PLaYing with DaVid

PLaYing with DaVid

I think my parents suggested fiddle because there was this insane teacher named David Tasgal. He was kind of nuts, but he had an amazing ability to communicate music to little kids…. He was definitely an inspiring figure for me, not only musically, but also because he had this slightly cracked sense of humor.
He had this deadpan vibe that I thought was hilarious.
~Sam Amidon

CCI16102015

play |plā|
verb

  • engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose
    • amuse oneself by engaging in imaginative pretense
    • (play with) fiddle or tamper with: has somebody been playing with the thermostat?

I never thought about David’s age before, but if I had to guess, I’d say early sixties, which is why I dismissed the news that a 72-year-old man was struck on his bike on Bernardston Road in Greenfield, Monday afternoon.

David has been a part of the Marlboro Elementary School family in Southern Vermont for over a decade. His quirky, fun-loving approach makes this classical instrument accessible to all kinds of kids; and his death this week leaves our school family aching–especially as I imagine all those young children–with their tiny violins–waiting for him on Tuesday morning, ready to play (and I mean play.)

A list of David’s original compositions for the violin lends insight into his heart for children, while revealing his characteristic playfulness:

David's books
David’s collection of music instruction books.

Blast Off,
Marching to the Practice Room,
The Tough Cat,
Goldfish Variations,

Cha Cha Cha Cha,
The Rabbi Dances with his Dog
and
Bingo Suddenly Meets Mozart

My youngest son, Aidan, who studied with David from 1st through 8th grade, believes that one tune in particular had a handful of title changes over the years: Song for a Pet Who Died became Song for a Pet Who Ran Away became Sad Clown Fish became The Lonely Fiddle–all in attempt to make the children less sad.

Aidan also marveled that David could compose a tune such as The Duck Song–from a single note–and still make it “interesting and satisfying.” As a parent and a teacher, it was particularly pleasurable to see so many children, of all ages and skill levels, play together, and David’s unique approach made that possible.

David swept in for school events wild hair and wild shirts, and then began without fanfare, keeping the focus on the violinists, while enthusiastically accompanying them on piano. In fact, it’s at the piano that I remember David best. I loved the mornings when he’d arrive a bit early for lessons–at the tail end of All School Sing–and then slide his way onto the piano to add pizzaz to our last song.

On the evening after David died, I entered the school auditorium to teach yoga, but felt his presence so strongly that I could barely begin my class. To soothe myself before I left, I placed a small light on the piano to sit shiva with David’s spirit through the night.

We lit a candle at home that night too. Our older son, Lloyd, 20, who was in David’s very first class at Marlboro recalls how perfectly David tailored lessons to engage him and his more sports-oriented peers:  “At one point, he gave us percentages so that we’d compete with each other,” Lloyd recalled.

Aidan was uncharacteristically quiet as his brother reminisced. Aidan graduated from Marlboro in June, and on that night he tucked a small gift aside–a bar of soap–his favorite because of its crazy colors and textures and how he gets to slice it to size–and especially because of its name: Dragon’s Blood. He thought David would like it too.

Aidan gave himself whole-heartedly to music during his years at Marlboro and has continued on at the  highschool just as enthusiastically; while Lloyd just about gave up on the violin in Junior High.  At the time, I drafted a parenting piece entitled: The Violin Wars, which alas, I never finished, until now…

Our boys playing together, many moons ago.
Our boys practicing together, many, many moons ago.

The Violin Wars

My 13 year old sits slumped behind me in an arm chair in my office while I blare Dave Matthews, Ants Marching and then Last of the Mohicans–two “cool” songs with engaging strings that I hope will entice him to play along and reignite his lost passion.

The violin sits on his lap.

Things between them almost ended–abruptly–two weeks ago, though truthfully, they’ve been on the rocks since Lloyd was about 10–the time of the First Violin War–an apocalyptic parenting moment–complete with yelling and threats and stalemates–followed by the stark realization that I had crossed the beginning of the end of my role as commander and chief.

Lloyd with his first set of strings
Lloyd with his first set of strings

But a deeper truth is that Lloyd and the violin have been together forever, into their ninth year, and they courted even before that. As a toddler, Lloyd offered rapt attention to any string music he came across–live or recorded–contemporary or classical; and as a preschooler, he brought the same toy guitar to show and tell every Friday, while truly longing for a violin.

When we finally found a toy one to match the guitar, he was at first delighted, and then quickly disappointed with its inferior sound. He insisted he needed a “real one,” but as neither my husband or I were musicians, we didn’t know how to go about that for such a small child.

One afternoon, while walking down Elliot Street in Brattleboro, however, Lloyd pointed to a sign above the sidewalk–with a picture of a violin–and said: “Let’s go up there.”

We climbed a set of steep stairs, and entered a small shop where violins–of all sizes–hung from the ceiling. I felt like a fish out of water, but Lloyd looked up in wonder. Reverent. Riveted.

The shopkeeper came around the counter, took out a tape measure from his apron, and sized Lloyd up.

