One of the ways in which e-mail is transforming our culture is that it is has become the channel by which certain kinds of bad news are increasingly likely to arrive. This morning I opened my mailbox and found a note from an old high-school friend: “I apologize for the impersonal mass e-mail but it is a little quicker….” My heart sank even before I could jump to the next paragraph, which told me that Richard Powell, the man who taught me how to play the violin nearly 40 years ago, died last night. I hadn’t heard from him for a long time, but no sooner did I see his name on the screen of my iBook than my head was full of snapshot-clear memories.
So much of life is a matter of pure coincidence (if that’s what you think it is). I happened to see a televised concert by the Russian violinist David Oistrakh one Sunday afternoon, and the warmth and passion with which he played the Brahms D Minor Sonata, a piece I’d never heard by a composer I knew only for having written a lullaby, made a fateful impression on me. Dick Powell came to Matthews Elementary School a few months later to administer a musical aptitude test to the fifth grade, and I got a perfect score. This, he informed me the following week, qualified me to play a stringed instrument. I went home and told my astonished parents that I wanted them to buy me a violin, and that was that.
Powell was a small-time jazz bassist turned small-town music teacher who ran the string program in the public schools of my home town. (He told me that he’d played in strip joints once upon a time, which seemed to me unimaginably exotic.) He thought I was talented and went out of his way to encourage me, and within a few years I was playing Bach, Vivaldi, and Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre with the high-school orchestra. It soon became clear to both of us, though, that my musical interests extended well beyond the violin, so he was no less encouraging when I asked to borrow one of the school’s plywood basses for the summer. That was the year I taught myself jazz by plucking along with Dave Brubeck’s Jazz Goes to College in my bedroom every afternoon, and a year or two later I started playing country music and bluegrass with a band called Sour Mash. It wasn’t Bach, but that was all right by him. He had no musical prejudices, and it was in large part because of his openness that I acquired the infinite sense of musical possibility that I carry with me to this day.
I found other mentors as I grew older, but Powell was the first, and there would never be a time when he failed to say whatever encouraging words he thought I needed to hear. He watched me go off to college to major in music, looked on with amusement when I became a part-time music critic for the Kansas City Star, and cheered from the sidelines when I rolled the dice and headed for New York City. By then he’d moved away from Smalltown, U.S.A., but he kept up with my progress, and from time to time his daughter Melodie (a nice name for a musician’s child) would let me know how he was doing.
Now Melodie writes to tell me of her father’s death, and I find myself filled to overflowing with that most beautiful and transfiguring of emotions, gratitude. No one person, not even me, made me what I am, but Dick Powell ranks very high on the short list of those who did the most along the way. He taught me to read music, and reassured me that it was all right to play by ear, too. He introduced me to the vast world of classical music, but never for a moment suggested that no other musical worlds were worth exploring. I suppose I would have found my way into music on my own sooner or later, but I might well have had a lot to unlearn down the line had I not been fortunate enough to fall into the hands of so open-minded and open-hearted a teacher. He pointed me in the right direction, then gave me a push. I can’t think of a better epitaph.