My musical debut rambled a bit

The other day I was visiting a friend whose daughter, at age 15, had become a committed clarinetist. In a couple of weeks Katja would try out for "All State" - Maine's hand-picked coterie of serious young musicians. Her apprehension was palpable. And with good reason: Her audition piece was Mozart's Clarinet Concerto - a virtuoso work.

Katja's situation immediately reminded me of my own public debut many years ago, when I was a budding clarinetist.

I took up the clarinet at the age of 9, squeaking and quacking my way through private lessons with an elderly Polish man named Alexander Tutorovicz. He had a small, claustrophobic studio above a hardware store in downtown Jersey City.

I sensed that Mr. Tut (as I called him) liked me, even though he sometimes held his head in his hands and moaned as I played. In any case, by the time I was 10 he thought me accomplished enough to be in a recital of young musicians, as third clarinet in a trio playing "Santa Lucia." Though initially flattered by Mr. Tut's faith in my abilities, I was soon unnerved at the prospect of playing before an audience.

Even as a child I realized that performing onstage was a very demanding thing. It wasn't like reading an essay in front of a class, where one could stumble, clear one's throat, say, "Now where was I?" and press on. No. Playing music in public was unforgiving and left no room for error.

I went home and attacked "Santa Lucia" with verve and determination. The piece wasn't technically difficult, but I had trouble with its lovely, cascading slurs. Every time I tried to lend them some soul, I envisioned the pained expression of Mr. Tut, rocking his head in his hands and groaning, "Awful, awful, awful." To soothe my apprehensions I'd close my eyes and retreat to the only piece I knew by heart - "Rambling Rose," whose simple, protracted quarter and whole notes, I must say, I played flawlessly.

Incredibly, I didn't meet the other two young clarinetists I was to play with until the afternoon of the recital. Mr. Tut gathered us together backstage and gave us the most cursory of advice: "If you make a mistake, keep playing!" And with this he retreated to his seat in the audience, beside my parents, whose faces were aglow with pride and anticipation.

We three clarinetists did little more than hover in the wings and stare at one another while the recital powered up. Our trio was preceded by a lanky high school senior playing jazz breaks on a baritone sax as big as my bike, and a boy named Butch who hammered out a ferocious - and lengthy - drum solo. I was encouraged when I looked out at the audience and saw Mr. Tut holding his head: Perhaps this meant that no matter how poorly I played, he would look upon it as respite from Butch's relentless banging.

After Butch had removed his hardware, the recital director introduced our trio. The three of us - in suit jackets, ties, and pomaded hair - filed out with clarinets in hand. We stood before our cardboard stands and arranged our music. The first clarinet, a boy named Anthony, sounded an "A," and the second clarinet and I followed suit. I have no idea whether we were in tune.

Without warning, Anthony intoned "Santa Lucia," taking me by surprise. I immediately fell two measures behind but caught up by converting a moderato to a vivace. I had never played as part of an ensemble before and was amazed at the extent to which an individual instrument's voice was buried in the collective noise. I soon felt confident enough to lift my eyes from the music to survey Mr. Tut. He was sitting stock still, wincing slightly, but otherwise tolerant of the music.

I turned my eyes back to the music and - uh-oh. Gone. I mean, the music was still there, but I had lost my place. I glanced up at Mr. Tut, who was now leaning forward in his seat, as if straining to will the notes to me by telepathy. Sweat gathered in my palms, and my heart began to race. What to do? Well, I did what I had always done in a musical tight spot: I closed my eyes and began to play "Rambling Rose," in the hope that no one would notice.

Amazingly, I finished at just about the same time as the other two players, with only a measure or two to spare. The audience broke into reserved applause (except for my parents, who were on their feet, clapping wildly). Mr. Tut, for his part, was simply staring incredulously at me, shaking his head in disbelief. Needless to say, that was my first and last public performance.

I didn't tell this story to Katja, of course. She was already nervous beyond consolation. But she did ask if I had ever played in public.

"Oh, yes," I said. "When I was only 10."

"Did you make any mistakes?"

"I played 'Rambling Rose' flawlessly," I assured her. And, having told the truth, I briskly turned the conversation to the impending winter, and our collective hopes for the new century.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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