Lloyd in kindergarten
Lloyd with his first “real” violin.

“Come back in a year,” he said.

Lloyd was devastated.

But when he entered kindergarten that fall, something magical happened: the school instituted a pilot program with the Brattleboro Music Center and Lloyd came home carrying a case with the real thing inside.

Despite his passion, Lloyd was not a virtuoso, but he stuck with it, year after year, and so did the school–deciding to continue the program until the fourth grade when children could begin traditional band instruments.

Many of Lloyd’s peers gave up the violin in favor of a flute or a trumpet or a drum, but not Lloyd; he kept playing until he was the only one holding a violin, which is where we find him now, at the beginning of 8th grade:

“I want to quit,” he says. “I can’t take it anymore.”

But he isn’t resolute. He is miserable. Torn. Angry and frustrated. Feeling betrayed, by himself.

I’m not sure how to help.

Our tempers mount.

With so much at stake, I feel the Second Violin War coming on, but now I am a wiser or at least less foolish parent, so I suggest we reach out for support. I quickly compose an email to dispatch to family members–cousins and grandparents, great aunts and uncles, and regular ones too.

The replies flood in.

Do what you want, says one. You can always pick it up again.
Stick with it, says another. You’ll never pick it up again.

With each response, Lloyd feels tossed about–first one way; then the other. In the end he does. Stick with it. But half-heartedly. And once in high school, he leaves it behind, while watching his little brother, 5 years his junior, follow in his footsteps, sticking with violin, through the 8th grade, but so whole-heartedly that it inspires Lloyd to pick it up now and again… “just to see how it sounds” (and to see if he can still play better than his younger brother.)

Lloyd is grown now, a man of 20, and to our surprise, he recently called to say: “I think I want to start playing again.”

We don’t know what will come of this spark, but it warms us, particularly in its timing.

We attended David’s funeral together. No one even balked at the suggestion. Not Lloyd who was leaving that afternoon on the train for Burlington. Not my husband who had to arrange coverage for his classes. Not Aidan who was… well… 15.

The music was exquisite. The service solemn and playful and irreverent. At one point, a handful of children came forward to play some of David’s pieces for beginners. I nudged a reluctant Aidan to join them. He sat firm in his seat until he saw another same-age peer, across the room, move toward the altar.

Aidan playing at the last concert with David at Marlboro Elementary.
Aidan playing beside a younger peer at the last concert with David at MES.

Aidan swiftly brought the violin case, hidden between his knees, to his lap, and as he did, I felt the collective attention of all those who shared the private mourning space around us.

We watched transfixed as he opened each latch, and carefully lifted the instrument from its bed, and then there was a palpable embrace as he approached the altar on our behalf.

When the children began the last of three pieces, we were invited to hum along, after which we accidentally broke into the applause we had held inside for the soloists who had so stirred us earlier.

As Aidan rejoined us at the end of the pew, I turned toward him to mouth the words: “Thank you,” just as he locked eyes with mine, nodding his head, offering the same, not once or twice, but a handful of times: “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you…”

The sky was a stunning blue as we exited the temple doors that afternoon; the surrounding streets lined with the cars of those who came to grieve David’s departure–students, colleagues, family, friends.

As we walked, Lloyd spoke to me of the music–of the viola solos–played by loved ones.

“I could barely breathe,” he said. “I couldn’t remember how.”

Temple sky over David's Send-Off
Temple sky over David’s “Blast-Off”

David Tasgal
1942-2015

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To find out more about David’s approach to teaching violin, or to purchase his curriculum, see his website: Strings Fun and Easy.

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A Tale of One Funeral

A Tale of One Funeral

In the East a funeral for a mother; and in the West a funeral for a father–as if pain was a child–requiring a hand on both sides of our state.

Fires and floods, murders and accidents. How much will Southern Vermont be required to take?  At first I thought the curse was on Brattleboro, but there seems to be a similar infliction on the Deerfield Valley.

This morning, friends in the West attended the funeral of not one, but two fathers–both killed in the same tragedy–one by accident, the other by anguish.

I headed East for another two taken–Rita Corbin died 11 days after the collision that also claimed the life of her 17 year-old grandson. But it was love, not loss that echoed in Rita’s absence; just as it had after the fire and the flood and the murder. And so it is, that I offer the echo of love to our friends in the West, in the hope that a sweeter balance can be restored.

A Mother’s Legacy

Is there any greater testimony

to love

than joy?

The Corbins make music

of their mother’s life–

the strumming of strings,

the stretching of chords,

the tender gifts of

rhythm and melody;

The tempo of a life

lived on

in

family.

Kelly Salasin, December 2011

my familiar

my familiar

Weddings and funerals bring me back to my familiar. The Mid-Atlantic. The home of my people.

I sit in the quiet church where my best friends were both married, and watch as new faces replace us. A generation of nieces and nephews come of age, gathering to say goodbye to their grandma, the mother of my dear friend, Lou.

