Bob Thomas: Living with greatness was fascinating

Being good, but not quite great, can be almost a curse.

Today's column comes from a heated discussion with and about musicians. To the performer, music can be spiritually and aesthetically uplifting or it can be frustrating. This has to do with the artist's expectations versus reality. I've discovered that many good musicians mistakenly believe that had they practiced 10 hours a day they could've been great.

In my early life I was a professional trumpet player before becoming an aerospace engineer. While at UCLA, I earned a degree in music theory and composition with a minor in science and engineering. I also played trumpet in big dance bands three nights a week and occasionally in the movie studios. With music plus the GI Bill I was financially in fat-city. I played with the best musicians in L.A.

This essay is dedicated to my first wife, Camilla Wicks, a child prodigy who was a "great" musician. A genius! Her father was a violin teacher, having played with the Oslo Symphony prior to immigrating to America. Her mother was a superb pianist. When Camilla was 2 years old, she voluntarily sat in her father's studio listening to his violin lessons for hours on end. Interestingly, her elder sister had zero interest in music - same environment.

When Camilla was 3, she began learning on a quarter-size violin. When she was 9, she performed the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto from memory as guest soloist with the Philadelphia Philharmonic, using a half-size violin. She then studied with the great Louis Persinger of Julliard fame, in New York City for nine seasons. Persinger was the most renowned violin coach of that era. He also coached Yehudi Menuhin, Rabin, Stern and other famous violinists.

She made her N.Y. Town Hall recital debut at 16 and her N.Y. Philharmonic soloist debut in Carnegie Hall at 17, coast-to-coast on radio. She got rave reviews in all N.Y. City newspapers and in Musical America.

Now, let's look at what it takes to be a "great" musician: How long did she practice daily? Four hours maximum and that was largely spent learning repertoire. When memorizing a three- movement concerto for the first time, she would read it once through with her violin and it was memorized for all time. Now that is pure genius.

She went on to be recognized as the world's foremost woman violin soloist during the 1940s through the early 1960s. Weary of traveling and playing 80-100 concerts and recitals per year, she retired in favor of coaching in several universities and conservatories. She had repeatedly performed as guest soloist with most major orchestras in the Free World. Her violin was the "Duke of Cambridge" Stradivarius. She was knighted in Norway and was forthwith known in Europe as Dame Camilla Wicks.

So now you have an idea of what musical greatness is as compared with merely being good, as I was. And you can also see that greatness is inborn while being good can be acquired. Yes, there are measurable aptitudes that can help aspiring musicians to determine exactly where they stand. There are five basic aptitude tests in music: Tonal memory, rhythm memory, pitch discrimination, timbre (tone quality) and absolute (perfect) pitch. Absolute pitch, which is rare but present in "great" musicians, can be measured by any competent music teacher. Having all of the measurable music aptitudes does not guarantee success, but without most of them in the 90 to 100 percentile one had better forget music as a career, except for rock n' roll where anything goes.

Camilla Wicks has a photographic memory in both music and languages. And she has absolute pitch plus an unmeasureable gift for musical interpretation - being at one with composers of the music she plays. She also had uncanny finger and hand dexterity plus a bow arm that had violinists and teachers weeping with envy. Frequently in her concert reviews critics would say, "She attacks the violin and her music with authority equal to that of any male violin soloist in the world today." Now in her 80s, she lives in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

If interested, Google Camilla Wicks for additional details.

• Bob Thomas is a retired high-tech industrialist who later served on the Carson City School Board, the state welfare board, the airport authority and as a state assemblyman. His website is


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