It wasn’t so long ago, the pre-mobile-phone era. Back then, you prayed that your plans would come off without a hitch. And when a hitch found you, you had to find a pay phone.
As I flew through Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station on the first day of Curtis’ 1996-7 school year, I hoped it wouldn’t come to that. My garment bag dug into my left shoulder, and my violin case knocked a painful bruise into my right thigh, keeping time with my uneven strides.
Tina and I rounded one final corner, and our eyes confirmed what we already knew: we had missed our train to New York, the train to meet our new teacher, Felix Galimir. I ripped open the velcro of my wallet in search of a long-distance calling card.
In over my head
This was just one more proof that I wasn’t ready for Curtis. I had moved from Lexington, Kentucky just the week before, and my head had never stopped spinning:
My dad had set me up in a cozy $450/month apartment just across Rittenhouse Square from school, and we had spent a few days together there. Then he drove the eleven hours back to Kentucky, and I was on my own.
One savvy conducting student at Curtis, Mischa Santora, had worked the school registrar to get the phone numbers of new kids like me: no friends, no internet, nothing to do the week before school except practice. In other words, we were easy prey for a conductor looking to put together a chamber orchestra! I accepted the gig as it would finish up on the very first day of the school year, and in New York City no less.
I was grateful to Mischa for many things about that week: the music-making (including stunning solo playing by faculty member Aaron Rosand); the chance to make friends; and a small measure of belonging.
I wasn’t a big fish in a small pond anymore. The kids around me in this chamber orchestra were the ones I had heard about growing up, the sharks I had always feared. If I could keep up with them this week, I’d have a chance once the year began.
The rehearsals and first performance, in Curtis Hall (now Field Concert Hall), went off without a hitch.
The best-laid plans of nice young men
The next day was the official opening of the school year, but I had only a single morning class. Then it was on to New York, where we would repeat our chamber orchestra program in Merkin Hall. Since Mr. Galimir lived in New York, Curtis thought they would save him the trip down to Philadelphia by sending Tina and I to the Upper East Side that afternoon.
At the Curtis Hall performance the night before, Tina and I had set a noon meeting with the school registrar, Mrs. Katz, to collect our Amtrak tickets. According to my city map and mental calculations, that should have given us time to make our train. We set off on a casual one-mile walk.
Whether it was the map-reading, or the baggage-juggling (each of us had a garment bag in addition to our violin cases), we quickly found ourselves seriously behind schedule. You may wonder why, when we were so encumbered, we didn’t simply split a taxi! I spent the rest of the day wondering that myself.
You never get a second chance to make a first supplication
Back to the pay phone, where for the first time in twenty minutes, Tina and I caught our breath. Of course, neither of us had ever so much as spoken to Mr. Galimir. Yet somehow we had ended up in his studio at Curtis. Had he liked our auditions? Hated them? Had Curtis simply assigned us to him after all the other teachers had passed? Would he even know who was calling him? He was, according to school lore, well into his eighties.
I can’t remember how we decided which of us was to make the call, but it fell to me. I dialed the number Mrs. Katz had given me in case of emergency, my ear pressed against the receiver to shut out the din of the station. When a voice answered, I breathlessly said, “Mr. Galimir!”
“No, I get him,” answered Mrs. Galimir. Strike one.
“Hallo?” came a creaky voice.
“Hello, Mr. Galimir. This is Nathan Cole… we haven’t met or spoken before, but I’m coming with Tina Qu to play for you today.”
“Well, we just missed our train and the next one will come in an hour. Will you still be there? What’s the best thing to do?”
“What is best? What is best is that you are on time for your train!”
I didn’t have an answer for that, so he continued, “So come one hour late, and play. What do you play?”
I was confused. “Violin.”
“Ja, violin I know, but what do you play for me?”
Now I understood, but a few seconds late. This would become a years-long pattern. “Oh, I’m going to play Prokofiev’s second concerto.” I had worked on it all summer.
“No, I don’t like that piece… you will play scales.”
A whole summer of work on the Prokofiev had just evaporated.
“What scale do you play?” he asked.
“Well… all the major and minor ones.”
“Ja! But what scale do you play for me?” he shouted. Was he actually angry, or was it just hard to hear me over the commotion?
I decided to be bold and pick one. “C major.”
“No! Not C major! What book…what method…what…” This was anger.
Now at that point in my life, I couldn’t claim to follow a scale “system”. To put it plainly, it had been years since I had seen a scale book. I tried to remember the name of the last scale method I had used.
(I should have been aware that Mr. Galimir had studied with the great Carl Flesch, whose name was synonymous was scale study. Any other name was blasphemy.)
“Wessely,” I answered.
“Wessely?” came the incredulous reply.
“Wessely,” I confirmed. “W-E-S–”
“I know how to spell Wessely, but… who is Wessely? You play Carl Flesch. So come and you will play, and there is… a girl?”
“Yes, Tina Qu is coming with me.”
“Ja, you come, and bring the girl, and I will see you later.”
I gently replaced the receiver, fearing to disturb Mr. Galimir even now, praying that this fragile peace might last until we met.
And was it my imagination, or did he sound just like Yoda?
To Dagobah, or the Upper East Side
A wait, a train, and a taxi (the one we should have taken back in Philadelphia) followed in quick succession, and in less than three hours, Tina and I were inside the tiny elevator that led to Mr. Galimir’s apartment. I knocked on the door.
“Ja?” said the door.
“It’s Nathan and Tina,”
The door opened, and I stood looking over the head of the great violin teacher. In fact I towered over him, a new sensation for someone used to being looked down upon! Yoda indeed.
