The drummer was a laid-back professional of 10

IT had been long since we had gone -- almost 20 years. But the walk was short down across the playing fields to the elementary school auditorium where all our children had inched away each grade with a performance announced only the day itself by a yip from some shirttail flying down the back porch steps, ``Hey! Mom! You gotta come! 7:30 or maybe 7:00. Well, better make it 7:00 to be safe!'' And dutifully half an hour early parents had dashed out, arriving with weary smiles and a few secret tears at the wonder in a child's face. Of course, our children had long since crossed into adulthood, that misty border never clear until looked back on. Our lawn had greened over the bare patches for first base and no baseballs whizzed past, grazing the kitchen window -- just gentle finches and pert sparrows.

But now a little girl of eight comes by, carrying a brand new case with brass clasps that snap sharp, and inside, a wee violin she has never before played. She listens patiently as she is shown how to reach the next note with tiny fingers struggling out of the bent collapse to the neat square arch. And last week -- d'ej`a vu! -- the abrupt announcement -- A CONCERT! -- and the little whisper -- ``Please.''

And so in the twilight we walked across, past tulips' nodding elegance and the hush of apple blossoms against the night, and memories were waiting in the shadows -- other days . . . other voices. . . . Slowly the years dropped away as we saw children spilling into the parking lot, brandishing instruments with excited abandon -- trombones longer than the performer . . . even a tuba . . . and drums rolling in, past the flocks of flutes and covey of strings, special because so difficult, with tuning a profundity.

Inside the audience was a-tumble with two-pint compatriots climbing over seats, kicking, pinching, blissfully ignoring mother's worried frown and father's bewilderment at having just been snatched from garden work or the odd bridge game. A nonchalant redhead in front of me sported battered sneakers snaked tight in brand new laces, one gleaming yellow and the other blazing red. He wore wristguards on both wrists just in case a sudden hot pitch was called for.

The next row down a one-pinter had twisted 'round, staring at the masterful athlete, reducing that wriggling frame to hysteria by leaning over with a succession of amazing faces, all horrid -- bugging eyes, cheeks blown out, ears tugged down, smudged finger in nose. For him the evening was already a success.

Suddenly there was a simmering hush punctuated by whispers and perhaps a needed push, as on stage, the red curtains slowly jerked open, catching first on stands and then on the tuba's intricacies. The conductor in a tired black suit made into a tuxedo by a ruffled shirt and borrowed cummerbund swooped over as he took his bow and with a deft twist unleashed the tuba. In a second he was back bowing again on a podium slightly askew to accommodate a folding table just below him where stood four stout trumpets like warriors on the ramparts.

The conductor's smile was edgy with all the possible collapses, but the small faces looking up at him beamed with confidence. What could go wrong? They were there!

To one side the French horn was leaning back, his plump frame at least a yard from the music. He had his three notes -- two sour, one grand -- marshaled straight in his head, so who needs cueing?

The row of flutes in front rippled a silver curve, undisturbed by flaw, and behind huddled the strings, blocked out by huge stands like placards. Only small feet showed, tapping the air, as none could reach the floor save the cello.

String parents stealthily popped up here and there just to glimpse or snap a discreet shot of one small head. The drummer was a laid-back professional of at least 10, sticks at the ready, and when the downbeat came, he bolted in true and sharp, magnificently deafening. The winds blew their faces red with the blasts, as they gasped for more air, and the strings strode into the melody, bow arms whaling out the beat, as flutes twirled like diving birds.

With the last crashing chord, the conductor at last smiled like a boy -- all worries dropping away. No one had fallen, no one had stopped, no one had been left out. It was a great moment and the performers, their faces radiant on that satisfaction, poured into the auditorium. Our young friend ran up, bashfully happy, knowing she had really played each note and everyone was proud.

The next day a letter lay in our mailbox, the writing carefully cursive, from tightly bent small fingers, with spelling minutely considered:

``Thank you for coming to my concert.

``Love,

``Your friend, Ruth.'' And there was a bright red heart and a drawing of a violin and bow -- fragile as a spider's web.

Mary Roelofs Stott

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