Yes, I’m here, still a captive to COVID19. I’m enjoying the quiet and finding lots of time to to sit and write. I’m actually accomplishing something, even if it’s not here in the blog. But, hoping to provoke joy unbounded, I am attaching a bit of my latest opus entitled ‘Punto and Me’.
‘Punto and Me’ is the title of the first work I wrote. It involved two characters separated by about two hundred years in time and connected by their passion for playing the horn – not to mention a ghost that bridges the time frame. By the time I finished the novel, it was close to 200K words long and wasn’t really publishable without provision of steel-toed boots for readers – just in case the book dropped from their hands and fell on their foot, crippling them for life. I had it self published on the KOBO site, but withdrew it when I decided to think again.
Back at the drawing board I eventually decided to break this magnum opus into two separate novels. The first focussed on the life story of Giovanni Punto, the world’s first horn virtuoso. By all means refer to my earlier blog for a sample of this novel entitled ‘Punto’. That left the more contemporary character lacking a vehicle. I’ve just finished writing this novel and decided to use the original title ‘Punto and Me’, as the story is envisioned as a sequel to ‘Punto’, even if both can be read in isolation.
Lisa Walters, a girl troubled by thoughts that she’s born with the wrong body, is the main character in ‘Punto and Me’. Her life struggles with her identity and passion for music provide the platform for love and romance – not to mention annoying visitations by the ghost of Giovanni Punto.
So here goes, a taste of the new ‘Punto and Me’.
Excerpt from ‘Classical CD Magazine’, September issue – 2002
Interview with Lisa Walters by Max Beaverbrook
CCD: Congratulations on your latest CD release. It’s garnered rave reviews and picked up several prizes including the prestigious ‘Classical Brass CD of the Year’ award, a remarkable achievement for a disc of horn music.
LW: Thanks. I confess I was a little surprised, but very pleased.
CCD: You started music at a very young age and didn’t start horn until you were fifteen.
LW: That’s right. I switched from piano to horn in high school.
CCD: Soon after you won your first job as principal horn in the City Philharmonic and went on to become the first female to hold the same post in the London Symphonic Players. Over the past twenty years you’ve developed a career as a soloist and are widely acknowledged as one of the world’s reigning horn virtuosos. You’ve inspired composers to write for you and influenced a whole generation of female musicians. Is there a secret to your success?
LW: Most of it is no secret. You’re blessed with a little talent that’s combined with endless practice – then you add a dash of luck. But I do have one real secret – Giovanni Punto.
CCD: I’m sorry, but I don’t recognize the name. Was he one of your teachers?
LW: You might say that. I consider him a teacher of every horn player today.
CCD: Sorry, I’m not sure what you mean.
LW: Punto died in 1803 and is considered the world’s first great horn virtuoso. The horn went from something you blew on while riding a horse in the fields to a legitimate solo instrument because of him. His influence on the development of the horn is crucial. Punto had the same kind of effect on audiences back then that rock stars have today. When he returned to Bohemia in the last part of his career, people cheered him from the roadside and mobbed his coach when he stopped. The population of Prague was about 80,000 in 1803 and when Punto died, four thousand people showed up for his funeral.
CCD: Astonishing! So it’s safe to say that Punto has been your inspiration?
LW: Definitely. You could say he’s been my muse. I feel like I’ve known him since I began playing horn.
CCD: And I just made the connection with the concert you’re sponsoring and promoting in Prague next year.
LW: Yes, it’s to mark the 200th anniversary of Punto’s death and it’s my tribute to both him and our shared Czech heritage.
CCD: I’ve heard that you’re writing a memoire. Is it going to be a ‘kiss and tell’ about your private life?
LW: You must have been talking to my daughter. It will have some surprises, but I’ll wait until it’s finished before I reveal any more.
“There you are!” It’s my mother and she takes my hand. Hers is cold and trembling as she scolds, “Lisa, you mustn’t wander off on your own. If you hadn’t cried I don’t know if I could have found you.” We pass around a bush and behold, our house comes immediately into sight.
This is my earliest memory. We lived in Pulp Town then and I had apparently only just learned to walk when I took off out an open back door and headed into the woods. Why is this image so special that it’s still frozen in my memory? It isn’t the fear of being lost. No, it’s surprise that I was so close to the house and didn’t figure it out. How stupid could I get?
My headache is back and my mind wanders as I hear my daughter Lisle-Marie practicing her violin. Like me she is considered a ‘wunderkind’, an old head on new shoulders and, by the age of eight, she was performing solos with symphony orchestras. Of course violin soloists, like concert pianists, have some prestige in the musical world, enhanced even more when the performer is the size of an elf. Being great on an instrument like the horn is an automatic recipe for obscurity.
“What are you up to?” Lisle-Marie asks on her way to practice.
I look up from my computer screen. “I’m writing a book.”
I respond cautiously, even though she sounds uncharacteristically interested. “It’s mostly a memoir, but I want to pay homage to one of history’s greatest horn players, Giovanni Punto.”
I ignore the slight roll of her eyes and am about to look back at my screen when she continues. “Not too big a part, I hope. People like to listen to music. They don’t want to read about some old dead guy that played horn – too boring. Why don’t you work on something about a rock star?” She says this like it is an immutable fact, written in stone and only the village idiot couldn’t have figured it out.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” It is hard not to grit my teeth as my eyes head back to the screen.
