September 2013

A Tribute to Jackson Wiley (1921-2013), the Man Who Changed My Life

September 6, 2013 13:39

Angels are real, I've met one. True story!

Today I learnt that my dear Jackson Wiley passed away. I am sad and happy at the same time since he is officially an angel now -- even though he was always one to me. This is the man who single-handedly changed my life for the better. I will share our story as an homage to a great man, and to the student that tries to pay it forward every day, thanks to him.

Jackson Wiley
Jackson Wiley

It was a very hot August afternoon in Indianapolis in 1987, when Jackson Wiley entered our tour bus and asked, with his very funny broken Spanish, if anybody in the Merida Youth Orchestra wanted to play in a masterclass with Joseph Gingold and Larry Shapiro, since a spot had opened in the last minute due to a cancellation. The few seconds that followed I can't explain -- I raised my hand before anybody, and he smiled and asked me to come with him right away. That action of raising my hand without thinking about what I was getting into, changed my life forever.

Now let me give you a bit of background information. Just about year prior to that, I had hurt my left thumb during a basketball game in Barquisimeto (Venezuela), and the doctor told me that I would never play the violin again. I stormed out of the doctor's office and told him: He was wrong! The doctor I saw for a second opinion had the same diagnosis, and I still refused to accept it. I started physical therapy with a third doctor who told me that ANYTHING was possible if I wanted it badly enough. So after a year, I was able to play 50%, and I decided to teach myself again. I started sitting in with the little kids' orchestra and doing my own rehab.

One day, Eduardo Cedeño, a young conductor from Merida, came over to recruit some ringers for his youth orchestra in Merida. I jumped at the opportunity. I had a lot of fun helping and playing with great people there. He later invited me to join the orchestra's tour to the Pan-American Games in Indianapolis to play along the Indianapolis Youth Orchestra and a Youth Orchestra from Canada.

That is how I ended up with Mr. Wiley in front of me. Thanks to Eduardo Cedeño!

Now back to the day of the masterclass: I remember the walk towards the hall, where I met Joseph Gingold for the first time. Mr. Wiley introduced me, and a very smiley Joe Gingold made of a joke of my name and said, "He was a very famous Jew, you know?" To this day, I use that line when people asked me about my name.

The room was filled with people, but I remember only Mr. Shapiro (who later became my teacher and mentor) and very young Derek Reeves (with whom I am still friends to this day), besides Mr. Gingold and Mr. Wiley.

I am a fan of etudes, and since that is all I was playing during my rehab, I decided to play Fiorillo 28, which I had memorized -- but not at performance level, not even close! I do remember understanding the importance of that moment and feeling the support of Mr. Wiley and Mr. Shapiro. They were all smiles!

I played like I have never played before, and I remember having fun. After that, Mr Gingold was wonderful and kind to me, and he gave some advise that I follow to this day. Then he turned to Mr. Wiley and Mr. Shapiro and he said, "This kid is full of music, make sure he gets the training that he deserves."

Then Mr. Wiley drove me back to my hotel in car. On the way there, he asked me, "Do you understand what just happened?" and I said, "No." He said, "The great Joseph Gingold just said that you were good, and that we need to do something about it!" Once we parked in from of the hotel he turned the engine off and asked me, "Would you like to come to study here?" I really thought he was joking, but I did say, "Yes, of course!" Still, I certainly did not think that was possible.

I thanked him many, many times, and he gave me a hug and we went our separate ways.

I went back home, inspired and determined to play 100%. Nevertheless, my reception at home was not very good. Nobody wanted to teach me because I was not good enough, as they told me to my face.

But I never gave up!

Then one day, a few months later, I got a letter in the mail from Mr. Wiley. In the letter, he asked me (in his funny Spanish) to apply to Butler University, and he sent me all the recruiting material that is normally sent to prospective students. That fueled my determination even more! I started practicing like crazy, remembering Mr. Gingold's advise about learning to teach yourself as a tool to practice.

My life was not going well, though. Problems at home were tough, and then I was let go from my symphony job, which seriously burst my bubble. It branded me a reject, and the concertmaster and the conductor told me I had no future in the music business.

But still I did not give up!

I had nothing to lose, so I packed my bags and bought a one-way ticket to Indianapolis, crazy uh?

It was October, and I just showed up at Mr. Wiley's office. He was shocked! He told me to come in and proceeded to explain to me all the things that were wrong with my unannounced visit, followed by a solution and a welcome-to-Indianapolis hug. He scheduled an audition for me in December. A dream come true! In the same manner, I showed up to Mr. Shapiro's studio. He was surprised yet happy to see me, and he gave a free lesson on the spot. He decided what I should play for the audition, and he wished me luck.

Then I took a bus to Bloomington and went to see Mr. Gingold, who said, "Jesus is here!" when he saw me. He welcomed me into his studio and told me his door was always open. He gave me a short lesson, some strategy for the audition, and scheduled a lesson for me two days before the audition in Indianapolis. Mr. Wiley could NOT believe that I'd done that and said that I had much work to do…Go home and practice!

I was so naive yet fearless...

I went to Chicago to stay with my friend, Leo, on his couch, and to practice all day every day until the audition.

After I auditioned at IU, I was accepted. But I couldn't afford do go there because it was impossible to find financial aid in the middle of the year. Mr. Gingold said I could have lessons with him whenever he could squeeze me in, and we could see what happened with my Butler audition. So next stop: Butler. My audition was much better, and Mr. Wiley was very happy. I was accepted, and a 50% scholarship was offered -- yet I had no money to pay that other 50%. I went to a meeting with the Dean and Mr. Wiley. Dr. Eaton (the Dean) said that even though I had played a good audition, it was not good enough to merit a full-tuition scholarship.

And I was ready to give up! (But I didn't)

Then, like in the movies, as I was walking toward the door, Mr. Wiley said, "Stop!" He asked Dr. Eaton to let me take the semester as a non-credit student, and he would pay from his orchestra budget and enroll me in orchestra, chamber music, and violin lessons and then re-audition me in the spring with everybody else.


I cried, right in front of them. I could not believe what this man was doing for me. I thanked them both from the bottom of my heart and told them that I was not going to disappoint them.

From then on, I practiced and worked as the orchestra office boy to make a little money. I focused on the audition as the biggest challenge of my life. Mr. Wiley would pick me up four or five times a week and take me to his house to play scales for 2 to 3 hours and talk about music and life as a musician. We ate jelly and cream cheese sandwiches and drank really bad coffee on our breaks and talked music and shared stories. To this day, I cannot eat one of those without thinking of him.

Mr. Shapiro became my other mentor and went beyond his call of duty for me. Two to three lessons a week!

My audition was April 1st, 1990 and I played my heart out. At the end of the audition, Dr. Eaton asked me, "What do you want?" and I responded, "Everything!"

Mr. Wiley's smile was as big as his heart. I did not let him down, He was right when he stuck his neck out for me.

After the audition he bought me lunch and told me, "The world is what you make of it, so make the best of this opportunity." So my dear Jackson, I am still making the best of that opportunity. I still trust that your legacy will live with me and with each one of my students, because of what you did for me. You will live forever in every note I play!

I am happy that you are now where you belong, just make sure God uses enough bow!

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