Dad Left Room for the Cello


Both my father and my husband have considered music a beautiful and necessary part of family life.

Daddy raised cattle to make a living, but to make living worthwhile, he played music. He came home at night looking farm-worn and tired, but after supper was over, he revived amazingly as he got out his guitar or violin or banjo or accordion or saxophone—or whatever instrument he was currently playing—and played for us.

With his accompaniment, we danced as we did the dishes and cleaned up the kitchen. No one ever told us that dishes were a bore; we thought we were just having fun, pretending to be celebrities on the radio.

I don’t know how or when Dad had learned to play those instruments; it seemed that he had always known. One time I asked him if he had taken any lessons, and he had replied, “Not enough to hurt my playing any.”

In the morning before sunrise, I heard Dad whistling “Molly and Me” or “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”—love songs that made me feel good inside as I bunched the covers around me for a few more winks, knowing that he and Mom were in the kitchen stoking the fire and, with their arms around each other, making some hard but happy plans.

Some evenings friends came in to play. A “playing night” in our family didn’t mean playing tennis or chess, but playing an instrument. It didn’t matter which one you played; if you played an instrument, you were invited.

We put together some unique instrumental combinations—saxophone, accordion, and organ; or banjo, violin, and trumpet. Whatever the ensemble, it sounded like a symphony to me. I could hardly wait to join the orchestra and the fun.

Long before we were old enough to play with the big folks, we were schooled in music appreciation—although no one ever called it that. When I herded cows in the pasture, Dad sent a windup record player with me. I heard my first opera, Aïda, on the bank of a ditch while I made sure the cows didn’t go into Uncle Donald’s new lucerne. In exchange for our music lessons, Dad traded rich cream from those same cows, or a bale or two of hay.

It was only natural for me to marry a man who knew something about Aïda, La Traviata, and Madame Butterfly. Talmage played the trumpet and had been the student conductor of his high school orchestra, and as we got to know each other better, I learned that he, like my father, considered music a beautiful and necessary part of creating a harmonious family life.

One day after hearing a rendition of the Lalo violin concerto in Relief Society, I stopped by a shop and bought a half-size violin for our six-year-old daughter. When I telephoned my husband, who was just beginning a small business and was watching every penny, I worried about how he would respond to such a sizable purchase.

He reassured me with confidence: “Honey, you did the right thing. Now is the age for her to start. Her spirit is sensitive and receptive. She is a good listener and follows directions, and she’ll do well.” That positive attitude has helped all of our five children to enjoy music.

We first bought one violin, then another, then a piano, then another piano, then a cello, then another cello, and then a trumpet. When an old instrument needed to be upgraded, my husband would say, “The best players need the best instruments,” and he wore second-best suits and drove a secondhand car to provide them.

The daily practice routine at our house was impressive. My husband always had time to sit down, close his eyes, and listen intently to the new piece each child was working on. When he had heard it one time, he usually asked if it had a second verse.

One Sunday—Father’s Day—when the children had formed a string quartet and several of them had been studying voice, they planned to give their father an overdose of their music. They started just after Sunday School (this was before the consolidated meeting schedule, when Sunday School was held at ten in the morning, with sacrament meeting in the evening), playing everything they knew on every instrument they had and singing every song they knew. They thought that he would soon grow tired and restless, but after four hours of listening, with tears streaming down his face, he begged, “Couldn’t you just do the second movement quickly before sacrament meeting starts?”

When our family of five small children arrived at Disneyland, each with his or her own hard-earned money, no one had enough to get the “special of the day,” so my husband bargained: “I’ll give you each ten dollars if you’ll play your instruments for me, at any time I request it, for the next five years!” It seemed easy for them to agree to do so—then. But after the giddiness had gone and the weary days of practicing wore on, that bargain seemed more and more like the one Faust made with Mephistopheles. When Daddy came to collect his tune, each child felt an obligation to produce something—and for Dad, it had to be good! Their promise to him kept them practicing.

