A Violin Teacher's Lessons About Living And Love
Toby, stop singing!'' was probably the phrase most often repeated by my violin teacher. Toby, Barbara Miller's golden retriever, felt the irrepressible inspiration to howl along every time he heard a chromatic scale. Toby had very little singing talent and a great deal of persistence, so Barbara commanded him as she would a child, ``Toby, stop singing,'' in the same breath that she said ``Now slur four, Jennifer.''
Toby's vocalizations weren't the only distractions at my lessons. Every time a human, dog, or cat walked past the house, there was a spontaneous explosion of barking and a mad scrambling to the large living-room window. Toby had an accomplice in this ritual, although I believe it was actually Teddy, Barbara's old terrier, who started it.
Their barking was loud enough to send Fritz, the green parakeet, into a fit of squawks. Fritz, whose cage was on a stand between the ancient grand piano and the window, was quite well-behaved during my lessons, and only parted his beak to express disapproval at the dogs' playful immaturity and at my exercises when they were out of tune. ``Fritz only squawks when you're flat, Jennifer. Raise that G sharp, and don't let the second finger pull your pitches down.''
Mrs. Miller's animals seemed to communicate well with their mistress. I remember Barbara telling me more than once about Charlie, her cat, and his ability to tell time. ``When he wants to go out in the neighborhood, I just say, `Charlie, come back at 10 o'clock,' and he does.'' Charlie often sought attention during lessons and would rub against my legs as I played. Nero may have played while Rome burned, but he never tried to play in Mrs. Miller's home.
Barbara Miller had the amazing ability to live with four animals, teach violin lessons, cook dinner for her husband, and talk on the phone simultaneously. While we played through a concerto together, the phone would ring and she would get up to answer it, saying, ``Keep going, honey.'' Or mid-scale she would remember a pot boiling on the stove and run to check it. She always seemed to be switching her glasses as she moved from violin to piano, to writing, to some other activity - regardless of which pair she was wearing at the time.
My lessons took place in her living room, and I probably spent as much time on the couch waiting for her to finish another student's lesson as I did playing music with her. She always gave her students more than the half-hour they paid for, which explains why she was always a lesson or two behind schedule by late afternoon.
The worn couch showed the permanent indentations of guests, students, and pets. Toby was always anxious to put his 70 pounds on top of anyone who sat down and would beg for petting until Barbara shouted, ``Off, Toby!'' Teddy, who was otherwise antisocial, preferred to show his attentiveness by barking from a distance. The animals left their hair on the couch, and it was easy for me to distinguish between the fine black-and-white hair of Teddy, Charlie's black cat hair, and Toby's bristly red shedding.
Flat olive-green carpet lined the floor, and next to the piano stood a cupboard full of music, with bent pages and ragged edges. Photographs of Mrs. Miller's grandchildren were scattered throughout the room, and were always updated but never replaced.
With music stands in the corner, violin cases under the piano, and knick-knacky violins of porcelain, glass, bronze, and wood sitting on the mantle, the room was unmistakably the retreat of a music lover. A violin triptych hanging above the couch completed the motif.
The time we spent tuning before a lesson we also spent talking. Mrs. Miller was interested in what I was doing in school, what we were playing in orchestra, and what I thought about the latest newspaper headline. ``March 14 already?'' she'd say in disbelief as she wrote the date each week. Or she'd comment, ``Oh, I hated algebra. I always got the right answers, but I could never tell anyone how I got them.''
Mrs. Miller once took two other students and me to a concert she was playing in Salt Lake City. She drove a frightful Elmer Fudd contraption that most respectable drivers were alarmed to see on I-15, but for her it was sufficient. The conversation both ways was animated; she told us about performing tours she had been on in Europe, and we talked about everything from nuclear weapons and pollution to Alaska and gray cows. Mrs. Miller took us backstage in the concert hall; we felt honored to be the guests of the concertmistress. I think Barbara was probably the concertmistress of every orchestra she played in.
The summer I began taking violin lessons, Barbara gave me two lessons a week so that I would be ready to join the sixth-grade orchestra in the fall. She was too concerned about getting me caught up to charge me for the extra lesson. In fact, Barbara often forgot that her students were paying her. If a parent asked, ``So, how much do I owe you?'' she would look with confusion in her scheduling book and often count back nearly a year to the last paid date.
Mrs. Miller hired one mother, who couldn't afford violin lessons for her three children, to clean her house as a method of payment. She almost seemed surprised when I gave her my mother's check every month; she'd smile and say, ``I don't even think of money when I'm teaching.''
While she wasn't thinking about money, she was thinking about music, and violins in particular. My first violin was a box. Its four strings could have been elastic bands and its tone quality wouldn't have been affected. But when Mrs. Miller occasionally demonstrated a scale or arpeggio on it (to prove that the violin was not my handicap but rather my lack of practice), she made it sing: more like a church choir member than Pavarotti, but it sang nevertheless. I believe she was relieved when I purchased a want-ad violin that was a step up in quality, but I soon outgrew that instrument as well.
Barbara offered one of her violins for me to play - one worth far more than I could afford to buy - saying, ``It needs to be played.'' The violin she played was made especially for her by the master hands of her friend Peter Prier. She loved her violin and revered it, much as I did the violin she placed in my hands.
A German instrument made in 1813, it had a brilliant rich sound that amazed me. Barbara began selecting competition and recital pieces especially for the violin and me. She saw us as a pair and gave us Mozart's Concerto in G to learn to play ``with flair.''
Barbara was all energy at her student recitals. She would have her recitals in shifts, and dozens of us would crowd into her familiar living room or one of her students' homes to play. She would accompany all of us, and then would play by herself. She often performed recitals for the community with her friend and fellow musician Dr. Armstrong.
After I finished high school, I no longer played in recitals or took lessons, but Barbara's violin stayed in my hands. I am not a great musician and can never bring praise or fame to my violin teacher. The time I spent with Barbara I value because from her I learned about living.
At Barbara's funeral, the minister paid tribute to her with verses from the 33rd Psalm: ``sing unto him with the psaltery and an instrument of ten strings. Sing unto him a new song; play skillfully with a loud noise ... the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.''
I still play Mrs. Miller's violin, and when I do I think of Fritz, Toby, Teddy, and Charlie, and how she cared for them as if they were her children. I think of her students, who came before anything else. I think of her love of music. And I think of how she sang loudly with an instrument of 10 strings.