My earlier commentary, Why care about classical music?, got me thinking back to my musical roots. As mentioned in that article, years ago, my ex-husband had asked me if I hadn’t had my early exposure to music at home, would I have still developed such an affinity for it. At that time, though it surprised him, I told him that there was no way to know for sure. Still, music has always been the one constant source of comfort throughout my life. It hasn’t always taken exactly the same form, but it has always affected me deeply, and it has been central to who I am no matter my endeavor. That said, I wanted to further explore my personal musical journey through a series of essays, and this is the first (chronologically at least) in that story.
As that famous Hammerstein lyric states:
“Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.”
I can’t begin my own story without starting with my parents. No, I’m not referring to the obvious fact that without them, I wouldn’t physically exist. I am instead observing that they gave me my first concentrated exposure to music. From the very first days at home, a few things happened.
First, both Mom and Dad often had music playing in the background. Sometimes it was playing on the radio. Other times the music was played from either a record or a tape. They listened to classical, Broadway, jazz (generally from the big band era), popular music from their childhoods, but generally not contemporary music. Three of the most frequently played original cast recordings were Fiddler on the Roof, Hello Dolly, and from the film, Gigi. This was before the advent of CDs, but Dad was quite technologically savvy for the time. He used to make his own reel-to-reel mix tapes from various records or other tape recordings. He also transferred some of the more cumbersome reel-to-reel recordings to cassettes for easier transport. He played those recordings both at home and at work. He was a surgeon, and he would often have one of his tapes playing in the OR when he operated.
Second, Mom played the piano some most every day. She played a lot of classical music, she played piano arrangements from some of her favorite Broadway shows, and she played from a fairly large collection of sheet music of many of the popular songs from her youth as well. The popular music from the 30s and 40s had a lot of staying power. Four of the classical pieces that were often in her rotation were Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude, Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, Lecuona’s “Malagueña,” and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Third, though this came into play a bit later, while Dad didn’t play the piano anymore, he played pretty much any other instrument he could get his hands on. As a child, he had been forced to study piano and gave it up as soon as he was allowed to do so, something he regretted later in life. He owned a beautiful antique, curved soprano saxophone which he would sometimes play. He also had a nice set of bongos at home. He would also play rather complicated melodies on various toy flutes that came into his possession. He was also quite proficient on the harmonica and had a few different models. I would later find out that he was also quite accomplished on the clarinet as well as various stringed instruments, even though we didn’t have any of those at home initially.
All of this gave me early exposure to some really good music that represented the sounds of home. As a young child, as I learned to walk and then to run, I also learned that it was not wise to run through the room when Dad was using his floating turntable. In addition to a budding appreciation for music, I also gained some expertise in technology and the benefits of machine-to-machine recording over using an external microphone when transferring one recording to another.
Children often learn by emulating their parents and older siblings. One of the things I copied from early on was Mom’s playing the piano. I would plink at the keyboard from her lap at first. As I got a little bigger, I graduated to sitting beside her on the piano bench instead of in her way on her lap, and we would play a game with a song she taught me. The melody was “Heart and Soul,” along with several variations. She would play the bass part, and I would chime in with the melody (sort of) running a little wild with both hands. She hadn’t taught me how to read music at this point, but she and Dad had both started me down the path of going beyond mere listening to actively participating in making music.
Both Mom and Dad were well aware of the demands once formal study begins, so they didn’t immediately start me in lessons. I pleaded with them for several years before they finally let me begin private piano lessons. They both wanted to make sure I was serious about learning to play the piano, not just going through a passing whim of childhood. Mom checked with her friend down the street who at the time had four of her five children in piano lessons with a very good teacher in the neighboring town. Their youngest was an infant, so she hadn’t started lessons yet but did a few years later.
