It’s 2017. I arrived in Cleveland in 2007.. you do the math. It’s been a pretty amazing (first) decade here. I love the city, its people, and my work. As I’ve begun to grow deepening roots, people slowly stop asking where I’m from or why I came to call this place home. Well, a couple of weeks ago I was invited to the Keep Talking stage to tell that story.
While I find extemporaneous story-telling exhilarating, I elected to write this one out. The details (namely the people) were too important to misrepresent. It occurred to me that sharing it here was acutely appropriate, especially for the people in the story who helped me develop into the musician I am (and will still become).
Cheers, here, to ten years in Cleveland… but especially to the phenomenal mentors who helped me along the journey. I am grateful more than you could ever know.
Narrative from “Keep Talking: A Storytelling Show”
May 3, 2017 | The Happy Dog | Cleveland, OH
I’m a professional violinist based here in Cleveland. I teach. I practice. I rehearse. I perform. When you average more than 150 concerts and performances a year, you have no shortage of stories about weddings gone awry, adorable violin students, or epic orchestra concerts. In fact, the last time I spoke at Keep Talking, it was a PG-13 tale of a gig gone wrong.
Nevertheless, I’d like to share a bit about the incredible music teachers who have guided me over 20 years of life as a musician, and about one event in particular that sent me straight to Cleveland.
You see, exactly 10 years ago this week (on May 1st, 2007), my life changed. At the time, I was deeply in love with the life I had: I was attending music school at a liberal arts college in my hometown of Dallas, was near my family, and enjoyed my budding career as a freelance musician there.
The night before May 1, on April 30, my university orchestra sat on the stage of the Myerson Symphony Hall, performing Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5. I remember so much of that concert and how alive I felt sitting onstage. On May 1, I awoke to learn that my violin professor was abruptly leaving faculty at my university. It was disorienting: you see, May 1 is the acceptance deadline, and instrumental teachers are the closest thing to a guru for classical musicians.
Mr. Sloman had been a transformative teacher for me up to that point. He rebuilt my violin technique and challenged my artistic thinking. In my life, he was a giant. He had been a classmate of Itzhak Perlman, and his teacher, Ivan Galamian, taught many other twentieth century titans of violin playing. My lessons felt as though I was delving into like an iconic chapter of music history.
His phone call catapulted my life into uncertainty. I wanted to stay in music school, but didn’t know who would become my next mentor.
Before I continue, we should go back a little bit further in history… to 1998: the year I enrolled in the hippest of all school activities: sixth grade orchestra.
I actually hated music class growing up. I thought the songs were lame, and I wasn’t interested in trying to read music. One day, Ms. Moten, the orchestra teacher, brought instruments to our class and I volunteered to hold one. The violin was intriguing. The cherry on top was learning I could skip gym twice a week to do orchestra. Yes, please! I asked mom if I could enroll. We rented a violin, and twice a week I headed to the art room with the other beginners. Things got tough quick, though, and my resistance to reading music was catching up with me. I became frustrated and started skipping. I quipped to my mom one night that I had been kicked out of orchestra. We were on the way to the movies. She turned the car around and sent me to my room for the weekend. After some discussion, we agreed I’d stick it out until Christmas, at which time I’d be allowed to quit.
I learned to squeak out “Jingle Bells,” and “Jolly Old St. Nicholas,” and loved it. In a rare moment of pre-teen humility, I told my mom I wanted to stay with it.
On to 9th grade: it was agreed by my high school director, Mr. Whisler, that I needed intense private lessons, and he pointed us toward a nurturing but very firm Japanese teacher, Motoi Takeda. Mr. Takeda inspired and challenged me. I remember being so exhausted after my 90-minute lessons that I would literally fall asleep on the drive home. He pushed me hard in the few years we had together to prepare me for my college audition. I was thrilled to learn I was accepted into Mr. Sloman’s studio. I remember saying farewell to Mr. Takeda at our last lesson, trying desperately not to cry until after I left.
Fast forward through two years of demanding lessons with Mr. Sloman, plenty of late night practicing, and immersive life as a music student, and suddenly there I was: a student without a teacher, in circumstances not of my choosing. He was leaving. Sure, I was a hard-worker, but I wasn’t yet a “great” violinist… and my relatively late start hadn’t helped.