“Please do. A horn player – Really? Too boring!”
‘Too boring’… It’s her latest ‘dismissive de jour’ for anything that doesn’t interest her and she’s rather relentless for one so young.
Before she heads off to practice, she gives me one of her looks. It’s disturbing when your children feed back mannerisms you know they learned unconsciously from you. It is a mock serious look, one that warns me I need to duck. She tosses it off with satisfaction, “If you don’t have a rock star, you’d better fill your memoire with lots of sex and violence; otherwise nobody will read it.”
I’m sure she could never imagine either of her two moms as being any different than the staid people she’s grown up with. At fifteen she exudes the charm of a rattlesnake. She’s got the teenage F-U attitude that can try even a mother’s love. I’m still wondering if I did the right thing last month.
Picture this – her grandma and I have gone to Mr. Wu’s funeral, expecting to be away for the weekend. Tanya, her second mom, is away the same weekend on business and Carlo, her occasional father, is off somewhere conducting. Lisle-Marie is furious that I would even consider hiring someone to look after her and the flat for the weekend. She is withering and scornful. She is fifteen! Don’t I trust her? Surely she’s old enough to look after herself! She’s played solo concerts in big cities since she’s been eight! Doesn’t that show she’s mature enough? Etc. etc. I weaken. She switches tactics and coyly suggests inviting her three friends: Penn, Sacha and Dottie to stay with her. Won’t that be safer and better all around? With her nomadic life of concerts, it’s a miracle that she has three friends. I cave. I call the girls’ parents and explain. They agree to let their daughters help out with a weekend sleepover.
The funeral ends early. There’s a flight leaving that night and we can get back one evening sooner than expected. It’s a bit late when we arrive and I help my mother into her flat next door. I am going up the steps into my flat and hear pounding music – the kind teenage girls love to crank up when nobody’s home… well Lisle-Marie likes to crank it up when I’m home as well. I enter and the deafening blare is coming from the living room, across the hall from the entrance. I think I’ll pop my head inside and ask them to turn it down. The door is open enough for me to see the girls sitting on a rug angled slightly away from me. Their faces are riveted. They are all paying rapt attention to what’s in front of them. It’s the kind of attention that teachers in their mundane school classes only dream about. I shift my gaze a little and follow the direction of their wide, excited eyes.
He’s quite good looking: young, dark brown hair, smallish in stature, thin but well built. He’s swinging a skimpy piece of underwear around his finger above his head. He’s gyrating his hips, making his rather substantial equipment swing round to the music. There are other clothes scattered on the floor around him. My first reaction is to burst in, breathing fire in sufficient quantities to scorch the walls, blind the youngsters and send the young man off to an even hotter clime. I don’t know what holds me back from this perfectly logical approach. Well, I worry about two things. A working child prodigy develops few childhood friends. A child who lives with two mothers already has difficulties with social acceptance. I dither for a few minutes. I decide to find a strategic place to ensure they’re safe until Dick Twirly leaves and then pretend to arrive home.
Her friends look flushed. I see relief that their secret came so close to being discovered. They head off home the next morning all happy and full of giggles. I ask my little Borgia if we could talk in the kitchen. I decide on a direct approach. “How much did the stripper cost you last night?” Her eyes practically pop out of her head. “Oh, please don’t consider lying to me. I got home earlier than you think last night and saw it all. Would you like me to tell you the color of the underwear he was waving on his finger?” A sullen silence descends as I outline the disappointment I have in her, the dangers she placed herself and friends and the consequences to her friendships if word gets out about what went on.
“You’re not going to tell their parents are you?” She sounds suitably desperate and horrified.
“It depends on you. You tell me a suitable consequence for your actions and I’ll keep quiet.” She sits and stews while I prepare some tea. Then she outlines a rigorous and draconian punishment schedule that even includes a few things I hadn’t considered. “Very well. I hope you understand how serious this is. You’d better hope none of your friends tells anyone, and I hope you learned something from all this.”
Her eyebrows scrunch and she mutters darkly, “Well, I found out men have hairy asses.” That’s my Lisle-Marie. It’s a different generation that learns things sooner than my generation, but even so, and I hate to admit it, she takes after her mother. I’m still wondering if I did the right thing.
“Are we there yet?”
“No dear, it’s a very long way and we’ve only just got in the car.” We are moving to the City. The blue Chevy pulls away from our large house, down the huge hill and past the vast swamp. We cross a bridge and I hear it humming, the sound of rubber tires running over metal slats. We are chased by the smell that sweats from the pores of Pulp Town.
I was back ten years later with my parents. They were invited to a wedding. The first thing I remember is the smell that assails my nose driving into town. Then my parents indulge my curiosity and we drive by our old home. It is a tiny house at the top of a small bump in the road and bordered by a drainage ditch. You see how tricky memories can be.
“Are we there yet?”
The empty feeling that I’m different, perverted – that I somehow got into the wrong line-up, right at the beginning, and was given the wrong body, isn’t noticeable at that age, but the music is always there. When we arrive at the new house my mother begins fussing with the moving men as they bring her piano inside. When it’s safe in the living room I can hear her playing a few scales and a short piece.
