Suddenly, I was in a polka band
I am not not a clarinetist by profession, but I don't think I love the instrument any less than the most accomplished virtuoso. Fortunately, one does not have to be a consummate artist to experience the rewards of making music.
I have a friend who is a pianist, and once a week we meet in his parlor, where we hack away at piano and clarinet sonatas with the abandon of true believers. At the moment, we are creeping through the deeply romantic second sonata for clarinet and piano by Brahms. It is an incomparable piece, in a league of its own, all the more so when one considers that Brahms wrote it almost as an afterthought, after he had officially retired from composition.
Rick and I have been delicately managing this piece for several weeks now, observing the composer's every gloss with the devotion of the orthodox. This careful attention to detail makes me smile when I recall my first stint as a member of an ensemble, when details would have only gotten in the way of making music.
I was only 13 and had been playing the clarinet for four years, taking lessons in a small studio above a hardware store in downtown Jersey City. My teacher was an older, slightly bent, generously abrupt Polish man named Alexander Tutorowicz, whom I was mercifully permitted to call "Mr. Tut."
I don't think Mr. Tut had a high estimation of my clarinetistry. Normally, while I played, he'd rap on the music stand with the metal band of his pencil, shaking his head and repeating, "Sounds terrible!" To which he'd sometimes append, "La-la-la" in a croaking voice designed, perhaps, to offset his criticism by demonstrating that there were sounds on earth far worse.
I WAS surprised, then, when one day he invited me to play in a polka band to which he belonged. "Really?" I remember asking, deeply flattered.
"I'll pick you up Friday at 7," was all he said.
A band. Gee. Maybe I was doing OK after all.
That Friday evening I found myself sitting obediently in the dim basement of a Mr. Bernie Nieziewicz, my clarinet clutched at the ready. Mr. Nieziewicz was the band's drummer. There was also Mr. Godlewski on accordion, and of course Mr. Tut, and now me.
"OK, kid," Mr. Nieziewicz said (without so much as a "How do you do?"), " 'The Cherry Pickers.' "
Like a freight train with a schedule to meet, the band immediately pumped up without me, and I hustled to catch up, wetting my reed and slapping my way through the sheets of music Mr. Tut had set in front of me. I finally found my place and jumped, or rather stumbled, in.
The music was relentless - an incessant "One-two-one-two/bam! bam! bam! bam!" from Mr. Nieziewicz's furious drumming. All of us played along with no modulation whatsoever. Every so often I'd sneak a peek at Mr. Godlewski squeezing the life out of his accordion and Mr. Tut puffing away red-faced at his clarinet.
One of my fears had been that I'd make mistakes, embarrassing Mr. Tut. But two minutes into "The Cherry Pickers," I realized this fear was unfounded. The pieces that followed were the same: We always played right through to the end, no matter what, despite quacking sounds from the clarinets and missteps from the accordion. Then the music would stop, we would look at each other in a self-congratulating way, and go on to the next number.
"OK," said Mr. Nieziewicz after we had done a few polkas. "Now for an oberek. Let's do 'Turn Slowly.' "
An oberek is tamer than a polka. It's a Slavic dance in respectable 3/8 time instead of the desperate, winner-take-all 2/4 of the polka. But no matter, we banged the oberek into submission anyway, with Mr. Godlewski calling out halfway through the piece for, of all things, more drums.
Mr. Nieziewicz was happy to comply, until the oberek sounded more like, well, a polka.
That night we made our way through pieces which such names as "Klara," "Sucha," "Coney Island Polka," "Papuga Polka," and "Hot Kielbasy Polka." This last one had lyrics.
On the repeat, Mr. Nieziewicz and Mr. Godlewski suddenly groaned out, "You can have Liz Taylor and your pretty Lola/ You can have Jack Benny's do-re-mi-fa-so-la/ You can have your corned beef and your hot pastrami/ But give me, give me, that good ol' hot kielbasy!"
AFTER the practice, with the music still ringing in my ears, Mr. Nieziewicz looked over at me and said, "You're pretty good, kid, you know?"
Despite this auspicious beginning, and Mr. Nieziewicz's kind words, the band never played again. When I asked Mr. Tut about it, he just shrugged and said, "Not enough gigs." And then, turning his narrow, wide-set eyes upon me, he asked, "You did have fun though, didn't you?"
Yeah, I did have fun. And that, for me, was the whole ball of wax. Now that I am playing Brahms, I don't consider myself to have advanced in any way or to be playing a "higher" form of music. For even when Brahms is at his sweetest and most emotive, I can still recall the ringing harmony and bouncy rhythm of "The Cherry Pickers" with a warmth that one of the master's sonatas is hard- pressed to evoke.
For someone like me who is far less than a virtuoso, people really do make the music.