A music teacher's lesson in respect
I met marta in Moscow through a penciled notice on a bulletin board at the American Embassy compound: "Violinist from the Bolshoi wants to give private lessons." My six-year-old began studying with her shortly thereafter. Alex and I set out from the south gate of the compound, down a street of deep gray snow. Then we ducked into an underpass on Novy Arbat, and came up on the other side of the world.
The door of Marta's apartment was padded on the inside. A profusion of bikes and skis filled the hall. We took off our boots, hats, gloves, and coats. A dried flower bouquet decorated the small table, and on the wall hung black-and-white photographs of the Bolshoi Orchestra.
Marta was a softly rounded woman with Slavic features and rosy cheeks. She kissed us in welcome, offering me a pair of slippers so worn they had lost any modifying adjective. There was a sense of uninterrupted quiet to the pace of life in her home, a sense belied by the blackened faade of the Russian White House just outside. It was November 1993, weeks after the October revolution.
In her room, Marta began explaining the different parts of the instrument and having Alex pronounce their names in Russian. A narrow, lumpy bed jutted into the middle of the room, covered in an orange velour bedspread. The wallpaper was old and yellowed. Books were stacked around the floor.
She turned to me suddenly. Did Alex have to go to school every day, she asked. Could he spend a day with her each week, or a couple of mornings during the week?
"He has to go to school," I said.
She looked disappointed. An hour a week seemed not enough time to her.
"Now there are three things I want to be when I grow up," Alex announced at the end of the lesson. "An astronaut, a soccer player, and a violinist."
"Then you will never be any of them," Marta told him. "If you want to excel, you can choose only one of those things."
We packed his tiny violin into the new case and snapped it shut. Marta and Alex smiled, catching each other's eyes. "It looks important," she said, patting his shoulder. "You will feel proud to walk the street with your case, like a real musician."
After several weeks, Marta was still not allowing Alex to play any notes on his instrument, and he was losing patience. She explained that some of her adult students went for years before coming up against the problem of how to hold the bow correctly, and they couldn't progress. "Once you learn to hold the bow," she told him, "everything else will fall into place."
WHEN Marta finally allowed Alex to play notes, it was without the bow - pizzicato - plucking notes with the forefinger. Oh, the simple joys of a tune! An actual tune he could recognize. She lent Alex a music book containing simple violin pieces with piano accompaniments that we could play together.
The music lessons progressed slowly. Marta wrote notes while Alex looked on seriously. Marta produced a boiled sweet wrapped in old-fashioned paper. "You will have this," she promised him, "if you write the next measure correctly. These are good, these boiled sweets," she told me. "I get them at the theater. If you want some, I can get them for you."
At the end of the lesson, Alex and I ran home. It was dark in the streets, and icy cold. We jogged together, through the underpass on Novy Arbat and up the tightly packed snow to the compound. I felt we were running through time - from an eternal Russia, down streets that must have looked the same for centuries, toward America again.
"I'll never learn the violin. Never," Alex said as we ran.
"You will, Alex. Remember what Marta always says: This is one of the hardest instruments to learn, and if you manage it, you'll have such a sense of accomplishment. Don't you think?"
"Maybe," he answered breathlessly.
We left Moscow for Washington the following June. Six years later, Alex still plays the violin and takes lessons. He has gone to orchestra camp, participated in the usual recitals, and he practices every night without much prompting. He has not forgotten Marta, although he thinks he has forgotten what she taught him.
Nevertheless, it is my feeling that he remembers what was important about Marta's lessons. He has retained a seriousness and respect for his instrument, and the understanding that playing is a privilege and a discipline deserving work.
Another child in the embassy community was thinking of taking lessons with Marta around the time we left Moscow. Marta asked Alex to explain to him what lessons involved. The two little boys sat cross-legged together at the edge of the soccer field, talking. Later, Marta asked what he'd said to him.
"I told him it was the most difficult instrument in the world to play well," Alex told her simply. I will never forget Marta's reaction. She couldn't have been more pleased. "Harasho, Alex," she said, smiling. "Veddy gud."