A Conversation with Stephanie Winters (continued)
SW: I was a natural achiever and wanted to do well and liked getting good grades and all that. And I was going to a Levittown public school that wasn't--I mean, now, I'm grateful that they had a music program, and relative to what's available today, they had a good instrumental program where you could be in band and orchestra in third grade.
PM: Right. I went to parochial school, and if you wanted to sing in the choir, which we did, that was fine, but that's all that was offered.
SW: Yeah, so without that public school program, I never would have found this path. But then later on, when I was in high school, I went to Juilliard Pre-college, and compared to reality, my training was utterly inadequate.
PM: But still you got into Juilliard?
PM: What did you call it? Juilliard...?
PM: And so you were serious enough to get in, anyway. You had to audition?
SW: Yeah. I played in a lot of the youth orchestras that were for the--I guess you'd say for the better string players, there'd just be these different youth orchestras. And my mother was very willing to drive me around on Wednesday night or Tuesday night, or whatever.
PM: She was into it.
SW: Yes. I mean, I wouldn't exactly call her a stage mother, but she definitely did what she could with what she had to try to give me good training. But she had no concept. The really serious string players that I later was trying to hang with had several private lessons a week from a young age and went to music camp, and it was this whole other level of professional training. I eventually got into that but it was a little bit too late. By the time I got to high school, for instance, a now very famous violinist, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, was in my class at Juilliard, and she was already touring around and playing with orchestras.
SW: Oh, yeah...
PM: That's how it's done.
SW: Yeah, that's how it's done. By the time I got to Juilliard, there were kids there who were already soloing with orchestras and I was just entering that world. It was a little bit too late for me to be on that level. But I did benefit from it--in a way it did open up this whole world to me. I was in high school and commuting into New York by myself on the train to take my lessons and go to class on Saturdays.
SW: So it did get me out of Levittown--
SW: --which I couldn't wait to do. I mean, I totally didn't fit into the Catholic, sort of Billy Joel "I'm Moving Out" world.
SW: That's the world I grew up in, the Italian restaurant, the pizza parlor, the hanging out at the Village Green smoking cigarettes. My friends were getting high and drinking in seventh grade. So I came from this kind of sort of tough working class world, and I was trying to be a classical cellist. It was a little--
PM: And were you listening rather exclusively to classical music, or the music of your peers, or...?
SW: I would go to the library--Levittown actually had a decent library, and I would go to the library and check out all the classical records and books about cello and stuff. But I had a couple of Beatles records, and I had a Steely Dan, and Simon & Garfunkel. And my brother was into the whole Jazz Fusion thing, like Weather Report and that kind of stuff, because by now it was the 70s.
PM: Right. Chick Corea and all that.
SW: Yeah. My brother left home early and moved out. He actually moved to live with my father. And then he went on tour at 17 playing.
PM: What was his instrument, or is?
SW: Trombone, like my father. And so I tried to fit into where I was, but I didn't really fit anywhere. I was into the cello and my friends were all listening to like Led Zeppelin and Peter Frampton and Fleetwood Mac. I didn't really fit in with the sort of rich elite kids who were going to Juilliard, and I didn't really fit in with the working class kids in Levittown. Well, I tried, but... [laughs] So that's sort of where I came from.
PM: Yeah, and from misfits great artists spring.
PM: That's really something. So is your brother still playing?
SW: My brother is a complete eccentric, lives up in Maine, collects any kind of odd instrument and learns to play it. He's really into hurdy-gurdies. I'm into this multitracking thing with the cello, and he sent me a multitracked hurdy-gurdy record [laughs] or something.
SW: Or a record that was just hurdy-gurdy. So he's into that, and he still plays trombone, and he had a little eight-track.
PM: So he's analog. [Not digital, in other words. More old school.]
SW: Yeah, he's analog. And he doesn't do email or anything. And he's into other instruments too, but I don't even know what they're called, but anything odd from especially Eastern Europe, he gets into. But he composed the music--he lives near Orono, Maine, and there was some sort of town anniversary--maybe it was Bangor--and they were putting on a show, sort of like Waiting for Guffman, you know?
SW: And he composed all the music and arranged it for the band. And he freelances up in Maine, however someone may freelance up in Maine.
PM: So he still performs, as well?
SW: Yes. It's not his main thing, but he's definitely--he reads books about Stradivarius and writes me these long, intense letters with two pages of a P.S., and "You should check this out" and "Why don't you get into this?" We're really very different, but he's really something.
PM: Wow. So are your parents still living?
SW: My parents are still living, but I pretty much have nothing to do with my father. And my mother lives in the same building as me. [laughs] Or I live in the same building as her, I guess.
PM: So what became of your mother's artistic pursuits?
SW: She was a talented artist, and we had her paintings around the house when I was growing up, and her drawings and stuff. When she graduated--and it took her a while to graduate because she was going part-time as a single mom--she taught art briefly, and then took the path of the rest of her family and went and got a civil service job because it was safe, it was secure. She worked for the county until she retired. She's an usher at the State Theater at Lincoln Center, and she goes to performances all the time, and loves them, and goes to art museums, and totally loves the arts.
PM: So she must be very happy with what you've done with your life.
SW: I never really think about it in that way, but she certainly doesn't have a problem with it. At one point she said, "I'm sorry I pushed you. I thought you'd be happy if you had music, I didn't realize what a hard life it was." So I think she's a little--I wouldn't say regretful, but--
PM: Mixed feelings.
SW: Well, she just recognizes that you make sacrifices. I mean, as I'm sure you know, it's not the easiest path. But if you've got to do it, then you've got to do it. It seems like I've got to do it, because I have actually quit the cello a couple of times and tried to redirect my life, and I just always end up playing again, like I can't help it. So now I've kind of given up on the idea of being more practical.
PM: Good for you. If you don't mind going into it, when did you try to give up the cello, and what did you try instead? continue