Legend: Roman Totenberg (1911-2012)

With Footsteps in Belmont, MA

2001 Roman Totenberg, age 90, with Hana

I was tingling with excitement as I rang the doorbell. Professor Roman Totenberg (aka Mr. T) always greeted me lovingly with a warm hug and smile. What a gentleman – he dressed up in a handsome suit each week with a classic handkerchief corner peeking out from the chest pocket. And he adored whenever I came in my long skirts and dresses; I was in my late teen years when I began violin lessons from Mr. T. I had recently given a recital with a full program (including pieces such as Zigeunerweisen, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E-m, Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8, op. 110, along with many of my own compositions), and hoped to have reached his level. Musicians from all over the world sought and travelled to train under him. It was a great honor when he accepted me as a private student. Mr. T was a prestigious, grand teacher and mentor…he also became one of my dearest and beloved friends.

At our first lesson, Mr. T was delighted to hear that I was from Belmont – he had also lived there in the past for well over a decade.  In fact, he had actually designed the entire house himself, which was built on Belmont Hill! There, he had raised his three daughters (*Nina, Jill, and Amy) with his passed wife, Melanie. He stated the address as “15 School Avenue, right by a small private school.” Though I hadn’t heard of the street, he was certain about it. Hmm, it didn’t exist in the White Pages, nor could I find any records of a former house with this address. I yearned to see his old place – right in my hometown! I wanted the thrill to touch and feel the old walls and ground where he had walked, laughed and played music. But as he was already in his 80’s, I had no intention to boggle his memory any further to find the place. Though the location remained a mystery to me for many more years, another coincidental discovery came out more recently. Just prior to Belmont, we had each lived in Scarsdale, NY, a lovely suburb of NYC. This is where I was born and spent my early childhood years. It felt like a destiny for us to have connected; and over the years, many more “coincidences” emerged.

Mr. Totenberg was born on New Year’s Day, 1911, in Poland. At the age of 11, he was violin soloist with the Warsaw Philharmonic – one of the world’s greatest orchestras. Following that, he was sought after worldwide and gave countless performances in places such as Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, Carnegie Hall, and The White House (where he became a popular guest). He worked with the top maestros, musicians, and composers. For a glimpse at those historic years, you’d just simply step into his modest house (in Newton, MA, where he lived since the late 1970’s). Down the hallway, you were surrounded by photos/articles of him featured alongside Stravinsky, Copland, Barber, Rubinstein, Kreisler, Bernstein. In awe, you’d continue on a few more steps into his sunny, musical studio. In the corner, a grand piano was adorned with sheets of music, books, and small pots of flowers. Then, more photos decorated the room – tucked onto the piano and extended across the walls, and back onto his desk and side tables. Among family shots, others were of his prominent and long-time students. He had one of me slipped into the corner of his big mirror, one in a wooden frame of us smiling on his patio, (2-28-2003) Recital Performanceand then of us arm-in-arm on an outing or during a private lesson.

I myself have been performing and playing the violin all my life. I began teaching at a young age, started by my classmates’ requests, and soon on to students from pre K-12 grades, college, through to adults working full-time and retired. I became quite experienced and more knowledgeable over the years with all of my training and coaching; however skilled we get though, we can never stop learning and improving. Mr. T was a coverless encyclopedia, endless film, and never ending performance hall.He taught not only methods, techniques, and exercises, but revealed intricate gems with tricks used for mastering the violin. And he did so with the deepest heart frothed with warmth and lots of humor! He’d pat me on the back if I got frustrated with a tough concerto; next we’d be cracking up with jokes until our bellies ached.

 

In his 90’s, Mr. T was still vibrant and energetic. He would show me special styles and approaches with the violin – he’d leap into the air illustrating his points like “The right shoulder moves inward, though your waist stays in place – see, just like a baseball pitcher!” In his spare time, he loved to play tennis – smashing the ball, impressing his opponents and instructors. I related to him with my athletic love for my childhood sport, gymnastics. I continued on with an adapted form of the sport through my adult despite medical setbacks, for as long as I could. He stayed on the courts, jumping back after miniature injuries until finally some major back and knee problems held him back. We also wound up taking turns in the hospital. Through recoveries, we’d compare things like our “sexy legs”! He’d have knee surgery; I’d have another hip replaced; who had more stitches?! We “grew old together”, though I admit he aged much more slowly. I stayed busy teaching private students, holding their recitals, and performing in orchestra and theatre groups in Boston. Mr. T understood when there were times that I could not practice enough for him. He also knew his own abilities and mine – he may be recuperating from a bad cold or nursing an aching back. I myself was living with an autoimmune disease since childhood. At times, I was too weak to pick up my instrument or get out of bed. He grew accustomed to this in our early days, when I’d show up at lessons with PICC lines sticking through my arms, recovering from things like pancreatitis, organ failure, or fighting infections. Memories flow back to one lesson back in the early 2000’s. Sharp pains were shooting down my body (legs and arms to fingertips). I hated to show weakness, but cringed in pain, and tried to hold back tears; streaking pangs shooting across my fingertips. I couldn’t even touch the strings on my violin. Mr. T patted me gently the shoulder, knowing that his regular teddy bear hug would be too much for me. He comforted and eased my frustration. We simply relaxed. We chatted. We listened to the chirping of his sweet, yellow bird named Totenbird (we’re both animal lovers). He was magical medicine – it was impossible to step out of his house without uplifted spirits.