My mother is a force of nature, self-reliant and addicted to piano music. She left home young so she never had to speak to her mother again. She refused to attend the funeral of her brother because she felt he cheated her out of her fair share of the inheritance when my grandmother died. He got grandma’s house, she got her father’s old piano and an ancient green steamer trunk. She parked that in the basement and refused to open it. But not the piano!
Sitting beside my mother on the piano bench while she plays is very enticing.
“Would you like to play, Lisa? Yes, that’s it. Put your fingers like this. Very good. Don’t worry; your hands will get bigger. Push the key.”
“I see orange.”
“No, we don’t bring food to the piano.”
“The sound is orange.”
“Oh. What color is this one?”
“Would you like to know their real names?”
“You’re six now Lisa and you know Mr. Bach is tricky.” She pauses, looking serious. “That’s why you practice. Do you want to do more than half an hour a day?” I nod.
“Sing this note,” she commands as she points her finger. It’s the beginning of grade two and everyone in my class is required to sing for the music teacher, a formidable nun with eyes that always seem to find everyone wanting. She is standing behind an upright piano and one hand hits a note on the keyboard while the finger of her other hand selects her next victim. We are lined up in a row in front of her. The long thin legs on the skinny kid next to me are shaking as the finger stops at him. A sound comes from the piano and I see the color first and know it’s a ‘D’. The skinny kid squeaks out a note that is a completely different color.
“You can go back to class.” Her eyes have already erased the skinny kind as she waves her arm at him, brushing him away like an annoying fly. His face is flushed and he looks ready to cry. He slinks from the room looking like the floor is about to open and swallow him whole. I feel bad for him.
The finger stops at me. I hear the color and know it’s a ‘C#’ this time. I purposely sing the same color as the skinny kid, just a little more out of tune. I smile as I’m brushed away.
It’s Christmas and I get three presents: a book, a toy stuffed bunny with pink satin inside the ears and a vinyl record. One of the things I like best about Christmas is that my dad is home. Ever since we moved to the City, he travels on business most of the year. My mother then spends most of the day preparing dinner.
I’m looking at the vinyl record. There is a picture of a plow horse on the cover and the title says, ‘Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony conducted by Bruno Walter with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra.’ I bring it over to the large cabinet record player. The piano, the record player and an old sofa comprise the major features of an otherwise clean and plain living room. My father is out in the kitchen with my mother, pouring himself a drink. My mother is still cooking and, since it’s Christmas, she might have a half glass of wine with dinner.
“I made the cranberry sauce myself this year.” My mother is constantly on the move, doing things. She keeps glancing at him and smiling. There’s a different feeling in the house when he’s home and I never understand why. The cranberry sauce sits uneaten.
I hear some talking and laughter as I place the record into the little rounded metal rod. I put the needle on the edge and hear the usual fuzzy noises before the strings begin playing a short melody. I feel frozen in place as the music continues; bringing swirls of colors into my brain like nothing I’ve ever heard before.
“Turn it up, Lisa, I can’t hear it in the kitchen.” My reverie is broken. My mother loves to listen to music although this is the first record we have that isn’t piano solos. My dad goes downstairs with his drink, Scotch whisky with a beer chaser.
“Why can’t you just keep teaching her?” I’m in the kitchen but I can hear my parents.
“She’s already far beyond me. She needs a real teacher, someone who can challenge her.” I peek around the corner and she is looking at him with her shoulders set. “You haven’t been around much lately to see how amazingly well she plays.”
“You know the business takes a lot of work and travel.”
“Yes, and when you’re in town, you come home when dinner’s cold and fall asleep in front of the TV. You haven’t got time for me anymore. Surely you must be making enough money at this point to pay for lessons for your daughter.”
“How much it is? I’ll add it to your weekly budget.”
My mother spends a day on the phone, calling places and people she finds in the yellow pages. The first person on the phone asks what part of City she lives in. When my mother says the southwest, the person recommends Mrs. Dubois as a qualified piano teacher that lives in that area. A long call establishes that Mrs. Dubois first studied in Julliard in New York and obtained a Master’s degree in piano performance. The next question confirms that she taught senior students who did well in local competitions. The last question was about fees, payments and cancellation policies. The fact that Mrs. Dubois lives only a short bike ride from our house isn’t part of the conversation.
So I begin lessons with Mrs. Dubois. I go to the door of her house and ring the bell. She is a little more than a head taller than me and her hair is clearly dyed black. There is a twang to her words when she first speaks but she isn’t looking at my face. It’s my hands that have garnered her attention. Then she lifts her eyes. “If you’re coming for lessons you don’t need to ring the bell. Come in through the front door and wait on a chair in the hallway for me to come and get you.”
I enter as a stocky looking boy with a scar on his cheek passes me on his way out. I see several chairs in the entranceway. Mrs. Dubois brings me into the large living room where the stuffy couches and clunky wooden furniture look like ugly stepsisters compared to the highly polished seven-foot long concert grand piano that reposes in splendor near an interior wall. It is flanked by an equally gleaming upright piano.
“Sit,” she says, motioning to sit at the bench in front of the upright piano. “Now, play something for me.”
I have been working on Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9 #1. It is one of my mother’s favorite pieces, and she had introduced me to it. As I play, Mrs. Dubois sits through the whole piece without saying a word. I think I play it quite well but it is a little unnerving to be watched so closely.
