Thursday, September 30, 2010

At Juilliard (Ch.10 Pt.2)

I had waited and waited for my 8 A.M. lesson before I heard the Juilliard elevator doors open, and Miss DeLay emerged onto the fifth floor. "Sugarplum," she gasped from the corridor. "Sorry to be late. I'm on my way." I could hear the swish of her one-size-fits-all skirt. I glanced up at Miss DeLay, who I thought bore a striking resemblance to Shelley Winters from The Poseidon Adventure.

This was the way it had been for the past six months; each lesson delayed. Instead of the student with a litany of excuses, it was the teacher.
"I got stuck in traffic," she said this time. "There was a truck with a wide load and it clogged the artery."
I looked up at her askance.  
Miss DeLay unlocked her studio door and I followed inside. She switched on the lights, and opened the side closet. She then pulled out a machine. "Listen," Miss DeLay said. It was Heifetz playing the final movement of the Mendelssohn in dazzling perfection. I nodded with recognition.
"Now, again; same passage." She slowed the speed to a half.
The Heifetz sheen turned to low warbles. "The vibrato is continuous. So, you see, Dearie, Heifetz vibrates in fast passages, although it's inaudible to the listener. A secret revealed by technology."
I stifled a yawn and thought, "So what?"
Miss DeLay sat down. The sofa wheezed underneath her. She lifted a stop watch from the coffee table and adjusted her reading glasses. "Let's clock him against a few others."

I wasn't sure where the lesson was going but felt comfortable with Miss DeLay's easy manner. She had timed Heifetz, Oistrakh, Francescatti, Menuhin and Stern to compare tempi, and penciled the markings in her score. Jascha Heifetz emerged as the speediest; Menuhin the slowest. "Heifetz sounds impressive on recordings, doesn't he? But in a large auditorium, faster sounds slower, and slower faster. Too fast, and you won't hear the notes. Slower, but with clarity, the result is impressive. Speed is illusory. When did you say your performance of the Mendelssohn will be, Margaret?"
"Margie," I corrected. "I'll be playing it in a couple of weeks."
"Where dear? I've forgotten."
"In Kansas, with the City Symphony."
"That's right," said Miss DeLay with a smile. "Mention Kansas and I become nostalgic. That's where I grew up—in Medicine Lodge."
"You don't say," I replied with feigned interest.
She stared out of the window as if recalling a former life. 
"All right, Sweetie. Let's start today with the second movement to get warmed up."
I agreed, but was secretly eager for the lesson to conclude. In another twenty minutes, I'd be at orchestra rehearsal with my best friends, violinists Elena Barere and Heidi Carney, sharing gossip and Jujubes at the break. I imagined that if I could just fart through the Mendelssohn my teacher would be delighted, for Dorothy DeLay was patience personified.

I played the opening phrase. "Add a few more calories to that sound; make it rich and chocolaty," Miss DeLay suggested after about eight bars. "Otherwise the audience won't hear the solo line."
Yes, I nodded.
"Don't forget, Mary. Tune higher, or sharp to the oboe, for projection."
I looked at her incredulously.
"We have to get your sound to cut through the orchestra. Press more into the strings with the bow."
I flicked my long, brown hair impatiently.
"Oh, I hope you do that on stage, too."
"Your hair. Show it off; be dramatic."
"You mean," I groped for words. "I don't need to pull it away from my face?" My mother swept my hair into a high ponytail for concerts, and I hated it.
"Oh, Heavens no!" said Miss DeLay. "If you've got it, flaunt it. You'll excite your audience that way."

It began to register that Dorothy DeLay's method of stage deportment for her students was the inverse of Heifetz. While Heifetz had insisted on a statuesque pose devoid of distractions and mannerisms, DeLay encouraged her students to move with the music.
"Sugarplum. Have you read any of Stanislavsky's works?"
 "No," I replied. "Who's he?"  
"Konstantin Stanislavsky was a great Russian actor and director of the Moscow Art Theater. I think you'd find his writing insightful, at least I do. You could begin with any of Stanislavsky's books, but I'd recommend On the Art of the Stage. Everything he writes about acting and theater is applicable to a musician. You must remember, that you're an actress with your violin."

