Living with Music: A Glorious Journey

Living with Music: A Glorious Journey

By Robert DiYanni, New York University

“The enjoyment of music is always suffused with past experience.”

—Ralph Ellison




Music has suffused my life, though I didn’t realize just how pervasively until I wrote this memoir. Writing Living with Music has taken me on a voyage of discovery in which I found myself reliving in memory significant parts of my past. The book got its start at a conference workshop in which the presenter invited participants to write about an object of value. I wrote about my father’s (and grandfather’s) mandolin, the first and most important of my family music stories. Further stories about music and family followed, along with others recounting musical experiences with friends and people I met around the world.

I have been motivated by my belief in music as a spiritual value and socializing force. Music moves the heart and enlarges the soul. Sharing music with others alleviates solitude, spreads joy, and connects us with loved ones; music affects us all, unites us all.

I have organized the book chronologically across chapters, but have taken liberties with time within chapters. Although stories of music predominate, you will also find descriptions of performers, performances, and instruments, along with occasional musical analysis. Toward the end I speculate about music’s purposes and pleasures, its meaning and value.
Reading my memoir of music vignettes will likely prompt you to recollect your own memories of music. In relishing those memories, you may well create your own imaginative music memoir and embark on your own glorious journey of musical remembrance.


Chapter One: Youth and Music

Strings That Bind

My father played the mandolin. So did his father. So, too, do I. My grandfather taught my father to play as my father taught me, and as he also taught my siblings and other relatives. He made us into players and lovers of music—true amateurs.

We made music on Sundays. After Mass and an early dinner, my father would open his Gibson mandolin case and hold up for our admiration his F-4 Florentine style mandolin with its gleaming cherry sunburst finish, rope marquetry decorating its oval sound-port, an elegant instrument that had belonged to his father, who passed it on to him, and which after my father’s death, became mine. Out would come my mandolin—a simpler model that my father had bought for me when I was fifteen, a Gibson A-4, a similar but more basic version of his mandolin, which lacked the gracefully turned scroll and the tapered mother-of-pearl inlaid peg head of my father’s F-4.
Out of their cases, too, would come a couple of guitars, to be played by my brothers or my uncle Henry, or sometimes my godfather, Tony, who also played mandolin. The music we made each Sunday connected us, linked and bonded us then and binds those of us living now, in memory, long after we plucked our last strings together.

When my father died, in 1987, I played our mandolin at his funeral. My brother Ed played guitar, and my cousin Andy, who had also been taught by our father, played second mandolin. It was an unusual musical complement for a funeral, though a fitting tribute to my father. We played the Elizabeth Waltz, which my grandfather had written for my grandmother, the most lyrical and best loved of his compositions, and the one my father and I unfailingly played every time we made music together. I play it to this day, solo, with its cascading melody, intertwining harmonies, and lilting rhythm evoking his image. I imagine him playing beside me, his thick-fingered left hand snaking along the fret-board, his right hand sustaining a fluid tremolo with his favorite triangular tortoise-shell pick.

On occasions when my extended family gathers—from New Jersey and Ohio, from Colorado and California and New York—our mandolins and guitars shrink the distance that divides us. For one of those gatherings, my sister Susan, now prematurely deceased, videotaped us. The 1987 reunion would be my father’s last. Four months later he died following complications from cardiac surgery.

Visiting him in the hospital a few days following his surgery, I had my mandolin with me. On this occasion, I noticed how he slumped, tilted in his chair, his head drooped sideways, his arms dangling over the sides. As I played through a medley of Italian songs he had taught me years before, he was nodding off, nearly asleep, until I made, on an intricate passage, the slightest of slips no one but he would have heard. Opening his eyes, he said, “Bobby, that’s not how that part goes; try it again.” I laughed aloud and replayed the phrase, correctly this time, as he settled into a silent slumber.

Later that day, after I had returned home, I learned that my father had had a stroke and gone into a coma from which he never woke. This would be the last time he spoke to me, the final words of his conscious life words about music, about getting the notes right.

Still later, when my wife and I kept vigil by his side at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, I brought with me recordings of mandolin music I had taped for him—concertos by Vivaldi and Paisiello along with tapes of the Italian songs my grown brothers and I had made with him in his living room. We played imperfectly but with feeling traditional Italian songs my grandfather had arranged for two mandolins and guitar—Arrivederci Roma, Tra Vegli e Sonno, Torna a Sorrriento, among them. And of course, the Elizabeth Waltz. My father announced the title of each piece into a microphone, while my mother listened from the kitchen, periodically exclaiming her pleasure in our playing. “That was beeyootiful,” she would croon, in response to one song after another.