“With whom have you studied?” she asks first.
“Just my mother.” She pauses as she digests this information.
“Did your mother study piano?”
“My grandfather taught her.”
“What do you want to do with the piano?” she asks.
“What do you mean?”
“Do you want to have a career as a pianist or make a living with the piano or do you just want to play for pleasure?”
“I don’t know, I haven’t given it any thought.”
“How much do you practice a day?”
“Usually two hours, sometimes more.”
“Well, let’s start. Your hands are too small for the great romantic repertoire. That’s a pity but there are still great works suitable for smaller hands.” She gives me a warm smile and continues, “You have excellent potential and could accomplish a great deal on this instrument if that is your choice. You have a few small technical problems that we can fix, but everything depends on what you decide you want. If you wish to make a career on the piano, you have the talent to succeed. But, you will need to increase your practice to a minimum of three hours, every day and start working toward four or five.”
I am a bit taken aback at this news, but I just nod my head. I leave the lesson feeling rather overwhelmed, but it turns out that Mrs. Dubois is just what I need as I embark on my last year in elementary school. She is an exceedingly empathetic person with a magnetic personality. By the end of the first term I adore her. I discover this isn’t a universal reaction to Mrs. Dubois. Her opinions of people are made quickly and with finality. From the point she makes up her mind, she radiates an air of superiority at people she doesn’t like. It is rare for her to reverse her initial first impressions. She shares her home with another lady, who also teaches piano to beginning students. I have a vague awareness that their relationship is very close.
If it wasn’t for music, I don’t know how I would have survived school. I never played with other girls when I was in elementary school. ‘Tom boy’ is what I was called. I played sports with the boys, refused to wear dresses and was generally ignored by the other girls. Things inside me began to change and it wasn’t just the onset of my periods. I can see other girls becoming interested in boys and some interplay between them starts to develop. I can’t understand why.
My mother signs me up for martial arts classes with Mr. Wu. She says its so I learn how to protect myself. In elementary school I can take on any of the boys and win, so I’m not sure why I need it.
How can I talk to anyone about this feeling I have – that I’m in the wrong body?
“It’s a form of martial arts Lisa, and it will be very good for you. It can help you defend yourself, should the situation ever arise, and it will also help keep you fit and healthy. It will improve your abilities in sports and music.”
This is the party line, direct from Herr mother, but I am suspicious. I am aware that my mother knows Mr. Wu because he owns a small take out Korean restaurant that is situated beside my father’s import-export outlet. For the first couple of years after my father opens his store, my mother occasionally helps out when there are large shipments he needs unpacked or when he is off traveling. I am at school, of course. Because of the store’s long hours, we fall into the habit of buying food next door quite often. My parents have a great fondness for any kind of oriental food, which after a little fuss, I eventually decide is no hardship.
I am old enough to help out on weekends and my mother is already a regular at the restaurant. “Ahh, the enchanting Mrs. Wahters and this must be her rovery daughter.” I smile, mostly because of his heavily accented greeting with the ‘l’ pronounced as ‘r’ or ‘h’. I think he must have been in his thirties at the time, ancient by my standards, but his short muscular frame emanates an aura of inner confidence and outer strength. The spark in his eyes matches the gleam of his short black hair and his perfect white teeth flash at us as he makes a little bow to my mother.
“Prease do have seat and ahrow me to bring Chinese fortune cookie for Risa.” He may have been talking about me but he never takes his eyes off my mother. He withdraws a cookie from his coat pocket like a magician. He whips off the wrapper, snaps open the cookie and reads, “New start for speciah daughter beginning next week.” The two laugh together at his little joke.
“Lisa, this is Mr. Wu.” The words were to me but my mother’s eyes were on Mr. Wu. I begin to feel like I’m not there. “His studio is just down the block.”
I don’t discover until some time later that Mr. Wu is a high degree black belt in Taekwondo and makes occasional trips back to the orient to help judge competitions, sitting with other senior examiners in assessing candidates for entrance into the higher levels of the black belt. Two of his black belt students also work in the restaurant, making it one of better-defended eateries anywhere.
“Ahh, Risa!” He flashes that same winning smile when I first enter his studio. I feel like a geek dressed in thin baggy white pants with a heavier cloth jacket over a white t-shirt and held together with a white belt. “How is your enchanting mother?”
“She’s fine. She’s down at the store helping while I’m here.”
“Very good. Prease watch.” He goes into a crouch position with his arms at his side with the elbows bent and his fists facing forward and upward. “You do.”
I do. “Prease hold there and watch untihr I say O.K.” Then he goes off to work with two of his students, both wearing black belts. There is a round of polite bowing and then they get to work. I am astonished at the speed and agility the students demonstrate while working on routines under his guidance. It is so engrossing that it is about ten minutes before I hear my leg muscles screaming at me. I am sure I am going to end up crawling out of the studio when my mother comes to pick me up. Finally! He comes over with one of the students and says, “O.K.” At that moment my leg is insisting that my cramp will be permanent.
“I go for a little while. Be back shortry. In meantime, Wang will show you something to work on. Before starting, prease ahways bow to teachers and opponents like so.” He shows me and I do it, first to him and then to Wang. Then Mr. Wu disappears out a back door and I spend the next half hour learning a simple routine.