I started the concerto again. My fingers felt leaden after the long bus ride from Boston. It took a while before I could get into the flow and channel the composer. As I tapped into my creative powers, imagining myself in a dramatic role, the nasty double-stops in the mid-section of the Mendelssohn came off with ease. I swayed with the music and pressed the bow deep into the strings with unfettered freedom. I glanced at Miss DeLay for approval. Her head had slumped forward; her eyes were closed. Light snoring provided a steady accompaniment. After I finished, Miss DeLay's eyelids flickered open. She lifted her head and aimed a groggy gaze in my direction. I waited for those priceless words; how to become a better violinist, performer, musician, actress.
"Good girl, Margo. Wonderful lesson today."
Dorothy DeLay © Peter Schaaf

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Prelude to DeLay (Ch.11 Pt.1)

My father, accused of all sorts of wrong doings by my mother, sat in our living room in his Hanes boxers. He picked up the phone after my mother's prodding, and telephoned the famed pedagogue, Dorothy DeLay at Juilliard. My mother stood with her arms folded. I eavesdropped from the kitchen doorway. After finally getting through to Miss DeLay, he introduced himself as the father of a promising, young violinist who had studied for the past three years with Sally Thomas on Honorary Scholarship at Juilliard and Meadowmount, soloed with the Boston Pops under Harry Ellis Dickson, and had recently been offered a conditional acceptance into the Heifetz Masterclass. My father may have been tone deaf but he had perfect sales pitch.

"You  see, Miss DeLay—do you mind if I share a bit of background? Our fourteen-year-old violinist, Marjorie, is a sensitive, sensitive youngster. You give her one harsh look, a look that signals dissatisfaction with her work, and she'll begin to cry. That former teacher of hers—I mean no disrespect—I'm sure you're friends and all that, but—" He lowered his voice. I thought I heard my father say, "colder than a nun's navel. And if my daughter's gonna have to leave Juilliard on account of her, it won't be for anyone other than Heifetz. But she'd love nothing more than to return to Juilliard and study with you."

I edged my way into the living room to witness my father's performance. As far as I was concerned, he could have won an Oscar for the deft handling of an internationally renowned pedagogue.
He pointed to me and then to his forehead, as if to say, listen and learn. He was about to prove his intellectual prowess and business acumen. "That's right. I couldn't have this kind of conversation with her as I'm having with you."
My mother stroked his arm for encouragement.

"I'm gonna let you in on a secret, Miss DeLay." My father leaned over the secretary desk and distractedly picked up a ballpoint pen to doodle in the phone book. "Marjorie and my beautiful wife, Frances, hop onto the 2 A.M. Greyhound Bus on Saturdays in Boston and arrive in time for an 8:00 lesson at Juilliard. And I drive them to the bus terminal every week to see them off for the five hour commute. How's that for dedication?"
He nodded enthusiastically. I couldn't make out Miss DeLay's response, even as I crept closer to my father. The scent of Old Spice tickled my nostrils, and I was about to sneeze.
"Is that right, Miss DeLay? You have a young violin student by the name of David Kim who flies in from South Carolina with his mother two times a week? Wait till I tell my wife, Frances. Oh, you're gonna enjoy Frances! You know, she plays the violin too. An amateur, she calls herself, but I think my Frances is a virtuoso."
My mother's hands flew to her mouth as she stifled a laugh. "Your father," she whispered to me.

"Now my next question, Miss DeLay: Will our Marjorie need to audition for you?"
My father shook his head, no, to signal Miss DeLay's response, and waved his finger for us to keep still.
"You do, huh. You remember Marjorie's performance of the Bruch Concerto. Yes, that's right. She was runner-up for the Juilliard Pre-College solo competition last year. Oh, what a fantastic memory you have, Miss DeLay. How do you manage to remember all those marvelous students from around the world? Frances tells me that you teach violinists all the way from Israel and the Soviet Union. They arrive at the school in droves! When I tell my little girl, Marjorie, that she's now a Dorothy DeLay pupil and will be returning to Juilliard, I'll bet you anything she'll head straight to her violin."