Mr. T never became handicapped in any way from his music (physically or mentally). The “youngin’” still transported himself everywhere in his own car too! Each summer, he’d drive all the way up to prestigious Kneisel Hall (Blue Hill) in Maine, to coach advanced/professional musicians in chamber groups through intense sessions. He travelled around the world to give master classes, seminars, and recitals. Mr. T was a cherished professor emeritus at Boston University; but the thought of retirement never came into his mind. He was still on top, still both performing and teaching the best musicians both in and outside of the university.

2006: Giving Mr. T a big hug after his 95th b-day performkanceWhenever I called, Mr. T knew immediately who it was on the phone. He’d chant out my name, “Hana!” which of course he knew, was the Japanese word for flower. Flowers were another of his joys. One spring day, he gave me a lovely tour around his blossoming garden. He had seeded and planted each bulb and could identify and explain every single plant. My favorite part of his garden was the most enchanting cascade of wisteria (thick and rich vines), climbing up and across the patio trellis – which he had planted over 25 years ago.

On his 100th birthday (Jan. 1, 2011), I spent the evening with Mr. T in the hospital; he had come down with viral pneumonia. I baked him a healthy version of cookies, brought balloons, cheery photos of the two of us together, and created a card reminding him about how much he meant to me and how much I’d be there for him. I was worried that he must have caught the infection at his recent centurial birthday party held at Boston’s Symphony Hall. Former and current students, colleagues, admirers from all around the world, and a full orchestra had gathered in his honor. Thus, he couldn’t avoid the innumerous hugs and congratulations from others. But as usual, Mr. T bounced back to teaching the very next week!

Then over past year, we celebrated Mr. T’s 101st birthday – a small but intimate party held right in his home. A rising performer flew from overseas in honor to perform for Mr. T. I sat right by his side; he was in his handy wheelchair (which he only needed for short periods like this). Though the program did not carry any classics, Mr. T knew each and ever piece. He nodded his head and moved to the rhythm through flowing passages; he wrinkled his nose when he noticed any miniscule flaw (which would have been invisible to an average audience). After the performance, we shuffled over to his dining room, where caterers walked about serving pastries. I knew that his kidneys had recently started to break down gradually; I worried if it was safe or if doctors “allowed” him to eat such sweets or the rich dishes on the table. During childhood, my kidney had gone into failure; I was restricted from just about any type of food that existed. But he chuckled and laughed me off; he was welcome to eat whatever his heart (and stomach) desired!

Soon after, my visits and lessons resumed…until in May. I received a call from Theresa – Mr. T’s long-time housekeeper and friend. She apologized that she had to deliver sad news. Mr. T’s kidneys had gone into complete failure. He was still at home in bed, but these coming days would be his last days. I was frantic for hopes as she spilled those words. Couldn’t he start up dialysis?! Or form of chemotherapy like Cytoxan?! Both of these treatments had been successful putting me into remission! No, he was too old to go through such aggressive actions. All of us had grown too accustomed to Mr. T’s bounce-backs, miracle after miracle; it was time to face reality. It was time to say goodbye… After I pulled myself together (thought so), I called his home. His daughters, Nina, there from out of state answered. Intending to solace the family, I tried to speak calmly but broke down, choking on tears. Nina ended up consoling me. She said that he was very weak, but that he would be comforted and would love to see me. She recommended that I bring my violin along, just in case.

