From David Black
I'm not going to try to describe Mrs. Cowan's teaching. Jeff and Steven and others have already done that, better than I could. (If you haven't read Jeff's book chapters, I encourage you to do so.) Instead, I'm simply going to chronicle some specifics of my interaction with Mrs. Cowan over the course of the ten years during which we worked, albeit intermittently, together.
It was 1970, and I was eleven years old. My family, whose home was New Haven, Connecticut in the US, was living in London for the fall term, specifically August 1970 through January 1971. I had been studying cello for two years. I didn't have a teacher in London. I did, however, have a (rented) cello. Trouble was, I'd pretty much stopped practicing. My mother concluded that I wasn't really interested in music, and told me that we would return the cello and I would no longer take lessons. I explained to her that I wasn't practicing because I didn't have a teacher.
So she opened the phone book, looked up music schools, and spotted a listing for something called the International Cello Centre.
She phoned the Centre and spoke with Mrs. Cowan, who explained that she herself was not taking new students but that she would listen to me play and assign me a teacher. In due course my mother and I went off to Ladbroke Grove, where I played for Mrs. Cowan. She said that she would teach me herself. I don't think it was because I was such a brilliant cellist; it was more a "chemistry" thing, a feeling on both sides that this was a great student/teacher match.
I took lessons with Mrs. Cowan for the rest of our time in London. Then we went home, and I went back to my hometown teacher—who was, I always felt, quite jealous of Mrs. Cowan, about whom I spoke in glowing terms. And they taught very different techniques, which means I probably came home from London doing a lot of things "wrong" in my teacher's eyes. Be that as it may, I stayed in touch with Mrs. Cowan and took more lessons from her in the summer of 1974, when I was staying with some family friends in London. I made her aware of my particular love for Saint-Saëns, and we focused that summer on that composer's first cello sonata.
I came back to London, for a shorter visit, in the summer of 1975, by which time Mrs. Cowan had moved to Edrom. I visited her there. During the course of that visit she first suggested that I consider coming to Edrom as a full-time student.
I finished high school in the spring of 1976 (having skipped a grade), and that fall I set off for Edrom. I stayed at Edrom for two years. At the beginning of my last term, I told Mrs. Cowan that I had decided not to come back for a third year. She seemed to accept my decision at first, but in fact turned out to be quite upset by it. There wasn't much I could do; I was nineteen years old and rather envious of my friends at American universities who had thriving social lives. Edrom was wonderful, but it was isolated.
By the end of that last term, Mrs. Cowan had pretty clearly put her stamp of disapproval on me. There was some incident where a bunch of us had done something musically reprehensible, and I noticed that she was more angry at the others than at me. "You've decided to be an amateur," was her explanation; in other words, having decided against a third year at Edrom, I wasn't worth the trouble of getting mad at.
So it didn't end particularly well, as far as 1978 was concerned. But it wasn't over. At Steve Doane's encouragement, I went back to Edrom for the summer term in 1980, between my sophomore and junior years at Yale. Yes, there was some of the old disapproval ("You could have been a superb cellist!"). But there was also relief: she saw and heard for herself that, despite two years away from her, I hadn't abandoned her teachings. "David teaches himself," she had occasion to say during one class.
And that was that. I did see her again, but it was 1995 and she was in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's disease. I swear she was pronating her right hand in a way that evoked a bowing gesture... but who knows? It was a sad day in many ways, but one I was grateful for.
Mrs. Cowan was the major formative influence on me growing up, apart from my parents. In some ways, having a relationship with her as a child was like having a third parent: I lived and died with her approval or withholding of it. That's a high-risk way for a child to live, but it's also high-reward. And she influenced me greatly as a teacher. I taught media studies to undergraduates for thirteen years, and while almost nothing could be further from giving cello lessons and music classes, I felt very strongly the precedent and influence of Mrs. Cowan steering me toward a certain intensity, a laying claim to a primary stake in my students' lives which I think, at times, took the students by surprise. It's only a lecture course on the history of American broadcasting; why is he trying to teach us life lessons?
I cannot begin to calculate what I owe her.June 2015