Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Hidden Life with McGillicuddy

Last year, my son started taking violin lessons with a local Suzuki teacher.  I was not interested in creating a prodigy, though naturally I believe that proficiency at music, if one has any opportunity at all to gain it, is something that should be encouraged in both children and adults. As for my son, he had been wanting to play the violin since he was two, and used to cry because we didn't have one. Around that time, he ran up to the altar after Mass one Sunday and hollered, "Jesus! Please have a little violin!" So, when he was three, I got him a cheap Chinese 1/16th-size violin, which he promptly named "Cutie."

The local Suzuki teacher kicked us out after four lessons. My son climbed on the furniture and commando-crawled across the floor during lesson times (though, when he practiced at home, it was clear that he had somehow absorbed the content of the lessons).

One of the handful of high-level classical musicians here then told me about V., an old Hungarian violinist who had somehow washed up in our crumbling Rust Belt city many years ago, when there was still a viable living to be made as concertmaster of the local small-town symphony, and when there was still a philanthropic class to support such genteel endeavors. By now, V. is making his living teaching the best violin students in the area out of his crumbling Victorian house in the shadow of the ghetto.

At our first lesson, it was clear that V. "got" my son. V. could see his innate musicality right away (my son could match pitch at two months old, and learned all of my dissertation recital repertoire along with me when he was two, finishing every line of Beethoven's "Adelaide" and "Maigesang" in German with me while I practiced). My son responded especially well to having a male teacher, and has come to love him. And, pace Suzuki purists, V. taught my son to read music, which I realized was the right thing for him.  My son needs and craves discipline, structure, and a formal framework. I could see that learning to read music would open up entire worlds for him, as it had done for me.  He practices diligently every day, and memorizes a piece as soon as he's learned it. The by-rote pedagogical approach of the Suzuki method would be, for him, too intangible and too inchoate.

And my son's lessons with V, for me, are like coming upon a well of fresh water in the desert. As I pieced together his history, I learned that V. had been a member of an acclaimed chamber ensemble which settled in America in the 1960s before splitting up.  We talk about music, about art, about discipline. Occasionally, V. brings out and plays live performance recordings of his ensemble, and the hair on my arms stands on end when I hear the enormous, wide-open, long-phrased sound that the ensemble had in Schubert and Brahms. This group was truly remarkable; I can attest that no American chamber music ensemble today plays like that, which is a great loss.

The problem is that, when I start to talk about music, art, and discipline, I start to get a little crazy, and probably even foam at the mouth a little, because I feel as if I'm stepping into the fresh green world that is a parallel universe to this one, the world of beauty, the world which, once I found it, provided the framework around which, even as a miserable young girl, I was able to heliotrope my life.  Music was the fertile world which gave me food, water, shelter, and air. The daily world, on the other hand -- the world that has no part in it -- is parched and withered, lonely and gray.

When my son plays a wrong note in his lessons or at home, I flinch involuntarily. Part of it is my auditory hypersensitivity, which has only gotten worse without the constant background thrum of New York City; but part of it is because of the heliotroping of my life around that musical framework, a life in which, for so long, all nourishment and all nurturing went towards perfecting a demanding craft, the practice of which costs so much, not only in treasure but also in human relationships. A wrong note causes me pain, because music is the image of perfection.

I suppose I'm something of a Tiger Mother when it comes to practicing. It's entirely non-negotiable with me. In fact, the thought that a day without practicing might, in some circumstances, be permissible is bizarrely taboo (I remember how, when an undergraduate voice major colleague of mine told me that she didn't practice on weekends, I thought she was making it up). I travel often on the Greyhound bus with my little son to spend time with my very ill mother, and his violin (no longer Cutie, but a 1/8th-size instrument inexplicably called McGillicuddy) travels with us. Yes, I know that I'm neurotic. But at the same time -- it is music, which was my oxygen for so long. It is the thing that for so long made me know that God existed.

I still don't know what it might look like to have a life as a musician while living the quotidian life here in northern Appalachia. I've become very interested in and concerned with the lives of the poor mothers I meet here.  My pastor has offered to sponsor me to become the Creighton Model instructor for this region of our sprawling diocese, and it's crossed my mind that to do so might be a way to help some of the women I encounter here, whereas teaching a music-appreciation class might not.

