In my depopulating world, there are the ghosts of people I have loved and whose essence remains in me, undiminished.
The first of these angelic figures is Gladys Elliot, who was the principal Oboist of the Chicago Lyric Opera and during the 26 years that I spent listening to her play, she radiated a magical intensity of feeling and connection to the deepest part of the music that she was playing that always touched my heart. Her immense talent was always recognized by the greatest conductors. In 1994, Gladys was in an accident, which ended her career. When we did the Ring Cycle with Zubin Mehta, and we got to Die Valkyrie in 1996, Mehta stopped the orchestra, looked straight at the principal oboe player and said, “I cast no aspersions on your playing…BUT I can never forget how beautifully your colleague played these solos.” When we played Fidelio, there is a huge oboe solo in the beginning of the Second Act, which was played with the redoubtable Jon Vickers. After the first performance, I met my friend Basil Reeves (principal oboe of the Minneapolis Symphony). I asked him what he thought. He said, “I received enough inspiration from that one oboe solo to last me for the next ten years.” At one point, when we were doing der Rosenkavalier, Gladys got sick and had to take off one or two performances. The conductor, Jeri Kout (in my opinion, the best we ever worked with) dragged me all over the Chicago Loop to find roses good enough for Gladys.
The pillars of Gladys’s existence were: Jesus, Tabuteau (who she called “The Tab”), and Wanda Landowska. No matter what happened to Gladys, she never lost faith, and she was a pillar of strength to many people, including me. She was full of tangy phrases that always put a difficult situation in perspective: “What can’t be cured must be endured.” When I told her that I had come to the end of my rope during an arduous opera season full of cello solos, she said, “When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.” Her favorite expression, however, was, “Eat your grits and grit your teeth.” I still don’t know what she really meant, but it sounded like, “Do what you have to do and don’t complain about it.”
At one point, I was forced to take a medical leave and was afraid that I was never going to really be able to play the cello again. Gladys called me up and told me of a flute player in the Minneapolis Symphony, who one day put down his flute because he couldn’t play anymore. After a year, he came back, resumed his position, and continued to be the principal flute of the Minneapolis Symphony for another twenty years. To make a long story short, I came back for another twenty-five. There was no time that I couldn’t pick up the phone and call Gladys and talk about anything that was bothering me. And many times, it was her faith in my talent and her faith that God was going to help me that kept me going, when I might not have.
When Marek Janowski came to do Lohengrin and chose to dress down the English Horn player for half an hour, Gladys said, “Let’s get our arm bands with a Swastika on it.” Gladys hated Janowski, but Janowski loved Gladys and told our general director that no one in the world could play oboe solos better than Gladys.
Gladys did not exactly have an easy life. She was assailed by her health and her husband of many years deserted her right when she got cancer. She felt extremely responsible to her sister, who was an alcoholic. And of course, there were never reeds that were good enough. I loved Gladys and I think she loved me and we saw in each other the essence of our beings.
At my first Lyric Opera rehearsal I met Lois Bickel Colburn, a cellist in her late 60s or early 70s. She had been my predecessor Shirley Tabachnick’s teacher, and had four former students in the cello section of the Chicago Symphony. She gave the Chicago premiere of the Kodály Unaccompanied Cello Sonata, and was a member of the first string quartet to perform all the Bartók quartets in the American Midwest.
She must have viewed me with a certain disdain and suspicion when I arrogantly announced that I would play the Tosca solo better than anybody had in the history of Chicago. I did eventually win her over when Tosca came up early in the season, but she told me not to break my arm patting myself on the back. This was only one of her many tangy phrases. She said about one of our conductors, “What he knows about music you can put in your eye and see better.” About the cello section, minus the two of us, she offered the comment, “They add up to a big round zero without the rim.” Years later when Bruno Bartoletti conducted the Ritual Fire Dance from Manuel de Falla’s El Amour Brujo, her response was “Jesus wept.” Whenever it looked like I might get myself into trouble, she advised, “When the devil says good morning, tip your hat.”
She had emphysema, caused by a lifetime of smoking, and had shoulder problems. Since the best defense is a good offense, she had something bad to say about everybody, and she did it in grand style. She would call the younger players “junior geniuses,” and some of the older colleagues who talked too much were “IN-sufferable!” When Joe Saunders, my stand partner, asked her to listen to him play and criticize it, she said there was a lot to criticize. I’m sure that once was enough for Joe. On the other hand, she really liked me, and encouraged me to play as loud as I could and let them know what I could do, but also encouraged me to go back and study with Leonard Rose because he was “Mister Big.” There wasn’t anything exceptionally dramatic about our friendship, but we shared our time together every day in a spirit of love and appreciation, and I treasure the memory of my time with her.
