Music Matters

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic
Music in school makes a child world more wonderful.

Submitted: November 10, 2008

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Submitted: November 10, 2008

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MUSIC MATTERS
 
When I hear that music programs have been cut in schools across the United States, I first think of Miss Godich, our vocal teacher at Campton. Twice a week, beginning in first grade, Miss Godich handed out music texts in our Campton classrooms. We’d sing folk songs about Betsy from Pike or the Erie Canal. We’d sing, in Latin, a round about peace, Dona Nobis Pacum.We’d sing, in Italian, about the city of Sorrento. We’d sing about a hat that had three corners. In second grade she taught my class You’ll Never Walk Alone, from the Broadway musical, Carousel, and we sang it for a recital in the Campton Gym. “When you walk through a storm keep your head up high….” We were seven. Few of us had encountered tough times. But we followed our teacher’s instruction to sing with great feeling. In fifth grade, Miss Godich’s last year at Campton, we learned a song about a deer hunter who ended up killing a couple of game wardens and a cow and stuffed them for wall trophies. When we sang it for a recital on stage in the gymnasium, perhaps fathers who hunted found little humor in the satirical, Tom Lehrer hunting song. Perhaps, Lutherans had been suspicious of our singing Dona Nobis Pacum in second grade — Miss Godich was Roman Catholic, and the Church was still conducting its services in Latin. 
Elementary students in Silver Bay also had the opportunity to take instrumental lessons. My mom encouraged me to play the violin. When her father was a boy he had performed with his mother and siblings as a family orchestra. Mom said Grandpa played by ear and had never learned to read music. Before they moved to Minneapolis, when the family lived in Lakeville, Grandpa owned several instruments including violin, banjo, mandolin and piano, and he could play them all. Mom’s two oldest sisters studied piano. In exchange for the lessons, Grandma supplied their instructor’s lunch. Before the teacher arrived, Grandma would pop open a little capsule of yellow food coloring that came with the margarine and carefully blend it into the spread so that the bread she served looked as if it had been spread with butter. One by one, except for his violin, Grandpa’s instruments were sold during the Depression to pay rent and buy food. 
We could start classes for stringed instruments in fourth grade. We had to wait until fifth grade for wind instruments. The school board hired the teacher without charge to our families for the lessons; our parents supplied the violins and paid for Building Technic with Beautiful Music by Samuel Applebaum, beginning with Volume One. My parents and I drove to Duluth and bought a used ¾ size violin at a music store.At first our teacher wrapped narrow strips of adhesive tape to mark the spots to place our fingers, but in a few weeks she removed these training devices and we had to seek out the points of the scale by feel and memory to be in tune. Our lessons were held in a dark but warm spot in the center of Campton School, the dim, windowless space next to the galvanized metal ductwork of the heating system and the school’s plumbing. We violinists were a small bunch of five or six. Most of my peers considered string instruments fuddy-duddy and waited until fifth grade for music lessons when they could begin classes for wind instruments and drums. A fifth-grader, who lived near our old house on Charles Circle, taunted me whenever she spotted me and my violin case on the way to or from school. Still, I enjoyed the privilege of leaving Mrs. Mattson’s class for sessions with the string teacher. At the end of the year, elementary students from Campton and Mary McDonald joined together for a recital. Our teacher hand-wrote simple songs onto staff paper and ran off on a Ditto machine. The program of music included simple renditions of Aunt Julida’s Polka and the Merry Widow Waltz.
Occasionally Campton students attended Lyceum programs presented on the gymnasium stage. During all-school events such as Lyceum shows, first graders would sit on the polished wood floor nearest the stage with the older grades in ascending order to the back. One Lyceum program featured a woman who played the harp. I had never seen a harp in real life. She played and talked about the instrument’s history and its place in an orchestra. But mostly I remember her telling us of the heavy calluses which constant plucking built up on her fingertips. She was tall and lovely. I had already started my violin lessons. My left fingers had toughened a bit. The pads of my right fingers were sore when we had songs that required pizzicato. I couldn’t imagine how difficult it must be to constantly play without a bow. Another Lyceum performer I remember at Campton was a middle-aged gentleman, probably in his early fifties. He had dark hair and dark eyes and wore glasses. He looked an awful lot like the man sketched on the front of my violin book, Mr. Applebaum — our guest performer was a violinist.
I was in fifth grade so I sat near the back of the back of the auditorium. The violinist shared his knowledge of the history of the violin. He played passages from classical music. He talked about the violin and its place in an orchestra. He spoke rapturously about famous violinists of the past, of famous composers of violin music. Though there were more than three hundred children sitting on the gym floor, at times it seemed he was talking only to me. After all, there weren’t that many string players in attendance. And among the string players, only a few played the violin. I was probably one of six. I felt myself a member of an elite club. As I gazed up at the stage — past the fourth, third, second and first graders — I resolved to become a professional violinist. It seemed a grand life to travel around to school and give lectures to gyms full of children. I decided to practice when I got home that night. At the time, I had never seen or heard an orchestra except for my own elementary one. I had heard George Liberace play the violin with his flamboyant pianist brother one Sunday night on Ed Sullivan. I knew violinists, also called fiddlers, played country music in small orchestras. I remembered that my grandpa had played in a family orchestra. But today, enthralled by the man on stage, my dream of being a violinist evolved to a playing well enough so that I could have my own Lyceum show, a kind of one-man band.
Near the end of his presentation, the violinist said he had eight important words for us to always remember. “And before I leave, if someone can repeat these words to me, I will give you this…”He had an item in his hand and he held it up for us to see. I squinted as I strained to see the item. I thought it was a bookmark. “It’s a bookmark,” he said. Could this prize (which he explained was in the shape of a violin) be mine? As a violinist and a lover of books, how could it not be mine?
Lowering his voice, the man shared his important eight words. I didn’t listen to the final remarks of the man’s presentation; I was silently repeating the man’s adage, counting the eight words on my fingers, recounting and rechecking my memorization.
The Lyceum program was over.
“And now, who can tell me those eight important words that we should always remember?” he asked. I stretched, raising my arm impossibly high. I lifted my rear from the floor to give myself advantage. I waved my hand with all the enthusiasm my eleven-year-old soul could muster. “The girl in the red plaid skirt,” he said. But no. Wait. I was wearing blue. It was my favorite color. Behind me, I heard a voice. I turned and counted the words on my fingers as the girl spoke, hoping she would make a mistake.
The man on stage applauded and thanked her. She walked up to the stage as collected my prize. The girl who stole my prize was a sixth grader and tall of her age. Naturally her hand would wave higher than mine; even in my own fifth grade class, I was one of the shorter students. This girl did not play the violin; she was the girl who, for two years, had teased me whenever she saw me carrying my violin case.
Life was not fair. And walking home that afternoon, disappointed, I reconsidered the life of a violinist. Perhaps I’d quit. Now that I was in fifth grade I was also playing the clarinet, a popular instrument among my peers.
I didn’t quit and continued with both instruments, a member of the band and the orchestra until I graduated from high school.
By now that souvenir bookmark would be lost or in a scrapbook that I can not find.But I remember the eight-word lesson that the violinist shared with us that day: the richest child is poor without beautiful music.
 


© Copyright 2018 Leni Willson. All rights reserved.

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