In Memoriam Phyllis Young, 1925-2017

Mrs Young and MW

Miranda Wilson with Phyllis Young, Austin, 2005

Sixteen Novembers ago, on a grey, dreary day, a bright yellow book fell off a London library shelf and landed on my feet. Had it not done this, my life might have turned out considerably differently.

Playing The String Game by Phyllis Young wasn’t your average book of string pedagogy. Every aspect of teaching technique was conveyed in imaginative, kinesthetic language, accompanied by whimsical line drawings. Even quite hard concepts, like teaching a child to hold the bow, were made into an entertaining game. “See this imaginary bucket of water? I’d like you to dip your right hand into it…” “…Pick a strawberry with your second finger and thumb, then take a fresh hold on the bow…” [1]

As I flipped through her book, I thought This woman knows everything about teaching people cello.

I knew that I wanted to teach. I also knew that London, where I’d been studying, was a place of strange hierarchies and caste systems, a game whose rules no one would let me in on, an endless series of slammed doors and rejection letters. Phyllis Young’s biography said she was a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, a place I had never heard of. An idea came into my head. I checked out the book, then hurried out of the library and into an internet cafe across the street. Before I could lose my nerve, I looked up the University of Texas, found Phyllis Young’s email address, and composed a message in which I asked whether she had any places in her doctoral program.

Two days later, I had a response. Yes, she was accepting new doctoral candidates, and yes, I might come to Austin and audition for her. I went to a travel agent bought a plane ticket.

I had never been to America before, except for the transit lounge at Los Angeles, a stepping-stone between my home in New Zealand and my adopted country, Britain. I was dimly aware of New York City and Washington DC, but Texas was only a name on a map. I found myself at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport one late night in January 2002, ready for the adventure I was sure was in store.

Things started badly when I tried to get in the driver’s door of the taxi I’d hailed to take me to my hotel. Then when I got to the hotel, I was astonished to be addressed by the Texan proprietor as “Ma’am.” I assumed he must be addressing someone standing behind me, so I looked around, but I was the only person in the lobby. Had he mistaken me for a grown-up? O brave new world!

Almost as soon as I’d put my bags down, the telephone in my hotel room rang. “Is this Mirinda?” said a bright, heavily-accented voice. “This is Phyllis Young.” We conversed for twenty minutes, during which she did most of the talking, and I tried to respond as politely as I could given that I could understand almost nothing of what she said. Finally, she ordered “Come to my office tomorrow at four. I’m going to hang up now.” Click.

I got lost in the cavernous lobby of the School of Music and then in the tangle of green-carpeted hallways and mezzanines before I found my way to Mrs. Young’s office on the fifth floor.

A colourful vision greeted me at the door. I had learned from my researches that Mrs. Young was in her late seventies, but the woman before me looked at least thirty years younger. She was as tall as me, slender, and clad in a silk blouse of boldest yellows, oranges, and pinks. Her hair was a swirling confection the colour of butterscotch pudding. Two bright brown eyes — which I later learned missed absolutely nothing — looked back appraisingly at me. “Mercy!” exclaimed the vision. “Why, you’re a real pretty girl. They must make a fuss of you in Luhn-don!

“Er, no, they really don’t,” I said, and the vision pealed with laughter. “Honey,” she said conspiratorially, “you have just a little bit of an ayac-cent.”

I opened my mouth to reply, but she went on. “You must be hungry, honey. I’m going to take you to dinner now.” She drove me — terrifyingly, talking a mile a minute as she screeched around corners — to the biggest, flashiest restaurant I had ever seen, and ordered a platter of shrimp so enormous that I could only stare at them. An elderly admirer of hers who had joined us (“He’s not my sweetheart, honey”), and who insisted on paying the not insubstantial bill, proudly informed me that “Everything’s bigger in Texas.” I was enchanted.

After dinner, Mrs. Young wanted to show me her splendid home in West Austin, with its view of Palladio Point from the vast picture windows that extended the entire length of one side of the house. Brilliantly-coloured souvenirs from Mrs. Young’s many travels covered the shelves, and the white walls were hung with vivid abstract paintings by an artist called Felice Giovanni. (Mrs. Young confided that Felice Giovanni was none other than herself. Was there anything she couldn’t do?!) I asked if Mr. Young were home, since Mrs. Young’s answering machine message said “Phyllis and Giorgio Young.” More peals of laughter. “Giorgio is my little dog,” she told me. “He can talk, you know.” Right on cue, an immaculately groomed white dog clattered out onto the tiled floor to greet me. “He understands present, past and future tenses.”

