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My musical story

I began playing the piano at the age of 6, when I was living in Zimbabwe. My father worked at the Matopos Research Station with an Australian gentleman named Jeff Calvert, whose wife Gwen played the piano. So it was arranged that I would take piano lessons from her. We took a day trip into South Africa to buy a keyboard. We went into a little keyboard shop, where the eager salesman sold us a keyboard the size of a TV dinner, while raving about the "concert hall grand piano sound" it produced. (!) This tiny keyboard had 49 keys (compared to the 88 keys on a real piano), each about the size of of a crayon. Gwen started me on mimeographed copies of the John Thompson method books, in which friendly little gnomes and elves point out minims and crochets (British terminology for half notes and quarter notes). I took to the piano like a pig in mud. I didn't have any kids to play with (we lived out in the bush) and I had only two toys (a stuffed bear and a stuffed horse), so I practiced constantly. When my parents wanted to punish me, they would hide the power cord for my keyboard.

Music really hit the spot for me, right from the start. My parents didn't really listen to music, so I had a sparse collection to start with. We bought a tiny stereo from the same salesman who sold us the tiny keyboard, and a cassette tape set of Beethoven's nine symphonies (Joseph Krips, London Symphony) was included with the purchase. I listened to those recordings endlessly. The first time I heard the Ninth Symphony, I drew a picture of George Washington standing under a large American flag. As a six-year old living in Zimbabwe, I'm not even sure how I knew about George Washington, or how I could have felt patriotism for America when I had only lived there a few years before moving to Zimbabwe. But there it is.

When we moved back to America (Corvallis, OR), I continued my piano studies with a kind lady named Peggy McKimmy. My brother Vahíd was tasked with transporting me to piano lessons on his bicycle, and Peggy lived across town, atop a wickedly steep hill (sorry Vahíd!). By this point, I was playing works that required far more than the few keys available on my keyboard, so I took two pieces of cardboard, drew in more keys, and taped them on either end of my keyboard. Problem solved. In fourth grade, I began studying with a popular local teacher named Nancy Johnson. I was now starting to play works by Chopin and Beethoven which rendered my tiny keyboard about as useful as a picture of a piano. I struggled along as best I could, but it was frustrating. I will never forget the day I walked home from school to find a Harmon's Piano truck parked on my street. As I approached, I realized it was parked in front of my house! I started running as fast as I could, with the world's biggest smile on my face. I burst into the house to see the movers positioning a honey-colored spinet piano in our living room. Words can't capture the elation I felt as I sat down to play my new piano (I still get a little breathless thinking about that beautiful moment). It was like swimming in the ocean after paddling in a bucket for all those years. I don't remember which piece I played first, but my fingers still acutely remember the unfettered sensation.

When I was 10 years old I began playing the violin. I didn't want to, but my mother told me I couldn't continue playing soccer unless I started the violin. So I grudgingly signed up for 6th-grade orchestra class. There were two 6th-grade orchestras, an "A" orchestra (for higher skill levels) and a "B" orchestra (for everyone else). For some reason still unknown to me, I was signed up for the "A" orchestra (probably my friends were in it, or it was a better time slot). Since everyone else in the orchestra had already been playing for years, the teacher (Norma Wilson) couldn't spend class time teaching me how to play the violin. So every class period, she had one of the violinists take me into the back room to teach me how to play. It was impressive how those 10-year olds transformed into little pedagogues, guiding me through the basics of violin technique. After a few weeks, I was ready to join the group; and after a few months, I was the concertmaster. I was hooked--the violin was such a fluid, easily-excitable instrument, and I just loved it.

At the age of 13, I began taking private violin lessons, with Michael Grossman. Up till now, I had been playing on a cheap factory-made violin, with a sad broken bow (which my knacky father patched up with a steel rod and wood glue). One day when I went to my violin lesson, Michael had three violins sitting on the table. He said that he was trying to pick out a new violin for another student of his, and he wanted to get some other people's opinions on which one was best. I played each of the three violins, and one of which stood out to me like a shining star. I went home that evening with a heavy heart, thinking about how much I loved that brilliant violin, and envying the lucky the kid who was going to get it. My violin suddenly seemed like such a turnip in comparison. A few weeks later, on my birthday, my family sat around the kitchen table as we ate birthday cake. There was a small wrapped box on the table, which contained only a note reading, "Go look in your room." I went to my room without the slightest inkling of what might be in there, and saw that beautiful violin (and a brand new violin bow) sitting on my bed! This was the first time in my life I ever cried for joy. I just instantly burst into tears (which was so embarrassing because my older brother's handsome friend, Nizar, was there with us), and I couldn't stop crying. I hugged and kissed my parents until their cheeks were chafed, and spent the rest of the evening practicing my glorious new violin.