At the hospital, by my father’s bedside, I had a Sony Walkman tape player. I slid its little earphones over his head, adjusting them to hug his big ears, and hoped and prayed that as my father slipped slowly out of this world, he was hearing celestial sounds, angelic harmonies, perhaps even the music of the spheres.


Learning Mandolin and Guitar

The first piece I learned on the mandolin was “Cielito Lindo,” a popular Mexican song with a well-known refrain that includes “Ai, Yai, Yai, Yai.” I was ten when my father began teaching me. We played on weekends. I remember bright wintry days when snow covered the ground and my friends spent the lazy afternoon sledding down the hill outside our house. I could see them from the big picture window in the living room of our split-level stone and shingle house, which my father built himself. While they cavorted outside, yelling and laughing, I struggled through “Cielito Lindo,” Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” and the G major, C major, and D major scales.

A few years later, when I was a high school sophomore, I began to take a serious interest in playing mandolin. I had learned enough to keep up with my father, mostly playing second mandolin parts to his first on pages transcribed in the hand of my grandfather. I can still see his small neat script in thin black ink with the titles of each piece above: “Rimpianto,” “April,” “D-minor Mazurka,” “Sogno di Bimba” (Dream of a Girl), “Tango of the Roses,” “O Marinariello”—“The Sailor Song,” and many more.

I remember early mornings before school, my parents in the kitchen, the smell of coffee brewing and bacon frying, I in the living room practicing. I learned that sophomore year the hardest piece I have ever played, a triplet study, “Piogge di Rose” (“Showers of Roses”). I play it still, enjoying the challenge of its non-stop triplet figures, sliding my left hand up and down the fingerboard, my right hand picking down-up-down insistently and evenly, varying the tempo ever so slightly to keep the piece from sounding mechanical, like a study, instead of like music.

My father’s first guitar instruction was teaching me how to play three chords: G, D 7th and C. Once I mastered these and could change comfortably from one to another—all played in first position and with some open strings, my father would play mandolin pieces in the key of G and have me provide the ONE-two-three, OOM-pah-pah accompaniment for waltzes and mazurkas, and the ONE-two, OOM-pah backup for marches and polkas. As some of the pieces were written in keys other than G—in D and d-minor, in C and F, in a-minor and g-minor, for example—I was soon learning other chords, always in groups of three, so as to be able to make basic chord changes in those keys to accompany his mandolin. My father would cue me on the chord changes, tilting his head left for the first change, then straight ahead for the return to the tonic chord home key, and over to the right for a change to a different harmonically related chord.

My younger brothers also learned guitar chords this way. And so, before long Eddie and Richie played guitars while my father and I handled the first and second mandolin parts, my dad’s head tilting left and right and center to cue their chord changes as he had cued mine. Thus began a musical journey that has taken me to many parts of the world, toting my mandolin and guitar, playing throughout the United States, and into Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.


Instrument Menagerie

My father played not only mandolin and guitar, but a host of other instruments as well, all with varying degrees of skill. Mandolin and guitar he would play in public, for friends and family, and occasionally at hospitals and churches. Mostly, however, he enjoyed playing at home.

Instruments I saw him play only at home include a large saxophone, a clarinet, a flute, a trumpet, a trombone, and a tuba. In addition to these woodwinds and brasses, which he played respectably—though there were times he would get as many squeaks and squawks out of them as smooth round sounds or clear bright tones—he also had an assortment of stringed instruments, including a violin, a ukulele, a mandola, four-and five-string banjos, and a banjo mandolin with mandolin strings across its taut round banjo skin top.

For a while, too, he had a little harmonica and a sizable keyboard and button accordion, both of which he could play passably, and a small xylophone and a glockenspiel, on which I would tap out simple tunes. In our living room sat a small Hammond organ, which he played occasionally, mostly on Sundays, turning its ivory colored plastic keys to the imitated sounds of different instruments, including a number of those in his instrumental menagerie.

As a young boy, I used to enter his closet and attempt to play what for me were his more exotic instruments. I had a hard time getting a sound out of his trumpet. I would suck in my breath, puff out my cheeks, and blow real hard, but I created mostly hisses, rarely eliciting anything resembling a sustained single tone.

