The sixth graders were led down to the auditorium. There hadn’t been much warning or much explanation to what was being done … something about music. This was the last year for the sixth graders at PS (Public school) 198, who the following year would be headed over to the junior high school annex building where chorus, band, and orchestra would be offered amongst the regularly familiar assortment of studies. If none of those three fit the bill, then shop was a viable option for the tone deaf or uninterested … but that was unimpressive to our class and spoke of failure … well at least that’s what my head told me.
I’d do alright, I thought. I had a little confidence booster behind me. If it was not a month ago, it was sooner, Mr. Epstein, my teacher, had asked all the students in the class to pick a song (If I am not mistaken, a song from the 50’s) and sing it for the class, or, if applicable (too afraid to sing), play it. Being a musician himself, my teacher had turned our class into a band of woodwinds and brass, so at least that avenue for escape was partially paved.
A few months back, the larger majority of the students had been given clarinets, but I didn’t want to be the majority. I wanted to play trumpet … and I couldn’t. I’d been given the metallic mouthpiece and directed to blow so that it would resonate a sound that would drive any sympathetic duck into the windows, trying to save me, and drive away any hunters, who wouldn’t want that diseased kill on their plate.
No matter how much spit sprayed and dripped out the other side, I just couldn’t do it. I’d have stood a better chance of procuring that epitome of noise if the beans I had eaten the previous night had caught up with me, blowing at one end while tooting out the other. Unfortunately at that moment, my bodily functions were behaving themselves. My friend Louis, however, who had nailed that duck on his first go, asked Mr. Epstein, if he could take me out into the hall, and have me practice, and then let me try it again. He knew how bad I wanted it, and Louis was a good egg. Mr. Epstein must have seen something in me. I’d like to think the spirit of a trumpeter, but it was more likely a little kid about to cry who had placed himself as musical as a monkey atop an organ grinder. If I went in the hall, at least he wouldn’t have to look at me pouting.
Out in the hall, I blew and blew my brains out, sounding more like a draft through a semi-opened window then any sort of duck.
“No, you have to put your lips like this,” Louis said, correcting me, and I watched as both his lips quivered like an outboard motor.
“How do you do that?”
“Loosen your lips.”
I’d probably been blowing incorrectly for ten minutes, but in the last 30 seconds I got it … or more likely stumbled over it by accident. Louis hurried me back inside to do it again before I forgot how I’d done it in the first place … but there was no fear in that. I hadn’t a bloody clue. My chance at success on this second attempt was all on the beans or nothing.
Mr. Epstein looked at me and said, “You’re ready? Okay, go ahead.” Lou gave me a nod of reassurance and mimicked a successful goldfish as the rest of the class looked on dubiously. “Okay, I could be the goldfish,” I told myself, and lifted the mouthpiece.
I don’t remember what I sounded like … or what Mr. Epstein’s reaction was … the traumatic experience must have snapped something off from that part of my brain … but whatever had happened … from then on … I played trumpet.
Ta da … one success.
Now let’s zoom back ahead to my boost.
I enjoyed trumpet, but if Mr. Epstein preferred that we sing on this project, I was not going to vie for that partially paved escape. I would not play. I would sing. I actually knew a lot of 50’s rock n’ roll and was a fan. Yes … I would sing.
Wanting to sing, but shy enough to want an anchor, I had asked if I could buddy up with my friend Robert, someone to share the stage, or at least remove some portion of the eyes away from me. Mr. Epstein said that was fine … but … we each still had to do a song of our own. Okay, we could do that I thought. I could be a background singer for Rob, no problem, and he would sing background for me. This would work.
So Robert chose “Come Go with Me” and I chose “Pretty Little Angel Eyes” as our numbers. If the accompanying record was too loud, no one was ever going to hear Robert. His nerves had put his voice to about a whisper. My challenge unexpectedly for that day would be to sing my background vocals low enough so as not to drown him out … when even only an eyedropper’s worth was capable of doing that.
That challenge is a blur, because I went first, and that day was like every magnificent concert I’d ever had in the shower. If the teacher’s desk hadn’t kept sliding away from my leaning buttocks, it would have been perfect. No I take it back. It was perfect, at least the reaction. When the song ended, some of the girls actually jumped out of their seats, screaming above the applauds and I was sure there wasn’t a spider anywhere. I was on cloud nine, watch out Elvis, step aside Beatles, there’s four too many of you.
Ta da … success number two … and my confidence booster.
There was a current of nervous, but somehow exhilarating tension, flowing with the class, which collapsed like the mouth of a river into a larger body of water as it entered the auditorium.
“My class, find a seat, here on the right,” Mr. Epstein conducted us.
Yes, I’d been confidently boosted. What was I worried about? I could sing. I knew it. They’d told me. They had. Hadn’t they? But when the short, grey-haired man behind the baby grand called me by name so as to audition me … I was suddenly back with that metallic duck caller and clueless. He began hitting notes, individual keys, and told me to match it.
Where were the words? What was the song? I was not being asked to sing. I was being asked to match it. How do you freaking do that? I don’t recall, but I must have sagged at that moment in great … great … despair. I looked over my shoulder and saw the same girls that had screamed for me. Suddenly I had no alternative. I had to pull myself together and succeed, but as the instructor began I felt like an American private trying to follow a Russian drill sergeant, a quadriplegic getting mugged.
“In your singing voice,” he said.
“What’s he talking about,” I thought. “I’ve only got one I do both with.”
He hit a key … plunk, and I gave him a letter, “E.”
The man said I could stop, or rather he’d said, “Enough.” … and I was glad. I was running out of alphabet and didn’t think “Z” would sound all too good. But in the end, I didn’t think I’d done half bad. I was even pretty optimistic. I’d hit all the right syllables. I was sure of it. The man handed me a square piece of paper, which had been taken from a larger quartered piece. On it was written the number five, which had been crossed out, and the number four inserted next to it. The grading that was given out to each student was from one to four, but no one knew towards what end was better. I, sensing success number three like a case of poison oak, was ambivalently certain of that answer … but I needed undisputed proof to push me over that edge … and it came when one of the girls sung. Her voice was nice. There was no way I could see that as being unacceptable. There was my proof I was looking for. I would ask her, when she was done, what she’d gotten.
She continued to solo well, and seemed to do it longer than me. Finally she finished and was handed a frayed square of paper just like me … just like me. I walked over to her as she shared it with her friend.
“What’d you get?” I asked. I’d given myself that extra reassurance that boosts you up higher … only so that you have that much further to fall.
“1,” she said. “What did you get?”
The skin on my face went hot and my stomach went solid … but perhaps because my body had gone limp, I surrendered my score.
“4?” she said. The sound of disbelief in her voice was a strange comfort. I wasn’t sure what to make of my embarrassment. Neither she nor her friend played off of it and I was feeling better to leave it.
“But you know it’s done,” I thought … and I still had that duck calling mouthpiece attached to a trumpet to cradle me.
I’d only misunderstood. That’s all. If I’d only known better it might have been different, but I wasn’t going to let it bring me down. I mean I was young … and … wouldn’t my failure to have matched those keys have been a pretty, pretty pitiful swan song?
Real: Pretty much everything
Not Real: The number five crossed out on my piece of paper. I might not have hit all those letters.