For almost as long as I can remember, music has played a starring role in my life. When I was six years old, I was writing simple melodies on an old, dignified upright piano which one day appeared in our basement rec room. How and why it got there, I don't recall -- although I do remember watching the sweating and grunting laborers twisting and lifting it over the iron bannisters and then down the steps from the garage. Maneuvering it into the room was a seemingly impossible feat and my sister and I watched, holding our breath, waiting for someone to drop their side of the bargain, a quasi-certain disaster.
No one in my family played or even tinkered on the piano. So the best I can imagine is this stately carved old lady, with her swirled wood grain and curved half-columns running down the sides, turning into spiraled feet, came to live with us simply because she was a pretty thing and one of those "should have" objects a family needed to have somewhere in the house. It sat there, lonely and mostly unappreciated -- a lovely incrimination -- an ornamental guilt trip (as if a Jewish family needed anymore of that), because there were no pianists in our house. It did have player piano scrolls that sort of worked, a creaky, achy mechanism. But the initial novelty of watching the keys move on their own as a tinny, unrecognizable song played, quickly turned to boredom. And there the piano sat.
But never mind, because not too long after it arrived I knew the piano was mine. None else in the family was minimally interested, once we had had a go at playing Chopsticks a couple of times. Surprisingly as it turned out, I seemed to have a germ of a talent, waiting to flower, although musical talent didn't run in our genes. I liked to sit on the bench, on top of a couple of phone books (because I couldn't reach the keyboard otherwise), and gently test the keys, seeing what sounds might result - and the time flew by. Before long I was putting the tones together into melodies. Then adding words. Pretty soon I was begging my mother for piano lessons.
I was a stubborn, determined and strange child. Although I never have paid much attention to new-agey type of stuff, I have always thought I was an old soul -- still do. I get these micro-twinges, flashes, of me inside another body, staring out and reacting to the world. One of these recurring flashes is of myself as a Japanese man, possibly in a more recent life. I just feel like I am this person, reacting as a male, evaluating and appreciating the world with an Asian sensibility. This comes at totally unexpected moments and completely out of context. I just am this other person, and then that micro-instant is gone. But this insight and feeling has certainly added to some aspects of my esthetic self, an appreciation for clean lines, simplicity, essential design, harmony and balance that is an Asian sensibility and not from my Eastern European, earthy roots.
This "old soul" base I think also gave me my determination and focus. And this was true, even when I was a very young child. I never felt like a baby -- I had the confidence that I knew what I knew from experience. From lifetimes of experience.
Stubborn, pushy and willful as I was, with my verbal Chinese water torture working on my parents, I soon had my wish granted for piano lessons. My first teacher was my neighbor and babysitter, Judy Collins. Yes, that is Judy Collins the folksinger. At that time, she lived across the street from us with her family and was a promising young concert pianist. She was studying under the tutelage of a remarkable woman named Antonia Brico. Antonia Brico was a feminist pioneer who broke down gender barriers and had formed what I believe was the first symphony orchestra headed by a woman conductor -- the Businessman's Orchestra in Denver. With stern and benevolent discipline, she was guiding and shaping Judy Collins toward what would likely have been a stellar career in classical music.
In the meantime, Judy, who was a teenager at the time, babysat for me, my younger sister and baby brother, and started teaching me how to read music and to play. Soon I was sitting in on the music groups, voice clinics and music salons at Antonia Brico's large, art-filled home. Brico soon took me under her wing and started teaching me herself. The way this transition occurred is kind of fuzzy in my memory -- maybe it was simply because Judy no longer had time to teach me -- but I recall spending a lot of time with Brico, not only during lessons, but for long afternoons, exploring the nooks and crannies of her multi-story house with its marvelous souvenirs of a life of art, music and travel. She was infinitely patient with me, answering the endless questions and telling the stories behind her treasures. Childless, she loved children -- especially ones that were reasonably well-behaved -- and that had a fondness and interest in music.
She was a stern and demanding master, but with such a fierce devotion and affection, that I felt compelled to excel and win her rare smile and even rarer expression of "Bravo!" Even though I was just a little girl, I was soon playing quite complex pieces from Mozart, Mendelssohn and others. I could certainly play the notes, but I don't think I had a real understanding of the music, other than I liked the parts with pretty melodies. I also could read music and play on sight, but had not the slightest knowledge or comprehension of theory. At that point it probably didn't really matter that much, as playing the music is what I liked and mostly what I did with my time instead of running around outside or playing with dolls l like most little girls my age. I liked visiting her house, rummaging through all the dusty, curio-packed rooms, the strange heavy European wardrobes, my imagination running wild with the exotic finds and smells.
Through Brico, I also found myself with a role as one of the young children in the Hansel and Gretel opera production. Participating in the backstage bustle and getting into my costume for exciting stage performances still live in my memory.