I was defeated equally by his trombone. And I never tried to play his sax or clarinet, as those instruments each had a special mouthpiece with wood reeds cut to fit.

Guitars and mandolins he had in abundance. He was able to secure a Gibson mandolin for each of his children. He also had a couple of Gibson guitars on hand as well as some inexpensive Yamahas that he would improve by filing down the nut on each instrument and lowering the strings to make the guitars easier to play.

When he died, I was responsible for distributing his instruments, especially extra mandolins and guitars. My brother Ed got his big Gibson acoustic guitar. My little ¾ size Guild mahogany guitar, which I played in college, went to one of my sisters. His Gibson mandolins were distributed among siblings, cousins, and in-laws, who retain them and play them today, more than three decades later. His brasses and woodwinds, percussion instruments, and instrumental odds and ends were sent on a far-flung diaspora. They all wound up in the hands of appreciative players, for whom those instruments and his spirit remain a spiritual legacy.




Chapter One: Youth and Music

Strings that Bind / Learning Mandolin and Guitar / Instrument Menagerie Two Henrys / Boy Choirs / 45s in the 60s / Folk Music and Musicians


Chapter Two: College and Grad School Music

Music at Maryknoll / Mandolin Master / Dorm Music Seduction / Guitar Lessons and Another Woman / Beethoven Engagement Gifts / Painting with Music


Chapter Three: Music in Young Adulthood

Do You Sing to Your Child? / Music Guessing Games / Music School and Music Camp / Learning Piano / Nutcrackers / Deaf Nutcracker / On the Road, Up in the Air / New York Youth Symphony / Buying Music and Recordings / Speakers and Music Systems / Violin Teachers / Finding the Right Violin / Alternative Violins / Extraordinary Old Italian Violins/ Music from Balconies / Graduation Recitals /Outdoor Music / Wedding Music / No Day Without Music


Chapter Four: Favorite Popular Performers

Johnny Cash / Keith Richards / The Everly Brothers / The Beatles Leonard Cohen / Bob Dylan / Woodstock Musicians / Ballad Singers Music of the Birds (and the Byrds) / P.D.Q. Bach / Schubert Symphonies, Sonatinas, Songs, Transcriptions


Chapter Five: Teaching and Learning Music

Fathers and Daughters / Protest Singers / Piccolo Partito Italiano / Guitar Zero / First Classical Guitar Lessons / Music Books / Record Jackets and Jewel Boxes / WQXR, Sirius XM, and Music Education / Schubertiade Keira’s Music School / Master Teachers, Master Classes / Meeting Cecilia Bartoli at Carnegie Hall / Amazing Grace in San Antonio / Doing Music at Queens College / Music Appreciation at Pace University/ Interdisciplinary Teaching—Music Plus / Music Variety at New York University / Special Taipei Teachers and Students / Scarsdale Musicians, Music, and More Lincoln Center Institute, Lincoln Center Education / Improvised Music Teaching


Chapter Six: World Travels and Music

Mandolin in Heidelberg / Mandolino Alitalia / Egyptian Dinners with Mandolin / Rue de Rome, Paris Ad Hoc Concert / Performing Dvorák in Prague / Naming International Tunes—A Competition / Playing from the Heart in Exhibition Halls / Playing in Italian Restaurants for Love and More / Making Music in Paris Hotel Lobbies / Sorrento Amateur Duo, Professional Trio / Madrid Guitarist on the Wall / Shanghai Serenade Accordionists in Munich and Rome / London Music Mélange / Music in Paris Churches / Budapest River Music, Land Music / Special Canadian Musical Moments / International Opera Occasions / Pipa Player Performances / The Other Carnegie Hall / Music Diversity Gala—An International Extravaganza / Visiting Music Stores / Captain Corelli’s Mandolin


Chapter Seven: Classical Guitar Fever

Grand Central Music / The Classical Guitar Store / Guitar Stash Syndrome
Trading Guitars / Daryl Perry Guitars / Guitar Calamities / Guitars at Auction / Christopher Parkening’s Guitar / Guitar Controversies / Met Museum—Guitar Heroes / Missed Opportunities / Guitarists and the Boston T / Segovia in New York / Jorge Caballero / Bradley Colten Roland Dyens / Christopher Parkening Once More / Guitarists Galore Bach on the Guitar / Handel on the Guitar / Essential Guitar Composers


