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Emily Grossman


November 5, 2011 at 8:05 AM

Last week, on a whim, I googled my old violin professor, Michael Ma, under whom I briefly studied at the University of Oklahoma in 1993-94. Since I only took lessons from him for one year, and since he was a primary force in my decision to quit my major, I hadn't kept in touch with him, to say the least. I remember running into him my senior year while accompanying a friend of mine for her jury exam, and he greeted me with, "Ah, Emily Steele, I thought you dropped out of college!" Even four years later, he found a way to sting me with his words. I hadn't, but went on to graduate with a degree in education. At the time I'd told him I was quitting music, he told me that I would come back when I was 28 wanting to learn, but by then it would be too late. So, my sophomore year, I moved on with life and tried to put him and my failed attempt as a musician as far behind me as I could.

Eight years went by. I goofed off in college, broke my heart over a silly boy, earned my BA in education, tucked that little piece of paper somewhere I don't even remember, and then left the state of Oklahoma. I gave teaching a try in North Carolina, broke my heart over some other silly boy, moved to Alaska, and found George. I got married, worked at a variety store, learned how to bake, tried selling artwork, moved back to Oklahoma for a winter, and got a part time job at a quilt shop. George couldn't find work, so, come spring, we moved back to Alaska. He joined the staff at the summer camp as the food coordinator, and I bought a piano and began teaching lessons. During those eight years, I'd wandered aimlessly, but the moment I opened my studio and returned to music, I came home. Tentatively, on a February night in 2004, I wiped the dust off my old fiddle to search for answers, which led me on a musical quest, one that still continues to this day. Coincidentally, I was 28 at the time. The words of Michael Ma haunted me: was I too late?

Michael Ma's curse nagged me when I felt discouraged about a particular fast passage or double stop phrase. I am too old to get this! My brain is too set in concrete to get this! Even so, as I encouraged my own students and showed them how to solve their problems, they revealed all the ways I could solve my own, which were the same problems, only less magnified. In taking my own advice, I made progress just like they did. If I didn't know any better, I'd say I benefited more from lessons than they did, because teaching a skill requires a higher level of problem solving ability, and much analyzation and creativity. But is this possible, to make this kind of progress? After all, I'm too old.

Though nagged by the curse of Michael Ma, I also found myself many a time being visited by words of wisdom that I'd gleaned from my lessons with him. At the time, I was too immature and thin-skinned to take his admonition, and much of the technical advice he gave flew right over my head because I had so little foundation on which to build. But his words logged into my memory, where they would come in handy when I was finally ready to understand and heed them.

Randomly, my curiosity finally brought me back to his figurative doorstep, not to knock, but to take a peek. I remembered at one point he'd moved back to Hong Kong and was playing with a symphony there. Did he still play? I wondered if he was even still alive. I felt a pang at the thought of him disappearing off the map; even though I'd labeled him my enemy, I felt no relief at the thought of his demise. Instead, I felt sorry for him.

But then I read the results: Head of Strings, Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts... 2008 judge for the Yehudi Menuhin competition... Concertmaster, Hong Kong Philharmonic... Oh here's a video of him playing a Mozart duo, #5. I clicked.

The first notes caught me off guard; Mozart's genius struck a deep note in my soul as, simultaneously, I connected with a man whose persona didn't seem to have aged a day since the last I saw him. He wasn't as perfect as my idealized mental icon, and yet the notes grabbed my mind and wouldn't leave me for days. I ordered the sheet music and checked the mailbox daily until it arrived, like a Christmas package.

I practice Mozart's duo #5 at night, and I wonder about Michael Ma. I don't wonder if I proved him wrong. Instead, I hope for something different.

I hope he's proud of me.

From Emily Liz
Posted on November 5, 2011 at 3:40 PM
Lovely blog. Question, out of curiosity - why do you think you want him to be proud of you?

Our relationships with the people who encourage or un-encourage us in our art are so unique. They tell us so much about ourselves and our personal strengths and weaknesses.

