XIV. Dyslexia and Its Discontents

Henry Winkler (“The Fonz” from Happy Days) was denigrated as being an underachiever as a child, and is one of many people who has had difficulties with dyslexia throughout his life. He mentioned in an interview that you don’t get over dyslexia: you just learn to deal with it.

I wasn’t able to read words until I was nine years old, and was only able to do so with the insistent help of my father. I have never been offically diagnosed with dyslexia, and have therefore never received proper therapy for it. Translating difficulties with dyslexia into musical terms seems to be rather rare, and because I kept it a secret for my entire professional life, I have no method for comparison with other musicians. I imagine that most people like me compensate by using their ears rather than their eyes to translate what they see on the page into sound.

A lot of orchestral cello parts are relatively easy, and sounding great while playing sustained notes makes a tremendous impression. It is also rather easy to hear harmony from the bottom up, and it is rare that the bottom of a chord gets drowned out by the notes above it, unless you want it to be drowned out. Whenever the cello section has 16th notes or 32nd notes (I think of them as “herds of zebras”) they are almost always doubled by the violins or drowned out by the brass. The main responsiblities of being principal cellist have to do with playing beautiful solos and interacting rhythmically with incision and bite. I happened to be good at those particular skills, and consequently if anything was said against me, conductors would have attributed it to professional jealousy rather than my shortcomings.

One of the things that I learned in my first opera season playing Salome is that “something is always better than nothing.” There is a quintuplet passage in that opera that I could somehow have faked, but instead of faking it, I converted it into patterns that fit my hand, and I organized the patterns into groups of four 16th notes per beat. When I played it in context I simply made sure that the first note of every beat was the one that Strauss had put in the original part. I ended up sounding better than anybody else, and I sounded better in every important way: I was louder, more incisive, and better in tune. I could drown out the whole cello section because I was absolutely sure of what I was doing, when my colleagues were not.

I simply did what was necessary to be able to deliver the goods at the moment of truth any way I could. I listened to recordings endlessly, and I practiced difficult passages very slowly. I would repeat the passages at incrementally faster tempos, going notch by notch on the metronome until they were at the required speed. I would make recordings of myself playing exposed cello passages, and I would repeat each passage six times. I would then play many times with the resulting tape, which would allow me to play exposed cello passages in operas and ballets with a level of reliability and panache that conductors always appreciated.

When I had tricky syncopations in contemporary music, or when I had passages to play at speeds beyond which I could actually hear, like those in Alban Berg’s Lulu and Michael Tippet’s Midsummer’s Marriage, I used the half-speed dial on my now-antiquated tape recorder to record accurate versions of myself playing the passages. I would then play along with the resulting tape at full speed. This enabled me to train myself to play by ear rather than by eye.

When there was the possibility of being covered up by the violins, or if I could be kept in line by other instruments playing the same music, I would fake shamelessly and save my energy for the parts that were truly exposed.

In spite of my severe reading difficulties, I survived (and actually thrived) as a principal cellist for half a century. My father was very fond of saying, “Some people are cheered on as they race through every test, get straight A’s in whatever they try to do, and find themselves at a dead end. Others are marooned and shipwrecked for years, but eventually get to where they need to go.” I definitely fit into the latter category.