“Each time you learn enough, you are awarded another color of belt,” Wang says after he is satisfied with the progress of my routine.
“You belt is black. Is that the best?”
Wang laughs. “No, no, no. There are many colors to earn before you get the first black belt but Mr. Wu teaches that the first black belt is only the beginning for those who will devote themselves to the way and the art of Taekwondo.” Wang has a kindly face for someone that can bound through the air, defying gravity and then plant his heel exactly into one of the body’s vulnerable spots. “Earning lower belts is like learning to walk. When you reach the first black belt, you then begin serious training for long distance running.”
My mother arrives to collect me just after Mr. Wu returns. They catch each other’s eyes and smile. Is there a hint of perfume on Mr. Wu? Funny, it’s just like the scent my mother uses.
“You’re playing a D”. I am at my second lesson and Mrs. Dubois has me facing away from the piano and is asking me to identify notes she plays without my seeing them.
“Very good, Lisa. How about these?” She plays a cluster of notes together.
“C sharp, F, B, G and G sharp.”
Mrs. Dubois smiles. “Yes, I thought so.” She invites me to turn around and face the piano again. “You have perfect pitch.”
“Is that good?”
“It’s very helpful in music.” She laughs. “Most musicians wish it was contagious.”
“What does that mean exactly?”
“It means you were born with the ability to hear the pitch of any note inside your head. You can hear it without it being played and you can identify any note played on an instrument without seeing the music. You tell me you see colors for each note, and that’s how some people with this gift describe how they do it. It doesn’t automatically make you a musician but it can certainly help the learning process.”
“You’re turning into a veritable Amazon, Lisa.” That was from my gym teacher. I am horrified. “Like the river?” I blurt back thinking he must be referring to the amount I sweat. He laughs, “No, not the river. You should look it up. It’s supposed to be a compliment.” I like Mr. Cobbs. Unlike one of the other teachers I have, he doesn’t make jokes at a student’s expense. Not only that but he lets me use the weight room over lunch hour while he’s supervising the lunch hour games so I can work on body building and practice my martial arts routines.
I look up the word in the encyclopedia. Relief! It seems that the river was named after an ancient race of warrior women, so I guess he really meant it as a compliment. On the other hand, some of these women were supposed to have cut off a breast so it didn’t interfere with shooting their bows. I look back in the mirror. Maybe he’s referring to my non-existent…”Lisa, shut up,” I hear myself mutter.
Everything changes when I meet Nancy. The feelings that I am different – living in the wrong body start to intensify when Nancy becomes my friend. How did I meet such a goddess, let alone become friends?
Despite my boycott of the elementary school choir, I decide to join the choir at the new school, which meets over lunch twice a week. I bring my lunch to the choir room and enter to see a healthy sized group already there, mostly girls. I sit down and a blonde haired girl rushes in and sits beside me. I glance at her already large breasts that contrast so well with her ultra thin waist. Definitely not an Amazon, I think, but it’s hard to take my eyes off her. I get a little flush I’ve never felt before. As soon as the blonde sits down, the few boys who came to choir immediately move to sit close by.
I redirect my attention when I hear Mrs. Sparks introduce herself and welcome everyone to the choir. She has grey steaks in her hair so her age is indeterminate to me, probably born in the cretaceous period if I had to guess. She asks everyone to stand and she begins singing a note. I am astonished at how quickly the time passes with Mrs. Sparks. “If any of you would like to audition for solos, please see me after school. Thank you all for coming and I hope we’ll see you all next Thursday. Bring your friends.” She says this with a little laugh. Her smile is infectious and makes me think she really enjoys teaching choir. I’m not used to teachers with such an easy manner but I feel really good that I came. I begin to wish I’d started singing in a choir sooner. I stand up and the blonde does the same.
“Hi, I’m Nancy,” she says and gives me a lovely smile.
She spoke to me! I feel a flutter in my stomach. “Lisa.”
“Are you going to try out for the solos?”
“I haven’t thought about it.”
“You should, you’ve got a terrific voice. Why don’t you join me and we’ll both try out?”
“Well…thanks. O.K. I’ll see you here after school, Nancy.” I sigh as I watch her head out, immediately followed by three boys.
I can’t wait for the school day to finish. My attention wanders as I think about Nancy. My mother would say she has a face like a renaissance Madonna. Where does she live? Will she like me? My musical self has already assessed her: she has a lovely clear soprano voice and her pitch is good. What is it I’m feeling?
She is good as her word and I find her waiting for me outside the choir room after school. “Hi Lisa, are you all ready?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” I smile, looking at her. There are other girls waiting – they don’t exist for me.
Mrs. Sparks welcomes us as we go in. She even remembers a couple of our names. Nancy and I sit and listen to the other three, who audition before us. Mrs. Sparks is remarkably patient and listens to each person, making everyone feel terrific, even when I think the voices sound nasal, out of tune, pinched or just plain awful. When Nancy and I both finish, she asks us if we read music. It turns out that Nancy used to play a little piano and can read music if it isn’t too complicated. Mrs. Sparks asks Nancy and me if we could stay a little longer. Yes! As the others leave, she says their names and something positive to each person. Mrs. Sparks then hands us music from Hansel and Gretel by somebody named Humperdinck.
