Thursday, January 05, 2023

Paying it forward

People do things for others for various reasons. Some people do things for others in a transactional way, with the understanding that a favor will be returned, and some do things for others out of a sense of obligation. Some people do things for others as an expression of their faith, and some people do things for others because it simply makes them feel good.

Some people do things for others out of a sense of pure love, or out of a sense of gratitude.

What is often called "paying it forward" is my underlying motivation for just about everything I do. I have been extremely fortunate to have encountered some remarkable people during my six decades (plus a few years), and they have given me far more than they know. As the translator of the psalms in the King James Bible so eloquently puts it, "My cup runneth over."

So this new year I feel the need to express my gratitude to Daniel Morganstern, who I met when I was nineteen. He was thirty-eight. (He remarked that we were an octave apart at that time.) I was a flutist with a lousy relationship with my instrument, a lousy relationship with my teacher and the institution where I was studying, and a great love for music (but not necessarily flute music). Danny embraced me as a friend, and showed me what real teaching was. He and his wife June took me into their household as a daily visitor (at least during the hiatus between the ballet season and the opera season), fed me, and taught me a lot about the basics of life--things I hadn't properly learned when I was a child or a teenager.

Danny listened to me play all the time (something that most people in my life didn't do), and he listened with the ears of a great musician who held Paul Dunkel as the pinnacle of great flute playing. He did his best to try and get me to play like Paul Dunkel without knowing a single thing about playing the flute. He also introduced me to Heifetz, and together we listened to the entire Heifetz collection (at least all the LP recordings that were available in 1978).

Our friendship has lasted for decades, and it has influenced everything that I have done as a musician. Through my friendship with Danny I was able to get off the flute-playing path (which for me was a path that was paved with good intentions, but led nowhere), and become a string player. His encouragement inspired me to encourage other people on their musical paths. And no matter how much help I give Danny with the things I can help him with, there is always more to give. It is and has always been a true friendship.

I share his friendship with many other people. We all know a lot about one another, though most of us haven't met one another. Danny's friends are my friends, and will always be.

He taught me how to be a friend. He taught me how to really be a teacher. He continues to teach me how to be a better person and a better musician. And he understands my concept of "paying it forward," because he taught me how through the way he lives his life. I could never "repay" Danny for what he has done for me, but I can pay it forward.

When I returned to life as a string player in my small college town, and after twenty years away from my time as an unremarkable child violinist, my community helped me in incredible ways. As soon as he heard of my return to violin playing, Donald Tracy, the cello professor at the university and the conductor of the university's orchestra, brought a folder of orchestra music to my house. He brought his violin too, and took the violin that I had just purchased from one of the students at the radio station to St. Louis to be worked into playing shape. I barely remembered how to play, but I threw myself into the "fire" (which was The Firebird). 

I started taking lessons with Tom LeVeck, the father of one of my previous flute students, the husband of one of my doctors, and a member of the St. Louis Symphony. After several months of intense and obsessive practicing I had a rudimentary understanding of the violin, and had the luck to buy a good viola for $100 that I found at a yard sale in my neighborhood.

Tom and I had the idea of trying to assemble string quartet. One of the students at the radio station was an excellent cellist (a student of Don Tracy, mentioned above), and my good friend Terry Coulton, a violinist who had just given birth to twins, was somehow willing to play. Terry brought her twins to Tom's house, and we read quartets. They were all so kind to me. I didn't know my way around the alto clef, and didn't know my way outside of first position on the viola, but the three of them were happy to be able to play music together with me faking my way through the viola part.

They were willing to teach me how to play string chamber music without really knowing how much I didn't know. And with a few changes in personnel, we are still playing string quartets together.

I have great compassion for the adult beginner, and have spent a great deal of time making arrangements for string ensembles that adult beginners can play in. When I started my life as an adult beginner there were very few orchestral pieces that had a physically easy enough second violin part for me to feel that I could really contribute to the music making. So when Terry and I started our Summer Strings orchestra, I made arrangements that could be played by adult beginners as well as beginners who were not adults.

My most recent endeavor in the "paying it forward" department is playing in a string quartet that sprang out of a Summer Strings season. As the resident "professional" at string quartet playing, but sitting the first violin seat rather than the viola seat, I get the chance to work with people new to string quartet playing, and figure out how to help them sound better as an ensemble. It sometimes involves a little work. It sometimes involves a lot of work. But it is always rewarding. 

With every meeting of this ensemble I feel that I am paying forward the kindness that my first string quartet friends showed me. And my reward is in the moments of real music making that come from the work we do, and learning how to be a better composer through the great music we play.

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