via my Tumblr
(a story of my childhood)
‘Children, pick an instrument!’ my teacher chirped. She strutted across the stage to an assortment of gleaming items.
The children rushed the stage. The string section was gone in a flash. I slid up to the corner of the stage where I spotted a clarinet gently reposing. Out of place in the bulky brass section. It’s mysterious black shine beckoned me. I turned to see most of the other instruments gone. There was the perplexing French horn. The tuba. A brassy odor coming from one or the other. Chris Tate charmed away the oboe with his elegant long fingers. I swooped on the French horn.
In the evening, my family ate dinner on the back porch. All nine children somehow squeezed together on a long picnic table. The back porch was built on the top of a long green sloping hill ending at a tree-lined lake. The nanny served our macaroni and chopped hot dogs. As we children ate, we lightly disparaged neighbor Heather. Heather lived across the lake. We played with Heather only when all other friends were unavailable. My big brother Bill got a glint in his eye, and abruptly asked, “What do you guys think? Maybe Heather sits by her window all day listening to us having fun? Hi Heather!” Billy cawed mockingly at the lake. We were mortified when we heard a plaintiff “Hiiiiiiii!” drift eerily back. Heather’s voice was crystal clear.
Heather wasn’t the only one we could hear. One of our family’s keenest enjoyments was listening to the liquid yet raspy notes that flowed across the lake to our home in the early evenings. A neighbor on the lake, so I heard say, was a member of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He enjoyed practicing his French horn lakeside. We enjoyed his music as a calming distraction from the hustle-bustle of dinner. Reader, do you think it uncanny that I chose that instrument as my companion?
My family had welcomed my new horn with the respect due a visiting dignitary. In fact this was not true, and when I called to check the facts with my mother, she made a sing-song noise to indicate that she did not believe the horn had visited at all. I took it to bed with me. I delighted in making squeaky spitty toots on my newfound friend. Days of frozen manicotti and cordon bleu were finally broken by more sound from across the lake. The brown bats were making their jagged dances through the air. Then in the green light of evening, the sound of my neighbor’s French horn glided up the hill to us squabbling children.
How can I describe the sound? I still have not forgotten it. It was a powerful yet melancholy. There was an economy of notes that pulled at my nine year old heartstrings. When its player had me in his palm and I had to squint and inhale sharply, the music would suddenly and mercifully climb like the branches of the white birch trees surrounding the lake. The notes grew thinner and more elegant, finally faith restoring, delicate but long. I always imagined a lone bugler standing over a still battle-field. His tale was a moral and I strived to grasp the lesson.
This was my moment to take the baton! I excitedly ran to my room and snatched my new horn. I ran down to the lake and seated myself on a circle of stones, closing my eyes.
I drew a deep breath and forced the air through the curling brass tubes. A hearty bellow issued forth. I played three long cracking notes as loud as I could, then stopped to listen for my partner’s answer. I imagined his joy the exuberance of his notes, no more the lone bugler! Silence. Silence! I waited for many minutes. Finally disappointed I climbed back up our hill to the porch. I sadly put my instrument away, more than a little confused. My family did not witness the scene. But we never heard our neighbor’s horn again.
I lost interest in the instrument. My purpose in selecting it had vanished. My private music teacher noticed I did not practice or learn new notes. Within two weeks he suggested I drop the instrument.
But I still remember the whole feeling of sitting lakeside, pursing my lips and pressing them into the round brassy mouthpiece. My heart was filled and I prepared for the performance of my life.