Mr. Bishop’s Opus

mr bishop and kristinI became acquainted with the smallest of the orchestral string instruments as a matter of surprise. My parents took quiet stock of my interest in the violin and tucked one away within a box, within another, and another, wrapped it in paper within paper, then placed it beneath our Christmas tree. The package bore little resemblance to its contents, foreshadowing my disbelief, and my wonder.

A few months later, I began the process of transferring from the small private school I’d attended since childhood to a local public school that boasted a competitive music program. While the violin and I were still learning each other, I’d already been playing the piano for eleven years, and recently, I’d told my parents that I wanted to begin serious study in preparation for pursuing a music degree in college. The guidance counsellor facilitating my admission urged me to register for orchestra in the upcoming semester. “I’m probably not good enough,” I told her. “I’ve only started playing the violin. Maybe I should wait a year, practice more, then join.” But she dismissed my hesitation: “Nope, you’re exactly the type Mr. Bishop wants—students who come to learn.”

As we all began to tune our instruments to the first violinist’s A440 on the inaugural day of rehearsals, I felt a soft place in my center sink down in the best possible surrender, to a sea of perfect fifths. Over the course of the next few weeks, I began to learn the basics of group performance and underwent my first orchestral audition, in which I found out I wasn’t as bad as I thought after all and placed far from last chair.

I also quickly learned about Mr. Bishop’s penchant for assigning his students music far beyond their skill level, and he’d tell us as much. For him, it was simply a reason to learn more, practice harder. On days when we’d first receive a new piece of music, he’d give us a few minutes to look it over, and then we’d launch in. Woe unto the students who played the first note with the center of their bow held to the string. He’d drop his baton and stop the whole orchestra: “Start at the frog. That passage should use the length of the bow. Dig the hairs into the string.” Not knowing the piece wasn’t an excuse because getting it right the first time, or even the second or third times, wasn’t the point; playing like you meant it was. 

So, too, was taking music seriously, always. One day I was passing time in the music theory classroom by playing a selection of Mozart but grew bored and pulled my hands from the piano keys abruptly. “Put some phrasing on that passage,” he admonished, and hummed the rest of the melody as he’d see it interpreted. I hadn’t even known he was listening.

It is a tired cliche to use passionate to describe those in whom profession and vocation reach symbiosis, but it would be an apt way to portray Mr. Bishop. That passion coupled with his approachability made him beloved by students. He was a master of puns so bad they were good and full of anecdotes whose humor stemmed first from the stories themselves and later from his forgetful retelling of them. We’d roll our eyes, but mostly found him endearing. There was the story of the overweight German opera singer who’d knock over music stands during her entrance on stage, to which she’d always reply to the disgruntled violinists that, with her, “der is no sidevays.” And there was the story about the students, early in his career, who stapled a centerfold into one of his scores on the evening of a public performance. And there is still my memory of embarrassing myself by asking aloud: “What’s a centerfold?”

Mr. Bishop was full of devices for remembering tricky musical concepts—like how to play a dotted-eighth note followed by a sixteenth (by saying “day-today”) or a quintuplet (by saying “university”). And he laughed when, in music theory, I shared that one could remember the three steps in making a Neapolitan sixth chord (find the lowered second, build a major chord, put it in first inversion) by remembering that Neapolitan ice cream has three flavors. Later, when I taught piano classes at a local music store, I took his memorable pedagogical techniques to heart. Donning a furry dog mask, I introduced my young child students to a canine named “Dot”—a musical note’s best friend and, thus, worth half its value—and in so doing, taught them how to calculate the value of dotted notes, how to count their beats. They’d giggle their way through class.

Though Mr. Bishop never formally served as a piano teacher for me, he never failed to be a source of musical and moral support when I began, during my senior year, to audition for piano performance programs. And he celebrated with me when I learned I had been accepted to my dream school: the prestigious Berklee College of Music. Financial considerations ultimately prevented me from attending; though I’d received a partial scholarship, it was far from enough to cover the institution’s tuition as well as the cost of living for an out-of-state student in Boston. So I planned to attend a university in Georgia to complete my core classes then transfer, but I ended up taking courses on English literature in which I rekindled an old love of words and decided to devote my life to a different art—or rather a different medium, as I’ve since come to think of it. Each has informed my perception of the other, made my expression of the other richer. And both, at their most beautiful, leave me utterly undone, surrendered to the sublime sea of helplessness beyond the shore of art that carries us closest to life’s inexpressible essence.

My dad earned his third-degree black belt under the tutelage of Mr. Bishop’s daughter, who owns a karate school in my hometown, so Mr. Bishop and my father frequently ran into each other after I graduated high school. Long after I’d embarked on a different life path, Mr. Bishop continued to take an interest in my pursuits, always asking my father about me. “How’s my girl?” my dad says he would say. Once Mr. Bishop expressed his admiration for my being a person who didn’t wait around for teachers who could impart the knowledge I desired. If I had no teacher, he told my dad, I’d just find a way to teach myself. Mr. Bishop was one of the teachers against whom I set my standards.

My dad was also the one who told me, a few weeks ago, that Mr. Bishop was sick. Beyond cancer caught late in its progression, I don’t know many of the details. What I do know is that I cried when my friend and former orchestra classmate Sarah messaged me on Facebook last Thursday to ask if I’d heard the news. “Are you sure?” I asked her. I’d known his health was deteriorating and that he’d been moved to hospice, but I didn’t know, to use the euphemism, that things had taken a turn for the worst. “I’m really sorry to tell you,” she said.

We reminisced about our time in orchestra for a while. “I’m kinda sad that I didn’t keep up with my music,” she admitted, adding that she hadn’t played her viola in ten years. It’d been a long time for me, too, I said. The hairs are falling from my bow; the strings are falling out of her pegbox. Yes, it’s too bad, we both agreed, that we haven’t practiced more. One of us proposed playing really rusty songs with bad intonation on our falling-apart instruments in his honor. It seemed as fitting an homage as any.

Mr. Bishop, if you don’t mind, I’ll let my song be a little more metaphorical than literal. But I will play as you played, always—bow hairs digging into the strings—and I will mean it.

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