Music Lessons – beginning piano and cello
When I was eight, shortly after moving to Leahy Road, Mom said it was time for me to start music lessons. It would be piano and she would be the teacher. I would practice nearly every day. She stressed sitting up straight on the bench, keeping a rounded hand position like holding an orange, with the wrist up so the fingers naturally fell from it, ready to touch any key within their reach. Elbows slightly out from the ribs. The idea being to appear relaxed even if you weren’t.
The first lesson was about where the word piano came from and why it was such a big deal, historically, that each note could be played at its own individual loudness and voicing for bringing out the tune while subordinating the accompaniment. The first hands-on exercise was to verify the loudness phenomenon with various notes, bringing forth sounds so quiet as hardly to be heard and ones very loud – by pressing, not hitting the keys. Next was to identify and play Middle C, just to the left of the middle pair of black notes, then all the other seven C notes on the keyboard. Having fooled around on the piano a little bit for years, since one was always in the house, I did well at first. But as time went on and independent right-left hand coordination became more important, I found it more work and frustrating, particularly trying to remember where my fingers were on the keyboard without looking, as my stare burned holes in the sheet music, both verifying what I was playing and preparing for the next notes. Being a runner and tall tree climber, I knew where my hands and feet were without looking, the kinetic sense. But my fingers kept surprising me by coming down on wrong notes even when I felt sure of the sound I expected. In retrospect I think the problem was that piano was the first skill I tried to tackle that requires independent 10-fingered dexterity under intense brain management. Aside from musical instruments, the only other such skill I know like that is touch typing. If I had learned typing first, I think piano would have gone better. In fact when I took Typing in junior high school, it went just fine and I had no trouble keeping up with par for the class, achieving about 65 words a minute with good accuracy after a semester. Anyway, I dropped piano, but not forever. It came back into my life when I needed it in later years as a compositing tool, a recording instrument and even for some live performances.
My three years of piano lessons were not without enjoyment. John Thompson’s “Indian Tom-Toms” and Robert Schumann’s “The Happy Farmer” and “The Horseman” were progressively within my grasp and satisfying to play. But then things went down-hill. I think Mom expected that once she got my musical engine started, it would rev up, my interest would take hold, and my competence would accelerate. It didn’t happen. Only my frustration grew. And she didn’t know how to address that.
By age 11 it had become a big chore for me to practice and for her to get me to. One of us suggested that maybe it was time to switch to another instrument. Demonstrations were going on at the grade school next door where I watched and listened to the strings, the winds, the percussion … all the instrument groups in an orchestra. If I had picked a wind, it would have been trombone. But it was a string, and I have been glad it was cello ever since. It has basically the same range as my adult voice, but a nicer, more refined sound.
My first cello lessons were with a young woman who taught/conducted a little Saturday morning orchestra in which Mom enrolled me at a school in nearby Beaverton. Few memories remain of this brief period (months, not years), probably because I felt and sounded apologetic. But I do remember that, either out of excess modesty or because she wore tight skirts, the teacher did not clasp the wide (lower) bout of the cello securely between her legs, as everyone else does. She played with her right knee on the floor; and she taught me to do the same! Of course she was responsible for steering all the children into some sort of functional sound production on their various instruments, so she was tapping deep into her perfunctory music school training, which would have given her a basic familiarity with all and a mastery of few, if any. I admired her pluck. And I admired the insight with which she informed me that if I worked at it, I could become adept at the left-hand cello fingerings in five years, but that it would take fifteen years to gain that level of competence in the right-hand bowings.
It soon became apparent that I was progressing even more slowly than I had on piano, with even less zeal to practice. Mom was a concert goer, often taking me along, and she kept many of the program notes. So she had the names of Portland Symphony players at her fingertips. Having been a music major in college, she knew how a real cello player should look and sound. She called the principle cellist, Roman Dukson (pronounced with a long “U”), having found his number in the phone book.
She asked if he taught lessons, and would he teach her son, who had three years of piano but very little cello experience? He said yes. We arrived at his house or apartment around dusk. The place gave an old-country impression from the outside with its brick architecture, weathered vintage appointments. Inside, the impression went all the way. Dark wood, heavy curtains, aromas of herbs, leather and cloth. He may have introduced us to his wife – I don’t remember – but I could sometimes hear her moving about in the kitchen. We worked in the carpeted dining room, which had ample space for our two cellos and a music stand, in addition to the formidable dining table and its retinue of straight-backed chairs. Mom sat and watched, usually silent, occasionally asking a question, but entering into active conversation after the lesson was officially over, when scheduling issues and practicing methods were the main residual topics.
The first lesson began with Roman playing a few scales with me to break the ice, get me warmed up, guide my intonation, and assess my skill level. Then we went back to basics, beginning with long single-note bows on open strings. The time-honored injunctions to keep the bow between the finger board and the bridge, perpendicular to the strings, and to hold the frog in a relaxed and nimble grip were introduced around that time. But the approach was sufficiently holistic that there was no expectation to master any one element before moving on. I liked that. I felt a glimmer of hope that I could get this. When we played long fingered notes, it was obvious that I had no vibrato at all, but I keenly watched his and admired his tone. I also liked the way he held the cello, classically grasping the lower bout between the knees, and using his legs to adjust the tilt of the instrument actively as he played, seeming to bring it to life, almost to dance with it.
The only memory I have of subsequent Dukson lessons is of his introducing the ten simple but tuneful pieces in Gretchaninoff’s suite for cello and piano, In Aller Fruhe, opus 126b. The darker ones appealed to me the most; the waltz least of all. But taken as a whole, they made an original statement that sparked my interest and got me playing cello to make it sing, as Roman used to say (as did nearly all my later teachers as well). I was finally going in a promising direction.
At the risk of alienating half the world of cellists, I must note how fortunate I was that Dukson was a man. My dad was away from home more and more as he got deeper into the nascent mainframe computer business with Remington-Rand, then Sperry-Rand Univac. In less than a year he would be moving his business operations from Portland to Los Angeles to direct the new computer center at the University of Southern California. I needed a male role model, someone local and outside the family, and I needed a musical mentor to demonstrate how a man could be a deeply involved musician both for enjoyment and for a living. In hindsight I recognize how brief that relationship was, and how formative. Mom and I attended Portland Symphony concerts now with a new focus on the leader of the cello section.