Cue the Violins: Lessons From a Life Well-Lived
Arthur Samuels would have been 94 last week; to me, he is forever ageless
Arthur died peacefully in the arms of Harriet, his loving wife of 55 years, just three months ago.
In my memories of him, I’ve discovered lessons that are more relevant in my life today than when he first tried to teach me how to play the violin.
I met Art (I called him “Art” — which is very meta — although I now realize he was “Arthur” to his family) on a hot August day in 2007 in Tenafly, NJ.
I had replied to an ad placed by a luthier in the Twin-Boro News. A man with an older, slightly accented voice called back immediately to ask if I wanted to stop by for an estimate. He gave me an address, but instead of providing directions, he said, “You have a GPS, right?”
Arriving at a suburban home, I knocked on the door with my grandmother’s violin case in hand. I had rescued the violin from a potential garage sale, and I was looking for someone to restore it.
Art had kind eyes. He politely directed me inside a house decorated with religious artifacts. “I’ll look at the violin,” he said, “but you must know that an instrument is meant to be played. I will only restore it, if you promise it will be played.”
He also mentioned that he happened to give beginning violin lessons. He asked to see the fingernails on my left hand. “Too long,” he commented, as if I had already disappointed him, then asked that I accompany him to his basement.
I did, contrary to everything I had learned from watching horror movies. We walked through “Bubbie’s Kitchen” (as a wall sign proclaimed) and down a steep, narrow staircase. It opened to a room filled with old violins, violin parts, books about restoration, and a workbench. The clutter and the smell of aged wood reminded me of my grandfather’s workshop.
Art put on thick reading glasses and examined the violin. He commented on every aspect of its construction and what work it would need. He pronounced it a good violin; it deserved to be played.
I agreed to the violin lessons, of course. Over the next three years, I learned much about Art (both upper and lower case). And now, out of respect, I will forevermore call my friend Arthur.
Here’s an excerpt from his obituary:
Drafted into the United States Army in his senior year of high school during World War II, Arthur served in the 3rd Army, 15th Corp. As a musician in the Special Services division, he performed with USO shows throughout Europe. [A graduate of Julliard], Arthur taught music in the NYC Public School System for over 20 years, becoming… a highly sought after private instructor in violin. In addition, Arthur was the Concertmaster of the North Jersey Symphony Orchestra.
A multifaceted person; he published several short stories, enjoyed metal detecting, riding his motorcycle, photography, building model trains and airplanes… He was also a member of the Tenafly Rifle & Pistol Club.
Arthur’s first lesson: The best people will surprise you.
For all the time I spent with Arthur, and for all the stories he told me, absolutely everything in the above second paragraph was unknown to me until I read his obituary.
I didn’t know that he wrote (like me) or rode a motorcycle (unlike me). Or that he enjoyed building models (like young me) and photography (like older me). Or (and this would have been great to have known when I first followed him to his basement) that he liked guns.
Before I read his obituary, I honestly thought I knew everything about his life. It turns out I probably know a bit about his life as a professional musician and his theories of music and love of the violin. But I didn’t really know Arthur.
He was complicated. Aren’t we all more complicated than other people think?
Repeat after me: “Underestimate me. That’ll be fun.”
Do we ever really know or appreciate the people we love? The first lesson of Arthur Samuel (and, spoiler alert, it’s related to the last lesson) is that our lives would be better, and more interesting, if we tried.
Arthur’s second lesson: Strive for, and appreciate, excellence.
I’ve taken many hours to write this post because of all the things I’ve left out: all the details about violins, and great violinists (many of whom Arthur knew and played beside), and music in general and classical music in particular.
I kept a diary during the time I took lessons, but I’d need thousands of words to recount those stories here.
So let me — like music, like poetry — try to compress things.
Imagine it’s before sunrise on Saturday morning. You are home, practicing a violin in a downstairs bathroom with high ceilings and excellent acoustics. Behind a closed door, you aren’t disturbing the rest of your family.
You struggle, but the music doesn’t come.