We stopped going to Brico's -- possibly she was getting too busy with her orchestra and those obligations, or it was because we moved across the city, but I soon had another maestro, Yasha Hellmann.
Maestro Hellmann could have stepped out of a period film and played the classic part of the intense maestro artiste or orchestra conductor. By the time I met him, when I was ten years old, I was rather precocious on the piano. I remember I had to "audition" for him before he would consider taking me as a pupil. My mother was very anxious that I succeed. But he did take me.
Maestro Hellmann was not very tall, but he was imposing, with a magnificent sweeping mane of white hair, worn in the style of artists from the turn of the century. And he always wore a silk cravat. He had come from Russia and still had a very strong accent. He had left a life of hope and tragedy behind him. His talented son, age 26, an already an acclaimed concert pianist, with a promising international career, was killed in an accident. The father, who had groomed his son for this glorious life, almost died from a broken heart. With the sadness and the additional difficulty of living as a Jew in Russia, he had regretfully immigrated to America, leaving his broken dreams and his lost son behind.
In this country he met another émigré, a beautiful Russian woman, Manja, many years his junior, and they fell in love. They made a touchingly devoted although rather improbable couple -- the tall, regal Manja and the shorter, more portly, but enormously dignified Yasha. Lessons at their small bungalow also included Russian tea -- tea in a real samovar, small cakes, cold cuts, cheese, fruit and all kinds of goodies. As a spindly, long-legged colt of a girl who was growing like a weed, I always appreciated an extra snack and Manja loved to feed me.
Yasha took his duties as maestro and my instruction very seriously. This was not the time for anything but perfection. He also insisted that I understand the intention and direction of the music, the story and the drama. Through him I started to learn about interpretation, how the signs on the sheet music were a map to the feel, the waves of sensation, the emotion of the composition. I started to learn how to interpret the music, not just as notes on a page, but as an organic creation -- which I could make my own.
Given the time and opportunity, it is possible that I might have developed this kernel of knowledge into a career (which is what he hoped -- a new protege to take up the legacy of his lost son). However, that was not to be. I was 13 and my family was falling apart. My mother and father had separated and were going through a bitter divorce. My father, ever the one to exert his power and will, refused to pay any child support, even though the courts insisted he must.
My mother had married him literally right off the farm. She was beautiful and totally naive about the world. She had grown up in Indiana, a Jewish family living on a farm completely surrounded by Amish families and farms. Because of this odd place they found themselves, growing up my mother had neither indoor plumbing nor electric power. She aspired to enrolling in art school and a career and for a brief time, did attend art school. She also won a local beauty contest. Then she met my father when he was in the military - he was a sergeant -- and they fell in love. He was from New York City, educated and sophisticated and was the host of a radio program for the Army. His sophistication and intelligence undoubtedly swept her off her feet. He was also a guy who liked to take charge -- undoubtedly an attractive combination. And he could take her away from the farm.
My mother was his living doll to mold. He dressed her, showed her off to business colleagues -- the little homemaker and his family of squeaky-clean, well-behaved, perfect children. My mother did the homemaker bit very well -- cooking and keeping a spotless home, children dressed in pjs, ready to be kissed good night right after dinner and off to bed. My mother didn't know how to write a check or drive a car -- my father handled all of that during the marriage and obviously thought she didn't need to bother her pretty head about such banal details.
So when things fell apart, they really fell apart. The times were also not at all friendly to divorcees and my mother had zero skills to cope with life on her own. With my father holding out on paying child support and my mother now a single mother, trying to make ends meet and raise three kids, a lot of things in our lives had to go. So the first of these luxuries to be sacrificed were my piano lessons.
When Yasha Hellmann regretfully let me go, I can't say I was really sorry. I was already chomping at the bit to move on with my life and do other things. I had been practicing my piano six hours a day and it was definitely starting to feel like a chore. I was 13 and I was starting to look at boys. I wanted to talk on the phone, try lipstick, giggle with my girlfriends. I had been watching longingly when the girls at my school gathered out in the yard during lunch, sitting in a circle, cross legged, on the ground, playing ukuleles and singing folk songs.
When my mother told me she could no longer afford my lessons, I think she expected more disappointment on my part. But I felt as though a burden had been lifted. I felt light as sun breaking through a cloud. One door was closing and another was opening. I still loved music. I still wanted to play. But I wanted to play... the ukulele.
I was almost bursting with anticipation when my mother agreed I could have my ukulele. We went to the store and I chose the one I wanted -- a Martin ukulele. I had never heard of this brand of course, but now I know this was just a lucky choice as Martin was long regarded as the finest maker of American guitars and similar stringed instruments. I liked it because it had beautiful wood.
The next day, I too was sitting in the circle out on the playing field and intently regarding the others strumming their twangy little ukes. I was cool, I was one of the girls. I had arrived.
Song in My Heart:Part Two is on its way...