From Emily Grossman
Posted on November 5, 2011 at 5:00 PM
Even though his bluntness withered my sensitive soul, he was surprisingly hurt when I quit, and he threw that curse at me in a bit of anger because I wasn't living up to my potential as a violinist. I don't know, maybe he had the foresight to see this is what I really wanted and had the capability to do it. I guess I want him to know that I'm not a quitter and I did go back to it, and that I strive each day to live up to my potential.
From Heather Schuetz
Posted on November 5, 2011 at 9:45 PM
Wonderful blog. The teacher-student relationship between musicians can be a unique one. Have you ever thought about perhaps contacting him one of these days? It may help to soothe old wounds.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on November 6, 2011 at 12:09 AM
I could possibly write him a letter. I composed one in my head while walking with Ben, and it didn't seem like such a bad idea. Thanks for the suggestion!
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on November 6, 2011 at 3:51 AM
send the letter. You have no idea how much healing and love it will touch the world with....
From Tobias Seyb
Posted on November 6, 2011 at 11:09 AM
Isn't it always better to talk to a person than talk about him in public?
Imagine him finding your blog by chance, without personal contact. He might just do a web search with his name...
Btw, I'm sure he will enjoy to hear you've found your way back then.
From John Cadd
Posted on November 6, 2011 at 1:40 PM
About being distracted by "Boys". Watch Tim Minchin singing "If I didn`t have you"---( continues --Somebody else would do ). It might not seem right for you to think like that but know that many people (boys ) do. Then , always manage to squeeze just a quick 20 minutes practice each day ( A cup of tea takes that , do it while it`s cooling down ) --when you have given up , but not really ,as you know it will come back to haunt you.
From Robert Spear
Posted on November 6, 2011 at 2:00 PM
Most excellent piece, Emily. We've all butted our heads up against "the wall," but few grow to understand that it wasn't entirely everyone else's fault! Congratulations and best wishes to you on your journey, and I have no doubt that your students will receive the most passionate and compassionate teaching possible.
From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on November 7, 2011 at 5:10 PM
Interesting that this blog and the survey about crying during lessons appeared at the same time. There are a handful of teachers out there who don't feel they're doing their job if they don't drive the student to tears at least once a month. Personally, I don't learn much from this type, and it sounds like you don't either, Emily.
From Julia Ciesla-Hanley
Posted on November 7, 2011 at 7:30 PM
I had a teacher tell me "You should have learned this as a high school sophomore" and sigh quite often about how I wasn't as far along in my music studies as he thought I should be. Fortunately, he left that college where I had him, but I still dropped my music ed major and didn't play much for about 7 years. While I acknowledge that teachers are humans and apt to make mistakes too, it still doesn't take away that "sting" for the students who had to bear the brunt of those words.
From John Cadd
Posted on November 8, 2011 at 12:00 PM
My violin teacher stood out like a beacon against all the others. He was the only one to say "Well done" at the end of lessons. It was a real treat to have somebody say that .In the years at school only a few others said that once or twice (in total over the whole school time ). Mainly the Physics teacher said that too. I told a lie about practising once and have felt ashamed ever since. Never tell lies to your violin teacher. Always practice properly .
From al ku
Posted on November 8, 2011 at 12:45 PM
did i hear that emily needs encouragement to write like this?

sure,,,it is hauntingly awesome writing. must read for my kids--they probably can skip their language classes in school.

somehow i wish the old fart was softer because when emily walked away, he has failed, imo.

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on November 8, 2011 at 5:04 PM
"somehow i wish the old fart was softer because when emily walked away, he has failed, imo."

Right on, Al.

From Christina C.
Posted on November 9, 2011 at 7:24 PM
Beautiful blog, Emily.... & it really strikes a chord with my own experience.

When I was in my 30’s I got a phone call from the niece of my first teacher whom I’d last seen when I was 18. I’d never met the niece but she had found my contact info among my teacher’s things. She had called to let me know that my teacher was in the hospital and they didn’t think she’d be around much longer. I sent her flowers & I included a card to thank her for starting me off as well as she did... despite me not being an especially motivated or disciplined student. I had also walked away from the violin for a brief period of time after that first 10 years with her, but now music is a huge and very enjoyable part of my life and I am oh-so-grateful to be in a position to take advantage of it as much as I have. I feel especially lucky to have gotten the chance to let her know that.

All that is to say that it sounds as though you’ve managed to figure out that while the road from his door may have been a bumpy one, you now have the wisdom & perspective to appreciate him. If music is now a significant part of your life and a source of enjoyment for you... and it sounds like this is the case....and he factors into the process that got you there, do send that letter!

From Emily Grossman
Posted on November 9, 2011 at 10:04 PM
Thanks for sharing your touching story, Christina, and I think I will send that letter!

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