Published May 18, 2012
I was fortunate to have many good teachers over the years, influencing me in various ways, some bolstering my self-confidence, some my love of history, but my most influential teacher wasn’t a full-time teacher; she may not have had a teaching certificate. She was my first violin teacher.
Of course my most influential teachers of all, my parents, guided me to music. In fourth grade my mother suggested I begin violin lessons at Clearmount Elementary School in North Canton, but when I asked at school the program had begun and it was too late to join, so I enrolled in fifth grade.
The classes were held in the gymnasium/cafeteria — nowadays it would have a fancy combination name, but not so in the 1960s — with long tables that folded up into the walls, up for gym, down for lunch, and some were down for the violin class. I stood by one of the tables learning the names of the strings, barely able to hold the violin, and I clearly remember learning to hear the difference in pitch between strings, blowing into my pitch pipe to help in tuning, and my first song, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” I came to love string music that year, and to this day that love continues to deepen and intensify. My teacher was Margery Henke — she played viola in the Canton Symphony, was assistant director of the symphony and was director of the Canton Youth Symphony.
In sixth grade the school district transferred many of us to Portage Elementary School in a game of school board shuffleboard designed to accommodate an abundance of baby boomers, but even Portage lacked space, and my class occupied a room in the junior high, a short walk from Portage. Mrs. Henke gave lessons in a basement room at Portage — I’m not sure of its purpose, but in memory it feels like a storage room where the janitors kept spare chalkboards and chairs — and I seem to remember being her only student. Strings then, as now, held little appeal for most children while the band program burst at the seams.
For the lessons I walked from the junior high to Portage with my violin and music, and on rainy days Mrs. Henke gave me a lift back in her little manual-transmisson MG. She had a cool mod haircut and spoke snippets of French, making a lasting impression on that impressionable sixth-grader. So I was upset and agitated, maybe even a little bit bewildered, when I learned that Mrs. Henke was leaving the school system, never ever to return. I dreaded her replacement, fearing I would get stuck with some stuffy, august kappellmeister straight from Bavaria or a stern-visaged spinster lady who knew not a word of French. My imaginings were completely off course, however, and the new orchestra director was a delight, but that’s another story.
And Mrs. Henke remained in my life beyond sixth grade. I saw her playing first-chair viola when my mother and I attended Canton Symphony concerts, and in ninth grade I joined the Youth Symphony, playing in that group for four years, until graduation from high school. My stand mate and I served as stage crew, and that job included moving stands and chairs as needed and the challenging task of carrying the conductor’s music to the lectern at the start of the concert, quite the intimidating chore for a person who was happiest hiding in the back, away from the spotlight.
Years passed, I graduated from college, I got an afternoon-shift job, and when I went to days I took Mrs. Henke up on her invitation to join the Tuscarawas Philharmonic, which she began conducting in 1975, after the Big Shake-Up, when the CSO went professional and many players walked out. I joined the TPO in 1982, and it wasn’t too long until Mrs. Henke again appointed me her No. 1 music carrier. Although extremely self-conscious, I felt honored that she still appointed me to that honorable task, and I took an aloof attitude toward my older stand mate’s puzzlement over why I got that job.
I, of course, was no longer the admiring sixth-grader, but I still appreciated Mrs. Henke’s learned slant on life, and I loved the joke that only a musician can appreciate, which I think she acquired from a more famous conductor, a surprising joke considering it came from a devoted teetotaler: that syncopation is an irregular progression from bar to bar. I also liked her quip at the start of practice for a concert of all Mozart music: “Let’s start with the Mozart.” I left the TPO in 1991 when traditional music had gained complete control of my musical life and was threatening to invade my classical playing, and Mrs. Henke stuck out her lower lip when I told her at the last concert that I was leaving the orchestra.
It was the last time I saw her. She died a few years later of brain cancer. She lived too short a life, as do many, but in my mind she is still a hip, mod MG driver. She is gone in physical form, but her spirit lives on in my music and the music of countless scores of other musicians. I speak French and drive manual transmissions because of Mrs. Henke, and any time I play, she is with me.