|My Isaac Stern Moment
By Austin Repath National Post, July
Sometimes one moment in which you stand with the great
ones makes it all worthwhile. Let me tell you about my moment.
I was in my early twenties, when my uncle willed it to me. A rather
odd bequest, I thought, for I had no interest in music. I couldn’t
even carry a tune. But there it was on the table, the dying wish
of a man I hardly knew, a violin.
I hung it on the
wall. I had more important things to think about - getting a job,
finding a mate, learning how to downhill ski.
Then one day I decided
to teach myself how to play the violin. It would probably be a little
like learning to ski, I told myself. A friend showed me how to read
the notes and where to put my fingers. After awhile however it became
too much work, and the violin went back up on the wall.
There she remained, until
one day on an impulse, I enrolled in The Royal Conservatory of Music.
And so began a series of lessons, that ended abruptly when my teacher hinted
that I might want to consider another instrument. Once again the
violin was on the wall.
A pattern began to establish
itself: brief bouts of lessons, little progress, much frustration.
Yet, at the same time a relationship was developing between myself and
Madame Violin. Although very off and on again, we were definitely an item.
Then with the onslaught
of mid life, the relationship became even more committed. I bought
an expensive bow, began studying the violin seriously, and learned why
my grade school choir master had asked me just to mouth the words.
I was tone deaf.
The next step seemed obvious
- a voice teacher. I explained my problem to her, “I can’t sing a
note.” She pushed down middle C on the piano. I made a strange
sound. She made a face.
And so the winter passed
with me chasing after middle C. That summer I went to music camp.
I went into the voice class. After several members of the class went
up to the front and sang operatic arias and assorted other pieces in foreign
languages, I found myself the only one who hadn’t sung. I got up.
“What would you like to sing?”
the instructor, a petite woman, asked.
“A middle C,” I blurted
out. Everyone laughed. The instructor went along with my little
joke and hit middle C. I made a noise. Nobody laughed.
By week’s end I found myself singing the C major scale and everyone in
the class applauded. Encouraged, I built a repertoire of old familiar songs.
Now to find an audience.
God bless them, seniors in old people’s homes were there for the picking.
I could go into a retirement home, and they had to listen to me.
Then I began to realize that they wanted to listen. For some reason,
my voice could do things I didn’t tell it to. It added style and
tone to notes, emotion and feeling to the words. Hey, I was good.
Those lucky people got a great evening of song.
But the violin was still
my first love. It was with her that I wanted to make beautiful music.
But she was still high and haughty. She would promise much and like
a naïve lover I would leaped into her arms, only to be scorned as
not worthy of her attention.
She had no compulsion
about humbling me in public. Auditioning for a street festival, I
became so nervous, the bow started bounces off the strings. I can
still remember the judges smirking, and my own embarrassment. Undaunted
I performed at a friend’s soiree, and even I could hear the scratchy unmusical
notes as we stumbled through a piece together. However in the privacy
of my room, she and I would dance, and more than once, I found myself transported
into realms that lay beyond words. But always in public as if ashamed
to be heard with me, she would humiliate me.
Then one evening,
I’m standing in front of two dozen Alzheimer patients in a nursing home.
I tuck my violin under my chin, in that casual way that Isaac Stern used
to do. I nod to my accompanist and lay my bow on the strings.
A sweet, sad sound of days past fills the room. Forgotten dreams
are remembered. I look about me as the vacant eyes come back to life.
I can hardly believe this is me creating such magic. I notice a blind
lady in her 90s who obviously has an ear for music. She thrills as
I reach a high A on the E string, and shouts out in pure delight, “Wonderful,
you play so wonderfully!”
At that moment I stand
with Stern, Menuhin, Heifitz. With them I am playing to the peak
of my ability before an adoring audience. And I knew then that it
had all been worthwhile.