Mom talked with the teacher and explained our family’s background in music and her interest in starting me in lessons. He agreed to take me on as a student, and my weekly piano instruction began posthaste. I was seven years old and was a very eager student, soaking up every lesson very quickly. Once I learned to read a little, my first piece was “Wagon Trails” by Ralph Mulligan. It was a very simple piece with a rather pleasant melody that sounded like real music despite its lack of difficulty. It wasn’t long before I graduated to an early grade solo album with classics like Beethoven’s “Für Elise.” My mother was very impressed with my teacher, and with my progress, but one thing truly amazed her early in my study.
Once a student had gained an initial proficiency in reading music, my teacher not only required them to sight read new pieces, but he also taught them to sight transpose. He would have them sight read a piece as written once through. Then he would have them play it again in an entirely different key, and every single one of his students could do this without raising an eyebrow. The first time my mother watched as he had me do this, she was dumbfounded. She had studied to a very advanced level on the piano, and she never learned to do this. My teacher explained that his students could do it because he introduced it as a matter of course as they learned to read music, so it was very natural. Trying to learn it later would be much more difficult. My teacher also mixed in a good deal of music theory along the way, again, inserting it as it naturally occurred in the course of learning about music.
The other thing that came as a matter of course in my piano studies were the inevitable piano recitals. My teacher had his students play them quarterly including three small ones at his house in the summer, fall, and winter, and one big recital at his church in the spring each year. While these never really phased me as a child, they traumatized my mother because she always had terrible stage fright, and my recitals brought all those feelings back for her. Still, she and Dad never missed any of my recitals, and they both were very attentive during my home practice to prepare for them.
I continued as an enthusiastic student for a couple of years gaining a solid music foundation through the piano. Then I reached the fourth grade, and everything changed. The first thing that happened was that I joined a local temple youth choir. This was part outreach, and part service oriented. The choir rehearsed weekly, and the group sang a wide variety of music, some religious, some popular, and some just plain fun such as that age old favorite, “Be Kind to Your Parents.” One of the outreach activities was an annual trip to the local Jewish Home for the Aged. The residents looked forward to the choir’s visit each year and were a very appreciative audience.
The other major change that happened was in school. In the fourth grade, if we wanted to, we could pick an orchestral instrument, and join the school orchestra. The music teacher gave group lessons for each instrument and conducted the orchestra for all interested students. Participation in music was incorporated into the regular school day a few times a week for the interested students. I never knew what the kids who weren’t in music did during that time.
Our choices were somewhat limited to violin, viola, cello, trumpet, clarinet, flute, or barring any of those, percussion. More instruments became available once we got to junior high, but in grammar school, we could only pick from that limited selection. The day when the new fourth graders could choose their instruments was a special one. The music teacher had some of her more advanced sixth graders demonstrate their instruments, and we could choose what we wanted to play, except that in my school, there were further restrictions. Our school’s principal had rather outdated views of proper (and separate) activities for girls and boys, and this extended to which instruments students would be allowed to pursue. The girls could only choose from strings, flute, or clarinet. The boys could choose from strings, trumpet, percussion, or clarinet. No matter. I gravitated toward the clarinet at that point and decided that was what I wanted to learn to play. I liked how it sounded and how it looked. I already knew how to read music from playing the piano, so how hard could it be?
The school provided some instruments initially, and at first I got a school clarinet. I was so excited. At the end of the school day, I took it home and put it together as they had shown me, and I tried to play it, or rather I tried to make a noise. Unfortunately, no sound came out. I wrestled with that school clarinet for quite some time that afternoon, fussing with the reed, adjusting the ligature, completely forgoing my piano practice trying to make a sound. After about two hours, eventually, I was able to get it to make a very weak noise, but it was a sound! I played an open G, sort of. I was so excited that after I showed Mom, I called Dad at his office and told him I could play a G on the clarinet. I even played one for him on the phone. When he got home that night, he taught me a few more notes, and helped me to make a sound more consistently, though he taught me one thing I would later have to unlearn. He played with a double reed embouchure, i.e., with both upper and lower lips covering the teeth the way you play an oboe. This was fine for playing in a concert setting, but some years later, I would encounter instances where it wouldn’t work at all, and I would need to learn to play with my top teeth on the mouthpiece.
