Most violin students must diligently practice on their instruments many hours a day, for many years, before even thinking of turning professional. Some may give it up long before they become proficient. And even should they pursue their musical studies, and become skilled at playing the violin, there are only a limited number of professional openings available to them, whether as orchestral members, string ensemble members, or as soloists. Earning a decent living from playing the violin is the ultimate reward garnered by only a tiny percentage of those first starting out, at age 7 or 8, or younger. (It also doesn’t hurt if you are talented.)
But in my case, I was only into my third or fourth year of study when I received my first remuneration from playing the violin. It wasn’t a large sum of money, as will be seen. Perhaps it helps to give a short back-story to that occasion, so that the reader can fully appreciate the circumstances.
When I was about eleven years old I would ride the Independent subway from Queens by myself, on Saturday mornings, to the Henry Street Music School, to take violin lessons. The school, at 8 Pitt Street, in Lower Manhattan, just off Grand Street, was an adjunct of the famous Henry Street Settlement House, located several blocks away, and actually situated on Henry Street.
Prior to that time, my mother would accompany me there on the subway, and during my lesson, she would while away the time in the waiting room, conversing with other women. (She struck up a friendship with the mother of a two gifted brothers, one an older violinist, and the other a gifted pianist about my own age, both of whom later would become famous as performers and teachers. In fact, my mother received from this woman gut strings discarded by her violinist son, because they were too worn for him to continue to play on, but were still adequate for me, considering my skill, or lack thereof. (Remember, this was still the Depression).
The building housing the school, which, in retrospect, was probably a renovated old-law tenement, was connected to an old theater, or playhouse, just around the corner, which was used for recitals by the students and faculty, or dramatic presentations. Its address was 466 Grand Street.
On Saturday mornings, in order to reach the school, after exiting the East Broadway Independent station, I would walk several blocks along the north side of East Broadway, until a block before it met Grand Street at a sharp angle, and the school was right across Grand Street, on Pitt Street. On the opposite side of East Broadway, there was the tall Forward Building, which housed the largest Yiddish language daily newspaper, followed by the Educational Alliance Building, a stately structure, as well as numerous four-story walk-up tenements, extending for several blocks to the east. On the north side, however, starting at the end of the park, the old-law tenements ran one after another, tightly packed together, with ground-level stores (looking like they needed a thorough cleaning) having signs in Yiddish, (which I couldn’t read or speak), some of which were translated into English. These shops offered for sale such exotic items as glass eyes, with some wondrous examples displayed in their windows, or trusses “for men”(who knew what a truss was?). There were also store windows which stated “We do cupping,” which is an ancient Chinese traditional treatment, still in use today. It was also adopted as an Eastern European Jewish folk remedy with the Yiddish name bankes. In any event, being the Sabbath, the shops were always closed.
While walking along East Broadway, I was frequently accosted by men with long beards, wearing broad-brimmed “strummels” (fur hats) and long black coats, who apparently spoke no English, but who nonetheless vociferously reprimanded me for playing the violin on the Sabbath, or possibly, for all I knew, even for only carrying the violin-case. (It has always been somewhat difficult to conceal a violin-case from view.) I obviously understood what they were saying, regardless of the fact that their speech was foreign to me, but having been brought up Reform, I didn’t take their admonitions to heart. On one morning, which I distinctly remember, a man similarly bearded and dressed, stopped and asked me to read to him the contents of a postcard he had received from a public school. It saddened me then, and still does, when I remember it, having to tell him that his daughter had not attended school for some period of time, and was therefore considered a truant. He was instructed to see the principal of the school. I can only imagine how he must have felt.
The subway entrance that I used, both coming and going to the Music School, was located in Seward Park. There were no doubt at least two different exit kiosks for the same station, but this one, located at the rear of the train coming from Queens, was the only one that I used, as it was the closest.. One flight below the park level, there was a change booth, where a male attendant would change bills or large coins, so that a rider could have a nickel to insert in the turnstile. (The fare wouldn’t go up to a dime until 1948, some years later.) Two long escalators led to the deeply buried tracks.
On one particular occasion, returning home from my lesson, after I had gotten change at the booth, the attendant asked me: “Hey kid, what are you carrying in the box?” or words to that effect. I told him that it was a violin. He suggested that I play something for him. I tried to resist gracefully, but he insisted that I play. “Tell you what, if you play something for me I’ll let you go in free under the turnstile.” (Remember, again, this was still the Depression).
So I went inside the change booth, rested my case on the floor and took out my fiddle. I played “La Cinquantaine,” by Gabriel-Marie, a short piece I had memorized and played in my lesson only a few minutes earlier. The agent seemed pleased enough, and told me I could duck under the turnstile, which I immediately did, after packing away my violin. Even though I have been playing the violin and viola in numerous orchestras, and as a soloist for organizations, for well over 60 years since then, that was the first and only time that I ever earned any money (although it was only a nickel) as a solo violinist. I seem to recall, however, receiving a severe tongue-lashing from my mother when I related the story to her. Apparently young boys were not supposed to be induced into change booths by grown men, for any reason.
Just under a year ago, my wife and I had the occasion to revisit the area, after many years in my case, in order to see an old friend who had moved from Queens to a condo apartment on Grand Street, which happens to be just a block away from my old music school. We took the subway down from Penn Station, and although I wanted to retrace my exact steps from sixty-odd years ago, we inadvertently got out of a different exit, so I was unable to see if the change booth (the scene of my “debut”) was still there. However, walking along East Broadway was truly an enlightening experience. On the south side there still were the imposing Forward and Educational Alliance buildings, now no longer used for their original purposes, but beyond them were what appeared to be tiny store-front synagogues or religious schools, in each of the old-law tenements that had remained there apparently unchanged since the end of the 19th century. In fact, one building similar to most of the others had the date 1889 engraved in the frieze above the roof. Some buildings looked even older, but it was certain that many decades had gone by since they had either been repainted, in the case of painted fronts, or had their exposed bricks repointed. There were some buildings that were finely detailed, with figures carved into their ornate stone lintels. They must have been extremely fashionable in their day, but now a coating of grime covered all of the surfaces..
On the opposite side of the street, there were a series of newer high-rise apartment houses, apparently post-war, surrounded by park-like settings. The old four-story walk-ups and their grimy show-windows with glass eyes and other exotic products displayed, were no more. The disparity was striking. One side of the street had been modernized, at least relatively so, and on the opposite side it appeared that well over century had passed from the time that the buildings had been built without any physical changes to them, whatsoever.
And when we reached the site of my old music school, the old playhouse, now renamed the Henry Street Settlement Harry DeJur Playhouse, at 466 Grand Street, was still there, and in fact in 1975 had been designated a National Historic Landmark, as a bronze plaque so attested. A much newer and larger modern building, named the Abrons Arts Center, had been appended to the east side of the playhouse, where other buildings had once stood. And farther along Grand Street, there were several post-war high-rise apartment buildings, in one of which our friend lived, as well as ground level stores of all types, attesting to the dramatic changes made to the entire neighborhood.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the old tenement buildings along the formerly narrow Pitt Street, west of the playhouse, had obviously been torn down to widen the street, and my old music school was only a memory. How a neighborhood can change after 60-odd years, and what remembrances it can bring back. Especially, about the only time I received any payment for my violin playing.
Philip Wesler is a retired engineer living with his wife in California, land of wildfires, earthquakes, floods and landslides.