I never learned to play a musical instrument. Jeannie and I would go to an old woman’s house around the corner and pound on her piano once in awhile. She would offer us old Halloween candy and let us play for hours. At first, we thought she might be a witch, but her ancient Three Musketeers bars won us over.
The old woman was a little deaf, so she didn’t really care what we did or what it sounded like. Her house was small and the living room was filled with all kinds of clocks. There were two grandfather clocks and there was one of those clocks under glass with golden balls that revolved on the hour. There was even a cuckoo clock with a little bird that would pop out say “Cuckoo! Cuckoo!” She would turn the hands of the bigger clocks backwards or forwards, so that we could hear them chime using a little gold key.
When I was in the fourth grade, I had the chance to learn a musical instrument. I really wanted to learn how to play the piano, but I was told that there wasn’t a piano available. I had to pick another instrument. The music teacher suggested the clarinet. He took one out of the instrument closet and showed me how to assemble it. I was fascinated by the way the parts went together, but I thought it was kind of weird that you had to suck on the reed before you could actually play it.
Assembling the clarinet was a lot like putting a weapon together. It reminded me of a scene from Mission Impossible. “Michael, your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to learn how to play this musical instrument.” I kept asking if there was a piano available and I kept being told that there wasn’t one.
My father wasn’t happy about renting a clarinet for me. As much as he liked music, he didn’t believe that I would practice. He was right. Every time I tried to practice, Nana or Uncle David would complain. The only support that I received was from Grandma, but she was working most of the time. It was hard for me to apply myself in a hostile environment.
There was a summer program at Frick Junior High School and my music teacher advised that I would be a better player next year if I went to summer school. I would walk along Foothill Boulevard, past Seminary to get to my class with a friend. I was surprised to see the bars open so early in the morning. One day, on a dare, I yelled “DRUNKS!” into the bar while walking home from class. I didn’t have anything against drunks, but a dare is a dare. I would hurry past the bar, from then on, for fear of a reprimand, or worse, drunks with torches and pitch forks like something out of a Universal horror movie.
At Frick, I would go to a room filled with woodwind players. It was easy for me to get lost in the back of the room. The teacher couldn’t possibly hear how badly I played. I didn’t even blow sometimes. At some point the teacher mentioned that he lived in Hayward, so I asked my father for a couple of passes to Hayward Motor Movie. I gave those to the teacher and not too surprisingly got a good grade in the class.
When the next school year started, I had learned absolutely nothing. I was scared that my regular music teacher would find out. When it came time to practice with the smaller group on the Horace Mann stage, I couldn’t even follow the music that we were given. When music class was over, I asked the teacher if we could talk. I confided that I didn’t practice because nobody wanted to listen to me and I never really wanted to play the clarinet. Was there any possibility for me to learn how to play piano? Once again I was told no, so I turned in my instrument and returned to my fifth grade class defeated, but proud that I had admitted my defeat rather than suffer the embarrassment of another rehearsal, or even worse, a performance.