I have been watching a lot of Christmas concerts on TV lately, and my eyes always are drawn to the orchestra's string section. As I watch the violinists, their bows deftly gliding in perfect unison over the strings, I can’t help but think that I could have been sitting right there with them.
Back when I was in the fifth grade, my friend Carole started taking violin lessons. Of course, everything Carole did, I also wanted to do, so I was determined to convince my parents to let me take violin lessons, too.
“Puhleeeeze?” I begged them, my hands clasped together. “I promise I’ll practice for a whole hour every single day!”
My parents looked skeptical. “Do you promise you will stick with it if we say yes?” my mother asked.
“Cross my heart!” I answered.
One week later, I excitedly accompanied Carole to the home of Mr. G., her violin teacher.
Mr. G.’s house was the spookiest place I had ever seen. It was a huge, rambling mansion with thick, burgundy-colored velvet drapes that blocked out the daylight. His doorbell played Beethoven.
Mr. G., like his house, also had a spooky air about him. His long, yellowish-gray hair was combed straight back (in an era when everyone else had crew cuts), and he was wearing a burgundy velvet smoking-jacket (probably made from leftover material from his drapes) and a white silk ascot.
Unfortunately, Carole already was in a more advanced violin class, so I was forced to take my lesson all alone, in a dark, musty room where the only source of light came from the top of the stand that held my sheet music.
The first three weeks, I practiced religiously every night. But despite my enthusiasm, my playing still sounded as if I were torturing cats. The people who lived in the apartment upstairs complained about the racket. Even my parents complained and begged me to stop practicing. But I refused to stop. My ambition was to become a famous concert violinist.
There also was the bubble-gum award to strive for.
The bubble-gum award was a weekly ritual that Mr. G. had invented to reward students whose progress impressed him. The first few weeks, I received the bubble-gum award after every lesson.
This “honor” involved standing with my mouth open and my eyes closed, while Mr. G., who probably had missed his true calling as a baseball pitcher, tossed a big gumball into my mouth.
I always looked forward to the gumball ritual…until the day Mr. G. tossed it with a little too much force and it slid right down my throat.
As I stood there choking, my face turning crimson, Mr. G. ran around the room, his arms flailing wildly as he shouted, “Water! Water!” (as if he thought a glass of water somehow would magically appear). Fortunately, I managed to cough up the gumball on my own.
To this day, I still believe that Mr. G.’s gumball ritual was what led Heimlich to invent his maneuver.
Too soon, the novelty of playing the violin began to wear off. In fact, it got to the point where I dreaded my hour of practicing every night so much, I invented a way to get out of it. I taped one of my practice sessions, then I’d lock myself in my room, stretch out on my bed with a movie magazine, and play the tape instead of actually practicing. My parents never knew the difference.
But Mr. G did.
“You haven’t been practicing,” he accused me one afternoon after I’d hit enough sour notes to curdle milk. “What’s wrong?”
I just shrugged.
“It’s really a shame,” he said. “I had big hopes for you. In fact, I wanted you to play in the Youth Symphonette Orchestra.”
My eyes widened. “Me? In an orchestra?!”
That was all the incentive I needed to make me resume my practicing with a vengeance. A few months later, to our delight, both Carole and I were accepted into the orchestra.
The night of our first public performance, I was so nervous, even my eyebrows were sweating. Perhaps it was because our audience was what you might call “captive.” We were playing at the state industrial school, the youth detention center.
Adding to our stage fright was the fact that the kids in the audience all had been given apples to eat (because, according to one of the YDC directors, apples were a more healthful snack than candy or popcorn). Considering that by no stretch of the imagination did our audience members look like a Bach or Beethoven kind of crowd, Carole and I were certain that the minute our orchestra started to play, we would be bombarded with fruit.
I really enjoyed playing in the youth orchestra. Carole and I were able to travel all over the state on the official orchestra tour-bus, which made us feel like minor celebrities. We also hoped to progress to playing in a big, prestigious orchestra someday, like the Boston Pops, when we were older.
Neither of us owned our own violin, however. We rented them from Mr. G. for $1.50 per week, which was applied toward the actual purchase cost of the instruments so we could own them in the future - in about 25 years.
One night, back when I was in the seventh grade, my friend Terry, who lived down the street, and I were hanging out in my room, playing records and pretending to be famous dancers.
Just before Terry arrived, I’d been practicing my violin lessons and hastily had set the violin down on the nightstand next to my bed.
As Terry and I were doing our finest impression of the Rockettes, kicking our legs high in unison, Terry accidentally kicked the nightstand. My precious violin went airborne and landed on the floor with a sickening cracking sound. Wide-eyed, we collectively held our breaths as I gathered the courage to inch my way toward the instrument to check it out. To our horror, it had a lightning-bolt shaped crack all the way down the front of it. Even worse, I was only about two months away from finally owning it.
I can’t remember ever feeling more terrified to confess something to my parents.
Let’s just say they weren’t pleased. And as it turned out, Mr. G. was even less pleased.
“My policy is if you break it, you buy it!” he said. “So the broken violin is all yours now.”
I never touched a violin again after that, mainly because my parents refused to start from scratch, renting another violin for $1.50 per week. And I sure as heck couldn’t afford it on my 50-cents allowance. Shortly after I left the orchestra, Carole also decided to quit.
So we never did become the next Itzhak Perlman or Charlie Daniels.
And we never found out whatever became of Mr. G.
I have the strong feeling he might have ended up in prison for choking some poor kid to death with a gumball.
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