After a couple of months, my parents decided to get me my very own clarinet rather than continuing to use the school’s instrument. Dad took me to the music store one Saturday morning, and we played a few different instruments to see which one we wanted, or rather which one Dad thought was best at the time. He played each one, then he handed it to me to play until we finally decided on an instrument. I returned the school’s instrument the following Monday, and from that point forward I was able to use my own clarinet in orchestra. As with my piano recitals, my parents never missed a school concert, Dad proudly recording them from them the back of the auditorium.
The summer between fourth and fifth grade, I went to summer school and took a music class at another nearby school. The class was taught by the local junior high school’s music teacher, so all of us would have her as our music teacher once we got into seventh grade. In this particular class, we weren’t necessarily playing just our own instruments. We learned a little about a variety of instruments and got to play them a little. One Friday, our teacher gave us violins to take home over the weekend to play with as a lead-in to the violin section of the class. She wanted to see what we could do on our own to start, and she gave us a very brief introduction to the instrument so that we would know how to handle our violins without hurting them before sending us on our way that day. The next morning, my father took out the violin, and he taught me how to play couple of simple songs that I practiced for rest of the weekend. When I returned to class on Monday morning, I showed the teacher what my father had taught me, and she was overjoyed – so much so that she tried to convince me to continue studying the violin. In fact, she wanted me to switch from clarinet to violin at that point, something I was really not interested in doing, but it was nice to be asked.
As I entered fifth grade, I was still taking private piano lessons and singing in youth choir outside of school, and I was studying the clarinet in school. Dad insisted that I continue the piano for the time being because he said I would regret it if I quit too soon like he did. My father died suddenly over the holidays that year which only reinforced his wishes as far as my mother was concerned. She had planned to talk to him about letting me quit the piano around that time, but when he died, she insisted that I continue studying, in some ways as a tribute to him. At the time, I really wanted to focus on the clarinet and quit the piano, so practicing became a bit of a source of conflict. Because I had my piano background, I could kind of coast through orchestra once I got the mechanics of the clarinet down, so I didn’t want to practice much of anything. That went on through sixth grade, but my mother held firm and wouldn’t let me quit either instrument.
Finally, when I got into junior high school and found myself in a much bigger orchestra and a large concert band, I started actively practicing my clarinet. I ran into a couple of students who were noticeably more advanced than I was, so I worked hard to catch up with them. At that point, once I was really motivated to improve even though it wasn’t on the piano, my mother finally let me quit piano lessons. I was twelve, and band and orchestra got to be far more interesting going forward. Throughout junior high school, I improved very quickly and was able to handle the more challenging music we started playing. One of my favorites was Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.” We also played a symphonic band arrangement of one of the movements of Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony.” Not bad for a junior high school.
In eighth grade, our teacher also created a small ensemble that I was asked to be part of, a ragtime band. The movie The Sting had just come out, and the music of Scott Joplin had gained in popularity. Gunther Schuller had created The Red Back Book for The New England Conservatory of Music which contained his arrangements of several Scott Joplin rags for a small ragtime ensemble. The pieces could be played with piano, drums, and some combination of winds and brass and/or strings. Our ensemble included piano, winds, and brass, but no strings or percussion. Our teacher had me playing the trumpet part on clarinet along with a trumpet player. We all loved it and ultimately got to play “The Entertainer” as part of the spring concert that year. Musically, this was the high point for me to date, though there would be some much higher musical peaks to scale in my future.
Classical Music, Why Bother?: Hearing the World of Contemporary Culture Through a Composer’s Ears by Joshua Fineberg
The Great Courses: How Music and Mathematics Relate
How to Listen to and Understand Great Music by The Great Courses
Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks
Remembering Mom and Dad by Ande Jacobson
The Student Conductor by Robert Ford
This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin
What to Listen for in Music by Aaron Copland
What to Listen for in Mozart by Robert Harris
What to Listen for in Beethoven by Robert Harris
Who Needs Classical Music?: Cultural Choice and Musical Voice by Julian Johnson