I feel the wheel turning, and notice an elder woman sitting in a pew off to the side. Will that be one of us some day?

I like funerals. I like the ritual of tending the passing of a loved one. And even though I’m not a Catholic, my days in parochial schools make the swinging of the thurible above the coffin a warm familiar, as I take in the smell of  incense.

The deceased apparently liked funerals too. Once she lost her faculties. “We had to stop taking Mom to funerals,” Lou tells me. “She thought they were parties.”

I gulp, wondering about my own affinity.  Despite the loss, I am filled with joy to see so many dearly familiar faces from my past; since grief is something I don’t typically share in public.

It’s hard to imagine a world without Mrs. O, and so I don’t.  I keep her here, in my heart, welcoming me into her home –from 14 to 47 and beyond.

I have to admit that I am a little disappointed to find that I wasn’t the only one who was so warmly received. Apparently Mrs. O. was a second Mom to many more than me.

She forgot how to do everything,” my friend says  “How to get to get dressed; how to eat. But every time she saw me, she told me that I was perfect.

She forget how to do everything… except how to love.”

What a legacy. To loose everything, but your ability to love. 

My eyes turn from the altar to the pews where the grandchildren weep with loss.

What a testimony of her love, and of the family she nurtured.

I’ve watched this family love for over 30 years–through their guilt and worry and attachment–never failing to be in awe of their undying devotion.

My friend is the most devoted daughter, sister and mother that I know; and even on this day of burying her mother, she tends to the grief of others. She remains strong. She returns to her kindergarteners the next morning.

I have been infinitely blessed by this friendship.

When her brother steps up to the altar to read the intercessions, I am delighted by how fully Italian he is, and then tickled when his thick New York accent delivers an Irish poem,

May the road rise to meet ya. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face. May the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again, May the Lord hold you in the palm of His hand.

My hometown holds me in the palm of its hand this weekend. I drive by the ocean and the marsh and the homes where my family once lived. I soak up time with my sister and her children. I sit beside my father and let his leg brush mine. I hug my stepmother, pet my canine step-sister.  This is enough, I think.  (Once I needed so much more.)

I gobble up boardwalk pizza and Italian hoagies. I sniff the salt air. I visit with my in-laws. I unearth memories. I sense the absence of my mother like a shard of glass through my heart.

I look up at the beautiful stain glass art of the Gospel and wonder why they don’t make the floors more captivating. How are we to keep our heads bowed when there is so much color above?

I notice that a nun in street clothes has replaced the altar boys beside the priest.  I wonder if this is due to school (it’s a weekday) or scandal?  As the elderly priest raises the Communion above his head, there is an almost imperceptible shutter at the presence of a woman on the stage which has long belonged to men.

I notice how much of the language of these familiar rites, excludes: “Those who believe…” and “He who follows in the name of the Lord...” and “We of the faith…”

I make a mental note to be sure my own funeral is inclusive, even of those who feel it necessary to separate. I realize that this will be tricky.

When it comes time to stand up for the bread and the wine, the separation is clearer. Those who remain in the pews have either missed confession–or worse–don’t belong.  Even the name-tagged attendants from the funeral parlor bow their heads for the Body of Christ, making me wonder if “Catholicism” is a requirement of the job.

25 years ago, when I sat through the weekly Masses at Wildwood Catholic, I could hardly bear the length of it; but approaching 50, I know what a gift it is to sit and ponder.

And so, I take in the Homily, word for word, while opening myself up to all that is connected. Father talks of the inability of the disciples to recognize Jesus after He is risen. He contrasts their limited view with that of the women who were the first to speak of the Resurrection. (Outside, a car horn punctuates the gift of feminine receptivity.)

He reminds us that we must embrace suffering, just as Mary stood at the foot of her son’s cross. (And the church bells ring, marking the top of the hour–and the gift of this mother’s devotion.)

This was the inspiration for Geri’s life,” the priest says, and I have no doubt it is true of Mrs. O.

My own loss is comforted when we are prompted to come to our knees on the familiar cushioned benches beneath each pew. For awhile I thought perhaps the Catholics had given up on the kneeling which once accompanied the standing and the sitting and the standing again.

I notice that the nun is the one who models what it is we are supposed to do–when we are to stand, to bow our heads, to kneel down.  (Once this next generations passes, I wonder who will be left to guide us.)

I decide to have recycling at my own funeral, and even compost. I make a mental note to request potted plants so that there will be less waste.  The lillies wrapped in pink foil at the foot of the altar are beautiful.

These reveries are disrupted when the priest tells us that it is time to “take our leave” of Geri.

I don’t know how Lou will do it. I don’t know how we got to be the grownups–burying our parents–whose lives in ours we once took for granted.

We proceed out of the church silent.

I watch my friend walk ahead, alongside her father, toward the limo at the head of the funeral procession, slipping her hand inside his.

Tears slide down my face, as I walk toward my own car with the Green Mountain tags and head “home.”

Kelly Salasin, May 2011

Me & “my familiars”, 2009.