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Poet and Peasant

During my brief tenure as a cello student at the New England Conservatory, I often earned money as a “ringer.” Various musical groups in the greater Boston area possessed of rather more ambition than talent would put works on their programs that far exceeded the capacity of their members, and we would be summoned to save the day. We appeared for the last few rehearsals, displaced the existing principals, and discreetly collected our checks after the concert. Sometimes the natives fawned over us, but more often we were regarded with bitter suspicion as the ousted regime set out homemade cookies during the break. As an eighteen-year-old I found it ridiculous that anyone would be unhappy to be rescued from the morass of bad intonation and terrible bowing. It was simple: we played well, and they didn’t. Looking back with the perspective of thirty more years, I see that we were somewhat insufferable.

One of our more lucrative gigs was the Melrose Symphony Orchestra. The director, Mr. Baer, had great vision, and an admirable unwillingness to be discouraged by the lack of local talent. He programmed things like Peter and the Wolf, Amahl and the Night Visitors, and the Rossini Stabat Mater, assessed the gaps in his talent pool, and called the Conservatory. He personally drove a van from Melrose to Boston, picked us up, and transported us to the school where we rehearsed. I was happy because not only was I earning money, butthe group of boys who were my constant companions were always on the Ringer Roster – they generally became First Oboe, First Bassoon and First French Horn. Many nights, after a full day of classes, the ride to Melrose, and the rehearsal, I fell asleep on the ride home, my head on the shoulder of one of the boys, half-hearing conversations about chord progressions or Mahler as the dark, Masachussetts night raced past the windows.

In addition to the folding money and an excuse to hang out with my friends, Melrose was balm to my battered ego. In high school I had been good in a fierce, competitive sea of musicians. Our orchestra was nationally known, we played standard orchestral repretoire, and we had chair challenges to keep us on our toes. As high school seniors we played an entire, solo recital and soloed with the orchestra. We graduated and headed to Julliard, Curtis, Eastman or other schools known for their music programs, and became musicians and music educators. I had succeeded in that musical hot house, ignoring the fact that I really hated performing, and that there was really no joy in it for me, ever. At the Conservatory, my chinks became gaping holes, and it was a rare day when I did not see the disparity between Real Musicians and my fraudulent self. It was their passion, the oxygen in their universe, and they grumbled about hard classes or a tough new concerto, but they were energized by the challenge. I was not energized; I was depressed, exhausted, perpetually terrified of exposure and failure, and increasingly unable to see any future in music. My technique was not solid, my sound was muted by fear and tension, and I was too clenched to play with any real emotion. In Melrose, I was still Good. I sat first chair, I sounded wonderful in comparison to the rest of the section, and it was bliss. It was a break, a haven and a chance to be, if only for a few hours, what I thought I was in the first place. A musician.

In the spring of my freshman year, Mr. Baer announced that our next Melrose engagement was a Pops Concert, and that the program would include Franz von Suppe’s Poet and Peasant Overture. The piece, which is somewhere beyond schmaltzy, involves a long solo played by the principal cellist. It’s slow, pretty, and the kind of musical bon bon that requires practice and skill, but sounds far harder than it actually is. I sat behind my cello, trying to remain blank and immobile while a current flowed through my body. I could do it! I couldn’t do it. I would really be a star! God, I’d screw it up. I heard a voice. (A real one). “Ann?!” Mr. Baer was saying, looking at me from the podium. “Can you?”

“I’m sorry, can I…?” There was a quiet titter from the ranks of displaced cellists behind me.

“Can you do the solo – I can bring in somebody older from NEC, if you’d be more comfortable.”

“No” I answered, “I can do it.” I filled my vest with bombs, and started the timer.

“Great.” He smiled and ran a hand through his thick, black hair. “You know you don’t get paid extra, though – just fame and glory.” The laugh came. I smiled, distracted by the ticking of the timer. “Plus,” he added, “there’s a surprise involved.” A scout in the audience? A record of “Melrose Symphony’s Greatest Hits” featuring my solo? The stakes were high, indeed.

So I practiced endlessly, far more than I had practiced anything for the school orchestra, my lessons or my string quartet. The saccharine nature of the music made it easier for me to sound emotional – there was no subtlety required, no interpretation. It was simply a matter of showmanship. I milked every slide, put in a breath of space where it would build suspense, and generally played up the musical drama of the gentle, lyrical poet in contrast to the bombastic and rambunctious peasant in the second part of the piece. Think Little Nell tied to the tracks, followed by a daring rescue; I was playing Little Nell’s theme on the most soulful and plaintive of instruments. It was guaranteed to make the crowd go wild.

