Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Where I'm coming from: musical beginnings

We always had a piano at home. The first one was an ancient upright, black and decorated with carving, pushed into a corner of our (damp) basement. I believe it came with the house. I'm sure I must have played it, but the first piano I remember playing on was a small baby grand that my parents bought at an auction and installed in the dining room when I was around 5 years old. I was fascinated with it, and quickly learned to read music and play the pieces in the beginning piano books we had around the house from my older sisters' lessons.

It wasn't until I was 9 that I was sent for lessons, too, to the same teacher, chosen because (1) she was the only teacher my parents knew about and (2) she gave discounts for siblings and had a policy of never raising her rates once a student had started.
She had a brisk method for all students that included Leila Fletcher books, John Schaum theory and note speller books, Hanon, Berens for the left hand, a few mnemonics for keys and scales, and was a bright, cheerful woman with a degree from Peabody (in voice, I think). As a teacher, she was barely more than a hack with an assembly line of as many students as she could fit into a day. The worst thing about her, though, was that she did not "believe in" recitals (= didn't want to bother with them), so her students never learned to perform -- at all! I had no idea that's what the point was.

I don't remember any efforts by my family to make me practice, though I do remember spending many hours playing the piano. I really had no idea how to practice. By virtue of sheer native talent, I somehow learned a few pieces over the years. The teacher's approach for me was to pick the most difficult thing she could think of and then have me work on it for years. So I eventually could play (not very well, and not from memory) the Rachmaninoff G minor prelude, Brahms G minor rhapsody, Beethoven A major sonata, and -- who knows why -- an arrangement of "The Little Drummer Boy."

When I was 12, I started junior high school and was able to choose a band or orchestra instrument. We had a book at home describing all the instruments in the orchestra, with little line drawings of them being played. I don't know why, but I had decided I wanted to play a stringed instrument, and the picture of the man playing the cello looked appealing to me. I didn't know what a cello sounded like and had never seen one, except perhaps on TV. The music teacher at school was overjoyed that someone wanted to learn the cello, and he gave me my first lessons. I took the school cello home and worked my way through Samuel Applebaum's String Builder on my own. Toward the end of that school year, my mother heard about the DC Youth Orchestra Program -- then offering free classes for anyone who showed up -- so I started going there. I quickly advanced to the junior orchestra, and then started taking private lessons from the teacher there, Robert Hofmekler.*

To be continued ...

*I knew nothing about him the entire time I was taking lessons from him, but now know that he had a remarkable and heroic background. Some of the story here.

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