A couple of weeks later, Mr. Sloman says, “I’m going to give David Cerone a call at The Cleveland Institute of Music. I think you should work with him.” Mr. Cerone, CIM’s president at the time, was another one of those fabled pedagogues and Galamian students. And CIM, believe it or not, had always been a dream-school to me: if you don’t already know, its string program is top-tier, and I had classmates there who turned down scholarships to places like Julliard to study with CIM faculty. I remember my heart racing when he told me I should go. It was well into May by now, and auditions were over.
“Just make a DVD of your playing and send it,” Sloman said.
The recording was fine enough, but I knew it wasn’t the caliber of string playing they would expect.
Regardless, two weeks later: “He wants to meet you.”
So there I was, in early June of 2007, booking a flight with my mom to Cleveland, Ohio. I remember staying at the Hilton Garden Inn on Carnegie and driving that route past empty brick warehouses to University Circle… this place definitely wasn’t Dallas.
CIM was enduring a massive renovation at the time. The sound of power tools created a soundtrack to my nervousness. When I entered his office, David Cerone and his wife & fellow teacher, Linda, were waiting. I shook their hands and uncased.
“Why don’t we start with your concerto?” he said.
I played. It wasn’t terrible, but it was not great. Once again, I was acutely aware I didn’t sound like “CIM material.”
“How about a three-octave C Major scale?”
I fumbled my way through, embarrassed that I hadn’t mastered something so basic.
“Okay. Let’s talk,” he said. “Why are you so behind?”
I had to explain that I started late. I didn’t have weekly lessons until late in my high school years. He asked what pieces I had performed. The list was inexcusably small.
And then he said this:
“If I choose to teach you, and you choose to come here, you’re going to go back a year in your studies. You’re going to live in the dorms. You’re not going to run around town. You’re going to come, and you’re going to practice, and that’s it.”
It’s hard to convey my intimidation here, but trust me: I was terrified. Overwhelmed. I returned to Dallas and received an “acceptance packet” a week or so later. A mere handful of days had passed between learning of Sloman’s departure and discovering I was moving to… Cleveland. I was going to attend one of the most competitive programs for string players in the country. And I was coming in at the bottom of the barrel.
That was 2007.
That fall, I repeated most of my sophomore year of college, retaking almost all of my music theory and piano classes. I often had two violin lessons a week, and a teaching assistant was assigned to teach me scales and technique. Studio class was every Saturday morning at 8am. Everyone had to wake up and perform. Every week. From memory. I went from practicing 2 hours a day back in Dallas, to blazing through 4-6 hours most weekdays.
That first year transformed me.
The following school year, on a snowy February night, I walked onto the recital stage in a long, black gown for my first recital. It was my first real “showing” as a student at CIM. My mom flew in. I had chosen an ambitious program, and decided to perform all of it from memory, even the sonata. My hands began to tremble as the pianist began the opening chords of the Brahms sonata, but my brain went into fight mode: “not now,” I thought. “I’ve come way too far and worked too hard.” The shaking stopped, and the recital went off almost flawlessly.
I’ll never forget the Cerones in my lesson the next week: “Well??? Have you come down from the clouds after that fantastic performance?”
In that moment, I knew I had arrived. I had been pushed and pushed, from my first orchestra teachers who helped me stick it out, to the sage-like Mr. Takeda, the towering and legendary Mr. Sloman, and now the Cerones. They guided me and challenged me, and often terrified me: but they helped me grow. Taught me how to practice hard. How to listen. How to problem solve. How to perform. And most importantly, how to love music and share it.
The life I began as an unexpected student at the Cleveland Institute of Music morphed into an exciting career as an independent performing artist. I finished two degrees and decided to stay. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Stephen Rose, who mentored me through grad school. You can find him every weekend on stage at Severance Hall with the Cleveland Orchestra. I love it here. I love the work, the people, and the fact that I met the love of my life here on this very block of Detroit Ave.
It’s fun to recount my first decade as a Clevelander, because my life here truly begins with the story of great mentors who guided someone like me: not a child prodigy who was concertizing at the age of seven, but a goofy sixth grader from a rodeo suburb of Dallas who was just excited to skip gym class.
It was from my mentors that I was given opportunities I didn’t always deserve, and by them I was pushed to achieve something I would never attempted otherwise. I owe my music teachers everything, and I can only hope to inspire my own students the way they continue to inspire me.
Thanks for listening.