Life As We Know It: June 17, 2013
My bucket list just got a little shorter. I’ve played the Peristyle.
And it’s all because I had to open my big mouth about the harmonica.
I was surprised by reaction to my recent commentary about trying to take up the harmonica in retirement. One guy offered to teach me himself. Others were frivolous, in the tongue-in-cheek spirit of the piece.
But the biggest shock came from Kathleen Carroll, chief executive officer of the Toledo Symphony Orchestra and an old friend.
Would I like to make my musical debut, she asked, by joining the TSO on stage at the Peristyle? The symphony, she explained, was putting together its first-ever TSO Pro-Am concert. Scores of local amateur musicians were being recruited to perform under the baton of the maestro himself, Stefan Sanderling.
You might as well ask me to celebrate Mass while the Pope critiques my performance. And I’m not even Catholic.
I’m thinking somebody missed the point. I didn’t say that I could play the harmonica; I said I’d like to learn how. No way was I going to get up there on stage, in a venue as revered as the Peristyle, and botch “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in front of a thousand strangers.
But Kathy kept asking. No risk, no reward. I caved. I’ll do it, I said.
So there I was on the Peristyle stage, bearing no discernible musical instrument and no discernible musical ability. Just me and my Hohner, surrounded by talent but devoid of any myself – a dent in the door of a Lexus, a burr on a cashmere sweater.
I was a bit of a curiosity to the other amateurs. “Where’s your music?” one of the flute ladies asked me during warmups. “In my head,” I said. “Sometimes I hear music. Sometimes I hear voices.” She backed away.
Adagio. Arpeggio. Andante. Allegro. And probably some other Italian guys I’m forgetting. Their names were all over the sheet music. It was a fantasy camp for musicians. So what was I doing there with 100 other amateurs and 50 professionals?
I was reminded of George Gobel’s great line years ago: “Did you ever get the feeling the world’s a tuxedo and you’re a pair of brown shoes?” Maybe that’s why TSO General Manager Keith McWatters, a superb percussionist, parked me in the percussion section, where he could whack me with a drumstick if I got out of control.
I would not have been the only casualty. Five of the amateurs had to miss the concert after injuring themselves while practicing for it. Seriously.
While everybody else was making Johann Strauss proud – or would have if he weren’t dead – I was softly puffing away on “My Old Kentucky Home.” Nobody but me could hear it. I nailed it. My “hand wah-wah” was spot on. So was my tremolo, probably because I was trembling in three-quarter time. I can’t speak to my timbre and tonal character, however, because I don’t know what those are.
We worked our way through the playlist. “Finlandia” I recognized. “Nimrod from Enigma Variations” I did not. But the best part was a medley from “The Sound of Music.” I think I actually played “I am 16 going on 17,” but since I was between the drums and the trumpets, I can’t be sure.
Finally, it was time for our bows. The maestro was smiling, which I took as a good sign – he hadn’t heard me either. The applause seemed sincere, although nearly everybody out there was somebody’s grandma or cousin.
For me, the afterglow still hasn’t subsided.
My 14-year-old granddaughter in Alabama just won first-chair flute in her school’s concert band. I can’t wait to tell her that her grandfather, for one night, was first-chair harmonica in the Toledo Symphony Orchestra. She’ll be so jealous.