Mrs. Young always had a huge studio of cello students, a workload I later realized was far more than a full-time professorial teaching load. Her graduates could be found all over the world as professors, orchestral players, studio teachers, schoolteachers, and freelancers of all stripes. She was proud of them all, but especially of the one who’d ended up in the New York Philharmonic. Her teaching style was characterized by simple, easily memorable kinesthetic methods: “No hills, no valleys, no detours!” was her instruction on left wrist positioning; she got you to find your left arm’s correct elevation by knocking your fist (“A friendly fist”) up and down the string so you could shift easily between neck and thumb position. If you messed up a shift on an up-bow, she’d have you play it on a down-bow to see if it went better, and then instruct you to imitate the down-bow’s sound with the up-bow. Noticing my tendency to play flat-knuckled, she showed me how to maintain a pronounced bend in my base knuckles, which improved not only my intonation in thumb position but my ability to vibrate freely too. Her solutions to technical problems demystified the idea of having “good technique,” a thing that’s often presented as impossible to attain for all except a lucky, very exclusive club of top players.

I mean no disloyalty when I say that Mrs. Young and I weren’t a good fit for each other as teacher and student. Some of it was that we had trouble with each other’s accents — our conversations were hampered by mutual incomprehension, such as the hilarious occasion when she repeatedly told me I was “a little hottie,” and it wasn’t until several hours later that I realized she was scolding me for being haughty. And our priorities were wildly different: I was interested in analysis and scholarly performing editions and so on, and Mrs. Young wasn’t. Her concept of musical interpretation was joyous, almost childlike. She loved the big Romantic pieces, and didn’t much care for new music. When I protested that I’d like to play some, she said she’d compromise by letting me learn George Crumb’s solo sonata — a piece composed in 1955! She had no truck with the early music movement either, preferring long, singing lines and continuous wide vibrato — a “Texas-sized tone,” she called it. Woe betide you if you wanted to learn Bach in a more historically-informed manner. “Bach without vibrato? You won’t get a job if you play like that,” was Mrs. Young’s scathing response to my protests.

We fought constantly over this, and over her insistence on bowing with flat hair, a thing I found uncomfortable. Eventually, she told me “Well, honey, you can do what you want, but your tiny little tone isn’t going to impress many people.” Nettled, I retorted — with a malice of which I was immediately ashamed — “I would rather listen to a cellist with a small tone and something musically interesting to say than a cellist with a big syrupy tone and nothing behind it.”

There was a dreadful silence while we both took in what had just occurred. It simply wasn’t done to answer back to Mrs. Young, especially not when it came to the Texas-sized tone. Finally she spoke, in her normal voice. “Honey, I hope you’re not expecting to have a career.” Mrs Young 1, Miranda 0. What a horrid brat I was!

Even if we were often at loggerheads, Mrs. Young inspired my admiration. She had been on the University of Texas faculty since the nineteen-forties, when she was the only woman professor in the School of Music. She had plenty of stories about institutional sexism and male colleagues who patronized and condescended to her, dumped a pile of work on her, then took credit for her achievements. These experiences had shaped her into a staunch feminist and, in her own words, “a yellow-dog Democrat.” “What’s a yellow-dog Democrat?” I said. (Goodness, what a curious turn of phrase these Texans had.) “It means that if the Democrats nominated a yellow dog for their candidate, I’d vote for him,” said Mrs. Young.

It wasn’t until we attended a reception hosted by a philanthropic foundation for retired professional women together that I understood something about why Mrs. Young was the way she was. All the ladies in the organization, which had given me a generous scholarship, had had careers as judges and professors and lawyers and surgeons. It was like being in a room full of Mrs. Youngs. Like her, they were perfect Texan ladies: impressively coiffed, made up, bejewelled, and dressed in dazzling colours. Like her, they all went by the title Mrs. even though they had earned the right to use Dr. or Judge or Professor, and like her, their sweet speaking voices came with minds like steel traps. They had been pioneers in their fields in a time when men really didn’t want them there. I suddenly realized that Mrs. Young’s eccentric demeanour might not have been innate, but a persona carefully cultivated to trick those chauvinistic male professors into finding her unthreatening.

I often wondered how Mrs. Young’s life might have been different had she been born in 1945 instead of 1925. Might the women’s movement have made it possible for her to spend less time doing things for other people, and more time on things for herself? By the time I knew her, she hadn’t played in public for many years, but in her youth she’d been the star student of Horace Britt and a member of André Navarra’s masterclass in Italy. Her demonstrations in lessons, even at eighty, were technically impressive. What must she have sounded like at the height of her powers?

One day, I had the chance to find out. My two best friends from studio, A and J, came bouncing into my practice room, breathless and chattering. “I wanted to know if there were any recordings of PY,” said A, “so I looked up the online catalogue in the Fine Arts Library and there was an old tape from the 1940s. I think we should go over and listen to it.”

“We mustn’t!” I said. “Mrs Young wouldn’t like it. She’d go ballistic.”

“What PY doesn’t know won’t make her ballistic,” said A seraphically. “Are you coming or not?”

