Mrs. Scriven wiping the perspiration off her forehead with a handkerchief. She acknowledged Edna Nitkin's flight from the foyer with rolled eyes. "If we open the windows it just gets warmer. The humidity is making me meshugge. How are you darling?"
I nodded and muttered, "OK."
"Sarah," my mother said reaching for Mrs. Scriven's hand. "We need to talk about the rest of summer, and Marjorie's future. I have news."
"Oh? What sort of news?"
"It's just that—"
"Yes? Come on. What is it? Let's go sit down before we all pass out from this unbearable heat."

She led us to a round table in the sitting room. I placed my elbows on the surface and clasped my hands as if in prayer.
"Well. Our Marjorie has been offered a scholarship to Meadowmount."
Mrs. Scriven sighed loudly and took off her glasses to wipe them.
"So? What about it? It's only a summer music camp. Perhaps she'll get to be with other children for a change. We'll continue our work in the fall."
"Well, I'm afraid—"
"Afraid of what, Mrs. Kransberg?"
"Marjorie's been accepted to Juilliard, on scholarship, as well."
"Oh? Is that right? Well, I hope you're not scheming to have Marjorie leave me for that greedy, over-rated, pupil snatcher, Ivan Galamian."
My mother cleared her throat. "Well, eventually she'd like to study with Ivan Galamian. But for now Marjorie has been encouraged to work with one of his assistants."
Mrs. Scriven's face reddened. She looked searchingly across the table.
"Darling. Do you want to leave me for another teacher? An assistant that you have never met?"
My heart sank.
"Tell Mrs. Scriven what Mr. Galamian told you," my mother coaxed.
I fidgeted. The heat had made my legs stick to the chair.
"Go ahead Darling. Tell me what that pupil snatcher said. What was so revelatory?"
"It's—it's my bow arm. He says that it needs—um, work."
"Oh yeah? What sort of work?" she snapped.
"I'm not sure," I whispered, groping for words.
"And only he or some assistant can help you? Don't you see? That's his shtick. First the assistant does all the work. And then Galamian—who does he think he is really, Svengali?—gets all the credit."

My mother fingered her soft, brown hair. "Lynn Chang studies with Ivan Galamian."
After an awkward silence, Mrs. Scriven continued. "That's different. Lynn is considerably older than Marjorie, and he went from me to Alfred Krips. I would've sent Marjorie on to someone else if I felt the time was right."
"But Mr. Galamian seems to feel that younger is better when it comes to advancing the technique."
"Look, I'm not going to waste my time arguing with you, Mrs. Kransberg. If you want to schlep your daughter all the way to New York for lessons with some assistant to Ivan Galamian, go ahead. I can tell you've made up your mind—"
"Sarah, I hope you'll understand. We think the world of you. Marjorie wouldn't be where she is today if it weren't for you."
Mrs. Scriven's brown eyes filled with tears. I had difficulty looking in her direction, for I felt ashamed, and at a loss for words.

Years later, while pregnant with my second child named after her, I would travel across the country to share a magic moment with Sarah Scriven. I would tell her that I loved her dearly, that she was, in fact, one of the greatest influences in my life. And Mrs. Scriven, in her inimitable way, would reveal her sincerest thoughts: "Truth be told, I never really liked your mother." 
In her late eighties, Mrs. Scriven possessed the same feisty temperament as she had when I studied with her. "I felt that your mother pushed too hard, and I always worried for you. I could see the strain on your father's face, as if he didn't understand his place or role in your life. You were such a Mama's girl, weren't you?"
I was taken aback, of course, and a bit shaken. But, as I had students of my own by this time, I let her muse about a life spent in music, and was eager to hear her advice.
"Through teaching, I have friends all over the world. There's a little piece of me in every one of my pupils, and their pupils too. And if there's one thing I've learned, Marjorie, it's this: No matter how difficult things may seem, when you've loved a person, you love them forever."
photo from The Music Trade Review, June 1931:
Edna Nitkin at the piano, her teacher J.M. Sanroma on right