She sits at her piano and plays the parts for us to hear. Then she asks us to try it with me singing the top part. Nancy gets lost about half way through and it falls apart. Mrs. Sparks has a jolly sounding laugh and plays the parts again. We rehearse the middle part and then we try again from the beginning. We make it to the end without any glaring errors and I wish we could sing it again. I want to stay close to Nancy.
There always seems to be a smile on Mrs. Sparks’ face. “You two sound wonderful together. I think we can find something for both of you to sing this year, perhaps even together. Thanks for coming out.” I leave with a sense of euphoria.
Nancy begins introducing me to several of the other girls she knows from elementary school. She and I have three classes together and often join each other for lunch in the cafeteria. I don’t mind the others as long as I get to sit near Nancy. As I get to know her, I discover that Nancy’s real passion is drama. She tells me that she is determined to live a life on the stage. She is forever asking me to listen to her recite a piece she has learned, or comment on an impromptu dialogue she’s picked up from a movie. I always say yes.
“Hi, I’m Ralph,” he says to Nancy as he sits across the table from her. We are sitting in the cafeteria during a break and Nancy is telling me about the latest role she’s practicing when Ralph, with his confident manner, thin frame and wavy brown hair puts his tray on the table.
Nancy smiles at him but leans to my ear and whispers, “Vivien Leigh – Gone With the Wind.”
In a southern accent she begins, “Why Rhett, whatever did you say?”
“It’s Ralph,” he responds eagerly.
“Lah-de-dah and fiddle-de-de, you are a handsome devil, whatever your name,” and she bats her eyelashes at him. Then she holds one of her notebooks in front of her face and uses it as a fan, with her eyes coyly watching him blush. “With all those muscles you must be one of the warriors on the football team.”
“Not yet,” he replies with evident reluctance. “But I am in the chess club.”
“Well then,” she bats her prop on his arm, “I’ll wager that you scoot your horse down the field and ravage opposing queens on your way.”
“Actually, I’m just learning.” He’s now blushing and looking a little confused.
Arching one eyebrow she asks, “So are your intentions honorable, sir?” She sounds haughty. “Or am I just some pawn to be sacrificed to your advantage?” Then she leans forward so her cleavage is before him.
The look of confusion shows she’s rattled him. “I’m not sure what you mean?”
“Why Rhett, you’ve never had that problem before.”
He stands and picks up his tray. “Are you always this weird?” he asks as he heads to safer ground.
We both start to laugh. I look at Nancy. “People around here are going to think you’re crazy, Miss Scarlett.”
“Who cares? It’s lots of fun and good practice.” She looks very pleased with herself. “What did you think? Was the accent too much? I wish I had some eyelash extenders, it might make batting them a little easier.”
What is it about Nancy that draws me close and makes me wish we were closer?
Nancy takes drama as her first elective. She may be the only girl who had signs up for the course whose choice has not been influenced by the teacher: young, handsome, single, and male – a potent combination for most of the females in the rest of the class.
I am in an academic stream and drama doesn’t fit into my onerous schedule of heavy courses. I am relieved that we both stay in choir, even if it is extra-curricular. I ask Nancy what she thinks I should take for my elective.
She laughs and I love the sound. “With your background? You should take band. The bandmaster is like Mrs. Sparks. He’s really friendly and he’s never flunked anyone, no matter how bad they are. You shouldn’t have to work very hard. For someone taking so many academic courses, this will be the promised land of electives. How can you go wrong?”
I’m disappointed that choir and social studies are the only classes I will share with Nancy. I’m generally better at academics than she is, and I offer to help her study. It’s another way I am close to her.
I walk into the band room and see a room filled with tables. On each table there is an array of instruments. We sit down in chairs that are arranged in the middle of the room. When we are settled, the bandmaster appears and asks for our attention. He’s a thin fellow with a mop of curly hair above a gentle face. He begins his introduction to the band. He concludes with this offer, “I want you all to get up and go around the room. Stop at each table, pick up any of the instruments you like and try them out. If there are any that interest you, sign them out and take them home. At the end of this week, tell me what you’ve chosen to play for the year.”
So far, so good! I rise to fulfill my duty and find that I am drawn to the table that is directly behind me. Is it my imagination or did I really feel a sensation on my arm, nudging it towards the curled metal instrument near the edge of the table? Whatever it is, the minute I pick it up to look at it, I find myself immediately in the company of the bandmaster. “Good choice! I’ll sign that out to you for the year.” Who am I to argue?
I remember the walk back home carrying the horn case. I trudge through the door with the horn in hand and a beginning band method book inside the case. So, what can I do with this famously difficult instrument, now known as a horn but back then referred to as a French horn?
I find a chair and bring it downstairs, a basement only partially finished and used mostly for laundry unless my dad is home and hiding out. I also bring a music stand. I open the case and put the little metal mouthpiece thing into the thin end of the horn. My band teacher calls this the lead pipe. I sit down and put my left hand fingers on the valve levers, rest the edge of the wide part that’s called a bell on my leg and drape my right arm over the edge. I put the mouthpiece to my lips and blow! I hear a gush of air coming out the other end. Hmmmm…. More experimentation is obviously needed. Perhaps I should read the introduction and ‘how to play’ section in the method book. Brilliant idea, Lisa!
