On the left, my first cello teacher, Ardyth Alton. On the right, Shaylin, Woodford 4th grader, and future leader of the free world.
Cellists are naturally exuberant people - we believe the sound of our instrument will lead to world peace, and, as our colleagues will tell you, we play extra loud at all times to help bring this about as soon as possible. Today, I want to introduce you to two typically enthusiastic cellists, my first teacher, and my latest student.
My first cello teacher, Ardyth Alton, taught seemingly every young cellist in the city of New York when I was growing up. She was known around Juilliard as “the great encourager”, and taught six (and often seven) days a week at an age when many people had already retired. She often wore bright yellow clothes to match her blonde hair, had a big smile that was utterly contagious, and never seemed to be the least bit tired or discouraged by anything.
In lessons, besides playing her cello, Mrs. Alton would sing (in a high-pitched voice that all her students loved to imitate), play the piano, dance around the room – whatever it took to get her point across. Forget about Disneyland - her studio was the happiest place on earth.
When I teach, I try to do what Mrs. Alton did for me, and show the student that playing the cello is the absolute best thing you can do with your time. There are some students where this takes a lot of work. And then, there’s Shaylin.
Like Mrs. Alton, Shaylin favors bright colors (her hair always sports a bow) and is super excited about the task at hand. At her first lesson this fall, Shaylin announced that she wanted to learn “all the songs”. When I explained that this might take a while, she seemed unconcerned, so we got started immediately. At her second lesson, she asked me when I would be giving her more songs (to be clear, I had already given her the music for nine pieces, of which she had learned two). And Shaylin’s self-motivation is not limited to her cello studies - she recently made history at Woodford Paideia Elementary School, becoming the first 4th grader to become student body president. All I can say is, look out - she’ll be your senator very soon.
My lessons with Shaylin are just like working with Mrs. Alton – a dose of pure enthusiasm. The other night, after we gave a performance of some Christmas songs, she asked me if my cello was worth $1,000 (the largest figure she could imagine an instrument could cost, I imagine). I didn’t answer directly, but made it clear that it was worth a fair amount of money, and she said: “Well, that’s ok – it brings you joy.”
At every lesson, I marvel at Shaylin’s open, enthusiastic way of experiencing the world, and it reminds me why I teach – to help her stay that way. Teaching at a public school serving lower-income students is challenging - many kids can get lost in the shuffle, and I worry about their futures. We can’t reach all of them, but I am certain that Shaylin, and the others we spend time with after school, will be that much better equipped to handle the world’s challenges, because of our work together.
Mrs. Alton gave me much more than her love of the cello – it was her nurturing and encouragement that has stayed with me, and enabled me to face life's challenges with optimism and hope. I hope to pass that on to Shaylin, although, she’s clearly well-equipped already – frankly, most of the time it feels like she’s mentoring me! And just as working with Mrs. Alton did, my time with Shaylin brings me joy.
So during this season of joy, please consider a gift in support of 4-Way’s work with students like Shaylin – we couldn’t do this without you!