Memoirs, Music.

The joy of making music

-Oregon Scribbler,

Oregon Scribbler.

Growing up, we often sang together as a family while on long trips in the car, my parents taking the lead, giving their children the gift of singing freely.  My mother loved music, particularly classical music, and she was determined that all of her children would get a sound musical education.  Each of her six children were required to take at least two years of piano lessons, and after that, if they showed continued interest, additional lessons.  I found music at some level beguiling, and liked to sing and to play guitar as well as to play the piano, but found piano lessons to be only episodically motivating.

Two of us chose to continue after two years, my sister Barbara and myself.  Barbara worked hard to become a much better pianist than myself; and she continues to play beautifully, and has passed on the tradition of piano lessons to her children.  My brother Craig switched his musical outlet to guitar, which he still plays, and his son Thomas has a flair for music, both on a guitar and piano.  I worked just hard enough on them, usually at the last minute, to keep from losing the privilege, but must confess that much of it was lost on me due to lack of diligence.  Once, having broken my left hand on the side of my brother Steve’s head, I was less concerned with the pain than with the relief that I would not have to be ready for my next few piano lessons. (As a side note; it was my surprisingly versatile piano teacher who diagnosed the fracture!)  The annual recitals of musical pieces given by my piano teachers, that tortuous ritual known to all young music students, whereby each student must publicly play their music in front of the families of the students, engendered more anxiety than pleasure.

My first piano teacher, Herr Klar, was the director of the local orchestra in Bad Kreuznach, Germany,where we lived for a few years while my father served in the U.S. Army.  Herr Klar was a concert pianist of high quality; I heard him performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 with his orchestra, and it seemed impossibly beautiful, impossibly because as a fledgling pianist, I could not ever imagine myself playing such a piece, correctly so.  Even as a child, it seemed to me that he was wasting his talents to be teaching someone like me to play Three Blind Mice, or the equivalent.  He was a gracious and positive teacher, nonetheless.  It wasn’t until many years later that I came to a better understanding of how it was that a master pianist like Herr Klar came to be teaching the musically untrained offspring of American army officers:  The time was around fifteen years after the end of World War II, and while the German economy was well underway in its post-war recovery, (deemed the Wirtschaftswunder, or economic miracle), still a low-paid American officer could and did employ a maid and hire an over-qualified piano teacher very cheaply.

Music was the saving grace of attending church every Sunday of my childhood.  When came the time to gather in the sanctuary for the Sunday sermon, I would desperately peruse the program notes for the musical offerings of the service.  On the best days there would be four of five hymns that the congregation would sing, and perhaps a choir piece and a solo or duet in addition; on the most barren of days, maybe only two hynms.  The highlight of the service was the congregational singing, in which I participated enthusiastically, singing out and, by perhaps age eight or nine, began to learn to sing harmony lines.  The intricacy and beauty of the harmonies never ceased to capture my musical imagination, and continue to be a joy to me.

Many times as a family we went around to friends houses around Christmas time, stood outside and sang Christmas carols, sometimes with guitar accompaniment that I provided.  On a couple of memorable occasions, our accompaniment was provided by Craig, incongruously but effectively, on a Sousaphone!  Picture a five foot tall boy, bundled up against the cold, enveloped by a white marching band Sousaphone . . .

-Oregon Scribbler,

Oregon Scribbler.

In seventh grade, my elementary school music teacher offered me a chance to audition for an all-city middle school children’s choir that was being formed to perform in a national music teacher’s convention, along side an all-city high school choir, band, orchestra, etc.  I was accepted, and we rehearsed for months of Saturdays for the performance, twelve songs in all, memorized.  I was placed in the alto section, and we sang almost no melody, rather mostly harmony parts.  To this day, I can sing some of the lines of these songs, without any knowledge of what the melody is for some of the songs.  It was a wonderful musical experience.

As a teen I became interested in folk songs, and learned to play simple parts and chords on a guitar.  It seemed most fun when I could play with other people; in particular I was lucky enough to spend some musical time with one of my high school friends, Chuck Johnson.  Chuck was a talented drummer and guitar player, and already was playing in local bands by the age of fifteen.  On a few occasions, we got together and played folk songs until we ran out of songs we knew.  He was much more skilled than I on guitar, so I played a simple background rhythm guitar following his lead.  He also sang the melodies, and I gratefully sang the harmonies, making them up as we went, my head clear of all thoughts but the music.  A few years ago, my brother Steve attended a high school reunion, and he ran across Chuck Johnson there. It turns out that Chuck stayed with music, and became a professional musician, performing in local musical groups, and as a solo act, singing and playing his guitar in local clubs.  He is an excellent performer, as evidenced by this video gleaned from the internet.