I look at one of the pictures in the band book. The person holding the horn looks kind of earnest and a bit goofy. O.K. I shouldn’t drape my arm over the bell. The right hand is supposed to go into the bell. The book said I should buzz my lips. I try without the horn and think my mother will not approve of my blowing raspberries. I try doing it into the mouthpiece and a note sounds. Wow! This isn’t so hard.
I soon discover that it isn’t difficult to make a few sounds. The real difficulty is figuring out in advance what notes will come out. It seems that little differences in lip pressure or how hard you blow the raspberries into the mouthpiece can make a big difference as to which note pops out the bell.
The book says the horn is a ‘transposing instrument’. What does this mean? I blow a note and my mind sees the color for ‘F’ but the book says all notes on the horn sound a perfect fifth lower. This means the ‘F’ I hear looks like a ‘C’ in horn music. Yikes! My perfect pitch is going to screw up my horn playing! Every note I see written in horn music will produce the wrong color in my mind. I need to practice seeing a note and imagining the color a fifth lower. This is going to take a lot of practice! How stupid can I get? Why didn’t I just choose an instrument like flute! It doesn’t transpose.
I decide that the basement is a great permanent practice room. The place is empty except the recliner my dad uses. He’s rarely around and, even when he is home, he only comes down to have his Scotch with a beer chaser. My mother does laundry down here once a week but otherwise it’s free and clear for my use.
My mother isn’t in love with the sound of the horn and when I forget to close the door between the kitchen and the basement stairs, she races over and closes it with a bang. I know there is a message intended. The horn just isn’t a piano.
I start learning to adjust my colors by pretending that all the notes on the page are written a perfect fifth lower. It is very confusing at first, but I am slowly getting used to it. I start thinking it might work better if I just pretend it’s another clef, like when I learned to read treble and bass clefs for piano.
I am in my practice room and it’s a week after I brought the horn home. I am blowing on the instrument and making a noise that would have done credit to a calf that had just been separated from its mother. One moment I am taking a breath and the next second there is a greenish blur in front of me. The green blur takes shape with a body first and then a head with a face that looks as if it were in pain.
I am so startled I almost wet myself. “What the…?” I manage to say in a shaky voice, part of the sound going through the horn.
Then the green apparition speaks, “It’s better to practice standing up. When you have gained a good sense of what it feels like to play standing, you transfer that feeling to the way you play sitting down. Playing while you’re sitting is much more difficult to do properly.”
“Who are you?” I stammer, staring at the apparition and wondering if I’m dreaming or just hallucinating. I start wondering what I ate for lunch.
“How did you get in here?”
“I’ve developed a knack for popping about lately.”
“Well, pop back out before I scream for help.”
“You’re welcome to call for all the help you like. Your help will arrive and you will then discover is that no one but you can see or hear me. That’s going to make you sound a little… crazy.”
I stare at him rather stupidly and before I even get my brain into gear he is gone, vanishing in front of my eyes! I am shaken. Am I crazy? Who is he? How did he get in, or out? There isn’t any place in the basement where anyone can hide and play tricks. It is an unfinished room with concrete walls and a concrete floor. The two small rectangular windows that are located in the upper section of two walls have their fly handles firmly in a locked position. My chair and music stand are stationed in the middle of the room, directly below an overhead light near my dad’s chair. There is no place to hide down here and you always know if anyone is coming down the stairs – they squeak under the slightest pressure. It is perplexing and frightening because I have no idea who or what this is, or what he wants.
I am not a believer in ghosts or the paranormal and no, I haven’t been smoking weed or taking happy pills. Had I fallen asleep or am I becoming delusional? I take stock of myself. I feel fine. But that’s ridiculous! I’m sure that people who hallucinate, or start believing that they’re someone else, think they are just fine too. I look around once more and there are no further clues. I go upstairs and try to practice my piano. It’s somehow comforting sitting there even though my concentration is terrible.
If I wasn’t asleep or delusional, what is this guy up to and why was he downstairs? Surely you don’t appear out of nowhere to tell someone how to practice on an instrument. Maybe it is time to question my senses. At the same time, there is a small part of my brain that is puzzling on what he said. What is wrong with keeping the bell on my knee? It feels very secure anchored there. In band, nobody stands except the percussion players. Where does he get off telling me to stand?
But how do you talk to anyone about having hallucinations? I can imagine Nancy’s reaction. She’d think that I’ve finally dropped off the deep end, and she is a better bet than my mother, who would rush me off to a psychiatrist. Is that what I need?
He’s here again! I’m in my basement practice space, attempting to play in a standing position. “Who are you?” I demand. “No! I mean, what are you?”
“Still your muse,” he answers between pursed lips with a quick look at me. He immediately continues. “Your mouthpiece is placed badly on your lips. Try 2/3rds upper lip and 1/3 lower lip and centered.”
“Damn it! How do you get in here?” is all I can manage in response and I’m only half aware of what he is saying.
Then he is gone again. It is very frightening. What is happening to me? Cripes! Am I going crazy? Do I need help? It would mean telling someone and I can’t face up to that. I decide I’ll just ignore him and wait it out.
I put my chair off to one side, still trying out the feel of playing in a standing position. I wonder if I can get an inexpensive mirror to put on the wall so I can check my posture. I just begin playing a note when he appears.
