Now I'm eager to face the music

Oh, I'm not starting entirely from scratch. I played a middling clarinet during high school, then dashed off to major in English. I blithely consigned my horn to storage with my mortarboard and yearbooks. Decades passed.

But last month, on a whim, I retrieved my clarinet from its dank basement shelf. I discovered that a raging case of mold had invaded its case, permeating the horn's every cork joint, chrome fitting, and key cushion. It was, sadly, beyond redemption.

Suddenly I wondered if my playing might be, too. So it was with a sheepish air that I entered my local music store the next day.

There, a kind clerk reassured me that resuming an adolescent musical pursuit in midlife is no cause for embarrassment. Still, the store catered to schoolchildren, and I felt silly signing my name twice on the rent-to-buy paperwork: first as student musician and again as responsible adult.

Fortunately, clarinet-playing hasn't changed much. When the clerk next prescribed the Rubank Intermediate Method practice book, my long-lost musical career flashed before my eyes. I'd squawked my way through the Rubank series in high school. But now, Intermediate seemed a dignified designation for this prodigal woodwind wannabe.

I hurried home, eager to face the music. There, the horn practically put itself together, and my hands scuttled down its length in a heartening, rote-memory riff. Indeed, I was merely rusty, not irredeemably musty.

During the first week, I reviewed fundamentals. Unable to recall what key an etude was in if it had, say, four sharps, I marched my fingers none too nimbly through a musical minefield of sour notes, searching for the sound of a scale, which I vaguely remembered being bookended by some note called "do."

After another week of firming my face muscles and fumbling with fingerings, I could play simple melodies. I still found high notes problematic (as did our cat, who fled the scene whenever I ventured beyond high C). But after two weeks, I felt ready to play real music, and I began looking for a like-minded duet partner - someone with perhaps more enthusiasm than finesse. Someone like me.

My sister, also a lapsed clarinetist, declined my invitation, but she proffered a suggestion: I could play duets with myself. Just tape-record yourself playing the harmony line, Ruth explained, then play it back as you perform the melody line. She warned that my tape recorder's playback speed might distort the pitch. But you'll get the general effect, she said.

So after rehearsing Rubank's Petite Duet a dozen times, I recorded the harmony, then pressed "play" and began tootling the melody. At first I could barely stay in sync, much less detect whether my parallel pitches were dulcet or dissonant (forget perfect). But when I played harmony in unison with the taped version, I found myself as tonally attuned as any virtuoso and her virtual partner could hope to be.

This boosted my confidence considerably.

SINCE then, I've practiced several simple duets, playing, taping, rewinding, then playing along. I figure this method should get me back up to speed twice as fast as a solo approach.

Now I'm planning a recital for my husband. We own two tape recorders, so I've formed a trio consisting of Me, Myself, and I: two parts Memorex, one part live. Before the big night, I'll prerecord the melody line. Then, as I play it back, I'll perform the middle line while the second tape recorder chronicles the confluence of notes.

Finally, at the recital, I'll run that second duet tape as I play the third part live, in (I hope) concert. My trio's tripartite goal is to shatter no crystal, alienate no neighbors, and finish more or less together.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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