November was when we had the big Thanksgiving School Assembly.
We didn't do the operetta (that was at Christmas Assembly, a three-day orgy), but we had the band and orchestra and chorus and the a capeplla singers whom I never could stand and a gymnastics display.
One year we almost didn't have it.
I was in the orchestra, had been since the seventh grade. My whole first year I labored in the depths of the third violins until the day our leader, Charles Budesheim - you were supposed to pronounce it Budess-heim because he was Hungarian - asked us each in turn to say what part of the work gave us the most trouble.
Resenting what I sensed to be an assault by public confession, I said my big problem was harmonics. I had no trouble with them at all, but I knew nobody else there had ever heard of them.
Then it came out that I took private lessons in Utica with Mrs. Alderwick, the flame-haired, flame-tempered, plump-armed, fine-wristed Viennese wife of the condutor of the Utica Symphony, for which she was concert-meister. (Her flat smelled of risin and pastry and was packed with elegant old stuffed furniture from a far grander life, and it was so stuffily warm that I enjoyed the trudge back through the slush in the winter evening gloom to my bus stop.)
The next week I was moved to the first violins. The week after that I was made concertmeister but soon faded back to second desk because I never practiced except on Sunday mornings with The Herald Tribune comics propped on the stand beside my Sevcik exercises. A couple of competitive girls took over the first desk.
I was still the only one there who could do a vibrato.
Nevertheless, we thought we were pretty good. We always took a first in the annual state music contests at Poughkeepsie. We had Bobby Brown, a precocious 12-year-old pianist who played the first movement of Schumann's A Minor Concerto one year. Bad Otto Stressel, frail, with great dark circles under his eyes (bad heart), who looked like a Kaethe Kollvitz drawing but played the drums with coldly maniacal precision. He always won a special first at Poughkeepsie.
It was many years before I realized, whatever, that Mr. Budesheim was our real genius. With his thrown-back sock brown hair and neat moustache, he looked a tiny bit like Errol Flynn. He played violin in the Utica Symphony after hours. Tirelessly, he wrote us special arrangements of Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikowsky and Ravel and (with a certian sublime courage) Debussy, turned out on a hectograph: blue-linked scores on paper that smelled of pickle juice.
I didn't appreciate him until I got a load of the plastic stuff my own children were given to play in their high school.
The big number that famous year was something from "Die Meister-singer," and we were to be joined by the chorus, and the elementary chorus from the Marvin Street school was to sing from the balcony. Am I remembering this right. Any way, it was a Production.
All through November we worked. Rehearsals twice a week, three times a week, every afternoon. I still didn't practice.
One day I came late, and as I walked down the aisle I heard what the audience would hear. I was appalled. We sounded like the Titanic orchestra just before they jumped.
I couldn't believe it. In fact, I didn't. It must be the acoustics. After all, we'd won a first at Poughkeepsie, hadn't we.
Suddenly it was Tuesday. The first and only joint rehearsal. The Assembly was Wednesday.
Hundreds of us swarmed into the auditorium. Half the school, almost. Sitting in the front rows for a pep talk by Mr. Budesheim and Barry Brindsmaid, the chorus director.
Quick runthrough by the band. Logistics: how to get them offstage without a riot. Grade-school chorus banished to the balcony. Our turn. The "March of the Sirdar." Prelude to "Lonhengrin," Act III. Mr. Brindsmaid, young and fluff sat with his singers. Mr. Budesheim's oiled hair was getting ruffled.
The Wagner-Budesheim Prelude began with a high, soft keening by the violins. For some reason we couldn't get it. Maybe we never had it but nobody had noticed before. The baton rapped. Start over at B. Four measures. The baton. Back to B. The baton.
The crocodile of first violinists looked innocently up at our leader. Mr. Budesheim, fists on hips, glared.
"Who's doing that " he snarled.
Ten young months opened. Twenty wide eyes studied pickle-smelling scores.
"From A." he snapped
Eight measures. Then whap! The baton cracked in two. He breathed a long breath.
"All right," he said very quietly. "That fourth note there. That is a G natural. All right? Joyce, would you kindly play the fourth note"
Joyce promptly gave him the G natural. He nodded curtly. "Kathleen?" She did the same. Then me, then on down the line behind us. We didn't turn around.
The very last one was Phyllis Schrader, who stood about four feet high and had frizzy hair and an up-turned nose. Awavering note, not really a G sharp, but definitely not G natural either. Mr. Budesheim faced her. His hair stuck up in back like a cockatoo.
"Madam Schruder," he boomed. "Would you be so good as to give me a G natural?"
None breathed. The chorus sprawling in the front rows sat mortified. Lips pressed, Phyllis drew her bow. A beautiful note. With a vibrato of terror. But not G natural.
Then, miraculously, her finger slid down a hair and she was on target. Sound of universal exhaling.
"Thank you, Madam Schrader," he said.
Now it was time for the big number. The chorus trooped up behind us, and we tried the retractable footlights and spots, and soon we were roaring along, the brass and the sopranos and the echo effect from the balcony, a musical hurricane.
I thought we were terrific.
But wait. Something was happening out front. Below the lip of the stage. Someone was yelling. Raising his fists. We trailed off to a solitary oboe squeak.
Mr. Brindsmaid, who had been directing from down there, was shouting.
"I can't do it! Charlie, I can't do it!"
He stamped past the length of the stage, slamming down one brace of footlights after another. Wham! Wham! Wham! Reached the end and stamped back, crashing his fist rhythmically on the stage. Bam! Bam! Bam!
"It's just too much!" Was he crying? "I won't do it!"
No one stirred. A whole hall full of little frozen round eyed figures. Already shaken by the Madam Schrader incident.
What now? Would they call it off? Would Mr. Brindsmaid have to go away?
Mr. Budesheim jumped down, went over to him.
"Come on, Barry. It's all right. It's what we do here. It's what we do."
He put an arm around him and walked him away, talking. We waited, aghast. After awhile Mr. Brindsmaid squared his shoulders and returned. Sighed. Nearly smiled. Coughed. Rapped his baton and said, "Okay kids."
He did smile now, at the petrified faces. "It's okay. I just flew off the handle there a little. Let's go through it, now. . . ."
We played as never before.
Next day we were just as good, and when the Assembly was over I found my parents in the lobby, effusive and as usual embarrassing to me in the presence of my peers, and when we walked outside the first fat snowflakes were falling, and the whole long weekend lay ahead of me.
Maybe for a moment back there I had a flash of what those two teachers were going through, what it must mean to be talented and undiscovered and likely never to be discovered, and yet still working to bring a vision of another world to these strangers, so many of them untalented or blithely uncaring.
It still wasn't enough to make me practice.