There were two things that really stuck with me over the last five decades since Lois came into my life. “When the devil says good morning, tip your hat and don’t borrow trouble.” How many times in my life has the ghost of Lois Colburn come down just at the right moment to tell me not to borrow trouble or to tip my hat for the devil, when my instincts would have been to do the exact opposite.
Lois desperately wanted me to have her Testore cello and was terribly disappointed when it did not suit me. In a way, I would’ve liked to have had her cello to be able to hold on to a tangible part of her. I’ve often wondered why I had so much trouble connecting with so many of this generation who were 40 years younger than me, since I had such a good and fluid relationship with Lois, who was 40 years older than me.
One of the greatest people who came into my life at a time of extreme need was a total accident. In November of 1988, I was forced to take a medical leave from The Lyric Opera of Chicago. This was mandated by a total breakdown, physically and mentally, which had intensified over several months. The precipitating event that caused me to take the medical leave was when that I found that it was impossible to get through the entirety of the Don Giovanni solo without having to stop. In fairness, I didn’t think my assistant could play the solo better than I could, but it was better for everyone that there would be no doubt that it was not going to stop in the middle of a performance. Additionally, I sought medical help for the weakness and tension in my right arm. Because of this, I was given enough drugs to fill a pharmacy, and I had withdrawal symptoms as well as a bad right arm to contend with.
Many years before this happened, I had taken yoga classes for $1 or $2 a class in 1971. So, I looked up the Integral Yoga Institute in the phone book and called to see whether they were still giving classes. The gentleman at the other end of the line suggested that I come in and see him to get checked out as to whether my injuries would prevent me from doing any of the asanas (yoga postures). It was in this way that I met Vishnu Jayson.
At our first meeting, Vishnu showed me what he called a “Standing Bend”. But then, he asked me what this was all about, how this had happened, and why I thought yoga could do anything to alleviate my problem. In all honesty, I did not feel I needed to be psychoanalyzed and somewhat resented the intrusion. Nevertheless, I was perfectly honest about the fact that I was severely injured physically and psychologically and worried about how I was going to make my way in the world if I couldn’t play the cello professionally.
It was then that Vishnu explained his philosophy: “Every difficulty that you face in life is put in front of you in order for you to evolve to a higher place. Life’s challenge is to force you to move through the difficulty in order for this evolution of the soul to take place.” Like all devotees of yoga, Vishnu believed in reincarnation and the ultimate liberation of the soul.
During the next several months, I consulted with Vishnu two or three times a week for $35.00 a session. I thought he was worth way more, but he considered that “a fair price” for an hour of his time. These sessions, in which I could express all my fears, doubts, and hopes, served as an anchor while I did every manner of physical therapy and reinvention of my cello technique. Additionally, I took a medical leave from the American Ballet Theatre. Many times, my wife June would go off to a performance of the American Ballet Theatre at 7:00pm and come back at 11:00pm, finding me still at my various stretches and lifts.
As I regained my strength and flexibility, I concentrated in my sessions with Vishnu about how to deal with an ambitious assistant interested in getting my job after my Imminent collapse and other political issues. Vishnu constantly reminded me to do my very best to prepare, but to leave the results in the hands of God.
Because of my willingness to embrace Vishnu’s philosophy, I was able to come back to the opera for the 35th anniversary and successfully play the big cello solo in Tosca on the opening night and have total confidence in the subsequent performances of der Rosenkavalier. The gift of Vishnu was my willingness to accept whatever is and make the best of it. I felt it was enough that I got back to the opera and could sit in my chair and logically aspire to be able to play the big cello solos at the level I had established over my career. I was willing for it to not happen, but I was also willing to be there as a reality check.
I continued to consult with Vishnu until his death five years later. It was surprising to me that someone who took such good care of his body would die of a bacterial infection that was resistant to antibiotics.
It was a great privilege to have had so much of Vishnu’s remaining time, and when he died, I felt that it was now, to whatever degree possible, my job to be there, to be Vishnu for other people. I don’t know how to fully capture the essence of Vishnu. But at that time, he was the difference between success and failure in my life.
An Angel in Disguise
At the suggestion of my colleague James Kreger, I went to see Tom Chalmers in order to study and do some work on the Alexander Technique. The first thing Tom said to me was, “I charge $25 if you are working, $15 if you’re not.” That one statement defined the totally altruistic attitude of a saint. The essence of Tom is reflected in all the good works that he did without any desire for adequate compensation.
