When I was very small, my older brother and sister were busily engaged in music lessons at the Duke University String School, led by the venerable Dorothy Kitchen. My sister at some point switched to viola and got to have lessons with the then-violist of the Ciompi Quartet, in residence at Duke since the 1960s. She had a crush on him and doggedly practiced, attended every concert, and inserted herself into the relatively small community of musicians at Duke.
I, tagging along, was enamored of the whole scene. The slightly chlorinated smell of the fountain in the music building will take me back to 1978, when I used to cast pennies in (and probably tried to fish some out). The smell of a certain kind of rosin reminds me of the rehearsal hall where group classes and youth orchestras met, and where I, for a short time, attempted to coax music out of a crappy 1/8-size violin before giving up.
These were my heroes in those days: my father, who would hold my hand as I walked atop the old stone wall encircling East Campus and rescue me from magnolias when I climbed too high. The bespectacled, ascetic bachelor attorney who lived up the street, surviving on rice and American cheese but charmed enough by my insouciance to buy me bubble gum. Mrs. Tourian, who wore glasses with transitional lenses and conducted the junior youth orchestra at DUSS in a long black skirt. I found some sunglasses and a long black skirt and (wearing nothing else!) followed suit, waving a stick in the air while singing my way through the early Suzuki repertoire. My mother took this as evidence of great talent and (undaunted by my Suzuki failure) approached one of her own local heroes, the vivacious Welsh pianist Jane Hawkins (wife of Ciompi cellist Fred Raimi), to teach me her craft.
It didn't happen. Jane was about to go on maternity leave. It wasn't a good time to expand her studio, and perhaps she wisely seized on this as an excuse to avoid teaching a 4-year-old how to start with middle C.
We soon moved away from East Campus and my parents, struggling to put groceries on the table and cover the mortgage and college tuition, shelved the idea. My mother taught me the basics of piano, handed me a stack of John Thompson books, and gamely listened while I butchered whatever classics I could get my hands on. (My piano technique remains untrained, although I still fumble through the things I love, late at night when no one is around to cringe.)
When I was 10, it occurred to my mother that that 1/8-size violin was doing nobody any good in its case (and might furnish extra grocery $). She contacted Mrs. Tourian to see if she was interested in buying it, along with my brother's old 3/4-size instrument. She was. I tagged along to see her, curious to meet the woman I'd idolized from afar. She didn't want to buy the 3/4-size, which was awful, but mentioned that it might fit me, and by the way, she had a summer class for beginners starting in a couple of weeks. Did I want to join? I did.
I came back to Duke as a high school student, ferried to the music building for lessons with two consecutive Ciompi violinists (who couldn't be more different but were both marvelous and beloved). Like my sister before me, I had fangirl crushes on my teachers and attended every recital and chamber music concert I could, gamely escorted by my indulgent father. We'd take nostalgia tours around the old neighborhood, stop and visit the still-bachelor lawyer, walk around the wall, climb the old magnolias, and get treats at the 9th St Bakery nearby.
Jane Hawkins was at this point a fixture in the Durham music scene, excelling as a collaborative pianist with her husband, the quartet, department vocalists, and Mallarme, the local chamber collaborative. I might have started lessons with her during those years but at this point I wanted to be Claudia, my teacher, so I focused (as much as a kid with undiagnosed ADD could!) on my violin.
It's been 25 years since I've lived in Durham. My first high school teacher lives a couple of miles away from me in California and is now a dear friend. My second teacher, her replacement in the quartet, has moved into the Duke dorms with her husband and mothers/mentors successive generations of Duke kids. Every few years I'll go back and visit her, as well as Mrs. Tourian, whom I now awkwardly call Hjordis. Once we played duets, laughingly hacking our way through the third movement of the Bach Double. My childhood idols are now alarmingly, reassuringly human.
Fred Raimi, who has anchored the Ciompi Quartet since I was born with his soaring, vigorous cello, is retiring and will ostensibly be replaced over the next two years–but one wonders. Can the center hold? Fred planned a fall recital and programmed the Shostakovich Piano Quintet for his spring farewell concert. Jane, of course, would be the pianist.
And then, within the last six months, Jane was diagnosed with glioblastoma––the same cancer that my mother has improbably lived with for the last two years. Jane was not so lucky. Fred's recital this fall was elegiac, intense. Jane wasn't by his side. We lost her this Monday.
When I say "we" I envision those circles of grief memorably catalogued in the LA Times: at the center is Fred, and her children. In the next ring are her friends, extended family, the quartet. Then the music department that she chaired. Then the Durham music community. I'm somewhere in an outer orbit, looking in.
Comfort in, dump out, say the grief experts.
So, violinist.com community, I'm dumping my grief here. I am unexpectedly gutted by this: the cruelty of losing one's wife and quartet at the same time stands out for me (how prescient "A Late Quartet" turned out to be!) But I also mourn my father, whom I lost 8 years ago, and whose brilliant mind ebbed away long before that. I anticipate the loss of my mother, because no one escapes this cancer, not really, not for long. I prepare to mourn Mrs. Tourian, now a white-haired octagenarian, and my beloved attorney, finally married but alarmingly gray and creaky. I mourn the dead magnolia trees I used to climb, and the bakery that was replaced with a mediocre diner, the etudes I should have practiced, and the piano lessons I'll never have. I mourn the quartet–it seems inconceivable that it could survive the loss of Fred.
"For some reason, you still play the violin. You must really love it." That's what my last high school violin teacher told me a few years ago when I visited her and she attempted to give me a lesson. "Ouch!" I thought...but she was right. I really do. And this music community that gently launched me laid the foundation for that love.Tweet
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