This post was supposed to be a big wrap-up of the teaching experience at Lone Star SCOR! and an overdue thank-you to the two violin shops who provided me with stellar instruments in both Los Angeles and Austin. These things will get their due in a few days. This post is still related to teaching. To learning. And gratitude, and cello.
This post is about Cathy Graff, my first cello teacher. The one to whom I owe everything, the one who received me as an undisciplined mongrel and managed to forge me into a cellist without snuffing out my wildness, the one who allowed me to be whatever I was on a particular day, the one who taught me that mistakes were human, the one whose methods are still the foundation upon which my own philosophy rests. The one whose husband sent me an email over the weekend:
Cathy passed away a week ago. I knew you would want to know. If you will send me your mail address I’ll send you a notification card.
She loved you a lot.
I got this on my phone the day before P and I moved into the new house. I read it, re-read it, and let out a howl from a place I have only felt one other time before, when the boy I had a crush on in high school was found shot dead in an orange grove.
Cathy and I had been in touch with some regularity after I left her studio (at her behest) to study with Ron Leonard. She was always pushing me to compete against the people I idolized and feared. I remember my first few lessons at Ramo Hall on the USC campus- my lessons were between Jonathan Karoly (a true virtuoso and one of the youngest musicians to gain entry into the LA Phil) and another girl who ended up being my standpartner five years later at one of my first professional orchestra gigs. I called Cathy in tears, the shame of inadequacy stinging my face as I sobbed.
While I don’t remember what she said, I do know that I practiced my Brahms sonata right afterward, and felt better for it.
Later, after returning from my time in England, I stopped by her house to play duets and grab lunch at one of the seeds and nuts hippie places she loved to go. I was obsessed with Haydn D at the time, and as I worked over a section that was improving (but not good enough), she called from the other room, “My, you really do have such technical facility!” Progress is like weight loss in that way; you sometimes need someone who hasn’t seen you in a while to make you feel certain.
I would send her emails when I got good gigs, and she would reply with applications for Dutch baroque festivals, frequently goading me to study with Anner Bylsma and Natalia Gutman. She had friends like these all over the world. In fact, decades before, she was one of William Pleeth’s students and encouraged me to contact him for lessons the second time I moved to England. It just so happens that Mr. Pleeth died while I was on the flight, and I always thought that he somehow knew that I was too difficult a student and he had better places to be than stuck in a studio with me. Rest in peace, you wonderful man.
My last correspondence with Cathy was a difficult one. It was like a letter from the Western Front: IN WASHINGTON. CONSIDERING GIVING UP IN HOPE OF SOLVENCY. SEND CIGARETTES AND CHOCOLATE. LOVE TO ALL. EHW. She responded almost immediately to my initial email, informing me that the cancer she had beaten a few years prior had resurfaced and was making her life uncomfortable, but that she would write back to me about the music stuff quickly.
A week later, she made good on her promise. Her email detailed in no uncertain terms how most of her musical colleagues make the ends meet- with the help of a very successful significant other or sometimes old family money. She gave numerous examples of how couples make it work and asked me pointedly about my current relationship and whether P could shoulder more of the load to facilitate this wonderful but profitless thing I like to do.
I replied and told her that it was a conversation I was scared to have, and that the ideas of self-reliance and making lots of money as the indicator of success had been drummed into me for as long as I could remember- but that she was right. I sent her another email a few weeks later to check in and tell her that I had backed off of the ledge a little bit.The whole thing was all sturm und drang, and I didn’t want her worrying unduly.
It used to comfort me, knowing there was someone in the world who had seen me at my neurotic worst but still had faith in my best. Yes, I know. It is greedy to think this way, but we all have some such device. Now I’m trying to make proper adult rationalizations: her life was rich and full. She traveled, taught, performed, lived broadly, laughed loudly, and loved (and was loved) deeply. She taught me as much about being as she did about playing, and is chiefly responsible for the way I think about and teach music.
So it is fitting that I put this here, where I am supposed to be thanking benefactors and posting excerpts from a teaching seminar. Without Cathy, none of this would have been possible. I miss her and my heart aches for her husband and daughter, both fixtures of my earlier life in their own right. If you have ever read my book, or learned from this blog, or taken a lesson from me or tolerated my pronounced discomfort with the camera and watched a YouTube post, you are part of Cathy’s legacy. We are both lucky for it.
She is already greatly missed.