After high school, I joined the Army, and while it was impossible to carry a piano with me, my guitar accompanied me overseas to my billet in Germany.  My only opportunity to the play the piano was to avail myself of one of the musical rehearsal rooms to be found at the local USO gathering place, rooms the size of a large closet, lined with acoustical tiles, and in each an upright piano.  This suited me, as I was shy of playing in front of an audience.  A rare opportunity presented itself to play an old manual pump organ, when my friend Tim and I traveled south of Stuttgart to visit a family we knew, the Finkbeiners, who had the pump organ in their living room, but no one to play it.  Overcoming my musical shyness, curious about how such an instrument was played, I banged out a few of the German folk songs I knew, with the bellows operated by the feet and some controls with the knees!  It took a bit of getting used to (violently stomping on the bellows, pressing outward with the knee, looking all the while like a crazed barnyard animal), but provided a great deal of musical adventure.

When I traveled throughout Europe, I sometimes took my guitar, and would sing on the train, usually when the shared compartment I was sitting in was empty.  In traveling once to northern Italy with a fellow soldier, we spent part of a day in Verona, and went to visit the Roman arena there, one of the better preserved such structures in Italy.  Alas, it was closed for an opera rehearsal, but being persistent, we walked passed the barriers into the arena and found our way up to the higher reaches of the seating.  One end of the oval was serving as the stage, and backdrops had been erected in the seating on that end, so we took positions behind the backdrops and watched and listened to the rehearsal.  It was quite interesting, and the episodic music was beautiful, but after  fifteen minutes or so we noticed someone moving rapidly toward us, too quickly for us to retreat.  The young man politely asked us in creditable English what we were doing there, and I replied that we were just confused tourists, to which he graciously responded that as long as we did not move about, we were welcome to remain, so we did, and were treated with a memorable musical moment.

Perhaps the most oddly pleasurable musical event in my time in Germany was meeting a young, and rather bad banjo player on the streets of Pirmasens, Germany, where I was stationed.  Jim was haltingly and much too slowly playing a familiar banjo tune.  Establishing that he was an American, I asked him about his story, and he said he had grown up in Germany as a dependent of a US Army sergeant, and was now wandering through Germany revisiting some of the places he had lived, and at the same time, starting to learn the banjo. It seemed odd to me that he would choose to learn the banjo on a public street corner in a foreign land.  I came across Jim several times in the next month, and each time he had dramatically improved his banjo skills.  His method was to take an established banjo classic, a difficult piece, and play through it very slowly until he had learned it, then gradually speed it up to approach the typical high speed of such pieces.  And it worked for him!  Within two weeks he had learned one song, and played it at nearly a professional level!  I invited him back to the barracks one weekend, and he and I and a few others played and sang folk music together for a memorable evening.  Jim told us many stories, and the one story I have retained is Jim’s stint as a door-to-door Jew’s harp salesman in the Appalachian mountains.  He would knock on a door, play a song or two on his harp, and then try to make a sale.  He demonstrated his skill on the harp to us, which was considerable.

After I left the Army, I stayed in Europe for another month, and my brother Craig joined me on an extended skiing trip in the Alps, which was accompanied by my guitar.  We sang away some of the hours waiting for or on the train, sometimes with other passengers.

-Oregon Scribbler,

Oregon Scribbler.

When I met my future wife, one of the things we found immediately in common was singing:  She was a singer, and had a trained voice!  We sang a number of times together and for each other while we were dating, once in the further reaches of Portland’s Gabriel Park.  She thought about singing at our wedding, but was sure she would cry in the midst and decided not to.  Throughout our marriage she has sung many solos, at weddings and church services, and we occasionally sang duets together at family gatherings and other weddings.  I was never comfortable singing in front of others by myself, and the duet scenario was borderline:  My legs often shook beneath the shroud of my pants legs during these performances, but Cindy always sang the lead, and left me with the less exposed harmony lines, which I loved to do, anyway.

We sang for many years in several church choirs (they never asked me about my beliefs, and I didn’t volunteer them).  It was a great pleasure to sing in a choir, particularly the rehearsals, which I looked forward to as a serious respite from the pressures of work:  To sing, to learn music is to wash every other thought from your mind and focus solely on the intricacies and beauty of the music around you and within you.  One year I joined the bell choir, which was the one and only time I played in an instrumental group, and this experience was similarly rewarding.

For many years, my extended family have gotten together for a Christmas celebration, which includes a great deal of carol singing.  I gradually learned to play many Christmas carols on the piano, and became the accompanist for the singing, notwithstanding the fact that there were better musicians in the gathering.  I have never been an accomplished pianist and only an adequate sight reader, but through this process learned to use written music to extract the melody, and recognize the accompanying chord structures and harmonies to produce my own accompaniment, to the point that I could play many of the carols without written music.

Listening to music has always been a pleasure, but playing music, even and always with considerably less skill than by those accomplished recording and performing professionals, brings the greatest joy.  Today I occasionally play my guitar, and play my electronic piano fairly regularly, almost always with headphones attached, to spare my wife the same old pieces, played the same old way, with the same old mistakes, allowing me the privilege and pleasure of trying out new variations, albeit with less precision than enthusiasm,  and losing myself once again in the beauty and mystery of making music.

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