When the telephone interview had ended, my mother cheered "bravo." She wrapped her arms around my father and reached for a kiss. He pulled her down to his lap. As I stood and watched with amazement—were these my parents?—my mother shot me a glance.
"Go practice, Marjorie Jill. Time is of the essence."

Thursday, September 16, 2010

L.A. Blues (Ch.10 Pt.3)

"I'll have a refill," my mother said to the waitress with a red-haired bee-hive at Bob's Big Boy.
"I just filled the cup, ma'am, just a moment ago."
"But, it's cold." My mother looked up from the table in desperation.
"Here you go." The waitress poured the remaining coffee from the carafe until it spilled over into the saucer.  
"My scrambled eggs?"
"Out any minute."
"Thank you. Remember, no butter on the toast. Dry. I'm counting calories. And please. Don't let those eggs get too hard."
"Okey Dokey." She gave my mother a once over.
"Because I like them fluffy."
The waitress cast a sidelong glance at me.
"How 'bout you, honey. Can you hang on a few minutes for that tuna melt?"
I picked up the water glass and sipped slowly.

We had spent the month of July in Los Angeles. After each violin lesson we stopped at Bob's Big Boy Restaurant for the Early Bird Special. Weeks one, two, and three, my mother listened with rapt attention as I recounted my lessons with Claire Hodgkins, the endless scale work and repetitions of countless etudes, including the first study in Dont Opus 35, a real knuckle breaker. Miss Hodgkins had suggested we visit Ben Rosen's Music Store to pick up the Hřimaly Scale Studies. Rosen's shop, Globe Music, was a dilapidated house on Western Avenue filled with sheet music stacked from floor to ceiling. We fawned over the new books during dinner the way normal people do with babies. We had bought the two volume Joachim-Moser edition of J.S. Bach's Six Solo Sonatas and Partitas, Hřimaly Scales, and Leopold Auer's Graded Course Book 7. When my mother complained to Ben Rosen that I had difficulty learning scales in double stops, the octogenarian pointed with his shriveled fingers to the back pages of the Auer. "There," he snapped. His misaligned false teeth added staccato to each word.  "This is what your daughter needs. Like Auer, like Heifetz. Farshteyst?" And the two landsmen, my mother and Mr. Rosen, completed the transaction in Yiddish.
But by week four, my mother lost interest with my studies and had one obsession: my father's whereabouts.  

John and Harry Kransberg
"He doesn't answer the phone," she said dejectedly. "I call the furniture business. I get Uncle Harry. I say, Harry, where's Johnnie? You know what Harry says to me?"
I shook my head. French fries were just around the corner. I sniffed with anticipation.
"He has the nerve to say that your father's making deliveries."
"Maybe Daddy is. It's not implausible." 
"Margie. That's what your father hires movers for—for deliveries. I hear Uncle Harry's nervous giggle whenever I phone. He's protecting his youngest brother. 'You're worrying for nothing, Frances,' says Harry. He's a character, your Uncle Harry. Something's off. Those two can't be trusted. You know, the Kransberg men are vilde khayim."
"They're what?"
"Like wild animals. I never told you this before because you were too young, but now that you're fourteen, I'm going to tell you. I found your father's eldest brother Sam one night after business hours—"
She buried her face in her hands and let out a painful, "Oy!"

"OK, Ladies! Here you go."
The waitress plunked our dishes on the table. The mound of fries on my plate was staggering. 
 "More coffee?" asked my mother, anxiously tapping her cup.
The waitress spun on her heels and left. 
My mother continued. "Marjorie. I call the house. The phone rings and rings. Nobody picks up. Where can your father be? All hours of the night, yet."
"I dunno, Mom." I wasn't concerned about my father at that moment. I squirted ketchup all over my fries. Culinary Heaven. The crisp sourdough of my sandwich oozed with a buttery blend of melted albacore tuna and layers of sharp, cheddar cheese on a bed of Iceberg lettuce, tomato, and dill pickle. I alternated between sandwich and fry, sandwich and fry, in a Tempo agitato.  

My mother joylessly nibbled on her egg. She surrendered her fork to the plate, and drained the coffee cup in slow, steady gulps, as if fighting back tears.
"Do you really like it here in Los Angeles?"
I shrugged.
"Don't you miss our beautiful home on Lord's Hill and life with father? I know he's kvetchy at times but that's him."

