December 4, 2011
I began to study the violin with a series of teachers who taught music and the instrument, but who as time went by also saw fit to teach me the elusive craft of performance. Toscha Seidel, an early teacher, challenged me to break out of my shell and show the music’s emotional character. My next teacher, Ivan Galamian, stressed the importance of playing in a way that allowed my sound to reach a listener in the very last row of a large concert hall. My mentor and friend, the violinist Alexander Schneider, demanded that every single note, no matter how short or seemingly insignificant, be executed with extreme clarity—with articulation as he put it—so that it would not disappear on the concert stage and that its intent be apparent. My last teacher, the Hungarian violinist, Joseph Szigeti, insisted that I delve into a work’s structure and deeper meaning—an attempt to crawl into the composer’s skin, in effect—while making another more personal journey into my own heart and mind.
Now that I myself teach, I try to look for fresh ways to pass on my teachers’ long ago advice about performing. At some point, it occurred to me that music making and acting have something in common, and that the similarities might be useful as a teaching tool. When a student plays solidly but too carefully, I might suggest that he is like an actor unwilling to take chances with his role. If a student plays a concerto with a timid sound, I encourage her to speak her lines to the very last row of a three-thousand-seat auditorium. If quiet notes tend to disappear for lack of articulation, I sometimes accuse the student of mumbling, or of carelessly dropping syllables, or of failing to cultivate a stage whisper. And when a student plays every single note clearly and solidly yet fails to make a musical impression, I occasionally challenge him to be the actor who looks into himself more deeply in order to tell his story with relevance and conviction.
But if acting and music making are indeed kissing cousins, shouldn’t a musician capable of turning a beautiful phrase also be able to deliver a few lines of dialogue successfully? I’ve never dreamed about being an actor but the idea of having an acting role of any kind intrigued me. Would I be any good at it, I wondered. The unanswered question dropped quickly out of my mind as being merely theoretical. When on earth would I ever have the opportunity to act?
Then, the movie “Music of the Heart” arrived on the scene. The film tells the true and inspiring story of Roberta Guaspari, a highly gifted and charismatic violin teacher in New York City’s public schools, who was let go when the city’s arts budget shrank. In gritty response, Roberta created Opus 118, a not-for-profit organization, to help her continue teaching and to start a Harlem community music school. Roberta was eventually reinstalled as a violin teacher in the public schools. My wife, Dorothea, served as both photographer and head of the music school’s board for many years, and I was able to enlist the participation of my violinist friends and colleagues in fund raising concerts. In the film, Meryl Streep played the role of Roberta, Jane Leeves played my wife, and to my astonishment, I was asked to play myself in two small scenes. After reading my lines for Wes Craven, the film’s director, I asked him how I had done. He regarded me quizzically. “You’re playing yourself, you know. You don’t have to do anything.”
It wasn’t that simple, at least in my mind. The first of my scenes had me talking to the violinist Itzhak Perlman on the telephone. No words were indicated in the script. No words, no problem. In the second scene, however, I had two or three sentences of dialogue with my wife as played by Leeves. Practice makes perfect, you would think, but the more I practiced those simple sentences in the comfort of my living room, the more challenging they became. The words had to be clear, even the individual syllables. Most importantly, the meaning of those sentences had to be conveyed convincingly. It seemed strikingly like what I strive for on the violin every time I practice a concerto, a virtuoso showpiece, or a string quartet. Simply put, notes traded places with words, sentences with phrases, and the essential meaning of speech with that of music. Suddenly, parallels between music and acting that I regularly foist on my unsuspecting students had come home to roost.
One word in particular gave me trouble. My response to a line of Dorothea’s regarding the plight of Roberta and her young violin students was to be “Uh-oh”. It seemed bland to say “Uh-oh” in an even and neutral voice. I had to give it some character, some oomph. So I tried “UH- oh”. Was that better? I wasn’t sure. How about waiting a beat between “UH” and “oh”, as in “UH– oh”. It was certainly more forceful. What about waiting two beats, then. “UH— oh”. Hmmm. I was becoming confused. Let me try something completely different, I thought. I’ll place the emphasis on the second syllable: “Uh-OH”. At that point, Dorothea called out from the next room. “You sound absolutely ridiculous”.
During filming, we shot the telephone scene first—the one in which I expected no speaking lines. To my surprise, the director, Wes Craven, asked me to say something to Itzhak Perlman on the phone—something “conversational” as he put it. The cameras rolled and in my un-preparedness, I blurted out: “Hello, Itzhak. It’s Arnold. You know, the other fiddler.” as if, silly idea, we were the only two violinists in the entire world. I have no idea how the second scene went although we repeated it a few times. I was in a daze.
When “Music of the Heart” was finally released a year later, I sat in the movie theatre relishing that Roberta Guaspari’s inspiring story had made it to the big screen. But I was also nervous about my cameo appearances. Most specifically, how was “Uh-oh” going to come across? Would it have meaning, nuance, even a touch of humor, or irony, or drama? This was my acting debut, after all. Suddenly, there I was on the screen holding the phone and saying, “Itzhak. It’s Arnold. You know, the other fiddler.” to Itzhak. My delivery was passable enough. The next time I saw Itzhak in person he even greeted me as “The other fiddler”. But what about “Uh-oh”, my big moment? I waited and waited as Roberta’s story unfolded but “Uh-oh” never appeared. It seems that Wes Craven had deleted the entire scene. Was the scene ultimately unnecessary? Or was my rendering of “Uh-oh” (shudder) below par?
Too late now, but maybe I should have had an acting coach who would have told me when I mumbled, when I didn’t project, and where and how I should reach down deeper inside myself. Then again, the coach might have simply demanded that I speak my lines with the eloquence of a great violinist.
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