“Would you like to do a pizzicato?” my father would ask, smiling under his black and bristly mustache. I would toddle over and he, taking care that my grubby fist did not graze the body of his violin, would put my finger on the E string and I would pluck it. Then he would wrap the violin in an old brown silk scarf of my mother’s and lay it carefully in its case, as if he were putting a doll to bed.
A violin being tuned—first the E and A strings together, then A and D, and finally D and G–followed by a warm-up scale was among the first sounds to reach me inside my mother’s womb. A couple of years later, when my father was practicing the solo part of the Beethoven Violin Concerto and I was being toilet trained, my mother found me on the potty one day, humming the opening bars of the third movement.
Not long after that, I started attending concerts. My father’s orchestra performed on Sunday mornings in the Palau de la Musica. My mother would first take me to Mass, and then to the concert. Those Sunday mornings required feats of self control on my part. First there was the sitting quietly at Mass, but at least that was interrupted by periods of kneeling and standing. But the sitting at the concert was unrelieved, and it seemed to go on for days. Fortunately, the concert hall was a near-psychedelic example of Art Nouveau architecture, and I entertained myself by gazing at the sculptures of the nine muses whose gigantic torsos protruded out of the wall behind the orchestra. Still, I conceived an early hatred of the Romantic composers, whose symphonies went on and on, fooling me into thinking that they were about to end only to rebound in cruel codas. Brahms and Schumann were especially bad that way.
In that pre-Suzuki era, music instruction was a serious, solemn business. When I was eight, before I was allowed to approach an instrument I did a year of solfeggio, a method to teach pitch and sight singing, and musical dictation. Nobody expected this to be fun, and it wasn’t.
When I was finally permitted to begin the piano I took lessons from my father’s sister, Maria Dolors, a gentle, skittish person, thin and wide-eyed as a gazelle. She was so tentative in her instruction that the closest to a correction she ever got was a whispered “perhaps you could try it like this…” I felt protective of my vulnerable aunt and worried that my mistakes gave her pain.
At home, when my mother sat next to me on the piano bench, my feelings were quite different. She had had some piano instruction herself, and she thought that she would help things along by correcting my technique while I practiced. But there was nothing tentative in her manner, and I resented her intrusion in what I perceived to be Maria Dolors’s and, by extension, my father’s domain.
The entire landscape of my life was ruled by my mother. She made me put on sweaters when I wasn’t cold, eat when I wasn’t hungry, go to bed when I wasn’t sleepy, and kiss ancient, black-clad relations who smelled funny. She supervised my prayers, scrubbed my face, braided my hair, put bows on my braids, and held my hand tightly while we crossed the street. Music, I had assumed, was outside her domain, but now she was invading that as well. Despite her having been my father’s student before their marriage, she knew very little about the violin, however. It occurred to me that, if I took up the violin, I would be safe. Even better, my father would be my teacher.
At eight or nine years old, I longed for my father’s attention. He was a benevolent but remote figure: “a saint,” according to his mother and sisters; “very busy, and not to be disturbed,” according to my mother. And he was busy, rushing from rehearsal to performance with his violin and sitting down to compose at the piano when he had five minutes to spare. I don’t think he ever once scolded me, partly because I was too much in awe of him to misbehave and partly, I suspect, because he didn’t notice me. For years I had racked my infant brains for ways to get him to focus on me. Now the solution was at hand: I would take up the violin, and he would have to give me lessons.
So after a year of piano, having mastered Schumann’s The Merry Peasant, I began to clamor for a violin. My parents acquiesced, and on February 12, the Feast of Saint Eulalia, virgin and martyr, they presented me with my very own instrument. I couldn’t wait for my first lesson—which, as it turned out, also became my first lesson in the need to choose one’s wishes carefully. (To be continued)