Today’s post is shared by the wonderful Judith Works, and it’s about a somewhat unusual musical instrument: the oboe. I must admit that I shed a tear at the end, but also thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
What the heck is an oboe? Well I can tell you: it’s a torture device in the form of a musical instrument. One of the more difficult instruments to learn it was instrumental (pun) in my giving up on ever being a musician.
My mother was musical – both a professional ballet dancer and an expert piano player. A grand piano filled most of our living room. My father was tone deaf and never knew the meaning of the word “rhythm.” He could neither dance nor sing. Unaware of the recent finding that most genes are inherited from one’s father, she was determined that I would follow in her footsteps. When my piano lessons came to an untidy end she pressed on, determined that I play in the grade-school orchestra. I caved in to her demands and joined the class. Shy and wanting to be anywhere else but the music room I awaited the assignment. The only instrument that interested me was the flute. I visualized standing in front of an appreciative audience as I played lovely trills and melodies. Maybe even being interrupted by applause and cheers.
But the flute players had already been selected. They waved their silver tubes in my direction with smirks on their faces. I was handed what looked like a skinny clarinet. It was an oboe the teacher said. The oboe has an almost Oriental sound but my efforts sounded more like the squealing of a pig meeting his end. How school music teachers survive the screeches and wails of aspiring musicians I’ll never know, but they deserve gold medals for patience.
While I had no ability to make a pleasing sound I had no problem at all ruining the reeds. Reeds were expensive and I continually got them caught on my front teeth causing the reed to split and become unusable. But even the problem of reordering (they had to be shipped from New York) didn’t deter my mother. I went through dozens. One time I put a packet in the sleeve of my blouse in case I ruined the one on the instrument and managed to ruin all of them at once when I pulled them out to check if they were still there.
My career in music ended the evening when each student in the orchestra had to play a solo at the annual school music event. I had practiced diligently on Song of India, not the jazz version by Glenn Miller but the original with its high, wavering and mournful melody. As I was endlessly wailing away I caught the conductor’s expression. He signaled for me to quit, first giving me the eye and then resorting to a chopping motion. I finally got the message and stopped in the middle of a phrase with one note hanging in the air over the audience of ever-hopeful parents. After a moment’s pause the surprised and relieved audience began to laugh before they remembered they were supposed to applaud instead. I slunk back to my seat, humiliated. But there was one positive result: I never had to touch the instrument again.
In City of Illusions Laura sees a copy of an ancient flute player in a shop window. The salesman tells her the original was found in the ruins of Pompeii. She begs Jake to buy it after telling him that she got stuck with the oboe when she wanted to play the flute. He reluctantly gets out his wallet, and the statue becomes her talisman in the story. I have such a statue myself and see it every day. It always reminds me of Italy and my ill-fated adventures with the oboe.
Judith Works, a graduate of Lewis & Clark Law School, is retired from the United Nations, Rome, Italy. She is the author of a memoir about Rome, Coins in the Fountain, available as an e-book, and City of Illusions, published by Booktrope. She writes travel articles for on-line publications as well as blogging her adventures. Her work has been published in a literary journal. She is currently on the steering committee for the literary conference, Write on the Sound, and is also on the board for Edmonds Center for the Arts and EPIC Group Writers. She is a member of several other writer’s groups.