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Commentary : Pupil-Teacher Friendship Knew No Age Boundaries

<i> Maureen Brown is a free-lance writer who lives in La Jolla</i>

It was a scruffy 10-year-old in well-worn sneakers who stood before that door four years ago carrying a violin case and a host of worries.

Behind the portal was the man for whom he was to audition. The boy assessed the situation as futile, and whimpered about his form, his inadequate sight-reading skills and the restricted sound he could produce with his three-quarter-size violin. He prayed that the impending audition would soon be over and he could be at the baseball field with his team.

The child knew that the teacher was a retired member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and had worked with the UC San Diego Chamber Music Series, and the child was familiar with the well-developed skill of his fellow students. He knew that the music room was referred to by both teacher and students as the “torture chamber” and that one was forced to study a unique form of double scales and adopt a perfect posture.

When the door opened, the warm smile that greeted the child was the beginning of a relationship that would know no age barriers and bind a small boy with an aged artist.

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The teacher was Herman Silberman, an accomplished musician who spent his last 14 years molding the hands, fingers, ears and posture of young San Diego violinists with unending patience. In a chamber filled with photographs of the master’s European mentors--Charles Herman of Brussels, Cesar Thomson of Lugano, Switzerland, and acquaintances such as Jascha Heifetz--the boy passed his weekly one- to two-hour lessons.

Sharing his memories, the teacher would take the child on imaginary strolls through the woods at Tanglewood, or reminisce about sipping coffee in European cafes in the 1930s. Together they relived the early days of the Stradivarius String Quartet and the Zimbler Sinfonietta, of which the teacher had been a member. One afternoon, the boy experienced the Depression through the words of his mentor, who had supported himself working with radio orchestras.

The double scales were as challenging as foretold and the young violinist attacked them with a vengeance--after first devouring pastry and milk in the kitchen. He embraced the teacher’s tale of how he realized his destiny with the violin. Silberman’s first instructor had been his older brother, Harry, a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra. After Harry’s sudden death in the early 1920s from influenza during an epidemic, the teacher carried on the family tradition.

Sloppy musical passages were not neglected, and the child was required to play them over and over. The boy would assess his lesson as successful if the master, in his 80s, would mistakenly call him by one of his previous, and very polished, student’s names.

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When the boy cut his lesson short one week to catch a plane for a soccer tournament, the teacher asked the child when he would devote himself to the instrument entirely and abandon his sports. The question remained unanswered; they never broached the subject again.

Sensing the youth’s uneasiness about carrying his violin on the bus after school, the teacher assured him of the tremendous muscular skills the instrument demanded of its player. He then demonstrated by flexing his biceps and displaying the unusually developed muscle between his thumb and forefinger.

He also shared tales of his youth and the young ladies who had been enchanted by his violin and charm. Wistfully, he recalled the beautiful Finnish girl he had met on a boat trip in Europe. He was overwhelmed with her beauty and lamented his fate at having encountered her as she traveled to meet her fiance in America.

“Whatever happened to her?” the lad asked, enthralled with such a story.

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“Oh,” said the teacher impishly, “she’s in the kitchen preparing supper like she has for 47 years.”

Along with his wife, Martta, and son, Anders, the musical world mourns the loss of Herman Silberman, who died April 15. Ever grateful to his own teachers, Mr. Silberman spent a lifetime inspiring and nurturing young musicians.

For the young man who stood before that door four years ago, the loss is profound. He has lost his friend.


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