I remember Brussels mostly for its ability to provide infinite variations of a rainy day. My clarinet lessons in a dry and cozy classroom should have been a welcome diversion, yet they were the source of painful memories and I was almost always soaked when I returned home.
Clarinet and singing lessons turn into torture for a young boy going through puberty.
My formal music education began in elementary school in Germany. For three years, I diligently played and practiced the recorder, a natural progression from the xylophone on which I banged (with more verve than skill) during my kindergarten days. At age nine I graduated to the longer and deeper alto-recorder, mirroring if not my vocal then at least my vertical development. Most of my miserable efforts culminated in much dreaded solo performances on Christmas Eve consisting of a few hapless renderings of ‘Silent Night’, “Oh Tannenbaum’ and other classics.
When my family moved from Germany to Belgium, I entered a new world that seemed sophisticated, cosmopolitan and exotic. The other students at the German School were comfortable in German or French and many of them had lived in other countries because their parents were diplomats or military officers. Belgian shops contained new and exciting candy and chocolate, accepted bills that were colorful and exotic compared to the German Mark and their bilingual staff was friendlier than the grim German shopkeepers. Our house was bigger, we suddenly had two cars and I graduated from simple recorder to fiendishly complex clarinet. Its gleaming clasps and levers were as mystifying to me as my new surroundings.
To help me get immersed in a new culture, or to relieve their guilt, my parents enrolled me in state-sponsored private clarinet lessons that consisted of half an hour per week spent in a lonely classroom with a kind and infinitely patient teacher. I always looked forward to the time spent in that room where rare beams of sunlight streaming through the louvers were absorbed by the wooden floors, dulled by the scuffmarks of generations of children’s school uniform shoes. Maybe I craved the undivided attention of a male authority figure: eager to show off my progress, less eager for criticism and endless requests for “répetéz l’étude!”
I liked the rituals that accompanied the clarinet lessons. First I had to whet the reed and carefully mount it onto the mouthpiece, aligning it with the opening until it looked like a carefully trimmed fingernail, a thin crescent of black mouthpiece appearing behind the white nail of the reed. Then came the greasing of the three cork-circumscribed fittings that allowed assembly of the four clarinet sections. The satisfying twist of the hands, as if one was wringing out a wet dishtowel, was accompanied by the tell-tale squeak indicating the correct amount of lubrication. During practice, I had to re-align the reed periodically to achieve just the right timbre, or even replace it if it absorbed too much moisture that prevented it from oscillating at the right frequency between my clenched lower lip and the mouthpiece. At the end of practice came the mandatory cleaning and drying of the clarinet’s inside before putting each section back in the blue velvet-lined carrying case. My favorite part was to pull a yellow cotton rag through the entire tube, its path eased and guided by a lead weight attached to the rag with a bright red cord and lowered through the top until it emerged at the bottom. Unfortunately, the drenched rag was always a tell-tale sign of my inattention to proper mouth posture and sputtering breathing technique.
My teacher always corrected my breathing, exhorting me to exhale by using my diaphragm rather than letting my chest collapse. Even worse, he insisted I inhale using my stomach, pushing it outward. This directly contravened my male instinct to puff out my chest when inhaling to look more intimidating to other boys and (hopefully) more attractive to girls. I resented his insistence that I breathe like a wimp, especially since it didn’t seem to make a noticeable difference in my attempts to produce long notes or difficult passages without having to breathe in between.
But most of my resentment was reserved for a different ordeal. In its attempt to combine musical training with musical education, the Belgian government required that students also complete two hours of musical theory per week to qualify for continuing free music lessons. Since I was a newcomer to the system and my French was almost nonexistent, I, a 12-year old, was placed in a class of beginners filled with six- to eight-year-olds. I was looking forward to learn about music history and famous composers, to become familiar with enigmatic words like andante, fortissimo and glissando. Unfortunately, these topics would be covered in later courses. Instead, this class focused on reading sheet music and becoming familiar with the sounds through singing. We didn’t sing in the traditional sense, with lyrics. Instead, we had to sing the names of the notes of the musical scale and thus our lyrics were constrained to Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La and Si, and their many variations: high and low, major and minor. Challenges included singing perfect scales or blindly identifying the note the teacher hit on her piano. In hindsight I can appreciate the intent and method of teaching music appreciation to novices, but at the time these classes presented pure, unrelenting torture. While everyone else in the class merely struggled with their attention deficit, I also had to fight the demons of the cracking voice. They appeared at random and would cause me to hit the wrong note or keep me from successfully singing a complete scale because I was unable to reach the high notes, notes that the other kids half my age had no trouble voicing. Of course these sudden seizures of impending maturity were a cause of great hilarity among them. My loneliness, already aggravated by our move to Belgium, the impenetrability of French and my imposing new school, seemed vast and cruel to me.
After realizing the futility of these courses I often skipped them. I would claim that I was sick or that I had a cold that prevented me from singing. Later I wouldn’t even bother to invent excuses and just stayed away. But because I still had to leave our house for appearances’ sake, and because I often didn’t reach the decision to skip ‘Solfège’ until I stood in front of the school’s massive double doors with its lion-headed knockers and worn brass name plate, I often spent that hour wandering along the street on which the institute was situated. The Boulevard St. Georges was a long, narrow shopping street with cars parked on both sides, wide enough for opposing traffic but narrow enough to slow traffic to a crawl lest drivers risked sheared mirrors or scraped doors when passing oncoming cars. Fortunately the stores offered a variety of diversions. I usually debated whether I should exchange part of my allowance for a coconut macaroon, a craggy, impossibly white mountaintop of pure sugar laid out in the window of the Boulangerie on stacked trays, each level decreasing in size to form a perfect pyramid of temptation. Another option was a comic book from the bookstore at the end of the street, but it was a risky one. My mother would surely discover it and, being familiar with the distance between school, the store and my bus stop, remembering my departure and arrival time, and knowing the duration of my class, she would use her astute mental arithmetic skills to calculate the possibility of covering the required distance AND attending class and would conclude with eerie precision that I must have skipped class. It was safer to come home claiming I was not hungry.
Of course, many of those ambles along the Boulevard St. Georges took place in one of the many variations of precipitation so common to Brussels. Often I came home drenched because I had forgotten or lost my umbrella. I never knew whether my mom caught on to my evasive maneuvers but she always made me a mug of steaming hot chocolate and let me dry my feet on the living room radiator, her benevolence only adding to my guilt and fear of being found out. I always insisted on going to class alone to prevent an accidental meeting between my teacher and my mother, and for the remainder of our stay in Brussels I was successful. Soon thereafter we moved to the US, allowing me to leave behind my undiscovered crimes and enter a new phase of my life.
Ever since I penned my first short story (a detective story) aboard a train in Germany as a 10-year-old boy, I've considered myself an aspiring writer. I still do, 40 years later. And I still enjoy the process of writing immensely, even if nobody else reads my work (but secretly I hope someone does).