O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum....
In Germany right now (going on about nine o’clock in the evening), the Ghost of Christmas Present is already getting briefed for his new job of Ghost of Christmas Past. Here, the festivities begin on the first Sunday of Advent, and although December 26th is also a holiday, the party is pretty much over.
There is also a much more prominent tradition here of young children playing recorders (Blockflöte, fipple flutes), most often poorly, for their families at Christmas time. Although all three children of my family, as well as my three step-brothers, played various musical instruments at varying levels of ability, I am eternally grateful to my parents and other family members for never making me perform at home (more on this topic to come in 2009!).
My first musical instrument was an old player piano in the basement of our house in Williamstown, West Virginia. I remember working the pedals, watching the perforated paper roll, and listening to “Born Free” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” pretending that I was playing all by myself. I think that is actually my earliest memory.
Back in Tucson, I started piano lessons at age 8. Although my brother also played the piano at that time, and he even jammed with me using the Liberace Big-Note Songbook (to which I genuinely attribute my knack for music theory), I must’ve thought my sister to be much cooler, because I wanted to be just like her and march in the marching band. Have you ever seen a piano in a marching band? Hence began my love affair with the clarinet - a nice, light instrument compared to the big, heavy drum that my sister had to carry.
After a short time I was among the best, constantly vying with my best friend for first chair in the school band (not marching yet, remember, I’m still only nine years old). I even played the tenor saxophone in the junior high jazz band. Then came high school. I had reached my goal, marching in the mighty Catalina High School Trojan Marching Band.
Soon after achieving it, my interest in this goal seemed to wane. Was it because my fellow band members were geeky? No. For the most part, they were much cooler than me. Was it because the thrill of the quest is better than the conquest itself? Mmmmaybe. Most likely, it had to do with the fact that our band director just wasn’t that inspiring.
I don’t even remember his name. He was not like Mr. Steele, my sister’s marching band guru. He was not like Mr. Messing from Doolen Jr. High, who had us reciting the order of sharps and flats every morning at 8 o’clock! F-C-G-D-A-E-B!! B-E-A-D-G-C-F!! (Liberace can’t take all the credit). He was not Mr. Plotner, the CHS choir director who continued to challenge me creatively, having me accompany our choir on the piano a few times, encouraging me to enter a composition contest (which I won, by the way), helping me with important soprano arias like “O Mio Babbino Caro” and “Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion” and urging me to audition for Regional and All-State choir.
In fact, it was then, after two years of playing second clarinet in the band at Regionals - not second chair, but second row - never making into the orchestra or into All-State, that I auditioned for choir at Regionals and made first chair, right off the bat. The following year I even made it to All-State. Eighth chair. Thanks to Liberace and Mr. Messing, my sight-singing scores were off the charts. That and the God-given gift of a voice, combined with inspiring choir directors like Mr. Plotner and Mr. Mayhew, started me upon a path I have yet to leave.
I finally took leave of my clarinet when I was forced to choose between marching band and being features editor of our school newspaper. Since Mr. Carlton, the advisor of The Trumpeteer,inspired me even more than my musical mentors, the choice was clear. As you see, the urge to write hasn’t left me yet, either.
But back to the clarinet. It seemed fitting last night, the night before Christmas, to have some music in the house, just like the Germans do. After singing “O, Holy Night” in a church service (which in itself was a well-needed lesson in humility), I came home and decided to have a little Christmas with my roommate. She’s not really family, but for all intents and purposes she is. So I pulled out my old clarinet, its musty smell and the taste of the reed bringing me back many years, and I played “O Tannenbaum” (“Oh, Christmas Tree”). I felt like I was nine again. And I sounded that way, too.