During the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, volunteers were encouraged not to work with more than one or two AIDS victims at a time. Tom worked with 8, and sometimes 10, of these victims. Additionally, he adopted their animals when they died. His apartment was a menagerie of dogs and cats, all of whom received his loving care and attention. When my elderly aunt had Parkinson’s Disease, he would travel to Brooklyn from his 14th Street apartment in Manhattan, to work on her and offer relief from her stiffness, pain, and involuntarily tremors. He did not charge more than his usual $25 rate, in spite of the fact that he had to travel an hour each way to be with her. When my young nephew was getting bar mitzvah-ed and liked coins, Tom presented him with a sock full of $150 worth of nickels, dimes, and quarters.
I spent a lot of time with Tom, and aside from a lot of good jokes, and the fact that he straightened out my body on a regular basis, it remains within me his consistent good will towards everyone. This was particularly unique, considering the many hardships he endured. Tom had been a high-level executive in a well-known temp agency. When the agency was destroyed in a hostile takeover, Tom lost his promised pension and was forced to live on those $25 Alexander lessons, and eventually Social Security.
Often, I would try to give him money, and so would my sister Annie, who loved Tom even more than I did. Finally, she convinced him to take $1,000 from each of us “for the animals”. He was too proud to accept help from anyone, even though he badly needed it, and it was available from many people who loved him. Unfortunately, it was too much to bear for Tom to be seen as less than what he was.
He will always be a part of me, and I will always miss him.
Another saint in my life was Jody Speckman. Jody was a chiropractor, who was skilled in all forms of manipulative medicine. She knew acupuncture, naprapathy, and various other oriental cures for whatever ails. Besides her skill, she had a generosity of spirit, second to none. One Saturday morning, I woke up with my left arm semi-paralyzed with an important concert on Sunday afternoon looming. I called Jody on her day off and she told me to come right down to her office. She then spent three hours working on me until I was loose enough to be able to play the concert. This was only one of 100 times she got me out of trouble.
During the years that we did the big 5 hour Wagner Operas, she would repair the damage after each performance. Her largesse was not confined only to me, but to many other members of the Lyric Opera orchestra. Like Tom, she would lower her rates in order for people to see her twice instead of once a week. Most of all, she was never satisfied until she found a treatment (one of a large number of possibilities that she had at her disposal) that would solve your problem.
It’s the selfless people like Jody and Tom that can give us all faith in humanity.
The person who had the greatest influence over my thinking permanently was Dr. Albert Ellis.
One of the unfortunate side effects of my second Alice Tully Hall concert was a severe and debilitating case of tendonitis in my right arm. This condition plagued me for the next several years, and had it not been for the psychological help given to me by Albert Ellis, my career could have come to an end at age 31.
There was no tenure at the American Ballet Theatre, and I did not want anyone to know that I was experiencing numbness in both my bow arm and my left hand. I had many solos to play and the uncertainty of whether or not, or how, they were going to go was extremely troubling. At the suggestion of Laura Curtis, a great patron of the arts who hosted many play-through recitals for me in her home, I contacted Dr. Albert Ellis.
Dr. Ellis (1913-2007) was the chief psychologist for the state of New Jersey in 1950, but because he published many books on human sexuality, served as the American editor for the International Journal of Sexology, and was a known advocate for sexual freedom (he was the first prominent psychologist to advocate gay liberation), he was unable to find a teaching position in New York. He thereby had to make his whole income from private practice. He charged $25 for a half-hour session (far less than other New York psychotherapists of the time), and streamlined his approach so that those 30 minutes would really count for his clients.
He saw so many clients that he could make note of characteristics he saw in the basically “neurotic” but otherwise non-mentally-ill people who came to him for help. He observed that most unhappy people are handicapped by irrational and rigid thinking, and that most people are fully aware of it, but they hold onto their beliefs even if those beliefs continue to make them unhappy. He combined this observation with the teachings of Stoic philosophers (like Marcus Aurelius), and taught his clients that all neurotic emotions come from a person’s view of a particular situation and not from the situation itself. Dr. Ellis also delighted in being as iconoclastic as possible, and he used curse words as liberally as he could think them up.
Dr. Ellis explained, during our first meeting, that my number one problem was interpreting the events of my life as awful. Awful, he explained, hasn’t any limit. Bad, you can deal with.
