Looking Back

The sounds of music

I’ll bet just about everyone reading this column remembers bringing home papers from school that informed your parents about the opportunity to take lessons on a musical instrument. You could rent the instrument in the beginning and eventually buy it.

For me this musical opportunity came around the sixth grade. The usual “hype” accompanied the presentation to students. By the time school was over my two best friends and I knew we wanted to play the clarinet. I have no idea how we reached that conclusion.

Sister Emmanuel was a music teacher at Christ the King School back in the 1950s. Looking back she must have had the patience of a saint and plugs in her ears! I’ll bet I was one of the students she did not look forward to teaching on any given day.

I recall that she told us a clarinet was not the instrument to play if we were concerned about beauty. “Why?” we asked. The answer: “Because it causes your chin to flatten out.” That threat to our beauty didn’t deter any of us, so the lessons began.

One plus of playing the clarinet was that we could be in the school marching band. We wore plaid caps, black pants, white shirts and bow ties. We were told that if we found ourselves to be out of step, just take a “half-step” and we would be back in sync. My parents were among those lining the street to watch as our school band paraded throughout downtown. Unfortunately, they watched me do a “half-step” for just about the entire parade. My father, who could find humor in most situations, told my mother, “They were all ‘out of step’ but Mary Ellen.”

I tired of the clarinet after about a year and wanted to try playing the flute. There was no logical reason for choosing that instrument. I simply liked the way it sounded. Unfortunately, I had even less talent with that instrument . . . if such a thing is possible. My two friends, on the other hand, were turning into quite talented clarinet players. I knew that my parents wouldn’t want me to simply quit without a fair trial. So I told them that I got dizzy playing the flute! They probably knew that such a medical condition didn’t exist but they realized that if they let me quit, the screeching sounds that echoed throughout our house would go away. So . . . goodbye flute!

But it didn’t end there. By eighth grade I wanted to play the piano. Christ the King had a different teacher for that. Her name was Sister Mary Louise. I wonder if Sister Emmanuel told her about my musical talent or “lack of”? This venture was doomed from day one as I didn’t have a piano at home. I was told I could practice on the piano in the school basement at the end of the day. I gave it my all for a few months but I have a feeling someone at school complained about my lack of musical talent. Out of the blue, my parents were offered the piano for free if we could get it out of the school basement. A piano mover was found and a space was cleared in our cellar for it. I practiced faithfully every day, much to the dismay of our next door neighbor. One day she called and told my mother that she had a migraine headache so please have me stop. I did.

Piano lessons meant a recital at the end of the school year. I played a duet with one of the most talented and musical students in the school. I think my part only had a few chords, and hopefully the other student made me look good.

Both the clarinet and piano are still in my family home where my husband, Peter, and I currently live. Several keys are stuck in the piano and the cork on the clarinet keys has dried out. These two musical instruments will probably remain here as long as we do. Both of them now have a different purpose. The clarinet case serves as a doorstop for a bedroom door that wants to close on its own. The piano top and key cover have become a storage place for multiple items. There is nothing like sentimentality to make you hold onto things.

Now that we are retired, the clarinet and piano could be repaired and my husband and I would have the start of a band! The neighbor with migraines has long gone but I’ll bet I could still produce a migraine in the current neighbors. Perhaps I had better stick to gardening. I’m pretty good at that!

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