Violinists can play a simple “C” note a thousand different ways, depending on finger placement and pressure and bow movement. All the ways you play a “C” sound awful.
Then you pack your grandmother’s restored old violin in the new case that you bought (because your teacher said that other musicians will judge you on your case… it’s one of those unwritten rules, reminiscent of when dads explain the secret etiquette of golf). And you drive to a suburban home in a neighboring town and ring the doorbell that is the wake-up call for your violin teacher.
Arthur Samuels, now in his 80s, shuffles to answer the door and leads you to his studio. He smells like sleep. He absently reaches for his violin.
Loud and clear, you hear the “C” you were trying to replicate. It’s followed by note after note after note in quick succession, and each tone is graceful and effortless and evocative.
It’s Arthur, playing a simple warmup exercise. You get goosebumps.
Malcolm Gladwell will tell you that what Arthur just did resulted from a lifetime of experience and at least 10,000 hours of appropriate, guided practice.
I will tell you, it’s magic.
Hard as I tried, I could never replicate that magic. Still, the hours I spent with Arthur taught me to appreciate the violin, and this has been a blessing to me and has extended to other areas of my life.
Midway through my second year of lessons, both Arthur and I realistically concluded that I was a horrible violinist. I am impatient; I have no sense of rhythm and, most damning of all, my middle-aged fingers and wrist movements physically could not produce even an approximation of what Arthur could literally play in his sleep.
But Arthur would tell me stories about the great violinists. Stories about his own career. He played tapes and records for me. What Arthur lacked in computer literacy, he made up for in curiosity, so I taught him how to find and download YouTube videos. I’d project violin performances to his TV and we’d listen and watch them together. He’d critique each one, except for performances by Jascha Heifetz, which were always flawless.
I learned to love the violin.
I remember trying to hold back tears during a recital I dragged my wife to in Teaneck, NJ. A twig-armed young violinist tuned up by playing pitch-perfect phrases from Vivaldi at a very fast speed. Her bow bounced from one non-adjacent string to another with the faintest flutter of her slender forearm, with seemingly as much effort and interest as if she were flicking a butterfly from her shoulder.
My corollary to Arthur’s second lesson: Sometimes, when I am at my very best as a writer, I hear his encouraging voice in my head.
This mitzvah is a constant reminder to be confident and ever-curious as a writer. Many years after he stopped giving me “violin lessons” and to this very day, Arthur still encourages the belief that I can transcend my own mediocrity, even as the limits of my abilities and my accomplishments come more into focus with the passing of time.
Arthur tells me that when I write, I can do anything.
My words can keep pace with the young violinist in Teaneck. They can be just as fancy as her grace notes. I can provide the countermelody and add perspective to her careless perfection.
All this, and I’m just warming up.
Arthur’s third lesson: Everything is secondary to love.
This past Monday night during the Giants’ game, a Caller ID message flashed across my TV screen. It read “SAMUELS, ARTHUR” followed by his telephone number.
I looked at my wife and waived my hands skyward in surrender. “I can’t believe these spam callers,” I said. “This has to be a spoof.”
But curiosity got the best of me, so I answered the phone, anyway.
It was Harriet, Arthur’s wife.
I had made a donation in his name to a local community center after reading his obituary. Harriet was calling to thank me.
She said she was writing thank-you cards, but she couldn’t recall who I was.
I explained that we had met only once or twice for a moment at her house, but that I was one of Arthur’s last violin students.
“Oh, you’re that Bob,” she said. “I thought it might be. Of course, I remember you!”
We talked for several minutes about Arthur. Harriet spoke with warmth and affection. She also informed me I was not quite his last student. Arthur had even given a violin lesson to his granddaughter from his hospital bed just days before he died after complications from a fall.
Harriet said, “Of course, since the spring, we quarantined together in our house. You know what? COVID brought us closer. I’ve never been more in love with Arthur than the last few months we had together.”
This, too, gave me goosebumps.
Arthur and Harriet Samuels were married 55 years before his death three months ago. In the end, they grew more in love every day.
Nothing else matters.
Originally published at http://varettoni.blogspot.com.