At 4, I started begging my mom for violin lessons. I would pantomime the motions I’d seen somewhere and cry when she said I was too little.
4 years later, she finally agreed. By 8 years old, I was big enough to be trusted with an instrument. I was over the moon. We lived in Michigan at the time, and once a week I would ascend the stairs to a music studio and take short lessons with a pretty young woman who was always fixing her hair.
She left the studio after 6 months, and then I saw Tony. All I remember about him was a red beard, and knowing vaguely that I will always associate him with Vivaldi.
I do not recall much of the specifics of my early violin education. I know it was tedious. I know I didn’t sound very good. I know also that I loved it. I was able to perform a Little Mermaid ballad at a school recital. Nothing made me feel cooler.
2 years after I began, my family moved back to California, and I had to find a new instructor. I have no idea how my mom found him. But I ended up in the garage studio of an old man, Mr. DiSaro.
Mr. D had been teaching music for more than half a century. It was the mid-90’s, and my teacher had been alive most of the century.
I’m sure I was intimidated at first. He was older than my grandfather, and he could be stern. I hardly remember those days now. Instead I remember working on advanced techniques and cracking jokes. We had the type of friendship where even as a high school student, I could rib him, and he’d tease right back.
He had been a WWII fighter pilot. I’m not certain when I learned this fact. Sometimes when I hadn’t practiced as much as I should have, I would try to get him to tell me old stories. He told me he met his wife in Texas.
It was either right after the war, or sometime during when he was on leave. I can’t recall which. He and a few friends in uniform wanted to get dinner at a restaurant that was full. The restaurant staff wanted to accommodate the service members, and sat them at a table with a group of single women. One of them became his wife. He loved her for decades.
Another time he told me about a night he stood watch with a buddy. Mr. D knew his friend had been out all night the evening prior enjoying himself. Midway through the watch, the man literally fell asleep on his feet from exhaustion. Mr. D had to rouse him to make sure he wouldn’t get in trouble.
When I started lessons with him at 10, he towered over me. By the time I left for college and ended my tutelage, I easily cleared his stooping frame. Every time I walked in the door he’d start to raise the music stand.
I always wanted to learn the next advanced technique. When would I learn third position? When would I learn vibrato? When would I move on to a new song? Mr, D had the same answer for all of these: “In due time.” After a while it became a running joke. I started asking when I would do the next ridiculous piece, just to get that answer.
It wasn’t smooth sailing with me and the violin. My parents had to bribe me to practice, and there were several times I almost quit. I’m not sure if I could have handled disappointing the old man though. I stuck it out.
He believed in me. He said my pitch was perfect. He wanted nothing more than for me to play music and love it.
One of my deepest regrets is that I didn’t keep in better contact with him over the years. I visited him once after I left for college. All he wanted to hear about was how much I was playing. As college drew on and I didn’t join the orchestra, it seemed too hard to keep in touch. So I left him in my memories.
After college I began playing in bands. Improvising and playing with atypical groups felt freeing. It was not as rigid as my classical upbringing. I decided I wanted to buy a viola to add to my repertoire.
I’ve only ever bought instruments though Loveland Violin Shop in Santa Rosa. I was living in Monterey, but I called up Mick Loveland one day when I was about 22 to inquire about viola pricing. I told him he’d sold me a violin, and I’d been a student of Dom DiSaro.
“He was a great man,” Mick said.
“Was?” I responded.
“He died about 6 months back.”
It was my lunch break at work. I sobbed until I had to go back. Viola pricing completely left my thoughts. I should have known. He was in his mid 80’s when I left for school. He must have been pushing 90 when he died. Mick told me a small orchestra played at his funeral.
He devoted most of his life to music education. He conducted orchestras and played in others. Towards the end he only saw a few students, and I’m so proud to have been one of them.
Last year, I started teaching violin lessons. Part of me thinks that Mr. D would be proud. Another part knows he would have chided me for not learning some obscure advanced technique first. But that was him.
I took an intro course to teaching music in preparation. The instructor mentioned that for many students, their music teacher is their most significant student-teacher bond. Grade school instructors will change every year, but a music teacher usually sticks around for a long time.
Mr. D taught me violin for 8 years. By the time I left for college, I realized I probably knew him better than my own grandfather. I loved him just as much.
I’m still playing. I’m still teaching when I can. Every time I get a student to understand something new, I think of him.