The first rehearsals went splendidly; I played well, I hit the high notes, and I was gratified to see admiration in the eyes of those seated behind me. My friends, all better musicians than I was, were delighted that I was doing so well, and the gay one (with whom, predictably, I was in love) offered to French braid my hair for the Big Performance. The night of the dress rehearsal I swaggered in with my cello, feeling that old sense that I was a Real Musician, stickers on my case, the best rosin, a life of adventure ahead. I could end up in Amsterdam, smoking great pot and playing with the Concertgebouw. I could be touring Asia, riding bullet trains in my distressed bomber jacket and reading Camus while the Violins had sectionals. Maybe I’d be in an all-girl quartet and wear flowing, Bohemian dresses and play arrangements of Black Sabbath.

I sat at the front of the cello section at the dress, on the edge of my wooden chair, through the wedding cake opening of the overture. All eyes were on me. The solo was coming. The moment was pregnant with hope and redemption. I lifted my bow and started the solo, thinking I sounded good -damned good – and catching Mr. Baer from the corner of my eye as he nodded encouragement. He backed off the podium, motioning us to continue playing as he backed towards the edge of the stage. When he emerged from behind the fraying curtain he was accompanied by a slender, elderly black man in a vest with a watch chain. As I played, Baer stepped quickly back to the podium, and the old man began to tap dance. He was tap dancing to Poet and Peasant, embellishing my mournful notes with that old, soft shoe. He grinned, he turned to wink at the principal flutist, and and he mugged at me with an expression of comically broad melancholy. I felt terribly hot, then terribly cold, and I knew that no one was looking at me; I had become the soundtrack. He was the surprise. My solo ended, the music became fast and dramatic, and he bucked and winged dramatically across the stage. He was the surprise, he was the show stopper, I was…a mediocre eighteen-year-old cellist getting fifty bucks to make him look good.

On the way home, my friends offered comfort – they knew that I had anticipated a Brave New World, and been sadly disappointed. I stopped practicing the solo all the time; I stopped practicing it at all. I had it, it wasn’t going to get any better, and it really didn’t matter if I played the whole thing with one finger and a straw hat on. In fact, that might have been more appropriate, given the tenor of the performance. I was a bitter, bitter girl.

I showed up on the night of the performance in my long, black dress, my hair French braided with tasteful sprigs of Baby’s Breath, and I knocked it out of the park. The audience was transfixed by Bojangles, from the first gasp when he shuffled on stage, to a standing ovation at the conclusion of his act. Although it is customary for a conductor to ask a soloist to stand and take a bow, I was not really the soloist, and there was no solo bow.

Afterwards, as I packed my cello and picked the  itchy sprigs of flora out of my hair, the old man approached. I kept my face neutral; I was not, under any circumstances going to become part of his fan club. “Hey,” he said with a bow, “you play real good. How’d you get to be so good, young as you are?” It was harder to resent him; he was fairly charming. And, I might add, a damned fine tap dancer.

“Practice” I answered, snapping the locks on my case. “you must practice, too, to dance like that?”

“Ah,” he smiled, “I do. That I do. I used to be famous, all up and down the Poconos, other places like that. Not much call for tap dancers now – good to have a show again.” Mr. Baer and the Symphony Ladies were approaching, trailed by a man with a bag of camera equipment.

“It was a pleasure working with you” I said, extending my hand. He took it, turned it palm down, and kissed it.

I only knew that my heart had changed, I did not know that that old man with his watch chain and his clicking shoes had given me more than a great story. He loved what he did, he burned with it, and the smallest gig was a chance to spark an audience and set them on fire. I didn’t have that, and I never would. From where I sit now, my fingers un-calloused, my bow arm gone to seed, it’s clear that it all happened just as it should have.


Evelyn Remembered

Although I didn’t know it at the time, the teacher placement auditions at The New England Conservatory were a somewhat crooked version of the Sorting Hat at Hogwarts. The string faculty had already selected, argued over and assigned the plum students long before any of us arrived; the auditions were about the rest of us. I played badly, and despaired.

When I received my class schedule, I saw that I had been assigned to study with a woman whose name I didn’t recognize. Only two of us were to be her students, and she was supposed to contact us about when and where our lessons would take place. It was customary that lessons were given in the main Conservatory building across the street from our dormitory; permanent faculty had studios, while other teachers taught at conservatories across the country, and used whatever room they could reserve when they taught in Boston.

