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A lesson in making any moment sing

The first note soared sweet and pure, rolling across the ceiling and down the faded living-room wallpaper. Even at the hands of a beginning cellist lurching up and down a warmup scale, one lush tone followed another.

No wonder. This was no muddy-voiced student instrument: It was a 250-year-old Italian masterpiece, the concert cello of one of the maestros of the early 20th century, Bedrich Vaska.

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In his 20s, Vaska, a Czech by birth, was renowned in Europe for his quartet playing. In his early 30s, he emigrated to America and founded one of the nation's earliest professional string quartets. He played for presidents at the White House 35 years before fellow cellist Pablo Casals created a stir by performing there for President Kennedy.

But this day in 1950 it wasn't Vaska hunched over his cello; it was a struggling cellist - me. Seated at a scarred upright piano was Vaska-the-teacher, successor to Vaska-the-performer, providing accompaniment and instruction in the overheated, overstuffed living room of a Providence, R.I., dentist.

Twice a month in that unlikely spot, Vaska shared seven decades of knowledge with a handful of musical wannabes as he rode a triangular teaching circuit from his New York City apartment to Worcester, Mass., and Providence. This day he had brought his just-repaired cello and, with a glint in his eye, inspired us all by offering it for our lessons.

From its glorious tone, obtained without effort, I glimpsed what might be, what the potential of this instrument was. It was a tantalizing vision. Yet as I tried only minimally difficult music, I could only struggle, fumble-fingered, without the skill to translate sumptuous tone into beautiful music.

But Vaska had the skill, in spades, as he proved two weeks later. "Is that thing any good?" my father had asked, gesturing toward my $150 instrument.

Wordlessly, Vaska reached for it, plopped onto a sagging chair, and began some concerto I did not know. The cello sang for him as it never had for me: a languid dream, a tumbling freshet, a calamitous thunderstorm. Two minutes, four minutes, six: a breathtaking concert for two.

As suddenly as he had begun, he stopped, smiling. Although not the equal of a concert cello, he told us, mine was capable of making fine music. But being able to do so was beyond the capability of the student, he said. "They don't have the necessary technique." What an irony, for only a student would own a student cello.

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My life has been periodically enriched by magnificent music in splendiferous halls. But these two dentist's-living-room sessions were my seminal musical moments. And they were more than that: They were powerful teaching tools from a top-notch performer-turned-master-teacher, for any area of life.

They proved to a gangly teen that opportunities can arise unexpectedly, as Vaska's cello had suddenly appeared that day. They showed that the only way to take advantage of a such opportunities was to be prepared - as Vaska, with his limitless technique, had been when asked to pull professional music from a mere student cello.

Taken together, the episodes were a powerful lesson - in music, and in life.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor