Friday, May 28, 2010

How to Feel Really Stupid

I mean really, really, REALLY stupid! Now obviously, like some of the rest of you, I've done this more than on rare occasions. But a pair of occasions really stick in my mind, going back to that wonderfully awkward time of adolescence, and involving the same person both times.

Growing up in rural Minnesota back in the 50's, I didn't get any kind of musical education. At least nothing formal. My first song of memory was over the radio, Tennessee Ernie Ford's deep bass voice singing "Sixteen Tons." It was about shoveling coal: "Sixteen tons, and what do you get? A little bit older and deeper in debt. St. Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go. I owe my soul to the company store." If somebody has posted it anywhere online and you've never listened to it, go and do so.

We didn't have TV yet, and no record player, so the radio was our only recorded source of music. Music was also what you did with the family, singing nursery songs and X-mas carols, or singing along in church. It was playing the triangle in elementary school, learning whether notes went up or down from the previous one, and eventually singing in school choir and playing in marching band. That distinction is important: it was marching band, not orchestra, and the emphasis was on keeping step and straight lines and accompanying the local team at ball games. Music theory was strictly hands-on, keep up with the rest. In other words, there wasn't any.

I was so ignorant back then about how wide the real world was, that not only did I not know the answers to the questions, I had absolutely no idea that there actually were questions, much less what they might be. If it wasn't spoon fed to me in school, or perhaps through the Reader's Digest, I had no idea it existed. But my world was about to start changing.

We got a new minister to our Methodist Church about 1960, Rev. Edward F. Shannon. He came along with his wife, Jewel, who became our church choir director and started opening up our musical world. She taught us new music, complicated pieces that her skill and confidence in us led us to master with seeming ease, such as Cesar Franck's "150th Psalm." We grew so practiced and skilled that we eventually went to sing before the Methodist Annual Conference at Hamline University. (I fell in love with the campus at that visit and determined that I must go there, but that's another story.)

They also came with 5 children, a son a few years older than I was, David, 1 year older, Robert, a year younger, and Kathleen and the baby of the family, another son. Either the eldest or youngest was named Kevin. I surprise myself to discover after all these years I actually don't remember which it was: I had once thought I would never forget anything about that family. That too is another story.

I don't know if they all had special formal training in music, or if that just came from their mother, but "talented" describes the least of them, musically, and I suspect "genius" could be applied, at least to Robert. I was in awe of him, musically, and it was in dealing with him that I felt my most stupid.

First - in recollection, not necessarily chronologically - was the discussion where I was asking him about a piece of music by Bach. Just what exactly I was asking is not the part that sticks tenaciously to my memory cells. What followed is. He wasn't able to identify the piece by the meager clues I was offering him, and asked me "Which one?" meaning, "which Bach?"

I found that an inordinately stupid question. "THE one, of course." He just continued looking at me steadily, inscrutably, a look I now interpret as, "You are so completely hopeless, but I've been raised to be too polite to tell you so." As the silence stretched, I filled in, "Johann Sebastion, of course," thinking that ended the matter. How could he be so dense? But as he did seemingly continue to be so dense, it occurred to me to ask, "Why, are there more?"

Now that was born completely of ignorance, and my lack of a musical education, but I compounded it by my own stupidity in not realizing he wouldn't have even asked the question unless there were, in fact, more than one.


The second incident involved a performance that I got roped into by his mother. She liked to have everyone in the choir who possibly could do some sort of solo or duet in front of the whole church. I got to sing a verse of something called the "Mexican Christmas Carol" once and had a great time. I can't judge whether the listeners did also. But she got it into her head that I could play trumpet.

Mind you, I actually did play trumpet, if what I did could be called playing. I made noises, usually loudly, but with no ear to tell whether or not it was sharp or flat even if I could tell it was off. And since I'd never yet heard what kind of sweet mellow tone a real trumpet player could coax out of the instrument, that was good enough for me. A bit of practice and I didn't even fumble the fingerings too badly, but unfortunately, that's exactly what I didn't do: practice. Oh sure, I carried the case home every night, and carried it back again every morning, but mostly it sat where I dropped it until morning.

Still, she had confidence that I could actually play this thing, and I couldn't find a way to get out of it. The day arrived, the moment arrived, I picked up my trumpet where I had it stashed next to me in the choir loft, went to stand next to the organ where Bobby was playing, took a deep breath, blew, and ...BLAAAATTTTTTTTT! in a completely discordant note. He and I both stopped. He by now probably knew how musically awful I was, because he decided he needed to remind me that we were playing in the key of C. I insisted that I was, and it was true: every single piece of sheet music I had ever seen for band told me that this key and this note was middle C. We tried again, same result. The whole church was holding its breath. (In retrospect, it was better than laughter.) I wanted to crawl into a hole and haul Bobby in it with me. After all, I was doing it right, wasn't I? He looked at my sheet music, and it did indeed say C. He mildly informed me that he needed to figure out what key I was really playing in, when it dawned on me. Sometime long ago and far away, I had heard my instrument referred to as a B-flat trumpet. Did that help?

Sure it did, so now would I please just change the key I was playing in to a proper key of C?


He must have read the panic in my eyes, because he just said "Never mind" and instantly in his head transposed his part what we were doing so that the organ matched me. For him it was as easy as if someone had switched from writing with crayon to writing with pencil. I actually think he was surprised that not everybody - notably me - could do it. Somehow I managed to make some kind of sound come from the trumpet and finished my piece - or should I say our piece, since he's the one who made it possible. My contribution, most likely, could compassionately be considered barely adequate. Somehow, somewhere in my past I had been trained that you never quit and slunk away in the middle of a public disaster, that you stuck and finished it, no matter what. It's the only thing that kept me up there, and if anybody was fooled into thinking my flaming red face was caused by blowing through the horn, well let 'em!

Again, you're thinking what I told you was a story about ignorance, but the stupidity was in never once thinking about having to rehearse beforehand. After all, one note was all it would have taken.

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