Sometimes the most dramatic turning points in our lives come across completely unexpectedly… and, initially, without any apparent long-term significance.
When my mother Marsha walked into our living room some 20-odd years ago, and excitedly mentioned the possibility of ordering a tiny $100 Casio synthesizer from a consumer electronics catalog, the not-quite-adolescent Andre replied that, oh, that’d be OK, I guess. My lack of an enthusiastic reply did nothing to diminish the megawatt grin on my mother’s face as she returned to the kitchen, ready to order the keyboard.
I didn’t give it much more thought until the keyboard showed up, at which point I completely and utterly fell in love with the thing. It was a VERY entry-level device: teeny-tiny keys, a miniscule speaker, powered by tiny batteries. But in addition to a built-in drum machine (!) and sampler (!!!) it had a host of decent synthesized sounds. I became totally obsessed with the possibilities of the Casio, and my dear mother probably suffered through more ham-fisted synth dweedlings than I’ll ever fully comprehend.
I had studied piano off and on by that point, and had been playing cello for a while already. It was pretty natural that I’d have gravitated towards classical instruments, since both my mother and father were professional violinists who had first met in the symphony orchestras they played in. I’d never really given electric or electronic music much thought or regard; I remember once seeing an episode of a children’s PBS program (it might have been “The Electric Company”) which did a behind-the-scenes profile on the band Kiss. (I didn’t listen to the band’s music, but I had a Colorforms toy set which allowed me to position images of the band in various locations around a spaceship background, with laser blasts shooting out of the headstocks of their guitars.) My main impression of the Kiss program was incredulity: having been raised in a family of purely acoustic music-making, there was no way I could believe that the super-thin solidbody guitars they slung over their shoulders could possibly actually function as working musical instruments. After watching the program, I remember telling Marsha that Kiss actually used fake guitars!
So I was by no means prepared to fall head-over-heels for a Casio keyboard. But I did, and it ended up paving the way to a $400 Casio keyboard purchased from a local Best Buy electronics superstore some months later, which I piped into the living room stereo (and likely taxed my poor mother’s patience to even greater limits.) That, in turn, led to a four-track cassette recorder, a drum machine, a MIDI sequencer, and eventually… a solidbody electric guitar. Within about a year of getting the guitar, I had quit cello to focus on the six-string.
Who can say what would have happened if Marsha hadn’t bought me the Casio? Would I have found my way to the electric guitar anyway? Would I have had my interest in electronic music piqued in such a direct way? Would my fascination with integrating electric guitar with electronics have manifested itself? It’s impossible to know for sure. It’s just as impossible for me to imagine the last 20 or so years of my life without that pivotal turning point.
In terms of function and role, the violin in classical music is roughly comparable to the electric guitar in rock music. From that point of view, there’s a certain symmetry in my choice of guitar as my primary instrument. But that wasn’t enough to keep some people from being surprised or even horrified at my “giving up” the family musical lineage. My father, Leopold, was initially extremely hurt and depressed by this turn of events; it wasn’t until I played him some tapping-heavy Van Halen songs that he actually realized that the electric guitar could be played like a legitimate musical instrument. Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood: my father was unbelievably supportive of me, and my musical endeavors, throughout my life, and particularly after he heard that I was taking the electric guitar seriously (and that it was even capable of being taken seriously at all).
But I think there was always an element of sadness and/or regret on his part (and possibly my mother’s, as well) that I’d left the proverbial instrumental family. If that sounds like me being overly sensitive or self-conscious, consider that at my father’s open-casket visitation, a couple of days before his funeral service, one of the family friends was talking with me and another couple of my father’s contemporaries. At one point, this gentleman smiled wryly, shook his head, and said, “Boy, Leo never did get over Andre’s quitting the cello.” He then walked off towards my father’s body – and, so far I can recall, without saying another word to me.
My mother never gave me that kind of guilt trip; she would have liked me to continue with the cello longer, but I think she also appreciated my passion for the guitar. She also demonstrated a stunning degree of support for me. She showed up to a lot of my gigs, and made sure to cook me a big, healthy dinner the night of my first ever professional gig with my main band in high school. She listened enthusiastically to the four-track recordings I made, even though many of them were basically the musical equivalent of baby steps. Much like Leopold did, Marsha provided a fertle and supportive environment for me to cultivate my music. For a creatively inclined youngster, that’s among the most precious gifts imaginable.
Both of my folks were working musicians, but they tended to operate in different ways. My dad had the professorship at the University (which had brought my parents to Iowa in the first place), the Fullbright awards to Brazil, the Baroque music ensemble which he led and organized, and other high-profile activities. He blazed a serious name for himself, to such an extent that in 2006, the Iowa String Teacher’s Association named one of their awards after him.
If my father was something of a local rock star virtuoso, then my mother was more like a rock-solid lifer. She played and organized countless wedding gigs, she commuted to the next town over to play in the symphony orchestra, she taught private students on both violin and piano, and generally did many of the highly skilled yet relatively unglamorous jobs that define the life of a real working professional musician. She also faced the very unenviable task of raising me as a single mother; it had been my father’s University job which brought the two of them to Iowa City a year or two before I was born. When my parents divorced, I was five years old, and my mom ended up working very hard in order to support the two of us.
My relationship with Marsha was not always easy, particularly as I passed into adolescence and early adulthood. When I learned, in January of 2006, that her cancer was terminal, I hadn’t seen her for a long time. I only had a handful of days to spend with her before she died, but it was long enough for me to look into her eyes and tell her I loved her, that I and so many other people were immensely proud of how hard she worked, to thank her for everything she’d done for me, and to forgive her for any wrongdoings I may have felt from her.
Happy Mother’s Day, Marsha; may you enjoy the peace you so deeply deserve, after a lifetime of hard work and frequent challenges. And thank you so much for my life, and all of the joy and support you brought to it.