Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Maestro

I have a cat on my head and her tail is curled around my neck.  Darn these chairs with the high backs.

I just heard from an old friend that her father, my violin instructor, passed away last summer.  Cline W. Otey Jr. was a talented musician and a remarkable teacher.  I don't regret much, but I do regret that I didn't take full advantage of his expertise.  He could have taught me so much about transmitting emotion and discovering the possible intent of Mozart, Bach, Handel and other master composers between the notes on the musical scores.  Instead he had an uphill battle with me to get me to practice.  I could be great, he told my father one day, if I only practiced more.

But daily practice was beyond the desires of a grade school and later teenaged Kami who immersed herself in mathematics and fantasy epics.  I did practice, a little on weekends, sometimes after school in the practice rooms with my friends when a concert crept up on us, feverishly every afternoon for a week before the performance.  But then the performance would pass and I'd be back to practicing during class and occasionally picking around the most difficult sections of a classical work at home here and there.  Meanwhile Mr. Otey helped several of his more dedicated students achieve chairs in the junior symphony while they were still in high school.  He made me the best I could be too, the best I could be with the limited time I put into it.

I think what impressed me most is how he sat down with us and played.  He directed when he needed to direct, but when we were part of a larger ensemble he would sit between the first and second violins and play the most challenging part (wherever it fell, crossing back and forth) in support.  He also sat down with us during class on occasion, though he didn't do that too often--it would be too easy to use him as a crutch.

I learned so much from him when he played.  Lights would come on in my head.  Oh, that part of the bow.  Oh, that emphasis on those notes.  That much volume.  That much vibrato.  Yes, it was a matter of direction and even in an ensemble there's a certain amount of personal choice as well, but watching and listening to someone who understood the music on a much deeper level not only showed me what was possible, but made me braver.  

Courage is required to play the unfretted string instruments, and Cline had courage to spare.

The thing about violin is that it has a huge range, not only in scale but in volume.  That's its beauty, and its curse.  You can play so softly the audience can't hear you.  You can hide, fortunately in some cases because you can botch every single note.  There's no fret or key to save you.  You can be quarter tones off--just slightly flat, or slightly sharp--relative to tune and/or the rest of the players simply by slouching or adjusting your wrist.  It's not even the shift of a finger.  It's the lean.  And the bow, ha ha, you can run out of bow on a stroke, or fearfully play just at the tip.  If you apply too much pressure or allow the bow to drift, suddenly there's a rasp or a squeak that can zap birds on the wing right out of the air and leave them twitching on the ground.  That's intimidating.  For a learner, it's frustrating.  For a teacher, it must have been torture to listen to young violin, viola, cello and bass students saw and screech and splat and sandpaper their way along at various undisciplined paces through music that, under normal circumstances, would move an audience to enraptured tears.  Some of us played so softly you couldn't hear us (I went through a long phase of that.) Some played loudly from leaning onto the strings because their arms were tired, or because we (me) wanted to do what he asked when he asked (with gritted teeth?) to play as loudly as we could through the next phrase--

He did it year after year after year, kindly.  At times he was firm with us, but he never shouted, never demeaned, never unleashed a hint of frustration, anger, or contempt on my lazy little shoulders.  And by firm I mean he leveled with us.  We would practice this section until it was acceptable.  We would play on this portion of the bow, even though we were uncomfortable with it (usually because that made the inaudible players more audible) and he let us know that if we didn't, the kids who didn't would stand out.  The timid ones would pale at the thought of standing out, and learned to play, quietly but with a little bit more volume than was their usual comfort zone, with that part of the bow.  

When I learned about his musical career I thought God (I wasn't pagan yet) why is he wasting his time with us?  Now that I've taught people how to do things better or do things they couldn't do at all before they met me, I'd like to think that he taught us because he found it extremely rewarding, regardless of the ear-bleeding result.  I certainly know he devoted many, many hours of his life to it.  He didn't linger in one music department in one school either.  Though he had a busy schedule outside of teaching, he traveled all over the district, and there was no one else like him in Clackamas County.  I wouldn't be surprised if there was no one else who devoted that much time to public school orchestras in the entire Pacific NW in the seventies and eighties, though it's hard to say--there are some remarkable people in the world that we never hear about.  I do know that without him, there would have been no orchestra in North Clackamas school district; no grade school orchestra, no middle school orchestra, no high school orchestra, just as there's no high school orchestra in my own kids' high school today.  There's band, but if you want to learn one of the classic stringed instruments, you have to take private instruction.

It was such a privilege to learn with him.

I still have my violin.  My daughter plays with it occasionally.  I've taught her some rudimentary skills, placed paper hole punch reinforcement stickers on the neck again (strips of medical tape work too,) to mark the area where her fingers ought to land, taught her a scale.  I'm not Cline Otey.  I'm not there every day, demonstrating, coaching, encouraging her to practice, and then moving on to the next group, and the next group, and the next, all day, teaching violin.  I know the effort that would take, and what it would take away from.  We all have limited time, and how we spend it in part defines who we are.  I'm a writer.  To me, Cline Otey was an orchestra teacher, the very best I could wish for.  Rest in peace, maestro.

If you would like to see some of the results of Cline Otey's years of dedication to music, and meet some of the people whose lives he touched, mark your calendars for March 1st.  The Concert for Cline will be on a Sunday at 3pm at St. Anne's Chapel, Marylhurst University, 17600 Pacific Highway (Hwy 43.)  I'll put up a reminder closer to the day of the concert.  His daughter Lisa will be organizing the concert.  Proceeds will benefit Marylhurst's music therapy program.  I think Mr. Otey would get a big kick out of it.  Usually his smiles only touched his eyes, but from time to time he'd get a huge grin.  You'll have a chance to see that grin on his daughter's face.  Please come.  I'll be there.

And for you martial artists out there, Cline was a black belt in karate.  I didn't know that about him back then, but it makes sense now.  If you need an excuse to go to a music concert, make that your excuse. 

Please spread the word!


Kai Jones said...

I'm sorry for your loss.

The Moody Minstrel said...

The presence (or lack thereof) of a capable instructor is what really makes or breaks a youth ensemble.

The string program we have at Ye Olde Academy probably owes at least three-fourths of its astonishing success thus far to our regular guest instructor, a highly talented violinist who started at age four and was trained in, of all places, Prague. The Kashima Philharmonic also owes her an enormous debt.

Mr. Otey came very close to convincing me to take up violin when I was in the 6th grade, but I decided to stick with clarinet. I always respected him even though I never had the opportunity to study under him. Now that I've learned a bit of violin at this late stage (with little or no instruction, unfortunately), I almost wish I had.

You know I'd attend that concert if I could. And say hi to Lisa for me.

Kami said...

Thanks. He will be missed.

I'll definitely tell Lisa hi for you, Moody.