My earliest musical memory was when I was about five years old and somebody gave me a plastic harmonica. I would play long, depressing melodies on that instrument for hours at a time. My mother told everyone that I played melodies that were so beautiful they could make a person cry. Thinking back, I understand why a person would want to cry if they had to listen to a five-year-old child play a plastic harmonica for a couple of hours straight. It is only one step away from giving a small child a whistle during a long car trip.
When I was in elementary school I had music class with Mrs. Green. It is important to point out that people who teach music to children are better off if they hate music. It is even better if they hate children. Otherwise, the experience is just too painful. Teaching music to kids is like teaching a room full of chimpanzees about God. Mrs. Green, however, was a sweet, well-meaning woman. She would sit at her government-issue upright piano and poke out awkward melodies with a rhythm that wavered erratically like a warped record.
I had music class with Mrs. Green all through elementary school. She introduced us to the various types of music through history and around the world. She spent a great deal of time teaching us about European music. Yes, Mrs. Green was an expert ethnomusicologist. She would spend years teaching us about the music of Europe and then progress to teaching us about the music of regions that were roughly three feet away from Europe. Later, she taught us about the music of Europe.
One day Mrs. Green said, "Today I am going to each you about Asian music." She banged out that "deedee deedee doo doo doo doo doo" musical stereotype that Americans often use to describe Asian music. That was it; nearly half the world's population described in nine notes. Then, she promptly returned to European music.
Mrs. Green also made us sing. She taught us songs that were so inane I suspect that they were written to discourage children from pursuing a career in music. We sang "Love is Like a Magic Penny" every day.I still remember its artistic and insightful lyric:
Love is like a magic penny.This song was clearly a desperate cry for help. Whoever wrote it probably just completed a long car trip with a child and a whistle. Nobody who likes music could ever write a song like that.
Hold it tight and you won't have any.
Share it, fair it and you'll have so many.
They'll be all over the floor. Oh.
By fifth grade Mrs. Green had about all she could stand of us. This was the year she passed us over to Mr. Shellhammer the band director. Good lord. Let me just take a moment to tell you that I actually had a few good teachers along the way. Some of them worked hard to be thoughtful and compassionate when they taught kids. People like that should be commended for their efforts. Then, there was Mr. Shellhammer.
Mr. Shellhammer was an extremely tall, extremely thin man with a pointy bald head and horrific bulging eyes. I know now that these attributes were probably caused by a pretty severe thyroid disorder. At the time, however, I thought that he was some sort of creation from the dark side of Jim Henson's imagination. It seemed that his features could easily have been made out of colored felt and fun fur.
This was a man who had to spend his life in front of mobs of extremely tolerant and non-judgmental children who were never cruel and who never made a mockery of his bizarre appearance. All of this is true except for the part about the extremely tolerant and non-judgmental children who were never cruel and who never made a mockery of his bizarre appearance. Mr. Shellhammer was a freak of nature and we all knew it.
Mr. Shellhammer was an extremely nervous and hyper man. It seemed that his senses were cranked many notches too high. Sudden movements or sounds would startle him terribly and he would often respond by yelling or by hitting people around him. Who better to work with a room full of small children with musical instruments?! This man was a minefield of over-stimulation and we were wandering around, as clueless as a herd of cattle, stepping on every mine that was planted there.
I seriously suspect that Mr. Shellhammer was mentally ill. He would go off on these wild rants about communism and torture right in the middle of class. Then, he would teach us all kinds of bombastic military songs like "This is the Army Mr. Jones" and "The Troops are Coming." In no time at all we were all longing to sing about magic pennies again.
For the first year with Mr. Shellhammer we had to play flutaphones. These white plastic recorders were designed to be inexpensive and incredibly easy to play. Band Directors throughout history used them to assess the relative talent of their students. The flutaphones made an intolerable high-pitched whistle sound. They were also irresistible to dogs. My dog ate two of my flutaphones that year. I have no idea whether these instruments had a wonderful taste to them or if the dog just wanted the whistling sound to stop.
The flutaphones helped me to understand why Mr. Shellhammer was so obsessed with communism and torture. I'm sure that these instruments could have been used to oppress the masses in the dark days of the Cold War. I could also imagine entire battalions of flutaphone players marching onto the shores of America, determined to defeat The Great Satan once and for all with an assault of intolerable whistling.
