Thursday, February 18, 2010

Yo-Yo Ma, Meryl Streep and the Genesis of a Musician

When I picked Elias up from his piano lesson the other day, I learned the story of how his teacher started in piano.  Turns out, Mr. Wee really wanted to play the violin when he was a kid.  His mother said, "We don't have a violin.  But we do have a piano.  Why don't you try that?"  He did, and he went on to have a distinguished career as a piano professor.

His story made me think of a Yo-Yo Ma interview I had just watched on the first episode of Faces of America with Henry Louis Gates Jr.  It's a four-part series on PBS about genealogy, where Gates uncovers the family histories of 12 well-known Americans.  It concludes March 3 and is available online.  Here's a New York Times review of the series.

(Yes, it's that Gates, of the President Obama beer summit fame.  The Harvard professor had just returned from researching Ma's family in China last summer when he had trouble opening his front door; a neighbor called the police, thinking he was a burglar).

Ma was born in Paris in 1955.  His parents were Chinese expatriates; his mother sang, and his father was a violinist and music teacher.  Ma started the violin at age 3 but hated it.  At age 4, he heard someone play an oversized bass, and he wanted to play that.  His parents thought it was too big, so they compromised with the cello.

If Ma had played the bass instead, would he have achieved the same level of mastery or fame?  If Mr. Wee had access to a violin as a kid, would he now be teaching violin?  Is there something about a certain instrument that speaks to us?  What role does natural talent play in instrument selection, and how much is tied to instrument availability?

My great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, was a violin and cornet soloist and a band director.  An article about him appeared in the Dec. 13, 1913 issue of the American Musician and Art Journal.

While watching the interview, I also learned that Ma's father had a saying: "It takes three generations to make a musician: the first to leave poverty, the second to go to school, and the third to master an instrument."

I don't know if that saying applies to my family, but it's an interesting way to think about connections between generations, and about the genesis of a musician.  My great-great grandfather, Jasper Riggs, grew up on an Illinois farm and learned to play a violin he inherited from his uncle at age 10.  His wife, Rebecca, played the accordion.  Jasper found farming to be too strenuous after he was injured in the Civil War, so he went into the hardware store business.  His son, G. Oliver, played instruments from an early age, and directed his first band at age 15.

G. Oliver, third from the left, with his Ezbon (Kansas) Cornet Band in 1885.  His dad, Jasper, is second from the left.

G. Oliver earned enough money as a musician to put himself through school at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, where he studied violin, cornet and piano.  He performed as a cornet and violin soloist for many years before he began devoting all his time to directing bands.

G. Oliver married Islea, a talented pianist.  Their son Ronald, my grandfather, played the clarinet and saxophone, and his brother Percy played all kinds of instruments, including cornet and drums.  They both married women who played the piano; my grandmother, Eleanor, also played the flute in high school (my grandfather was her band director, but that's a story for another time!).  I don't know if G. Oliver influenced his sons' choices in instruments, or why neither one of them took up the violin.

My dad never played the violin, either, but he plays trumpet and piano.  My mom took piano lessons, although she always thought she'd liked to have tried the harp.  My brother and I both took piano lessons.  He played the trumpet, and I played the French horn.

My husband, Steve, would have liked to have learned piano, but his family didn't have one.  He started on the trumpet and switched to the French horn in high school, and he learned how to play guitar in medical school.  He also has sung in many different choirs over the years.  Our daughter, Louisa, insisted as a kindergartner that we find her a piano teacher.  She and our older son, Sebastian, both took lessons from Mr. Wee, and they're both members of the Northfield Youth Choirs.  In fifth grade, Louisa decided to play the French horn in band because both Steve and I had played it, and she figured we could help her.  Sebastian came home from school a few years ago and announced that he wanted to play the viola in orchestra.  He added the trumpet the next year because, as he put it, "It's not my favorite instrument, but I felt I should carry on the tradition."

Now I'm interested to see what Elias chooses.  He could start orchestra next year, or band the following year.  Either way, he will be following family tradition.  Or, he could stick with piano, and he'd still be following family tradition.

And that makes me think of a quote from Meryl Streep, who, like Yo-Yo Ma, was interviewed for the Faces of America series.  The first episode didn't include much from her (I think she's interviewed in a later episode), but it did include a clip of her saying: "We are the sum of all the people that have lived before us."

It's fun to think about that, in terms of my musical family members, past and present.  Together, we are an orchestra and a concert band.  We are a pep band, a marching band and a jazz band.  We are a choir and a piano recital.  We are a jam session.  We play an ongoing symphony.


  1. It's so interesting for me to read about your musical family, how music is a thread that has connected you for many generations. Makes me think about my family - how my present family is musical but I have no memories of my parents playing instruments or singing and have only a couple memories of my grandmother playing the organ and maybe one of my grandpa playing an accordion and harmonica.

    There are threads of stories about relatives playing the piano, of my dad playing the trombone and possibly the piano but music is not something that I grew up with other than listening to it on the radio. Yet, I gravitated to singing and playing from early on. Hmmm. Interesting.

    Maybe I'll find more musical connections as I look back into family history. Maybe not. No matter what, the absence of music and the presence of it in my life now is an interesting story in itself.

  2. I bet your great-grandkids will be interested to learn that you were in plays, and that you played the mandolin, and had all these other musical (and non-musical) talents!