Opera Belting Across A Hot Summer's Day

ONLY nine o'clock in the morning and sweat had already pasted my hair down on my neck. But more than a break from the heat, my 10-year-old sister and I were praying for a reprieve from summer band - where we halfheartedly played out our mother's passion for music. Our chauffeur-mother was at the wheel. The car radio was turned as loudly as it would go. Opera. Again. Every morning, in fact, from nine to noon. These were the very hours of our commute to a school where we met some tame, pale strangers who had developed an incomprehensible seriousness about their music. Mom's music might have been bearable if it had been held to a decent volume and did not include conducting with her free hand (and sometimes both hands on a straightaway). But when she opened her mouth to sing with her eyes closed and her head swaying, she pressed down on the accelerator and sped past the bounds of our tolerance. As self-conscious adolescents, safety was a minor concern compared to the looks we got at the next stoplight. (Imagine our horror two years later when Dad bought her a converti ble.) In the hot wind of this particular August morning Mom was lost in the strains of some robust tenor while my sister and I were trying to have a conversation in the back seat. Suddenly Mom slapped the wheel Darn!" We had passed the road to the school a few blocks back. She wheeled around to make another approach. But it only took a block for the tenor to refasten his hold on her. "Darn! I can't believe it - I missed it again!" All told, we overshot the turnoff three times. Finally, Mom twisted toward the b ack seat and said the sweetest words we'd heard all summer: "Forget band this morning. We're going home." She wrenched the volume knob to maximum, surrendered to the music, and drove home in bliss on automatic pilot. Once home, we packed lunches and walked down to the lake. And opera never seemed quite so offensive after that. TIME unfurled quickly. Too soon I was a freshman member of the high-school band marching across football fields in a green unisex uniform - all the while dreaming of becoming a cheerleader. I was a thick-tongued, mediocre clarinetist who left her instrument in the music-room closet most nights - convinced that only nerds were seen lugging home those bulky cases. Practices were predictable. We rehearsed football marches in the fall, classical pieces in the spring. Outside on the football fields our music was impressive - well, the drums were anyway. But when we tried to play serious pieces inside, we sounded as awkward as our parents looked when they tried to do our dances. Because I was permanently entangled in the third section of our clarinets, I had ample opportunity to rest while the other more proficient musicians played the important parts. When I had 10 or 15 measures free I would peer into faces behind the instruments: eyebrows knitted in intense concentration, mouths all puckered and pinched - not the cool, casual look I was striving for. Never could I allow myself to be swept away with this group! But sometimes I felt myself slipping dangerously off guard. During a certain passage in a Spanish toreador piece, the boys in the first section brass took on a sudden, shocking virility. Outside the band room I began to watch for the first-chair trombone between classes. The oboes, played by aloof seniors, sometimes achieved tones of wisdom and maturity. From a far-off future, I imagined looking back at my young self in this band - and actually thinking fondly of it. Then came the spring concert. I don't remember the piece we were playing, but during a rest I noticed the knitted eyebrows loosening and lifting. The phrases played by flutes, french horns, and even the tubas rode on gusts of emotion. I gave in - closed my eyes, swayed with the sound, and blew. I am sure my tone was wobbly and that I played some wrong notes, maybe even squeaked. But the wind of the rest of the band covered my imperfections and lifted me right into the center of the music. Since I couldn' t hear myself, it was like lip-syncing. I felt power and beauty as though they belonged to me. It was then that I knew what it meant to be carried by others. And it was then that I understood Mom. Two decades later my sister and I are trading Puccini arias like my son trades baseball cards. Lately, on the way to his baseball practices, I've been listening to Pavarotti sing "Nessun Dorma." I don't know Italian. It doesn't matter. I just turn up Pavarotti's voice enough to bury my own and sing.

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