I missed the Meadowmount School of Music in New York. It was my first summer away, after three years of having been a camper there. It dawned on me, though my stomach was now about to burst with tuna and fries, that a year ago, I had been placed in solitary confinement for sneaking into the boys' dorms with my friends, Jackie and Felicia, in the middle of the night. The three of us had gotten caught by some whistle blower at Main House—the house mother? Anyway, old man Galamian lost an entire night's sleep on account of us. Punishment meted out was severe: one week of solitary confinement in our rooms except for meals accompanied by kitchen staff, and a threat of dismissal if we broke any more rules. But, heck, it was our claim to fame at Meadowmount. I had won the admiration of the cutest boys and star players:  Chin Kim, Lynn Chang, YoYo Ma, Robert Portney, Daniel Phillips, and Gil Morgenstern. Gosh, Meadowmount was the Land of Plenty, I thought.

My mother leaned closer from across the table and whispered. "When that waitress hands us the bill, follow me closely and walk out quickly."
"Why, Mom?" I could barely raise myself from the booth after stuffing myself, let alone a brisk walk.
"Firstly, I'm not tipping, and secondly, I need to reach your father. We're not staying; no way. Maybe when you're old enough for college, but that'll be another story."

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Dog Days of Summer (Ch.10 Pt.2)

My father tried every technique to make amends for his violent outburst which, fortunately, caused no physical harm to my mother. My parents negotiated a peace treaty: my mother and I would undergo a trial period in Los Angeles for the summer of '73. My father would find a furnished rental unit for us, send my mother her weekly allowance, and I would begin studies with Claire Hodgkins, assistant to Jascha Heifetz, in preparation for the class. The bi-coastal agreement would buy my parents time to sort things out. Neither one of them were fazed by a summer of separation. In the meantime, I envisioned Miss Hodgkins to be a carbon copy of Miss Thomas, as if all female teaching assistants were made out of the same materials. I stuffed a wad of Kleenex into my purse for the introductory session.

♪ ♩ ♪

Claire Hodgkins was tending to her front garden when we arrived at her Spanish style home near Hollywood on Wilcox Avenue. A brown sausage dog barked furiously by her side and bared its teeth. "Caesar, Caesar, no!" scolded Miss Hodgkins. I stiffened with alarm. Miss Hodgkins laughed. "Oh, don't be afraid. He has a little dog complex, that's all."
My mother edged up the front steps. "You must be Claire Hodgkins. I recognize you from the masterclass series on TV. You're even prettier in person."
Miss Hodgkins smiled and patted the dog's head. He rolled over to expose his belly and yawned. Miss Hodgkins then removed her gardening gloves, and reached to shake our hands.
"I'm Frances Kransberg. Just call me Fran, though. And this is—"
"Marjorie," gushed my mother.
"Hello Marjorie. Won't you both step inside?" offered Miss Hodgkins, pushing open the front door. "We're having perfect weather today, don't you think? I can't seem to get enough of the outdoors!"
"I'd take this dry heat any day over East Coast humidity," said my mother. "But I walked up quite a shvitz."
Miss Hodgkins giggled with amusement. She removed her broad-rimmed, straw hat and shook out her blond curls.   

"You're such a beautiful lady!" My mother persevered, standing at the doorway.
I rolled my eyes. How many times would my mother use this refrain?
"So long-legged and slender. That olive skin against light hair. I'm envious. If you don't mind my asking, Miss Hodgkins, what is your ethnicity?"
"Come on into the living room ladies, please. Caesar, no!"
The dog plowed between my legs and barreled into the house, nearly causing me to drop my violin case.
Miss Hodgkins chuckled. "Oh Caesar, you're hopeless. I apologize in advance for my dog's behavior. With my husband away on business trips, Caesar has taken on the role of protector. He's really harmless, though. Oh, but getting back to my heritage. Fran, is that what you said your name is?"
My mother nodded.
"I'm sort of a mixed breed. But the height and 'flaxen hair'—as Mr. Heifetz teases—I get from my Finnish roots—maternal side, that is."
Finished, I thought?
"Watch out for these steps," Miss Hodgkins warned. "I've had people spill right into my living room. Marjorie, you can get set up and tuned by the grand piano. I look forward to hearing you play."