Pulling up to his place, a cluster of cars were aligned by his house. I wasn’t ready to handle it yet; I sat in the car for well over an hour to feel sturdy enough, before dragging myself up his front steps. And I knew many others were giving their farewells. I was greeted at the door with a whisper that he was still there resting in bed, but he was also still giving a violin lesson! Yes, he was teaching as he lay in bed. The student played then stopped, to hear Mr. T’s words of advice. I couldn’t believe it, until I was reminded that Mr. T could do the things that often seemed impossible. For the next two hours, I stayed in the side room weeping, even after his student stepped out, a doctor walked in, then out. I didn’t want to face him until I could present myself properly. I had brought some old journal entries I had written over the years about him –all of the joy and fun we had together both in and out of music. Eventually, I pulled myself up and entered his bedroom. Though he was now weak and frail, Mr. T looked up, and the moment we caught eyes, his sparkled, and he smiled. I knelt by his side, and he took my hand. I clutched my heart when I saw the musical quilt that I had crocheted for him several years ago. It had been well loved and used, as his daughters explained. I opened up some scattered pages of my journals to read about some of our old stories together There were moments of laughter he trembled with, and entries that made him sigh with content. He squeezed my hand as I brought back memories. But there wasn’t much time; Nina had to hurry to the airport and catch the plain back to Washington D.C., so needed the few minutes with him. I gave my deep farewell and trudged out of the room. Packing up to leave, Nina rushed over into the side room: “He’s calling you back! He wants you to return and play for him!” My heart jumped. Could I handle it? I knew that I hadn’t been able to say all the words I wanted to, directly to him, especially without tripping on words with tears. When talking is too difficult, music is the best way to express. I played for him the Bach Sonata, Largo, one of my earliest and most cherished pieces I had studied with him. Though feeling unprepared, I poured my heart out, stroking the violin with powerful and then gentle bowings. More of his family members came into the room to listen. Then, in the middle of the movement, he let out a small whisper of a moan. I stopped; his daughters, concerned leaned over to find out what was wrong. His answer: “Slower, slower.” He was instructing me. We all burst out in laughter with wet eyes. We all laughed, and I continued on, thinking just for a few more seconds. But he never stopped me again through the ending. Then he smiled and said “Good. Good.” Dear Mr. Totenberg. I held him, kissed him on face and said thank you for all he had done for me; I told him how much I loved him. He put on a smile and kept smiling. He held my hand.

Mr. Totenberg passed away on May 8, 2012, just days after my final visit. The whole world cried. And we also celebrated the wonderful, prodigious, and astounding life he had. Articles and reports on the radio, television, and internet went streaming into the media. I called off all of my concerts to take part at Mr. T’s tight knit and emotional but still festive burial. I tried my best to get back to my usual days. I held my students’ spring recital in June. I chose to perform solo at the closing of their spring recital in Mr. T’s honor. I played the Bach Sonata, No.1, Largo.

My sense of destiny with Mr. T continues… This past summer, I continued playing with orchestra and teaching students who were in town. One of my lovely students who was vacationing down the Cape sent me a letter in the mail. It was a very gracious and caring note, in which she thanked me for the continuous years of teaching her, bringing on her passion to play music, and most of all for being her friend. It made my day. However, I didn’t make any further connections with this charming letter until just several months later. On October 13th (2012), Mr. T’s Memorial Celebration was held at Marsh Chapel of B.U. reception held at The Castle. I performed along with his students from near and far to celebrate for Mr. T. The place was filled with much love and appreciation for this extraordinary man. We laughed, we cried, we made music, and we listened to his own recordings. After returning home, I kept in touch with his daughters. Remembering Mr. T’s Belmont address as what must be an inaccurate “15 School Avenue”, I wanted to find out more. After a few e-mails back and forth, I received the correction: The first couple of years, his family had rented a house, 23 Oakley Road, while Mr. T designed the coming house and waited as it emerged. Their exciting new place stood at “15 Day School Lane” right by Belmont Day School. The address seemed so familiar to me. The very next day, my street was blocked off from municipal road work, so I had to contact each of my students about the inaccessibility for usual drop-offs and parking. Opening my address book, 15 Day School Avenue leapt out at me; it was the exact same address of my student who I see twice a week for private lessons. She was also the one who had sent the heart-warming letter over the summer. Today, three young children, like Mr. T’s family, live in his self designed place, filled with music and historic accolades.

I have treasured every day and every year I have spent with Mr. T. Like my mentor, I plan to teach what I love, for as long as I can. Though I intend to continue with my own styles and ways of teaching, I will also continue to proudly incorporate and pass along Mr. T’s endless powers and touches to my dear students. Thank you, Mr. Totenberg. I will always remember you.

Mr. T's 101st Birthday Party

*Totenberg is survived by three daughters: Nina Totenberg, legal affairs correspondent for National Public Radio; Jill Totenberg, CEO of the Totenberg Group, a strategic corporate communications firm in New York; and Federal Judge Amy Totenberg of Atlanta. Other survivors include his niece, five grandchildren, and thousands of students around the globe.

Hana L. Asazuma-Cheng has been a Belmont resident for more than 25 years. She teaches violin/viola/chamber groups privately at her home studio on 27 Temple Street. She can be reached at Loen210@aol.com, https://musicwithhana.wordpress.com

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