Nobody spoke. Finally Tina bowed.
“What does she do?” he asked no one in particular.
Mr. Galimir bustled us inside, eager to get to the playing. Mrs. Galimir took our things, but not before Mr. Galimir noticed my garment bag.
“What is… this bag?” He grabbed it from me, but it was larger than he was, and likely as heavy, considering all the trifles I had crammed into it. He nearly lost his balance, and shouted, “What do you bring to your violin lesson?”
I explained that I had a concert that night and that these were my clothes, books, and toiletries.
“Do you wear clothing made out of…concrete?” I had to laugh.
Soon we were in the studio, and this time Tina drew the short straw. As she played a short piece by Saint-Saëns, I watched Mr. Galimir’s face. His eyes would open wide and glow when she executed a brilliant passage or expressive slide. They would squint, his mouth puckering, when a note was out of tune. I dreaded my turn, guessing exactly what expression he would wear.
When the moment arrived, he asked, “So, what do you play?”
I stifled a laugh, remembering our conversation from a few hours before. Had he really forgotten, or was he testing me? I was willing to try anything so as not to play scales.
“Prokofiev second concerto,” I said with little conviction.
“Oh…no, I just–don’t–like that piece.”
This was the moment when a more accomplished violinist would have offered another three pieces in place of the Prokofiev, but I had none. Mr. Galimir broke the impasse.
“So play scales. Go.”
Violinists who have studied the Carl Flesch scale book know that there is a particular order to the keys and variations of the scales. The book opens with C Major, then its relative minor, a minor. Then down a third to F Major, then its relative d minor.
Then within each key, there are seven arpeggios in a specific order: minor first, then major, then first inversion, second inversion, and so on. Once you have learned and practiced this system for years, you wear it as a second skin. It almost becomes impossible to imagine any other method.
“What scale would you like?” I asked the former Flesch student, who looked at me as if I had asked him how to hold the bow.
“C Major, of course!”
I played a C Major scale, slurring four notes to a bow.
“Very good! Now is it possible, Mr. Nathan, to play something other than four notes in a bow?”
“Sure.” I started playing six notes per bow.
“No! No, do not play four notes or six notes!”
I paused. “How many notes?”
He began to laugh, and looked around the room as though one of his framed photographs of violinistic luminaries might assist him with this preposterous student.
“Play as many notes per bow as you can.”
Now I understood. He wanted to see how fast I could play the scale. I played the entire scale, up and down, in one bow.
“No!” he shouted, and shot out of his chair. I took a step back in fear. Never in my experience had someone so small threatened physical violence so readily! He sang a parody of my turbocharged scale.
“Play in a normal tempo, but change the bow whenever you run out.”
I did so, and came to the bottom of the scale.
But there was nowhere else to go. Expecting the worst, I asked, “What do you mean?”
“A minor, of course!”
I played the a minor scale in the agreed-upon fashion, then stopped again.
“Ja, go on!”
I looked over Mr. Galimir’s shoulder at Tina, and she must have seen the pain on my face. She tried to mouth, “F Major” but Mr. Galimir beat her to it.
“Ja, F Major, then–d minor, then–B-flat Major, et cetera!”
I played a few more scales, each time looking to Tina to confirm my choice of key. Was I the only violinist in the world who hadn’t studied the Flesch scales?
Finally Mr. Galimir stopped me, taking a deep and ragged breath. This had evidently taken as much out of him as it had me. “Now, arpeggios.”
“C Major?” I asked, feeling like I was getting the hang of things.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said in a tired voice.
I began to play a C Major arpeggio.
“No!” and again he started out of his chair. “You played E-natural!”
“Yes,” I answered, as E-natural is the second note of a C Major arpeggio.
“You must play E-flat!”
“Wait, you want a c minor arpeggio?” I was thoroughly worn out at this point. I would have played anything at all to end this violinistic interrogation.
After a few more minutes of this faux-Flesch, Mr. Galimir sank back into his chair and breathed, “OK.” Was it really over?
“You will practice all 24 scales with arpeggios every day.” My eyes bugged out, as I had only ever practiced one key a day, even when I had practice scales regularly. “Then, thirds, sixths, octaves, fingered octaves and tenths.”
This was beyond comprehension! “For all 24 keys?”
“Yes, of course.”
For the first time, I protested. That first week, it would take me half an hour to navigate the scales, arpeggios, and double stops for a single key. And he was demanding 24 per day! There were barely enough waking hours, not to mention the fact that I would be exhausted long before I could learn any actual music.
So we hammered out a compromise: all 24 keys for single-note scales and arpeggios, but only 6 for double-stops. It would still mean two hours a day on scales alone.
Is there life after scales?
There was one piece of unfinished business before Tina and I made our way to our evening chamber orchestra performance: although Mr. Galimir had given Tina her repertoire assignment, all I had were scales. Since he didn’t want to hear Prokofiev, ever, would I get another piece to work on?
Mr. Galimir chewed his lip, and for a moment, I feared that his plan was for me to play Flesch scales the next week, and the week after that, until I left his studio and his life forever! So his answer surprised me: in a week, he wanted to hear the a minor solo sonata by Bach, a piece I loved but had never worked on.
Still in a daze, I packed up and followed Tina and Mr. Galimir back to his front door. After one more complaint about my oversized bag crowding his closet, he sent us out into the last hour of golden autumn light.
We paused there in front of Mr. Galimir’s building, the wind out of Central Park daring us to begin our crossing toward Merkin Hall. All tension released, we looked at each other and laughed.
“Want to borrow my Flesch scale book this week?” Tina asked.