Saturday, December 10, 2005

remembering a legendary teacher

I'm still collecting my thoughts today after learning of the passing of Homer Mensch, a great bassist and teacher. Mr. Mensch is probably best known as the man who recorded those two famous repeated notes in the movie soundtrack for "Jaws." It seems strange to remember him that way, though, since to me he represented everything that was serious, noble, and uncompromising in music. I was lucky enough to study with him at Juilliard, though our relationship unfortunately didn't last very long.

I've heard it said that at a place like Juilliard, the studio teachers are treated as gods. Mr. Mensch certainly was that to me. It seemed a lot to hope that he would even remember my name between lessons, much less form a personal relationship with me. I remember getting frantically anxious every time I called to arrange a lesson, then stuttering, "This is Matt Heller, your bass student from Columbia." I was in a tiny "dual exchange" program that registered me as a full-time Columbia student but let me take lessons and studio class at Juilliard.

It's difficult to express the kind of authority and respect that Mr. Mensch commanded. His comments really did seem to carry the weight of divine pronouncements, which was perhaps increased by the strange passive language he would use. The highest compliment I ever received from him was "That plays well," and that was a rare event - as you can imagine, most of what I brought to my lessons did not "play well" at all! He would sit behind his desk, dispensing corrected bowings and fingerings, and his criticism was almost always delivered coolly and dispassionately. It was all the more devastating that way.

As in most student-teacher relationships, I never spent more than two or three hours a week with Mr. Mensch, both in lessons and studio class. Those few hours telescoped mightily into the rest of my life, though, as his comments and suggestions echoed through many hours in the practice room. Where a strong bond exists, a teacher can profoundly impact every aspect of the student's development as a musician - the approaches to problem-solving, the interpretive choices, the ear for a particular tone quality. I don't think I had enough time to really internalize much of Mr. Mensch's teaching, but I still hear his voice occasionally, and still do some of the drills he prescribed to his students. There was one in particular, a slow bow drill which was intended to last half an hour, and which I continued doing daily years after I left his studio. It was like a morning meditation, exploring the limits of sustained, pure tone, and it was the closest thing to spiritual transformation that I had as a secular 18-year old.

I knew after my first lesson with Mr. Mensch, as a matter of fact, that I didn't want to stay in the Columbia program. What made me leave was the realization that no matter how hard I tried, I would never be able to live up to Mr. Mensch's expectations. More than the long subway commutes, more even than the full academic course load, it was the social atmosphere at Columbia, my dorm-mates' endless inane conversations and all-night video game marathons that kept me up when I needed to practice the next morning. I told Mr. Mensch my concerns, and actually persuaded him to write a letter to the Juilliard dean, requesting that I be permitted to transfer to Juilliard full-time and to leave Columbia. With such a divine intervention, I thought, my petition could never be denied - it was, though, and so I ended up transferring to study with another Homer Mensch student, Donald Palma at the New England Conservatory.

My last lesson with Mr. Mensch really stung, and it's probably the reason I fell out of touch with him so completely. Where before he had held back from really harsh criticism, leaving seemed to give him license to say all the most devastating things he could, some of which have stayed with me ever since, like his description of my sound as "brittle." I left that lesson in tears, angry and bewildered and wildly hopeless, as if I'd just been thrown out of Valhalla. I saw him once more afterwards, when I played in Jaime Laredo's New York String Orchestra in Carnegie Hall, and I was chosen to lead the section - he said something vaguely positive about my leadership, which I took as a small vindication. Still, I felt like I left Mr. Mensch's studio under a cloud, crippled by his rebuke, and I found myself frequently explaining apologetically to people who saw my resume why I had left Juilliard after just one semester.

Thinking back now, it seems strange to realize that I left because I wanted to earn Mr. Mensch's praise. I would tell people that he was part of the reason I left - he was too old, he couldn't demonstrate technique in the way I needed. I don't think I really believed that for a moment, though. Being around this legendary bassist, experiencing how demanding a musician's ear, how probing his mind could be, made me aspire to become all that, more than I ever had before. And as is often the case with teachers, parents, or gods, I suppose, we want so badly to please them, we hunger so deeply for their respect, that we end up leaving them and, in many cases, we lose them forever.

I was amused to find a little piece about Homer Mensch from the New York Times online, dated March 17, 1984 and entitled "Stringed Subway Rider." There is also a nice recent interview (as well as the photograph posted above) on the Juilliard School's website. Several of the other bass players here at the New World Symphony, and hundreds more scattered around the world, also studied with Mr. Mensch and will miss him deeply.

1 comment:

Joe said...

I think you've touched on something about the student-teacher relationship here that is very common. I can certainly relate.