Yet I hate to think that the art that I love -- the holde Kunst -- is a locked fortress to so many in my midst.  As William Carlos Williams wrote:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.


Anonymous said...

Pentimento, I loved this, I had to read it three times to get my fill. I'm excited for both of you learning about your sons talent.

marie therese 1 said...


Pentimento said...

Thanks, ladies -- good to see you both here!

MrsDarwin said...

Love this. We've not found a piano teacher since we've moved, and it's starting to eat at me. I'm not always very good at enforcing schedule, but I did always make sure the girls practiced every day. I did have to train myself not to sit with them and correct every mistake instantly.

I'm very excited because I've started cantoring at my parish, and I like to take the masses with no choir because there's an open space after communion in which I can sing the chants and modified choral pieces I thought I'd never get to sing again after leaving my cozy experienced schola in Texas.

Pentimento said...

Good on you, Mrs. D!

Our new pastor is going to be weeding the girls from the altar servers and he wants to start a chant choir for them instead. He asked me to direct it. I would like to pick your brain and your repertoire for these pieces, since I've never done this sort of thing before.

J.C. said...

This story is so beautiful.

Pentimento said...

Thanks, JC.

mrsdarwin said...

Pentimento, I'd be delighted to talk shop. We've just started a children's schola here (the current group are all younger than ten, but we may be gaining some older ones) and we're working both on basic hymns and the most familiar of the Latin mass settings, from Jubilate Deo. At this point I'm focusing mainly on keeping pitch, clear pronunciation, and observing the ebb and flow of the chant. We warm up by singing up and down the different modes.

Our adult schola, with me doing the hand waving, is singing Eucharistic chants for our Adoration every first Sunday, and I've started them on some of the more complex Masses. Unfortunately it's mostly academic right now, since we don't have a mass at which to sing. I don't think the group is ready for polyphony yet, more's the pity, and we're heavy on the females anyway.

Pentimento said...

It sounds awesome, Mrs. D! I will email you.

Rodak said...

Wonderful,Pentimento. I loved every word of this one!

Pentimento said...

@Rodak, we are happy to serve you. : )

Enbrethiliel said...


How wonderful that he is learning music and that you found the best possible teacher for him!

I recently got to interview a retired dancer who now runs a centre for the arts. She said that her mission in life is to help artists find ways to support themselves without having to fall back on something outside the arts. One way to do this is through teaching, but the problem is that there are always more teachers than students--and more willing and able teachers than students who even know that the teachers exist.

"I have a deep pool of teachers at all times," she told me. The problem always is finding and attracting students. Even people who are interested in the arts have certain ideas they don't deviate from. Parents will almost always enroll their dancing daughters in ballet, for instance, and nobody will even inquire about lessons in Philippine folk dance.

It was such an inspiring interview that I thought about taking some classes at her centre early next year or next summer--not for guitar, but for voice! (Yes, seriously. Because moody rock is hard to sing. =P)

As for guitar, I've been making do with the amateur teachers who have uploaded videos on YouTube. As much as I'd love to have one-on-one lessons with an instructor (and not just to support the arts!), I understand exactly what you mean about a teacher needing "to get" the student as well as the subject, and I have a hard enough time talking shop with the people at at two different guitar stores to feel confident about taking lessons with either of them. I think that what I really want is closer to musical theory than to technique. I'd like to look at the fret board and have it make sense. It seems to me that technique would follow from that. But that's about all I can articulate of what I want to learn.

How has your own guitar playing been going, by the way? =)

Pentimento said...

I have not picked up my guitar in . . . um, months. Other people have told me about self-study with Youtube videos, but I have yet to try it.

Right now it's hard for all music and applied-arts teachers to make a living. Students just don't have the funds to study, and some of the most highly-regarded voice teachers I know back in New York have seen their incomes halved.

As my most important voice teacher, A.B., told me, you should only put one's efforts into having a career as a musician if you truly feel as if you can't live without it. Otherwise, you're setting yourself up for a lifetime of heartbreak. You're setting yourself up for a lifetime of heartbreak even if you can't live without it, but you have the great consolation of doing what you love.