Chapter Eight: Instruments and Players Potpourri

Pianos and People / Pianists of Perfection / Pianos in Movies / Pianos and Poems / Violin Virtuosos / Cellists of Renown / Unexpected Ukulele Players / Triumphant Trumpeters / Music Under New York / San Francisco Mandolin Trio / Mandolin Disease and Mishap / Inspiring Instrumental Duos


Chapter Nine: Musical Elegies

Birthday Music I—Women, Wine, and Song / Birthday Music II—Reader, She Married Him / Mandolin Doctor / Playing for the Infirm / Kasper Oktoberfest / Harmonica Rehab / Holiday Music / Music Magic at the Metropolitan Museum / Magnhild Larsen Singing in Norwegian / Little Triptych—Three Special Women / A Christening and a 90th Birthday Music and Meals / French Canals, Dublin Tunes, Russian Food & Music Final Music


Chapter Ten: Music and the Humanities

Music and Meaning: Philosophy Light / Music and Thinking: Competing Perspectives / Music and Metaphor: Thinking Analogically / Writing about Music: Sound & Sense / Music in Literature: Words & Music, Words as Music / Music and Poetry: Beautiful Connections / Music in Shakespeare: Hamlet Soliloquy / Music in Paintings: Unheard Melodies Music in Films: A Marriage of Necessity / Music and Speech: Comparative Structures / Music and Dance: Embodied Rhythms Transcendental Music: Charles Ives’s Heroes / Walt Whitman and Music: The Joy of Song / Streaming Music: Gains and Losses / Music Quotations to Contemplate and Savor / Living with Music


Epilogue: The Elizabeth Waltz Reprised
Appendix: Musical Memories of Friends


Current Writing Projects

My current writing projects are linked below: (1) a book on reading literature (Improvisations); (2) two books on getting smarter (fast and across the board); (3) a pair of memoirs about my teaching life (50 years+) and my life with music (even more years!). Also included is information about my biggest work-in-progress: an encyclopedic summa pedagogica, with the current title: Provocative Pairs—Learning with the World’s Masters (152 chapters—and counting—each chapter a dozen double-spaced pages, with most chapters devoted to a pair of great masters past and present).

For each of these works in the making, I have provided a table of contents and preface. A couple of them also include a sample chapter. An additional book I have in the works is Poems to Live By, for which I’ve included about a third of what I’ve written so far—also with a brief TOC and prefatory note.

Provocative Pairs—Learning with the Masters

Volume I:
Major Influencers Past and Present

Provocative Pairs—Learning with the Masters

Volume II:
Humanities, Sciences, and More

Simply Smart One

How to Get Smarter Fast

Simply Smart Two

How to Get Smart About Humanities

Simply Smart Three

How to Get Smart About Science and Math

Reading Literature: Improvisations and Explorations

The Teaching Life: Why Teaching Matters

Living with Music: A Glorious Journey

Poems to Live By

Essays: Reflections and Ruminations

Robert DiYanni

Robert DiYanni

Author ⪢ | Professor ⪢ | Consultant ⪢

Robert DiYanni is a professor of humanities at New York University, having served as an  instructional consultant at the NYU Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Center for Faculty Advancement. For these centers he conducted workshops and seminars on all aspects of pedagogy, consulted with faculty about teaching concerns, visited and observed classes, and provided a wide range of pedagogical consultative services. Professor DiYanni serves on the faculties of the School of Professional Studies and the Stern School of Business at NYU. He earned his undergraduate degree in English from Rutgers University, attended a Master of Arts in Teaching program at Johns Hopkins University, and received a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature from the City University of New York Graduate Center.  

In addition to his work at NYU, Dr. DiYanni has taught at City University of New York, at Pace University, and as a Visiting Professor at Tsing Hua University in Taiwan and at Harvard University. As a high school teacher for four years and a college professor for more than four decades, Professor DiYanni has taught students from eighth grade through doctoral candidates. Most of his teaching, however, has been with college and university undergraduates. His numerous workshops, offered in more than twenty countries, have been attended by secondary school teachers and administrators, as well as by undergraduate college and university faculty and administrators.

Dr. DiYanni has written and edited numerous textbooks, among them, Literature: An Introduction; The Scribner Handbook for Writers (with Pat C. Hoy II); Arts and Culture: An Introduction to the Humanities, (with Janetta Rebold Benton), the basis for a series of lectures given at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Modern American Poets: Their Voices and Visions, which served as a companion text for the PBS television series Voices and Vision, which aired in the late 1980s.

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