We hurried out into the sunshine, filled with glee over the wickedness we were about to commit. With our best butter-wouldn’t-melt expressions, we convinced first a librarian, then an archivist, then the archivist’s boss to go on an hour-long search for an ancient reel-to-reel cassette and an archaic machine for playing it on. Finally, we plugged headphones into the adaptive sound system.

First on the tape was the Bach C minor suite, played very much in the highly vibrated, sostenuto tradition of the mid-twentieth century, but with careful nuance and the long, long phrases of the “golden thread” that Mrs. Young always exhorted us to spin. Next was a Romantic piece that we couldn’t identify, and later learned was the Variations Symphoniques by Léon Boëllmann. Last, a Vivaldi concerto played with orchestral accompaniment. It was simply beautiful playing, the kind that makes you want to listen again and again. I felt a kind of mourning that this was Mrs. Young’s single contribution to recorded history. Would anyone digitize this frail treasure before it crumbled into ashes?

Everyone who knew Mrs. Young can describe her unstoppable energy, her generosity, and her kindness. She was so, so kind to me, even if I didn’t always deserve it. One day she found me weeping in a practice room over a broken love affair. “What’s the matter, honey?”

I told her.

“Oh, you’ve left that boy? I’m so glad,” was her response. I looked up in amazement. “Mirinda, honey,” she explained, “you’re such a pretty girl, and that boy, well, he was kinda homely. I was so worried y’all wouldn’t have pretty babies.”

This revelation surprised me so much that I burst out laughing. All of a sudden I couldn’t stop laughing. I laughed and laughed until my sides hurt, and Mrs. Young laughed too, and we fell into each other’s arms, bonding guiltily over our lookist prejudice. Dear Mrs. Young!

Later, to cheer me up, Mrs. Young took me to see the American Ballet Theatre, and the next day insisted on making a present of a bracelet she’d been wearing that I’d admired. I treasure it. I’ve kept it on ever since I learned of her death two days ago. How kind she was.

After I left UT, I got to see Mrs. Young one more time when she came to visit me at my then home in Boulder, Colorado, where she had travelled to visit some of her family. She asked after my career, and then, while I was making lunch for her in my landlady’s kitchen, wanted to know if I’d met any marvellous men recently. Blushing, I admitted that I had.

“What’s his name, honey?” she wanted to know.

“Sean,” I said.

“Well, I want to know his last name too!” insisted Mrs. Young. I told her that it was Butterfield.

Mrs. Young was silent for a moment, her head on one side, fixing that all-seeing gaze on me. “Well, honey,” she said brightly, “you know that a lot of girls keep their maiden names these days.”

She wouldn’t come to our wedding less than a year later, saying that it was a long way to travel to watch someone say “I do.” For a wedding present, she wrote me a wonderful letter of recommendation that helped me get my job at the University of Idaho.

After that, I didn’t hear from Mrs. Young for a while. And then I got a long letter from her. She had evidently decided that I needed to learn an important lesson. “As you may possibly remember, you were pretty blunt to some of us here at UT but you managed OK because Texans tend to be a bit more forgiving than some others — especially when the person is a guest from another country.  We tend to think that bluntness or the lack of sensitivity might be a general characteristic of the people who live in that country.” She went on: “Remember: Try very hard not to say anything blunt or unpleasant to any faculty, staff, or student there in your Idaho job. We never know who will be appointed or elected to serve on the faculty committee which will decide our fate when the question of re-hiring or the matter of tenure comes up. It seems that almost everything is revealed and discussed openly in these committees which are always held behind closed doors. And we never know which staff members or students might be quoted.”

She signed it “Phyllis.”

Reading this sent me into a fit of the sulks. Even after all these years, was I still in trouble with Mrs. Young? I’d grown up now; I’d changed; I wasn’t the same early-twenties brat any more. I knew how to behave myself in a faculty meeting and I wasn’t stupid enough to pick fights with colleagues. Couldn’t she stop scolding me, ever?

Then I felt ashamed of myself, remembering how kind she had been to me and how disagreeable I had been to her, always arguing when I should have been listening. Eventually I wrote a careful response saying that I was grateful for her wise advice, and that I asked her forgiveness for all the times I had been disrespectful.

She didn’t write back, and I never heard from her again.

I learned later that she had written many letters to former students that month. She’d received a dismaying diagnosis, but she didn’t tell us that. She was writing to us to say goodbye, to teach us one last “life lesson” that she knew we needed to know.

Just like the cover of her book, Phyllis Young was a sunburst of bright yellow in a world full of grey. How lucky we were to know her. Her legacy lives on in the thousands of lives that she touched. How we loved her, and how we miss her.

[1] Phyllis Young, Playing the String Game. Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1978, 22-24.

© Miranda Wilson, 2017. No part of this blog post may be reproduced without the permission of the author.

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