Before the flutaphones arrived, Mr. Shellhammer made us spend a few months learning fingerings by pretending to play music on rulers. He was very serious about this. We stood there, silently blowing on our rulers, like a classroom somewhere in a Salvador Dali painting while Mr. Shellhammer directed us with an assortment of spastic gesticulations. I imagine that he took solace in those initial quiet months before the infernal flutaphones were distributed to the herd.
Mr. Shellhammer insisted that we should never put the rulers in our mouths. He twitched and stomped his feet on the dull institutional floor tile to accentuate this point. Soon after, Nicky Degatano put his ruler in his mouth. Mr. Shellhammer became enraged. He ran up to Nicky and told him that the ruler was as dirty as the floor.
Nicky was the kid in our class who was breaking new ground in the field of Attention Deficit Disorder. He had absolutely no control over his own behavior. He was especially fond of making monkey noises and of squirting Elmer's glue on the other kids for no apparent reason. This was a few years before the pharmaceutical industry figured out that they could make a fortune by drugging kids like that into submission.
Mr. Shellhammer started screaming about the dirty ruler and Nicky immediately burst out laughing. He started making monkey noises with great enthusiasm. Ever the compassionate educator, Mr. Shellhammer picked Nicky up and held him by his ankles. He made him lick the floor in front of the entire class, shouting, "If you want to lick something dirty, you may as well just go ahead and lick the floor!" He, then, shoved Nicky in the coat closet and made him sit there for the rest of the class. This is perhaps a story that Nicky has shared with a few therapists over the years.
Here is a summary of all the things I learned about music up to that point:
Love is like a magic penny and flutaphone
Class is like a concentration camp.
After a year of flutaphone, it was time for our parents to invest some serious money in musical instruments. In many cases, this was like urging parents to buy extremely expensive hand grenades for their kids. Most of us had no right to play musical instruments. In the previous year, my brother took up the cornet. He mostly used it to blast the notes F-A-G over and over again because it was the only offensive word that he was able to spell with musical notes. I remember at one point I gathered some dead flies from the windowsill and put them in by brother's cornet. He is going to be really mad when he reads about this...
When it came time to choose an instrument I decided that I wanted to play the clarinet. There was nothing particularly appealing about the sound of the instrument. I just liked the way the different parts were assembled. They reminded me of a rifle. After studying the flutaphone with Mr. Shellhammer for a year, there was something extremely appealing about putting a rifle-like instrument into my mouth, activating it.
Unfortunately, my mother played the clarinet when she was in high school. She was thrilled that I was going to follow in her footsteps. The kids in band were supposed to take private lessons three times a week between band practices and my mother was determined to teach me herself. This was extremely exciting for my father. He liked any plan that involved not spending money. If you told him, "I'm going to dump a ton of nuclear waste in your front yard and I'm not going to charge you any money for it" he would be very enthusiastic about the idea.
My mother got about halfway through my first lesson and then decided to take a nap. That was it. She never continued the lessons after that. Every week I would go to band and watch the other kids get better than me on their instruments. The anxiety started to mount as Mr. Shellhammer became increasingly demanding of his band members and my abilities remained more or less the same.
The anxiety increased even more when Mr. Shellhammer started doing "diaphragm exercises" with his wind players during band practice. He would have us stand up and play one long note. Then, he would sneak up behind us and shove us forward as hard as he could. This was supposed to demonstrate that we were using the proper muscles to propel air through our instruments. Most kids stumbled when they were shoved. My friend Larry Stavnicky actually went flying through a set of music stands and into the flute section. Of course, they no longer refer to this practice as "diaphragm exercise." Today it is known as "child abuse."
I quit band after we had a big after-school concert for all the parents. There can't possibly be any joy in sitting in a gymnasium, with the smell of sweaty wrestling mats, while a group of elementary kids honk their way through a selection of pro-war anthems. It is enough to make a person question the existence of God.
As a woodwind player, I was in the front line. If it were the military I would have been cannon fodder. I tried my best to hide behind my music stand and to remember all the lessons that my mother would have taught me if she didn't need that nap so damn badly.
The concert started and I noticed something really disturbing: I was playing all the pieces straight off of the score but I often finished a few minutes before or after the rest of the band. Yes, I had broken loose from the space-time continuum. Mr. Shellhammer glared at me over my music stand and I knew that a nuclear bomb of rage was igniting in his head. It was time to quit band.
Mr. Shellhammer retired shortly after I quit. I imagine he is dead by now. This makes me very sad. All of this is true except for the part where I said that I was sad that Mr. Shellhammer is dead. He is probably in Hell right now, encircled by a ring of flutaphone-playing demons and hyperactive kids with rulers in their mouths.
Hell is like a magic penny...