The faded red-orange label caught my eye as I sorted through old 78-rpm records. The word "Zephyr" repeated itself in white around the edge of the centered label. In the middle were the black, hand-scrawled words, "Bend ... River" and, below, "Maier."
Immediately I was back in grade school on a momentous day more than half a century ago - a day of huge expectations nearly shattered by catastrophe.
We were fortunate to have an excellent music teacher, Miss Helen Plinkiewicz (pronounced Plin-KAY-vish), in our school. I considered myself even more fortunate (our whole family did) that she and her fellow musician, Kirsten Hjelm, lived next door. "Miss P," as we called her, was a first-order pianist, and "Miss H" sang with the Metropolitan Opera. We opened our windows on that side of the house every warm evening to hear them practice.
Sometimes Miss P played alone, running through Beethoven's "Appassionata" or rippling the air with the third movement of his "Moonlight Sonata." Sometimes she accompanied Miss H as the airwaves vibrated with Verdi or Wagner.
At school, Miss P appeared prim and even severe, her dark hair pulled straight back into a tight bun. She put up with no nonsense, and she wrought wonders. Certain that all children could sing, she made sure they sang well.
Miss Plinkiewicz singled out even the youngest children and pushed them to lift their voices higher and higher until they reached the exact note. I thought the kids were surprised - and pleased - when the sound came out on key.
By fourth grade, we sang Christmas carols and everything else in three parts: first soprano, second soprano, and alto. She sat at the piano in front of the room, facing the class. I remember sitting on the left, with the altos, pleased to be part of such a fine chorus. We put on remarkable concerts and tackled serious compositions generally beyond the scope of grade-school talent.
One day Miss P announced a grand proposal: We were to cut our own record!
Looking back, I wonder what prompted such a production. This was before the days of easy recording. Cutting a record required bulky equipment and a technician. Was this simply the fulfillment of personal satisfaction? Or the culmination of a doctorate in music education: turning grade-school singing into something recordable? Or was it simply the desire to show these children how very good their best could be?
We practiced forever to make every facet of the project right: perfect three-part harmony, perfect timing, perfect pitch.
By the bend of the river, where rushes are gro-o-wing....
Miss P drilled us in behavior. There could not be a cough, a sneeze, a rustle, or the tiniest sound out of place during the recording. Neither circumstance nor funding would allow another cut. This had to be right the first time.
Where waters are flo-o-wing far down to the sea....
She brought in a violinist, a woman who would accompany us while Miss P played the piano. Excitement bubbled. This was the real thing - not just kid stuff. Orders for records were taken from parents at some extravagant fee. I recall my folks gasping and having to struggle for the money, but they didn't want to miss owning a copy.
At last the day arrived. We gaped at all the equipment set up in the room. No one else was allowed in - no parents or other teachers, not even the principal. The violinist fine-tuned her instrument.
We waited as piano and violin began to play, and then we came in at exactly the right second on Miss Plinkiewicz's emphatic nod.
We sang our very best, aware of the timeless permanence of this performance - something we could listen to over and over again.
On a soft balmy June night, in the shimmering mo-o-nlight....
We finished and held our breaths for the violin's final, drawn-out strain, the tension wired tighter than the violin's highest string.
And then the noon whistle blew at the gyroscope plant down the street. It was strident, shocking, irreverent to the point of sacrilege.
With the sudden release of a snapped rubber band, the chorus exploded into laughter, while the ladies tried to shush us without making any noise themselves.
I think Miss P was devastated, but we kids thought it was hilarious. I'd play that record right now if I had a phonograph that could handle 78s. But even just holding it in my hand, I can hear every note, feel the emotion - the tension, the release. We did play it over and over at home, holding our breaths each time in anticipation of its magnificent final blast, and again bursting into laughter.
I hope Miss P didn't suffer too much. She had, after all, achieved a major accomplishment. But for us, the special project had taken on an even finer dimension. The noon whistle poked a hole in solemnity and made the recording - and the occasion - truly memorable.
• The quotes in this essay are from the song we sang that day: 'By the Bend of the River: a Song of Drifting for High Voice and Piano,' by Clara Edwards. G. Schirmer, Inc., N.Y., 1927.