When a friend heard I was invited to solo with the East High School Symphony Orchestra in its Fall Concert he said, "That's the best case for more arts money in public schools I've ever heard." He's half-right. The schools are sucking wind for more fine arts funds. But the East Symphony sure as shootin' doesn't need me.
This is apparent to every member of the orchestra during our rehearsal a week ago. The symphony chose several traditional American mountain tunes to sprinkle into their program and asked me to guest solo on banjo. I arrive to practice the number we'll perform together, "Old Joe Clark."
I can play the living crap out of Old Joe. It was one of the first numbers I learned on the five-string. Thing is, when concertmaster-violinist John Martin plays the two-measure walk-in to my solo, well, I don't hear it. It's like expecting to speak in German only to be addressed in Portuguese.
Before I strike a note, I know I'm in the wrong key. Foolishly, I forge ahead, demonstrating the short length of my musical knowledge to the entire orchestra. I could have verbalized my key problem, but no, here come melody notes (at least in rhythm) in a key from a galaxy far, far away.
The orchestra stops with the sound of a needle scratch across an LP. Fifty heads turn away from their music stands and look at me. Their eyes are sympathetic, but they say the same thing. "What's the dealio?"
"Uh, yes," I assure everyone. "What key are we in?" In my embarrassment the answer I hear is every letter of the alphabet.
Under the sparkling direction of Jackie Dhoore Becker, the East High School Symphony has performed in Toronto, New York, New Orleans and many other cities. Invited guest soloists are not of the hillbilly amateur status of yours truly.
"I love music, and I love kids," says Dhoore Becker, who has led the orchestra since 1994. "I get to have both every day."
Dhoore Becker lived through an unforgiving stretch of personal crisis during her own high school years. "Playing in the orchestra is what gave me the strength to get on with my life," she says. "The music had a profound impact on me. I found I could express my grief without talking."
I arrive backstage the night of the concert as the orchestra fine tunes other pieces in the program. Like all insecure performers, I've shored up my confidence by placing my primary focus on wardrobe. Jet black coat over a pressed white shirt. A purple Kentucky colonel tie and a pair of shiny, gold Japanese loafers that I got for my birthday. Purgolder Pride.
In the wings before the concert begins, violins and violas fly through the air like salmon spawning. Most land in the hands of Dhorre Becker, who does final tunings for the younger players as she gives last-second reminders on dynamics. In an instant she goes from this frenetic movement to a beautiful composure to take the stage.
The young musicians tilt into the first selection of the night, eyes glancing to Dhorre Becker and back to the sheet music. Old Joe is third. I take the stage to applause as though I'm Yo Yo Ma.
John Martin plays the walk-in. Bad rehearsal means good show, I think, and we light the fuse. It all goes by in a flash, but I'll tell you - the sound of 85 string players pushing you from behind has to land right up there on top of the all-time list of life's rushes.
The audience responds loudly over the brush of our final notes. My cool Japanese loafers are a half-size too large, and I trip over my own gold feet moving off stage. But, all in all, a safe landing.
Now I'm back in the wings, and I can focus on the musicianship. The next selection is a beautiful Irish jig called Si Bheag Si More. Junior Oliver Hecht has laid down his violin and picked up an electric guitar. His flat picking is true. He lets the tune lead him to each rich measure and then discovers, along with the audience, the wonders waiting there.
I think about what Dhorre Becker said regarding the emotional outlet that music provides a teenager. Young adulthood is a sometimes cruel combination of clarity and confusion. During a Mozart selection, those teen emotions swim right to the surface.
Confidence. Insecurity. Fear. The fade of innocence. Undefined joy. The power to love and the need to be loved. The thrill of playing with the symphony is second only to witnessing, so close, this restorative act of musical expression. It's surely as elemental to our children's growth in school as math and reading. I pack up my banjo, tip-toe down the back-stage stairwell and head home under autumn stars.