“A good start,” he says as he looks carefully. “Physically balanced and relaxed is the goal.” I keep playing and look the other way while he carries on about my head placement, my jaw, how to breathe and a number of other directions. I am sure I can ignore him until he goes away. “And always listen to the sound you produce. It must be clear, rich and ringing. Sing with the horn, always sing!” He departs. Thank goodness.
I have now spent an entire two weeks with him. Every time I go downstairs, the minute I lift the horn, there he is, green and smiling. He’s taken to sitting on my dad’s chair and staring at me. If I do something he doesn’t like, he tells me. He corrects me endlessly and isn’t satisfied until I do it exactly the way he wants. He’s annoying! O.K. he’s not hard to look at: a little on the small side, well built, and dressed in the kind of clothes you see in historical dramas like ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’. I can’t tell if it’s a wig – his hair is brushed back and the sides come with two sets of curls just above his ears. His nose is straight and his eyes are sparkly but rather kind looking. His advice about playing always seems to works, even if it takes me a while to get it. I can already tell I’m playing way better than when I started and that’s with me still trying to ignore him. He’s very good at ignoring my ignoring him.
I am over my initial fright and am getting used to his daily visitations and advice. I decide that if I’m crazy, I don’t want to know about it. I decide I prefer to think of him as a ghost – you must have heard of Caspar, the friendly ghost. Of course that leaves me a little puzzled. He certainly doesn’t conform to any of my preconceived notions of a ghostly presence. He seems sociable, friendly and obviously knows a lot about how to play the horn. He doesn’t seem to have any menacing powers, other than talking my ear off about the horn of course. But I can’t fathom why this ghost is honoring me with his presence, let alone giving advice on playing. I am also wondering if he’ll talk about anything other than horn playing.
When my lip begins to tire, he always encourages me to do another five minutes. I keep doing all the things he asks of me. What is this hold he has on me? I’m better at ignoring my mother!
I am upstairs practicing the piano and my thoughts take a different turn. I have been admiring the earrings that Nancy has been wearing lately and wonder if my mother will approve of me getting my ears pierced. Of course then I’ll have to find a pair of earrings that I want to wear. Perhaps I can get my mother interested in the idea if I ask her to help me choose some earrings. It is easier to get her interested in such schemes if they involve a little mother daughter shopping as part of the deal.
Some girls wouldn’t be caught dead shopping with their mothers. Since I only have one friend, you may ask how I would know. I am not above eavesdropping at school and I’ve overheard some of the girls say all sorts of things. I seem to be almost invisible to everybody, and listening to the cliques of the popular girls is one of my only sources of entertainment. And I, on the other hand, don’t mind shopping with my mother. She has a good eye for things, even if her choices are pretty traditional.
If I get the green light on the piercing, I can always buy a more exciting pair with Nancy later. Nancy is fun to shop with and her suggestions are really in style, but I usually end up squabbling with my mother about such purchases when I get home. My ‘Beatles’ t-shirt was not a hit and I have failed miserably trying to get her to let me play one of their albums on our record player at home. I wear the t-shirt, but I hide it at home by putting a blouse over it. I leave some of my record purchases at Nancy’s house. Her parents aren’t so fussy and definitely not classical music addicts.
I am again in the basement and he’s instantly sitting in the chair watching me.
“Breathing is the key to everything,” he says as he inspects me carefully to see if my lips are in the right place, that I am holding the horn properly and not bending my head.
“Do you have to stare at me like that? It’s spooky.”
“Well, I’m a spook, after all,” he responds, looking pleased with his answer.
“Ha, ha,” I retort and then change subjects. “Don’t you ever talk about anything besides how to play the horn?”
“What do you have in mind?”
“Who are you? Why are you really here? Am I going to end up a bloodless corpse on the basement floor because of you?”
“Are you confusing ghosts with vampires?”
“Maybe, but how do I know that I’m not just crazy and making you up?”
“There may not be any way to know for sure,” he says with an evil looking smile. “Maybe you are.”
He laughs at me! “Lisa, you should see your face. From my perspective, you’re a normal person.”
“What’s that worth?”
“Be reasonable. There are very few times when a spirit is given an opportunity to make his presence felt on the earthy plane. Believe me, I’m only here to help you. And keep in mind that breathing is the key to everything in horn playing.”
Poof! Gone again, leaving me with a stupid message. He must know if I wasn’t breathing I’d be dead. I stand up and put the mouthpiece in the proper place on my lips, keeping my head balanced. I take a breath and blow a note. It sounds pretty good to my ears. How about that, ghostie? Was I breathing properly?
My lips get tired pretty fast so I go upstairs to my room to study. It is hard to keep my mind focused on the text. I’ve got Caspar the Friendly Ghost haunting my horn practice, and if that isn’t enough, Gregg from math class has now asked me three times to have lunch with him in the cafeteria. I declined every time, of course. I really can’t figure out why other girls seem so attracted to the boys these days. Why would I want anyone but Nancy? In any case, my lunches are hasty so I can get my weight lifting and martial arts practice done before afternoon classes start. I usually manage to meet Nancy for a quick bite. She is smart, funny and I can’t take my eyes off her. Mind you, she’s often in a rush so she can get back to the drama room for extra practice in stage make-up, lighting or whatever else she thinks will enhance her skills. I’m jealous whenever I see Nancy with a boy, and she’s very popular with them.