I Find My Teacher

In honor of the 60th birthday of Israel, I share some of my shorter Israel stories. jsg

I Find My Teacher or My Teacher Finds Me

Oud: classical stringed instrument of the Middle East.
ancestor to the guitar, generally eleven strings, no frets

It was time for me to acquire a decent instrument, a world class oud, even if I couldn’t play it or could play it only in my own indiosyncratic, style. I was visiting in California one summer, a small town between the bustle of Los Angeles and the desert of Palm Springs, where there was a particularly wonderful music store. In Claremont, California, Charles Chase had settled sixty years earlier, a transplant from Massachusetts, and opened a music store that reflected Mr. Chase’s loves: world music, beautiful instruments, poetry. There was a kiosk outside the store where you could post a poem, and Charles’ own self published poetry chapbooks were available at the cash register.

Charles had been warehousing the finest guitar woods for decades – Brazilian rosewood, curly maples – and he found various artists to make instruments for him. He commissioned a small group of ouds from an Armenian oud maker who was then living in Orange County. The problem with the middle eastern oud is always the wood. Wood is a premium in the middle east, and the instrument makers are not accustomed to the finer woods that the western luthiers use.

The combination of good western guitar woods and the eastern oud sensibility produced a dozen magnificent brazilian rosewood and maple instruments. I bought one of them, but I didn’t know how to play it. The educated eye could spot it as a world class instrument from across a room.

Not long after I acquired my instrument, I read that there was an Israeli Arab-Jewish musical group touring the United States led by a great Arab master of the oud. I went to see them thinking I might make a connection with some needed lessons on my instrument. I was still playing in an idiosyncratic style, playing the oud like a classical guitar. I figured that my beautiful instrument might be a good introduction to the oud player in the group, so I came to the concert early, brought my oud with me, and found a seat in the front row my beloved oud nestled in my lap.

I loved the intimate sound of the instrument: the sound of flesh and string, the pure acoustic sound. Oud means wood in Arabic and that’s what I heard in the playing of the oud, the liberation of music lurking in wood, coaxed out by finger, nail, flesh. I approached the oud as I did the classical guitar: I played it with my fingers, no plectrum, like the guitar I preferred the feel of my fingers directly on the strings. I knew I owned an extraordinary instrument, but my style was my own, and I never learned enough to play the instrument in concert.

I hoped that even the sight of my instrument from the stage would be my ticket of introduction to the oud master. I sat quietly through the concert with my oud on my lap. It was a magnificent concert. I could see that the oud master noticed my instrument right away. After the concert he motioned me to approach the stage. He looked at my instrument and invited me backstage where we could talk privately.

He asked about my instrument. I told him the story. He asked me to play for him, which I did in my unconventional style. “That’s interesting,” he said, “but of course all wrong.”

“Teach me right,” I said, knowing in my bones in my blood that this may be the one opportunity in my life to receive proper instruction on my instrument.

He laughed and informed me that he no longer took private students, he was much too busy, and besides, he lived in Israel.

“I’ll come,” I said. I meant it. He laughed more, but he saw my seriousness and relented.

“Come to Israel and I will teach you. But bring your instrument.”

We had been talking about a sabbatical in my family, so we packed up our three kids, moved to Israel for the better part of a school year, and I left for one of the great adventures of my life.