The first item in my litany of woe was that my arm was driving me crazy. He responded by telling me, “No! You’re driving you crazy. Your arm just hurts. Now, what’s the problem?” I told him that I had an extensive solo to play that night at the ballet, and I wasn’t sure if my arm was going to crap out on me. He asked how long the solo lasted, to which I responded that it was about two minutes long. He asked me how much I had played so far today, and I told him that I had played about two hours, and he said, “It’s hardly likely that you couldn’t play for two minutes if you have already played for two hours, and even if you couldn’t, don’t you have an assistant who you could alert to cover for you? And even if you were to play badly, you imagine your colleagues will think that you’ve crashed and burned, when in reality they’ll just think that you’re having a bad day.”
That evening I played that solo and many other solos perfectly well, and I was surprised that my level of playing was actually better than it had been, mostly because of the increased amount of focus I brought to bear at the moment of truth.
Another session concerned my fears about playing the very difficult cello parts in Wagner’s Die Walkure and in Berg’s Wozzeck. I was afraid that with the large amount of rehearsal time we had the conductors might spend a lot of time taking things apart. I was worried that if they found me substandard they would do everything in their power to humiliate me. I also told him about my dyslexia, and how hard it was for me to read and figure out difficult music quickly.
He responded, “My dear, you are the principal cellist of this opera company. It’s your job to play those notes, and if you don’t, it’s their job to make you feel bad about it. Furthermore, is there any reason why between now and next week you couldn’t put in two hours a day figuring out this music? You might even find that after you start, a certain automaticity will set in, and the work will go a lot faster.”
This turned out to be exactly the case. I did the work, and made an excellent impression when I returned to the Lyric Opera. His advice effectively changed the way I thought about myself. Before seeing Dr. Ellis I felt like a victim, and I was afraid that conductors were dead-set on humiliating me and criticizing me. After considering Dr. Ellis’s explanation that conductors were just doing their job, the same way I was just doing my job, I felt much less afraid to go into a rehearsal. I knew that I had a choice to make: do my job, or accept the fact that if I didn’t, the conductor would have to do his job.
Among other things, Dr. Ellis insisted that I record all these sessions so, as he put it, “I don’t have to keep saying the same thing over and over again.” He gave me a “present” to take to Chicago. It goes like this:
Something is bothering me. I wonder what it is.
I know what it is, but is it true?
If it is true, what’s the evidence to support it? If it isn’t true, what stake do I have in believing something which is untrue?
My friends all thought I was crazy when I told them that after being the principal cellist at the opera for five years I was still nervous about how to do the job. They thought that it was impossible not to be able to do a job that I had been doing successfully for five years. Dr. Ellis’s response was different. He told me that there were all kinds of things that he couldn’t do, and would never be able to do well. He gave the example of statistics, which is a necessary part of the study of psychology. He told me that he just had to deal with it, and that he did the best he could without that particular expertise. He told me that you can compensate for your liabilities to a degree, but you only need to compensate for them to the degree that gets you over the top of what you want to do, and that the rest of the time, you can play your strengths to the hilt.
Once I came in complaining that I had played something really badly. He asked me why I didn’t enjoy playing badly, and went on to say that if you have an instrument in your hands and music to play, and things aren’t going well, you can always listen to what other people are doing. He told me that I can do the best that I can do, and that I can enjoy the process of transforming something bad (i.e. my playing that day) into something good.
In response to my complaint about having to ingratiate myself to people I didn’t respect in order to safeguard myself (there was no tenure at the ballet), he asked me why I should feel bad about it. He told me that I didn’t make the rules, and suggested that if I was playing by the rules, the rules are the game. He told me that if I was playing the game to win, following them doesn’t say anything about me except that I can keep my job and make money.
Sometimes his advice was extremely practical. When I told him I had been engaged to do a summer festival between the ballet season and the next opera seasons, he told me to get a substitute for the summer festival because I needed to harbor my strength, time, and energy for the opera season, which is much more important.
These sessions helped to sustain me for the next three years when I had to play at a high level while being physically handicapped. Dr. Ellis taught me that I could deal with reality, but not with fantasies of disaster. He liked to say that it’s not what happens to you, but your opinion of what happens to you that will determine how you feel and how you act. I even went with June to Dr. Ellis so that he could help us work out some “issues” we had when we first began to work together in the American Chamber Trio. June felt that I was being too rough on her, and I felt that it was my job to bring her up to snuff. Dr. Ellis told June that if she were to go out on a stage and be criticized by the people hearing her play, she should do as much as possible to sound good. He convinced me that I should make her sound as good as possible, but I should do it in a way that addressed musical and technical issues without getting personal about it. We spent two hours with Dr. Ellis, and it was the best $100.00 investment I ever made in my life.