During my first year of high school, I began taking violin lessons with the legendary Aida Baker, a tough Russian violinist of the old school, who had studied (as a live-in student) with Heifetz. She pushed me very hard and I learned a lot from her. I was accepted into the Corvallis Youth Symphony, under the direction of the wonderful Charles Creighton (who was absolutely essential to my musical development--not only through his inspired music direction, but through his generosity in sharing his 2,000-CD collection with me, constantly providing me to new music to listen to). My first concert with CYS included Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, featuring New York concert pianist Daniel Epstein. His interpretation of the Rachmaninoff was both dazzling and sensitive, and I was simply intoxicated by his artistry. During a rehearsal break, I dashed off to a practice room to play my own Rachmaninoff (the Op. 23 No. 5 Prelude in G minor), to which I was absolutely addicted at the time. Mr. Epstein happened to walk down the practice-room alley and he heard me playing. He knocked at the door and asked if he could listen. He was impressed with my interpretation, and asked me come and perform for him in a masterclass he was giving at Oregon State University the next night. I didn't even know what a masterclass was at the time, but of course I agreed to go. I went to the OSU music department the following night and performed in his masterclass (thankfully unaware of the fact that his impromptu invitation had caused one of the piano performance majors to be bumped). I was pretty nervous, as the other performer was a college student, the audience members were rich fancy people, and the only public performance experience I had was playing at nursing homes. Luckily, I managed to harness my nervous energy into a very exhilarating performance. Mr. Epstein's insights and suggestions were amazing, and totally transformed my conception of the piece. He was so encouraging and supportive, and he urged me with all his might to take lessons with Rachelle McCabe, the brilliant piano professor at OSU. I contacted Dr. McCabe and told her I wanted to study with her, to which she flatly replied she didn't accept high school students. I continued calling her for a month, and I begged her to just let me audition for her, and that she could turn me away after that. She finally agreed (probably so I'd stop calling her), and I went to her office and played for her. A few days later she sent a typed letter to my parents informing them that she was pleased to accept me as her student. This was a turning point in my life. Dr. McCabe is not only a superior performer, but an incredible and intuitive teacher. My skills sky-rocketed under her direction, and she holds a special place in my heart as one of the most influential and inspiring people in my life. And to this day, she remains one of my favorite pianists of all time.

I also started up a string quartet. In addition to performing wonderful chamber repertoire, we became a prolific gig quartet. The original group disbanded once we all went off to college, but I added new members to continue gigging for the rest of my years in Oregon. We performed at hundreds of weddings, parties, and special events.

I joined the Corvallis Camerata Orchestra in addition to Corvallis Youth Symphony. Camerata and CYS formed the most integral part of my life during high school. Those four years were an endless flurry of rehearsals, concerts, guest artists, retreats, and competitions. Our orchestra won first place (two years in a row) at the Northwest Orchestra Festival, we went on Canadian tour, my quartet put on a benefit recital to raise money for the Willamette Valley Community School, my quintet won second place at the northwest chamber music competition, I was a finalist in the Oregon state violin competition, I played in the All-State and All-Northwest honors orchestras, and I played in the pit orchestra for productions of "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Crazy For You," and I capped off senior year by performing a solo (Mendelssohn's lesser-known D-minor violin concerto) with the orchestra. Such wonderful times!

I attended Oregon State University for my first two years of college, to continue studying with Rachelle McCabe. She brought incredible, world-class artists like Jon Nakamatsu, Menahem Pressler, and Craig Sheppard to OSU-- and I had the honor of performing in masterclasses for all of them. Since I had won a full scholarship for college, my parents were kind enough to apply part of their college savings towards buying me a new piano. I had long since outgrown the dear old spinet, and Rachelle had been telling me for quite some time that I needed to get a "real" piano. My parents bought me a beautiful Samick upright grand, which I still have with me today (having lugged it all the way across the country).