Maybe a month into the school year, on a Sunday, the buzzer in my dorm room sounded two short bursts – a message from the switchboard operator that I had a phone call. The phone was at the end of our hall, and, assuming that it was my parents, I put down the riveting history of keyboard sonatas I had been reading, and ran. Once connected, I heard not my mother’s voice, but, a raspy and jagged one, faintly breathless. “This is Evelyn Greely. I’m across the street. Can you come for a lesson at one?” It was bizarre, unfair, and hideously short notice.

“Uhm, sure.” I answered, looking down at my pink slippers, “Yeah. What room?”

“I don’t know yet,” she answered distractedly, “you’ll find me. Let Lanford know he’s at two.”

“Lincoln” I corrected automatically.

Lincoln,” she said with menacing precision. “Let Lincoln know.” Then she was gone.

At twelve forty-five I was searching through floors of practice rooms in the main building, carrying my cello, looking through glass doors at people singing, playing pianos, practicing flutes, and holding ensemble rehearsals. On the top floor, I spied a woman I recognized from my placement audition. She appeared to be at least 80 years old, with a face plaid with wrinkles and an emaciated body in sweat pants and a sweat shirt. She seemed to be scrubbing the floor around her chair with paper towels, and when I knocked, she looked up and gestured for me to come in.

“I’ve just,” she started, breathing hard, “had a little accident.” I smelled urine. I knew that she needed help, and I knew I could help her, but what did it mean that I had just met my teacher and she had just peed on the floor of a practice room?

“I’ll get more paper towels” I said, leaving my cello outside the door and sprinting to the ladies room. Not thinking was good. On my return, she took the fresh towels from my hands and handed me a wad of damp, brown paper, which I threw into the trash can. After a further swipe, she handed me the final batch of towels, sat in her chair with one leg over the other and motioned for me to retrieve my instrument.

“It’s amazing,” she said as I unpacked, “that you play as well as you do with such terrible technique.”

After which, she turned everything upside down. She descended from a different line of cellists from my high school teacher, and disliked my phrasing, my bowing of the Bach Suites, and my “ass-backwards” pivot shift. She had, in fact, been the protegeé of Pablo Casals, and had been very famous “back in the day;” although she had clearly not been floating through life on a gossamer cloud of fame and success. I subsequently learned that she had a drinking problem, that she hadn’t performed in years, and that (I was thrilled to learn)  she was the teacher assigned to the students no one else particularly wanted to teach.

Lincoln and I were trying to make the best of things, not ready to relinquish any idea of ourselves as valuable commodities, but it was hard work. After the first Sunday lessons, which lasted for several hours, Evelyn called Lincoln to say that she just couldn’t make the drive into Boston again; could we catch the bus out to Belmont and have our lessons at her place?

It was only 8 miles to Belmont, but on a city bus, with a cello, it was interminable. All the way there I fretted about having to have my lesson in front of  Lincoln, a lesson being the most harrowing kind of exposure of one’s frailties as a musician, particularly when one was required to un-learn everything that one had learned in the past 8 years. From the bus stop we had to walk to her house, and we waited on the cement stoop as she shuffled to the door. Inside it was both sickroom and cave; heavy curtains were drawn against the daylight, heavy furniture filled the visible rooms, and every surface was covered with dusty doilies and framed photographs, mostly of Casals and his colleagues. It smelled bad, like pills and urine and possibly mold. I sat in a horsehair armchair while Lincoln had his lesson, uncertain whether I was meant to be watching and listening, but having nothing else to do besides looking surreptitiously at  Casals beaming benignly from the photograph to my left. I barely survived my own turn, hands shaking as I played Bach for her, was stopped, felt my hands being moved manually into new and untenable shapes, played more, and felt the hot sting of tears as she raised both of her own hands in a gesture of frustration.

Several weeks passed, and I received the call on the community phone, telling me that it was too much for her to teach back-to-back lessons. She asked that I come alone, and that I stop at the “package store” on my way to her house, to pick up something for her. The following Saturday I made the long pilgrimage to Belmont alone, relieved that my shame would be hidden from Lincoln, hoping that I had made enough progress that she would be less impatient, and that maybe she would see me as a worthy part of the Casals lineage.

The package store was kitty corner from the bus stop in the center of Belmont, and it occurred to me as I hoisted my shoulder bag and cello that I was under age, and that they might not be willing to give me whatever she was expecting. I didn’t have much experience as a drinker, and imagined perhaps a bottle of wine, or of harder stuff. When I stepped out of the sun and into the dark, narrow shop, the man behind the counter took in the cello and gave me a pitying smile. “Here for Miss Greely?” he asked, bending down behind the counter. I nodded. He came up holding a big box. Whatever it was, it wasn’t a bottle of anything. “I’ll tie it up for you,” he said, “make it easier to carry over to the house.”