Although Talmage played the cornet and prepared a number or two each Christmas for our family party, he could hardly “hold his lip” to keep up with the rigorous schedule outlined by our enthusiastic son Stan, who played the trumpet. So he kept up with Stan’s current tunes by whistling them. Although he could whistle most of the trumpet music—at work he was known as “the whistler himself”—violin music was another challenge. He struggled to meet it, however, and eventually he was able to whistle the Bach double violin concerto the two girls were practicing.

He often came home with a record or a tape in order to listen to the concerto or sonata one of the children was currently learning. One day he came home eager to play a new classical record only to be greeted by loud rock music. He showed righteous indignation, and later, when the children had calmed down, he called them together and talked with them about music that promotes the Spirit of God and that which promotes the spirit of the adversary. He told them that he had spent time, money, and energy to introduce them to the finest of musical literature and that he was disappointed with their choice.

Holidays at our house began with appropriate music. During the Christmas season we listened to the Messiah; on vacation the Grand Canyon Suite; on the Fourth of July, Sousa marches; and in the spring, The Creation. Talmage would start the morning by playing the record. He would sing a few stanzas—“And the glory, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed”—only to be answered by a voice from up- or downstairs.

On our family vacations one child would get on a log in the middle of the lake and begin singing music from an opera, and another member of the family would recognize the music and join in. At times we made up our own words spontaneously to the tune of a piece of classical music. One of the girls might sing, “And where is my brown skirt? I thought it was right here. Oh, dear, Oh, dear! My brown skirt,” to the tune of an aria from Madame Butterfly. My husband always answered with something appropriately clever. Once, in response to the question, “How are the girls, the girls, the girls?” he sang, “Kris is in a hiss, Kath is in a wrath, and Buff [Elizabeth, their friend] is in a huff.”

One year, when our son Stan was preparing to play at the state fair immediately upon returning from our family vacation at Lake Powell, his father encouraged him to bring his trumpet with him to get in his daily practice. In my mind I can still see our son standing at dusk on the cliffs of Mokey Canyon, playing a golden trumpet that glistened in the setting sun. I can almost hear the resounding notes—beginning with Handel’s “The Trumpet Shall Sound” and ending with a Hayden concerto echoing in that resonance chamber created by cliffs rising hundreds of feet toward heaven. Stan seemed like an angel trumpeting the glory of God. With his devoted father to listen with me, I felt as though heaven had come to earth.

For one vacation, we were invited to visit Aunt Eunice’s home on Puget Sound—a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. With seven family members in one car, my husband limited the number and size of the suitcases. But when each of us had produced his or her allotment of belongings, there was still room in the trunk—and everyone ran to get his or her desired treasure to fill the space.

But each was thwarted. Their father had left room on purpose so that we could take the musical instruments—including the cello! We had a family string quartet; to him, it wouldn’t seem like a vacation without music. So when the green Oldsmobile pulled out of the driveway, each person had a suitcase and an instrument—well, everyone except Daddy, who was willing to tuck his things in around the spare tire.

Throughout the years, the children were involved in recitals, concerts, orchestra rehearsals, voice lessons, and school musicals. Each was a special event in the life of a father who was a music devotee. Even the unexpected call from a local voice teacher didn’t bother him. I answered the telephone, and the woman said, “Mrs. Nielsen, I’m a little embarrassed to call you, but I wonder if you would like to pay for Kate’s voice lessons?”

“Voice lessons!” I exclaimed. I didn’t even know that she could sing. Certainly I didn’t know she was taking lessons.

“Well,” the teacher explained, “she has been studying for about six months now and is doing very well.”

When I told my husband of our indebtedness for Kate’s voice lessons, he exclaimed, “How wonderful that she has had enough confidence to get her own teacher and begin!”

The house is empty now of our musicians, but their music remains. My husband taped it—from grade school to graduation. In the evenings, between the dusk and the daylight, he still enjoys his children’s hour of music.

[photo] Photography by Craig Dimond

Dorothy L. Nielsen, an author and lecturer, is Relief Society president in the Monument Park Fifteenth Ward, Salt Lake Monument Park Stake.