My mother gasped as she entered the sunken living room filled with art pieces, musical objects and artifacts. "This is a charming house, Miss Hodgkins."
"Call me Claire."
 "Just look at all these treasures, Margie. It has the feel of an artist's home. Do you know what I mean?"
"You mean messy," giggled Claire. "My husband acquires all sorts of trinkets from Indochina. He's become quite the collector. If he keeps this up, I'll need extra storage space."
"If we move to Los Angeles, I'm determined to find a Spanish style home similar to this one. My husband, John, dabbles in real-estate, so he'll know a good deal when he sees one."
"Sounds like you've got a wonderful man."
My mother's chest puffed with pride. "In addition to real-estate and Kransberg's Furniture, my husband owns a warehouse. If a client dies, and their possessions go unclaimed, they're his. One time John surprised me with boxes full of out-of-print, leather-bound sheet music stamped with the mysterious name H.A.Poole, from Japan yet. I guess those acquisitions make my husband sort of collector, too."

Miss Hodgkins cast a sympathetic glance at my mother. "It must be difficult being away from your husband. I can commiserate. Mine comes home perhaps twice a year. I do miss him."
My mother grew quiet, then adjusted her wristwatch. "I didn't mean to hold up the lesson by kibitzing. Shall I stay and listen or do you prefer that I wait outside?"
"Oh, soak up the rays, Fran. Marjorie and I will begin our routine. As you know, Mr. Heifetz is a stickler for scales."

I waited for the front door to close, then checked my strings. The pure gut A and D strings that Mr. Heifetz insisted all students use kept going out of tune. Miss Hodgkins sank into a floral sofa and crossed her legs. "Let's get down to business. Begin with a C Major single-note scale in three octaves. Start in first position. Remember, open strings going up, and fourth finger coming down, but we use 4-4 on the half step as the scale descends. The trick is to shift into third position on the D, and again to fifth, seventh and ninth positions on the E string. Go on."
I nodded and smiled. Her words made as much sense to me as hieroglyphs.
"Maintain the same bow speed as you slur two notes, then four, eight and twelve. Don't forget to add the two additional notes going up as well as coming down, so that you have a total of twenty-four notes both ways."
"OK," I said, futzing with my pegs. When did she say to shift?
"After C Major, we'll turn our attention to A Minor, the relative minor, in melodic and harmonic, but not  natural. Then we'll work on three octave arpeggios followed by scales in patterns of thirds, sixths, octaves, fingered octaves, and tenths."

My eyes glazed over with these directives. I steadied the bow above the string to pull out a C. Just then, the four-legged beast whipped across the living room floor and barked furiously, as if sensing a poltergeist or chasing a rabbit. He skidded along the oak floor to my feet.
"Caesar!" snapped Miss Hodgkins. "Hey, C Major for Caesar," she giggled. "No, Caesar, down boy, down!" The canine sausage grabbed my leg with his front paws. I could feel his nails dig into my flesh and a blast of hot breath penetrate my skin. The dog mounted my leg and jerked spasmodically. I tried to shake the demented beast off by thrashing my leg, and felt blood rush to my face. Miss Hodgkins tilted her head back, slapped her thigh, and exploded with laughter. "Oh Marjorie! Caesar likes you!"
"Yogi" by soggydan@photobucket

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Sturm und Drang (Ch.10 Pt.1)

A week after my audition with Jascha Heifetz for his masterclass, my mother has difficulty sleeping. She paces the house during all hours of the night. I can hear her rapid footsteps back and forth, back and forth downstairs in the kitchen, as she fixes tea and rummages through papers. She wanders up the circular stairs to my bedroom, peeks under my four poster canopy, and whispers, "Margie, are you awake?"
I pretend to be half-asleep. "What is it?"
There's a stack of make-up homework to complete with finals looming. All year, despite my absences due to  concerts, I've kept my grades up and even made it to the Honor Roll at Memorial. But I'm exhausted. I haven't had a decent night's rest since reading "The Exorcist" on the return flight from Los Angeles. The idea of demonic possession terrifies me, and I imagine the bed quakes when it's only me trembling.
"Can I sleep here? Your father snores."
"Come on," I whisper, and throw back the comforter. I don't want to admit this, but I'm grateful to have my mother in bed with me.