“I’m only 18,” I blurted, “I mean, you know, is it okay for me to take that?” He smiled again, busy with his twine.

“Are you going to drink it?” He asked, looking up.

“Uhm, no, but I was just worried…”.

“It’s okay” he said, coming out from behind the counter to hand me the box. “been doing this for years.” I put my bag’s strap high on my left shoulder and lifted the cello with my left arm; the man held the box under my right hand until I was ready to grasp the sturdy twine handle he had crafted. “Best to Evelyn” he said, holding open the door. I walked the two blocks to the house, bottles clanking, getting curious stares from strolling couples and dog walkers. Maybe this was what it was like to be an adult, maybe this was all normal, maybe other people did stuff like this every day, and I just didn’t know about it. I tried to cast myself as the lead of an eccentric art film, or a moralistic Dreiser novel in which the Perils of Dissolution were exposed. I yearned for my parents and my own home, which seemed to recede with every step.

After that lesson, my third, there were two more. Both took place at Evelyn’s house in Belmont, and on both occasions I was bidden to stop at the package store to pick up what I later learned was an astonishing quantity of Scotch whiskey. My last two lessons devolved mainly into long sessions of story-telling in which I heard about Casals, touring, concerts at Marlboro, and life as a classical musician in the 1950s and 60s. Evelyn had attended Smith College and done graduate work at Julliard, she was smart as a whip when focused, and clearly, and terribly sadly, seemed to have been in love with Casals. After some initial uncertainty about whether I was actually going to have A Lesson, I relaxed in my armchair, listened, asked questions, and joined her in the past.

It was a romanticized past well-suited to an 18-year-old girl, full of romantic intrigue, backstabbing quartet members and longing for love with an unattainable man. I longed to ask her whether she and Casals had actually been “together,” or whether she had just wanted him, but she wasn’t somebody you could just ask. She wasn’t a girlfriend, or a friendly stranger on a bus. She was, in her memories, an eminence, and the unfolding was at her discretion and on her schedule. There was no sentimental Tuesday Afternoons with Morrie about it. She was a messy, sad, drunk, and her stories were not even vaguely aimed at imparting to me valuable lessons which I might use as I moved through my own life. She needed to talk, and I was both disconcerted and thrilled that an adult was confiding in me, telling me “everything” in a way that had never happened in my sheltered existence. I forgot the smell, and the bottles, and the fact that I had to play a jury in May for which I was totally unprepared; I was part of something bigger, something that made sense to my soul in ways that chord progressions and sonata form never would.

Once I fell in love with Evelyn, she vanished. In April, apparently alerted to the fact that we had received essentially no instruction during the school year, Lincoln and I were given the option of playing our juries the following September, after studying with someone over the summer to “get up to speed.” Although I’ll never know, I suspect that my parents, or Lincoln’s, or both had called the school’s President to express their thoughts about paying thousands of dollars of tuition in exchange for minimal and eccentric private instruction. When we returned to school, we had a new teacher, a kind, sober man who gave regular lessons and useful advice about difficult orchestral passages and practice techniques. I lasted six months of that year before staging my own disappearance, packing my cello and my stereo and heading back home to apply to a “regular” college. The following February, while I was living at home and waiting to find out whether I would be admitted as a transfer student to Oberlin College, I got a late-night call from Lincoln. Evelyn had died, he said; a heart attack. Although she had seemed to me to be ancient,  she was barely 59.

Sometimes, in a fit of self-righteousness, I have believed that Evelyn failed me completely. If she had been sober, alert and interested, my first year might have gone better, and I might have stayed there. If only she’d been the adult and let me be the kid, I say to myself, if only she’d done The Right Thing, I might really have succeeded as a musician. Lately, though, I think that she did all that she could do. She gave me more, in those long, dreamy conversations, than any other teacher gave me in hours of drill and encouragement. Perhaps, behind the alcoholism, the illness, and the dissolution, there was still a discerning person who saw that I wasn’t meant to be a professional musician.  Maybe she abandoned any hope of whipping me into shape, choosing instead to beguile our time together with stories that needed to be heard and kept. There was no “fixing” her, at that late date, and probably no way to Svengali me into the next Yo Yo Ma, and neither one of us tried to do the impossible. Instead, we gave each other something outside any regular rules of student-teacher engagement, and of immeasurable value.