Note: this story was inspired by feedback I received from my good friend, Monica
I guess my first foray into music began when I greeted each morning by singing television commercial jingles. It all started around my third birthday. My parents would often recount my difficulty in learning to speak. In contrast, my singing ability was apparently unfettered. Before my eyes even had a chance to focus, I was singing the virtues of some product that was being promoted on prime time. It was an effective, fail-safe way of getting my parents out of bed.
Palo Alto, 1970
We moved to our second house in Palo Alto in the summer of 1970. This meant changing schools, as well as saying goodbye to my kindergarten friends at Addison Elementary School. My first grade teacher, Miss Stewart, was a young, vivacious woman in her twenties. I fell in love with her the very first day. She taught us a whole bunch of songs, including some from The Sound Of Music. It was here where my singing abilities were put to use in a more collective way. As I sang these songs in class, I would often hear kids singing out of tune. Wincing, I would try to pretend like I didn’t hear them. I wasn’t very good at pretending back then.
With each new grade came a litany of new songs to learn. I found that I often learned the melody before the words — a peculiarity that still persists to this day. In third grade, a grand concert was planned for the end of the school year. Each grade at Loma Vista Elementary School was tasked with learning songs from a particular country; our teacher chose France. Mrs. Holden really whipped us into shape. By the end of that school year we not only knew the words, but how to pronounce them properly as well. I was chosen to introduce Sur le Pont d’Avignon. Thirty years later, I walked over the actual Pont d’Avignon, and remembering the words from so long ago, I sang them, joyfully.
Concurrent with my singing activities, I was starting to learn the guitar. I had a mad crush on David Cassidy, who starred in The Partridge Family. He was quite popular back then, and I wanted to be just like him. That meant playing the guitar. I took about a year’s worth of lessons, first in a classroom setting, and then with a private instructor. He was very patient and encouraging. I was playing on a toy guitar, and he insisted that I get a real, 3/4 size guitar. I remember going to the music store in Mountain View and selecting the instrument (I still have it). I learned to play decent folk guitar. When he tried to introduce me to classical guitar, I gave up.
A little later, I started learning piano by rote from my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Huff. He taught me a boogie-woogie song called “The Honey Dripper”, as well as “Claire du Lune”. I tried to take formal lessons at the YMCA, but I hated the instructor and dropped out.
Palo Alto, 1977
I was about to enter eighth grade and was trying to choose my elective courses. As mom and I were reviewing the list, something popped out at her: Beginning Band (no experience necessary). She looked at me and said, “You should take this class. You have musical talent, but you’re not doing anything with it now. I think this would be right up your alley.” I agreed, not knowing how far that decision would ultimately take me.
Mrs. Bateman, the teach of bands at Terman Junior High, first scheduled us to observe the intermediate and advanced bands in rehearsal. It gave me a chance to look at all the instruments and select one. The first one I selected was the French Horn. Mrs. Bateman simply shook her head and said, “That’s a difficult instrument. It doesn’t do what you want it to do.” I then asked her about playing the saxophone. Again, with a shake of her head, she said that it was too large for me. I was tiny, and so I needed an instrument that fit me. “What about the flute?”, she asked. “OK”, came the reluctant reply.
Learning the flute was more difficult than the guitar or piano. For one thing, I had to learn to read music. Once I got over that hurdle, I had to learn how to blow across the embouchure to produce a sound — any sound. The first month I was constantly dizzy from an over-supply of oxygen. My lungs were working overtime and my lips were crying out for mercy! I think my family was crying out for mercy too. But by GOD, I was tackle this. Eventually, our beginning band class began its regular rehearsals. Mrs. Bateman would spend time after school helping me out. By the end of eighth grade, I was the principal flutist. I was also allowed to perform with the intermediate band toward the end of the term. If that wasn’t enough, I was also in chorus and starting to write music, having reviewed several conductor scores that Mrs. Bateman had lying around. My musical development skyrocketed like it had never done before.
I was ready for more challenges and wondrous experiences ahead. TO BE CONTINUED…