“It’s Just a F**king Little 16th Note. But You Have to Play It.”

The fine writer Steve Silberman has posted a collective homage to good teachers at his blog NeuroTribes. The loveliest is his tribute to his husband Keith, who holds a PhD from Berkeley and teaches science in a high school. Lucky be his students.

Steve asked several writers to answer the question, What’s the most important lesson you ever learned from a teacher? Below is my answer. Over at NeuroTribes you’ll find more from writers including Deborah Blum, Rebecca Skloot, Ferris Jabr, Amy Harmon, Geoff Manaugh, and Maggie Koerth-Baker. It’s a lovely collection.

Hope you enjoy this — and then head over to NeuroTribes for the rest.


What’s the Best Lesson You Ever Learned from a Teacher?

What Malone Said

I started studying the violin in my 30s, working with a warm, intense teacher named Malone. After 5 years he put Bach’s D minor partita in front of me. “We’ll start with the Allemande,” he said. He put the music on the stand and talked me through the first movement, pencilling in bowings and fingerings, occasionally demonstrating how to get through some rhythmic puzzle, and sent me home. I practiced hard all week and came in ready to play about half the first page.

He stopped me on the second note. “Please put down the violin,” he said. I did.

“You’re skipping through that first D. I know it’s just a fucking little sixteenth note, but you have to play the whole thing. I don’t even mean the time. You’re actually giving it enough time. But you’re playing over it instead of through it. You have to play right through the center of it. It’s a leading note, but it’s not just a step into the room. It is the room, and you have to put us there. Play it. Play through every single note in the piece.”

I started to reach for the violin. He held up a hand.

“Wait,” he said. “This is Bach. And Bach, more than any other music, and these pieces, more than any other Bach, is music complete. This doesn’t just mean it’s beautiful. This means you can play this music all your life, even just this Allemande, and no matter what you do, it will expose you. It will expose everything you are and everything you’re not. It will expose everything you can do and everything you can’t. It will expose everything you’ve mastered and everything you’re scared of. And I don’t mean just about the violin. I mean about everything. It’ll show all that today and it’ll show all that when you play it again in 10 years. And people who know music, who’ve seen you play it both times, they will see you play it and know who you were and who you’ve become.

“There is nothing you can do about this. Or actually there is only one thing you can do about it. And that’s to play the fucking music. To not play scared, even if you’re terrified. To not rush. To not short anything. Inhabit this thing. Play it full.”

He took a deep breath, let it out slow, and gave me the tiniest hint of a smile. “Okay,” he said, and nodded at my violin. “Play.”


Get more over at NeuroTribes.

See Also:

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  • How to Write Like Nicolas Cage
  • Why I Love Hemingway (and Why I Write)
  • How I Wrote “The Orchid Children,” via Open Notebook
  • Musical Audition 2.0: Live, from Carnegie Hall, the YouTube …

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