On a dark night in the middle of winter, I climbed into our family minivan after a hurried dinner and drove the quiet, rural highway an hour south to Fort Wayne, just me and my fiddle. Normally, the thought of driving an hour in an unloaded, 20mpg minivan keeps me home, but after months of increasing frustration with my inconsistent intonation, I bit the bullet and found a teacher of classical violin through the Philharmonic.
He was described as a professional violinist and instructor in the music department at IPFW, but on the phone he also confessed to performing in an electric Irish band. Plus he was willing to accommodate my limited schedule and see me late in the evening on a weekday.
His directions were accurate, but I still got lost. The street signs in Fort Wayne, like stalking criminals, somehow avoid the glare of the sodium lights at night, and the campus of IPFW is a jumble of buildings, construction zones, and parking lots, loosely connected by a network of narrow, winding, two lane roads. Even at that late hour, they were populated with evening class commuters whose bright headlights, swinging around curves in the road, disoriented me. Navigating the maze by the fluorescent glow of the music building windows, I still arrived late. Inside the building, I snaked my way through the halls and stairwells until I found the right office.
The door was locked.
I knocked, and there was no answer. I could not even tell if anyone was inside because the single small window, as well as the entire door, was wallpapered with cartoons, clippings, and other homemade, paper-mache items. There was a poster for an upcoming concert, a facsimile of a 18th century patent for a foot-operated trombone, and a parody broad sheet listing orchestral crimes with their penalties, most of which was too esoteric to be understandable much less funny.
I hoped I hadn’t missed him, or worse, offended him by not showing up on time. I headed down the hall, looking for either a window, where my cell phone would have better reception, or the bathroom I was needing with increasing desperation. As I passed the stairwell door, it opened and out came a young student in a long wool coat and matching cap with an instrument case on his shoulder. Having turned at the sound, I acknowledged his presence with a smile and was about to turn back down the hall when he said my name. It was really more of a question than a statement.
Oh. He was not a student. He was my teacher.
“Yes,” I said, reaching my hand out. “Please to meet you, D—–. By any chance, is there a bathroom near here?”
We shook hands, and he pointed out the direction while apologizing for being late. I hurried down the hall, not merely in response to my urgency. A mild remorse had flushed my face. In that fraction of a second between seeing him and hearing him speak, I had instantly dismissed the possibility that he could have been my teacher. My mind had assimilated his face, his body, his clothes, and rejected it as an image of a teacher of classical violin. My liberal, east-coast psyche, the “little hater” in me, accused me, “And why didn’t you think he could be your teacher? It wasn’t because he was black, was it?”
Pudding guilt bubbling on the back burner of my brain, until I walked into his office and, seeing him again, smiled. Same reaction as before, only now I had the presence of mind to assimilate it. This guy? I thought. This guy is a classical violinist? A professor? A master of pedagogy? But he’s got to be half my age. He’s just a puppy!
And better dressed too. I suddenly felt very old and shabby. And playing for him for the next hour did not do much to increase my self-esteem.
But he was kind, and reassuring, and friendly, and professional. I instantly warmed to him and his teaching style. He treated me like an adult and did not dilute the education I wanted with false praise or half truths, yet neither did he lose patience or express any disapproval. He took what he had before him and worked with it.
I spent ten minutes explaining my background, where I thought I was at with my playing, and how I really wanted to improve my intonation. He sat down in a chair, leaned back, and put his hand on his chin, as if to rub it thoughtfully, but without moving. “Good. Now play me a scale. Any scale.”
I played. His hand did not move. Even his expression remained unchanged, and he was kind enough to let me finish, out to the last, dissonant, quarter-tone-off-tonic note.
“Okay,” he said, removing his forefinger from his chin and pointing it at nothing in particular. “I see we need to work on your bowing.”
Say what? My bowing?
That was about two months ago. In that time I have had to relearn all the basics, how to hold a bow, how to hold a fiddle, how to hold my body, how to move, and how to put it all together without tension or stress. Already my tone and intonation are improving, I have more volume, and my body doesn’t tire so easily.
Even better, a whole new world of music is opening to me. I haven’t lost my love and enthusiasm for old time music, but the idea that I might play a Scandinavian polska or a Yiddish doyne or even a Corelli piece (such as Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin might have played in the HMS Surprise) reinvigorates this middle-aged father with the thought that I have yet more to live for.