Saturday, October 08, 2005

Formative Experiences (I)

I occasionally ponder my beginnings as a musician/composer/lover of music. Actually, it's as a "lover of music" that I was prompted to pursue those other two categories. When I was in fifth grade, my teacher, Mrs. Lillian Russo, used to play a record by the Philadelphia Orchestra for my class sometimes, a collection of Grieg, Sibelius and Alfven. I came home and persuaded my mother to buy the same record so I could listen to it at home. We found it at a W.T. Grant store in Bath NY, a precursor of WalMart. (Good luck finding such a recording at a WalMart nowadays...) I would play it on the old Zenith record player in our living room, a console affair with vacuum tube electronics, so you had to wait a few minutes for the tubes to warm up before you'd hear anything. This stuff was far cooler to me than any pop music I'd heard at the time. (Iron Butterfly seemed to be ruling the airwaves back then, so I guess the competition wasn't really fierce...) I also had a soundtrack to the movie Exodus, which had one of the most stirring themes I've ever heard, composed by Ernest Gold. These recordings were my introduction to orchestral music. I didn't hear an actual live orchestra until I was about twenty years old.

Also while I was in fifth grade, I decided that I wanted to be in band. My first instrument was the trumpet, a hand-me-down horn from my mother's brother Bill. We had a band director at that time named Ray Reed who was becoming mentally feeble, and wasn't really doing any genuine teaching to speak of. I would go to weekly group lessons and he never once noticed that I wasn't buzzing in the mouthpiece, but rather just blowing into it, making a soft whooshing sound and inducing severe lightheadedness. I would come home and practice daily, but I never once made an actual trumpet sound. This went on for weeks, but I figured that if I kept at it, eventually I'd have success. Fortunately, fate intervened in the form of an argument between my mother and her brother, and in a moment of spite, she gave him back the trumpet. I was now without an instrument, and I remember being a bit nonplussed at how this horn that I was trying to play had become a bargaining chip in my mother's argument with my uncle. The next day my mother took me to her sister Diane's house, and we collected her clarinet, an old Noblet. Diane showed me how to put it together, and she had a couple of old band books, including a fingering chart. This allowed me to teach myself what I was not getting from my band teacher. I was also very happy to be making actual musical sounds, and began playing hip tunes like "On Top of Old Smoky" and "Go Tell Aunt Rhody."

When I hit sixth grade, Mr. Reed was gently retired by the school board and they hired a new guy, a Mr. Murphy. He was a very good musician, an inspiring teacher, and I found myself highly motivated to practice. He was only at our school for a couple of years before he was asked to resign because of inappropriate behavior with a young band student. I remember the day that he annnounced that he was leaving as one of the saddest I ever experienced in school. I went home and shut myself in my room and played my Ringo Starr' single "It Don't Come easy" over and over for about two hours straight. (Nowadays, I'd handle such grief differently, I think.)

Mr. Murphy had put me into the high school band in the summer before seventh grade and I remember struggling to keep up with all of the "big kids." I enjoyed marching in town parades in these early days, but later came to dislike marching intensely. I also began to experience an ambivalence about my instrument that remained with me for years afterwards. Because I was a small, physically weak and slow kid, and the only male in the school district who played the clarinet, I was regarded by my classmates as insufficiently macho. I was also incredibly ignorant about sexual matters, which left me at a disadvantage with my Playboy-educated peers. I would walk to school during the summer to take my clarinet lesson, and this one kid would stand on his porch and yell "Faggot!" at me for as long as I was in view. This, combined with the fact that absolutely NO rock bands that I listened to ever used a clarinet, left me with the gnawing conviction that this instrument was an albatross. By the time I reached high school, I'd lost a lot of my motivation to practice. I occasionally read other musician's accounts of their formative years and often they relate that they picked up their instrument in an effort to attain social acceptance. For me, the clarinet did the opposite—it marginalized me even further.

1 comment:

outofphase said...

fortunately I had a good band director the first go round and second, however I was also very, very sad when my first band director left and dealt with my emotions much the same as you...except I cried. He took my piano teacher too!