I was now haunting the David Kerr Violin Shop (in Portland, OR) in search of a new violin. This is where my previous violin had come from as well, and I had been going there for years to service my instrument. For months I drove up to Portland on the weekends, to try out violins, but I wasn't quite finding what I wanted. Then one day, David Kerr called me up and told me he had something interesting for me to try, and that I should come in as soon as I could. When I went in, David had twelve violins lined up in a room for me, and told me that he had placed the special one amongst all the others for me to try. I went through and tried them one by one, without really caring for any of them. It was the 11th violin that I picked up, which instantly proclaimed itself The One, the moment bow touched string. I burst out of the room and told David, "This is it! This is the one!" He grinned and said, "I knew it! I knew it the moment I got it in the shop." I was simply twittering with excitement... until he told me the price. NO, my father instantly said. Not just no, but don't even think about it, not in your wildest dreams, etc. I knew he was totally justified in refusing a price like that, but it was pretty disheartening to know that I had found my soulmate violin and could never own it. This was when I found out what I was really made of. I knew that I had to find a way of buying this violin myself, so I started working a plethora of part-time jobs, and I took out a loan from my local credit union. It was tough to make loan payments as a college student, and often I had to empty out my change jar to buy groceries (for a $1.50 dinner, I could buy a block of tofu and a spoonful of nutritional yeast). It took me ten years to finish paying off the loan, but I love this violin so much for having worked so hard for it.

While at OSU, I played in the Corvallis OSU Symphony, and I studied violin with the inimitable Marlan Carlson. At the end of my first year of college, I was hired as the violin instructor at the local Conservatory for Music Education. I had taught private lessons informally for years, but this formal setting was a new and rewarding experience for me. I played a great deal of marvelous chamber music while I was at OSU. During my second year, I won the concerto competition and performed a solo (Wieniawski's Legende) with the symphony.

During my third year of college I lived for a short time to Portland OR, where I studied with Harold Gray and Carol Sindell at Portland State University. I played in the Portland State Symphony under the direction of the legendary Keith Clark-- a profound experience I will never forget.

I transferred to the University of Oregon to continue my studies with Kathryn Lucktenberg (with whom I had begun studying during my senior year of high school) and Victor Steinhardt. I played in the UO Symphony, and I was also the assistant conductor of Pro Musica Orchestra. It was at UO that I finally destroyed my hands. Practicing seven or eight hours a day (majoring in both violin and piano performance) proved to be too much for my flimsy hands, and they finally "broke" after years of ignoring their protests. I was combing my hair one day before symphony rehearsal, when my left wrist suddenly snapped and was frozen in a bent position. I couldn't move it at all--it was utterly terrifying. I went to the emergency room, where the doctor had to administer a cortisone shot to un-stick my wrist (having a needle stuck into my wrist was the most shocking pain I've ever experienced). It eventually started moving again, but it was excruciatingly painful and uselessly weak. My right wrist was nearly in the same state as my left, and I couldn't even lift books or open doors. I had to stop playing music completely, which was too devastating to even talk about. It was a few years before my wrist pain began subsiding, and it was fully five years before I could even touch my violin or piano again. But I wouldn't alter the course of my life even if I could, because this disaster led me on a dazzling detour to Mars.

After that wonderful trip to Mars and back, I went to Yale University to earn my PhD in music theory. Coursework in the Yale Department of Music (separate from the School of Music) was like drinking from a firehose. But my brain exploded with new information and new modes of thinking, which was exhilarating. At the end of two years came the Comprehensive Exams, a solid week of all-day exams. For the longest exam (72 hours), we were supposed to select a topic at the start of the summer, approved by the faculty, which we would study all summer and upon which the exam would be based. I viewed this as a good opportunity to learn about a topic I knew nothing about, so I selected transformational film music--a hot new topic in music theory. I didn't know or care about film music, so I thought I would spend three months studying it and then never think about it again. When I showed up for my 72-hour exam, the faculty had selected a film that was completely inappropriate for transformational analysis! My whole toolbox went out the window, and I was trembling as I queued up the DVD to watch the film (which I hadn't seen before), wondering how on earth I would write a 20-page paper analyzing this film, using none of the tools I had carefully acquired. I just started logging every piece of musical information I could gather as I watched, in a large systematic spreadsheet (as is my wont). I figured I would just gather data first, and then figure out what to do with it afterwards. I started noticing a pattern in how musical keys were used, and when it got to the point where I could predict what key the music would be in for a particular scene, I realized I was onto something interesting. A 27-page paper flew out of me during those 72 hours, drawing on a completely unique analysis method I had invented on the spot. And even after I turned in the exam, I kept thinking about my analysis and adding to it. And thus, my dissertation topic was born--out of what I had thought would be a fleeting summer fling with film music. 

Fast-forward a few years later, I completed my PhD and got a job at Vassar College. I am now a tenured Associate Professor at Vassar, and my book on tonal design in film music (which unfurled from the kernel of my 72-hour comprehensive exam) was published in 2023--see my Book page. I have other research interests as well (see my Publications page), but I love investigating film music as my main area of research because 1) there is constantly new repertoire to analyze and 2) it's repertoire most people are familiar with.

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