My Sister’s Violin Teacher

My sister is one of those annoying people who know exactly what they want to do and will stop at nothing to do it. In her case this means playing violin. I have never been able to make up my mind what I want; to this day I simply flit between possible fields of expertise. Eventually, I hope, I will master them all.

But that’s beside the point. The point is my determined, self-taught sister who got a violin for Christmas one year and practices incessantly, wanted to play in an orchestra. She finally got a chance to do so when she was 13, in the spring of 2009. I was 19, and had just discovered Nanowrimo; just begun writing science fiction. I was also a full-fledged poet then.

Anyway. The orchestra had already begun rehearsals for the semester, but it was early enough that the conductor allowed her to audition instead of waiting until fall. Of course my dad and I, the other musically obsessed people in the family, went along to see what there was to see. (My sister couldn’t drive yet, so we’d be bringing her to rehearsals every week anyhow, but that was really a pretense…)

So there we were, in this small church, way up in Bowling Green an hour from home, and we’re met by this energetic, enthusiastic, perpetually-positive conductor. Mr. Randall Olson. And he let’s my sister audition, and seems to be impressed, and everyone else arrives, and they all go into the sanctuary to rehearse, and my dad asks if we can watch and he says sure, so we sit at a small table off to one side and observe. And continue to be impressed.

And we went to the next rehearsal. And the third week of January there was quite a storm… Mr. Olson kept joking about it. I randomly found myself writing poetry about the event. All told, over the next two years I wrote 30 poems about the youth orchestra and its conductor. Here’s a sampling:

from “High Wind”

If there is a tornado, will we hear it at all?
You’re being so loud in this practice hall.
Is that the wind howling or just your bows squeaking?
You couldn’t hear a train over the noise that you’re making.

from “Pavane”

I’ve never heard of a happy Pavane
All the ones that I know of are sad
This one sounds like a desert song
It sounds like camels plodding along

You don’t want to hear about my music obsession or my thousand memories of orchestra rehearsals. I have hundreds of pictures, videos, poems, pages of notes… but I’m trying to make a point here and it keeps slipping away from me. Eventually my sister started taking private lessons from Mr. Olson. And of course I tagged along, and basked in the delight of having the Maestro almost-all to myself. He was supposed to be teaching my sister, of course, but often times half the lesson became a long involved conversation about music theory, or literature. We talked about Gulliver’s Travels. We talked about Jane Austin.

Mr. Olson is a brilliant person because he’s smart and he’s funny. He’s an amazing teacher because he communicates well. He keeps things interesting. He makes correction in such a matter-of-fact manner that you never feel like “Oh I’m such a failure for not knowing that.” If someone simply can’t grasp a concept he’ll try another tactic, or come up with something ridiculous to help them remember. He makes up silly lyrics to songs so he can sing along to five-year-olds who are just starting out. No matter how busy he gets he always, always, always has time for you.

I don’t play violin. I was never in the orchestra. I never took lessons from him. I tagged along for the sole purpose of sucking his time without offering anything in return except for some paltry and possibly embarrassing poetry. And yet… he included me. He never told me to go away, shut up, or leave him alone. He never said he was too busy (except in a really apologetic I’m-rushing-out-the-door fashion) or treated me like an interloper. He was actually liked said poetry. He always asked me how I was doing like I actually counted, rather than just being my sister’s chauffeur.

So why Inspector Floyd? Because when I wrote Inspector McCormick it made me think of Mr. Olson. McCormick is the exact opposite of every cop on every TV show ever. He noticed Floyd, noticed he was good at something, and then let him help with his case regardless of who Floyd was, how annoying he might be, or what his qualifications were. Cops on TV shows are always all “This is police business. Move along. We don’t need you. Shut up and go home.” McCormick has more insight and understanding, and he eventually persuades Floyd (spoilers) to become a full-time consultant, over the protests of everyone else on the force who complain about procedure.

He includes Floyd even when he doesn’t belong there, just like Mr. Olson would include me. There was nothing that could make me happier than when the orchestra was clapping out rhythms, and he would look at me scribbling in my corner and order me to clap too.

And so, Mr. Olson, this book is for you. For including me, even when I had no business being there.

“Song for the Conductor”

Sorting papers, moving chairs
Setting up the music stands
Giving lessons, lending bows
Greeting people, shaking hands
Teaching bow strokes, teaching keys
Learning every face by name
Learning every music note
Smiling every day the same

Patient, joking, gentle, kind
Learning, teaching everyone
Opening up souls and minds
Cheerful as the morning sun
Jumpy as a baby goat
Energetic as can be
Always everywhere at once
Always fixing everything

Solving problems great and small
Always there for everyone
Praise and thanks for one and all
Questions answered for anyone
We think that we are lucky ones
To have a teacher such as you
A conductor such is rare
Mister Olson, we thank you.

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