Music seems magical, but it takes hard work and skill and discipline and some other words I’m largely unfamiliar with.
Growing up in Ohio in the 1940s, my mother took accordion lessons, and we have ancient home movies of her happily playing the instrument, fingers flying, the pleated bellows breathing in and out, in and out. No way to know if she was any good; the old home movies are silent, and we can’t ask her audience because most of them are dead, although presumably not because of the accordion music.
She eventually became a mother — I saw to that — and she insisted that a child must learn to play a musical instrument in order to achieve “well-roundedness.” Piano was designated as the ideal starter instrument. I was in fourth grade when I began private lessons. Even at this tender age, I was a rebellious devil, so in the course of nine months I managed to drive off three piano teachers.
My frustrated mother would only allow the third piano teacher off the hook if I chose a different instrument to learn. The public elementary school in our small Indiana town featured a band program starting in the fifth grade. Perfect timing after the carnage of my fourth-grade piano lessons.
We attended the orientation meeting at Franklin School, and Mr. Sohn — already a demigod in Griffith, Indiana — outlined the various instruments a fifth-grader could start on. Basically, any band instrument was fair game except French horn, which was considered too difficult for a fifth-grader.
Having no interest in learning any instrument, I saw my opening. I insisted to my mother that the only instrument I could possibly study would be French horn. She was undaunted. She went to Mr. Sohn, he quizzed my previous teachers — those creeps exposed me as an extraordinary student — and he carved out a first-ever exception for me. Little Dougie Brendel would study French horn from Day One.
I lugged that wretched thing — 13 coiled feet of brass, 18 miserable pounds, plus a bulky, heavy case — back and forth to school for 8 solid years. Rehearsal every school day, multiple concerts every year, innumerable battles with my mother over my home practice, or lack thereof.
If you’re looking for a sentimental happy ending here, forget it. The day I graduated from high school, I turned in my rented French horn and never looked back.
But of course I did learn a lot, in spite of myself. I learned that dazzling music doesn’t just happen; it requires a massive investment by dedicated people, people who have some special quality that eludes me.
So when a magical musical experience comes along, I recognize it — I can’t do that stuff, but I can love that stuff.
Which is why I found my heart soaring on a recent Friday evening at the Dolan Performing Arts Center in Ipswich. It was a truly astonishing world-premiere presentation of original musical and visual works by six Ipswich composers — produced by The Orchestra On The Hill.
Yes, those initials spell T.O.O.T.H., and these folks wear the silly moniker proudly. But there is nothing silly about TOOTH, the brainchild of artistic director Tom Palance. The Friday event was only the most recent of their consistently excellent musical and visual offerings. Magical stuff, every time.
Yet for a moment or two, sitting in the twelfth row on Friday evening, I thought there might actually be real magic afoot.
As I looked at the stage, where the entire Orchestra was seated, I saw Julie Meneghini. Not all of her, just her face. She was mostly hidden by a thicket of string players.
Julie, a longtime friend, is an acclaimed clarinetist. So I knew the time would soon come when we’d hear a clarinet, and I would see Julie blowing brainily and beautifully into that classy black stick.
Then, before long, it happened: a wonderful, winding clarinet solo. It was lovely. I squinted past the violins and cellos and focused on all I could see of Julie’s face, a tiny square in the Orchestra’s back row.
And then, a chill fell over me. Goosebumps. The clarinet’s melody was wafting magically over us all, but I saw Julie just sitting there. Like any ordinary mom waiting calmly at the bus stop. No clarinet in sight.
Incredible! Julie Meneghini was playing her clarinet telepathically. TOOTH fairy! Truly magical music!
As the thrilling concert came to an end and the house lights came up, I dug into the printed program. I wondered if Julie would get at least an asterisk after her name, honorable mention for playing her clarinet with nothing but mental control.
Instead, I was deflated.
Julie had been assigned bass clarinet for this concert.
She’s not TOOTH fairy for nothing. Besides the five variations of clarinet, she plays alto and tenor sax, flute, violin, bassoon, and — horrors — piano.
That beautiful clarinet solo? Turns out it was played by Marguerite Levin, the old-fashioned way: she puffed into a mouthpiece with nothing but her mouth and worked the keys with nothing but her fingers. Ho hum. Human.
Yet TOOTH made magic. Thank you, Orchestra on the Hill.
Glad they’re here. With or without a tooth fairy.
Visit TheOrchestraOnTheHill.org. Meanwhile, Doug Brendel lives on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts, still recovering from the trauma of his childhood music lessons. Find him at DougBrendel.com.