Indecision plagues her, and I'm the only listener. "I think it would be foolish to turn down Heifetz's offer."
I yawn. I'm used to my mother talking in circles, which I consider a form of data processing, or mental regurgitation. She strokes my hair and rubs my back. "But how do I break the news to your father? To relocate to Los Angeles? It won't be easy, Margie. But you're too young to go alone. If you were seventeen or eighteen, maybe, but a girl turning fourteen? No," she answers herself. "You need parents, or at least, you need me."

My eyelids close and I feel content. The teachers at Memorial treat me as a celebrity. The performance at Tri-State Music Festival and meeting with Heifetz are being featured in the weekend edition of the Boston Globe. I've become a  local star of the North-Shore, and bask in the attention. If we move to L.A., I might attend Hollywood Professional School, just like the Brady Bunch kids, and hopefully, become a famous artist one day. But more than anything, I want to please my mother. I wrap my arms around her slender waist, and inhale the lingering scent of  lavender tea. I drift off. By the time my father awakens me for school, my mother has returned to her own bed.

My father's morning routine consists of fixing himself a bowl of Kellogg's Bran Buds for breakfast and black coffee to keep regular. While he relieves himself, I tend to my mother. I tiptoe to her bedside, lower my face to hers, brush the thin wisps of hair from her forehead, and give her a kiss. She opens her eyes, and drowsily lifts her head.
"Tonight, I'll tell him...I promise." Her head sinks back into the pillow.


After work my father loosens his tie, and flings it over the living room armchair, and talks about his day at the business. He reaches for the bottle of Scotch tucked away in the liquor cabinet. The furniture movers dropped an armoire on a delivery to nearby Marblehead, and laughed as it rolled out of the truck. The customers watched with horror and demanded their money back.
"Morons, those movers," my father fumes after a swig of Scotch. "I've had it." His hands are shaking. "And to think that I lost two more clients today."
He thunders into the kitchen and eyes the dining table.

"What's for supper, Frances, I'm starving. Don't tell me that you spent the entire afternoon listening to Marjorie's practicing—"
"Margie," my mother darts me a glance. I'm standing with the violin tucked under my arm. I've been playing  "Nigun" (Improvisation) from Bloch's "Baal Shem Suite" in the living room for hours, discovering the pleasures of rhapsodic, cantorial nuances and expressive phrasing. I've discovered agogic accents.
"Go finish your music while I talk to your father."

I obediently climb the stairs to my room, leave the door ajar, and lean against the doorway to eavesdrop. My heart races. This is not an ideal moment to confront my father with a relocation or a vague future as a concert artist. I know that I should try to warn my mother; the storm clouds are about to burst.

"You wanna do what, Frances?" I hear my father pound the kitchen table with his fist."You expect me to just up and leave Kransberg's Furniture because of some asshole violinist? Who pays the bills? I'm gonna work for somebody else in a different location where I have no contacts, and start from scratch? Have you lost touch with reality?"
My mother tries to assuage him with a voice of cool reserve, like a school teacher with an unruly student. "Take another drink, John. Have a cigarette. Calm down. It would be in Marjorie's best interest—for her career—to work with Jascha Heifetz."
"You're tearing this family apart, Frances," he yells. "You're killing me with these never-ending demands. This teacher, that teacher. Boston, New York, now Los Angeles. Sell the house. Leave the business. Look, how my hands shake!"

I ready my violin and bow to drown out their escalating voices. Accusations and threats ricochet off the walls. I realize, with sudden remorse, that I'm the cause of this battle. I skip the movement entitled "Simchas Torah" (Rejoice) and begin the plaintive cries of "Vidui" (Contrition). At the caesura, I'm startled by a terrifying clamor: the shattering of glass followed by a piercing scream. I toss the violin on my bed and flee down the winding staircase. My legs feel like elastic bands. The front door slams just as I reach the landing. There, in the middle of the kitchen floor, is my mother sprawled amidst shards of broken china, sobbing hysterically.
photo of my parents and me in the Boston Globe