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Roman Totenberg@100:”I’m not dead yet!”

It has been some 37 years since I first took my son to an audition for Roman Totenberg in Boston.  We were newly arrived from the Midwest, and one of the first orders of business was to find a violin teacher who was not his father or mother!  Paul knew some tricky bowings to “whoopie ty yi yo” and most of the second Suzuki book.  I had a pretty good idea (haha) that that was not going to be good enough for the Boston University Young Artists program, but I hoped for one of Totenberg’s assistants.

Sure enough Totenberg assigned Paul to Mary Crowder Hess, one of his students who had just moved back to Boston after graduating from the Juilliard bachelor’s program, having been a Galamian assistant.  She turned out to be fabulous.

Anyway, fast forward a month after the audition to my attendance at an open masterclass of Totenberg’s at Boston University, whilst waiting.  It led to a few years of mystery:  what was this guy (Totes, Nick Rhinelander’s not-to-his-face nickname for Totenberg) trying to do? The student, probably about 11 years old, was playing DeBeriot, and it was wild. Not much discernable key, triplet rhythms maybe triplets, all in all one of those headscratchers, like, where to start with this mess?

Totenberg, who was carrying around his violin and bow, went up to the stage and handed the kid his bow and asked him to play again.  Pretty much the same result, to me, the woodwind player, whose main violinistic claim to fame was Suzuki Mother.

Then Totenberg pointed out to the kid some finger motions that he was doing with Totenberg’s bow that he didn’t do with his own bow.  Later on, in a violin technique class, I realized some of what Totenberg was doing. The revelations kept coming as I checked my memory bank on that event later after I was a Rolfer™ and starting to be able to see better how implements such as bows and violins could effect people’s personal performance, provide hurt or ease and beauty and technique.

He had different levels of what he was doing.  First off, he was teaching a very basic motion that real violinists learn from the cradle, so to speak.  That was one thing.  In this video, you can see the basic motion in full cry, in this E Major Partita piece, which is often used as a teaching for this technique: what Galamian called “strike the match”. Here, a young Itzhak Perlman shows it off in an old video that we wish was better quality, but you can at least see some of it and hear the result:

Another level:   Yes, Totenberg was interested in teaching those parents that a bow could make a difference, and he wanted them to help their student by being motivated to get him better gear.

Other parts of Totenberg’s richness of levels showed up over and over, as Paul went to study with him after Mary Crowder Hess’s untimely death.

Yes, he has a basic humanity and purity of vision for the violin and music and also the people of his world including the parents and students that show up. His humanistic level of being in the world– his kindness most of all– I aspire to that. I also lust in my heart after his level of teaching ability and his humor.

He reminds me of the story of the Zaddick who has learned to take himself seriously without taking himself seriously. One pocket has the note to himself: “For my sake was the world created” and the other pocket has the note, “I am dust and ashes”.

Yes, the generosity is always apparent. When my son Paul tried out for Curtis, Totenberg generously helped him prepare. Three of his students got into Curtis that same year. It is always part of his generosity to freely encourage students in whatever they seek.

It is no wonder that 30 years later Paul made a trip to Boston to see Totenberg this week on the occasion of Tote’s getting out of the hospital. He had a conversation with Totenberg that included humanity and humor: when the solicitous nurse popped into his room every 5 minutes, after awhile Totenberg said, “It is ok, I am not dead yet!”

Youtube has a lot of Totenberg, including a recording with the legend Artur Balsam, but this is is one of my favorites.  It is perhaps with his hometown orchestra, the old style and his complete musician in full cry.   I dare you not to be moved by this:

This Post Has 4 Comments
  1. ” I think it’s important to state that Mary Crowder Hess’s “untimely death” was actually a murder and that specifically, she was murdered by her own HUSBAND. … I think that Daryl murdered Mary both because he became unhinged [Linda’s note: Daryl was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia before his trial for Mary’s murder and spent many years in a mental institution.] and also, because she was striving to be a traditional loving and devoted wife and stayed with him even though she knew that he was dangerous. ”

    Linda also says: I don’t publish anonymous comments usually, but thought part of this one had a good point, which I left out, possibly just not wanting to go there. All of us who knew Mary and Daryl were deeply saddened by the outcome of their mostly secret struggles. Daryl was beating his wife for a year or two before the end. Mary and Daryl were deep believers in Christian Science, whose answer to Daryl’s mental illness was to have him pray and meditate more, right up until the end where he threw Mary to her death off their 3rd floor Boston apartment onto the cement down below, still thinking that she was the Devil.
    I visited Daryl, who was my friend, too, in the jail where he was being held about 2 weeks after the murder. He was on anti-psychotic drugs by that time, and knew full well what he had done.
    We just sat there and cried, mostly.

      1. Thanks so much for this, Kim. It *is* good to hear her voice. Perhaps others will surface like the performance with the Boston Pops or others, even the Handel Haydn Society concert where she was concertmaster and also sang the soprano solos.

        That quartet would have been a winner.

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