by cheri block sabraw
Saturday, Judge Blah and I took our grandson and our niece to the San Francisco Symphony’s holiday presentation of Peter and the Wolf by Sergei Prokofiev.
As you might guess, the energy in the symphony hall was as if an entire ant colony had stopped its busyness for one hour and instead, come to a holiday musical production.
Children bounced. Some cried out in random hilarious yips. Fidgeting and balancing on adult seats that threatened to fold up on them, tiny spontaneous beings clapped and conducted.
Sitting next to Judge Blah, a six-year-old girl dressed in her red Christmas dress with a stiff petticoat, raised her arms as the music began and proceeded to conduct her own version of the musical score for the entire hour. Judge Blah’s big head swerved to the left to avoid a knockout swipe when she signaled the trombones. Ahh, the trombones, that raucous group, I thought.
Before the concert, we had taken the children to lunch. In between sips of lemonade and bites of pizza, Grandson Noah asked me if I had ever played an instrument.
Niece Maia wanted to know the answer too.
OK, I’ll tell you the whole story.
When I was in the 3rd grade, the band teacher, Bert, handed me a bamboo tube called a tonette. Every Friday before lunch, I ran to the music room to play Mary Had a Little Lamb and Row Row Row Your Boat.
I practiced my tonette every night, covering the holes with my fingers and blowing air down the pipe like Athena with her aulos. When my melody sounded pleasant, I would go out in our backyard and serenade the butterflies and sparrows.
Noah and Maia looked at each other, as if in the presence of a weirdo.
But of course, the tonette was just a stepping-stone to a real musical instrument. After eight weeks, Bert called all 3rd graders into the music room to ask us which instrument we wanted to learn. And which instrument our parents would rent.
My dad Hugh, your great- grandfather, had his mind made up.
Cheri, you will be an alto saxophone player. Why not? You have it in your blood! I was an alto sax player. My Selmer sax is in my closet. You will love the sound of a sax. And plus, we won’t have to rent one. After all, missy, two other kids live in this house. Money doesn’t grow on trees.
I had different ideas but kept my mouth shut. (This defiant behavior would be a recurrent motif in my life.)
The next day, all budding musicians sat in small chairs in a circle.
Bert said, Children, the important moment has arrived. In several minutes, you will share the name of the instrument you will learn to play (and rent). This moment is a mighty important one, one that you will look back on when you are famous. Choose carefully!
Judge Blah, also known as Grampa Blah and Uncle Blah to our guests, interrupted the story to order ice cream with chocolate sauce for all willing takers. Somehow, the story began to lose its momentum in a dairy decrescendo.
Spoons clanked on glass ice cream dishes. Tongues licked chocolate from the corners of small mouths.
And then what happened Gramma and Auntie Cheri? Judge Blah asked while scraping the last small lines of hot fudge from the bottom of the parfait glass.
Judge Blah knew he was in trouble, tripping the crescendo of my story with ice cream.
Well, Bert went around the circle and each of my friends committed her life and loyalty to a musical instrument.
Mike chose the clarinet. Wonderful choice!! Boomed Bert.
Kathy selected the flute. Purrrfect!! Purred Bert.
Dennis took the trumpet. Excellent! Tapped Bert.
All eyes came to a rest on me. And you Cheri? Bert quizzed.
What did you choose, Gramma? Noah was back in the palm of my hand, ice cream finished.
Well, all of my friends were staring at me, expecting me to choose the flute (because I was little). I trumpeted, I am choosing the trombone!!
I trilled, sliding off my chair. I pumped my right arm out and in, in and out, while holding my imaginary trombone like a bow. I stood up and cranked up the imaginary music.
At this image, Noah and Maia laughed out loud.
The trombone, Cheri? Bert’s expression changed.
You might want to reconsider your choice. Your arms are not long enough to play the trombone.
I was crushed, like a piece of litter on the playground. (This lousy metaphor evoked real sadness from Noah.)
And so, kids, I had to play the saxophone because we owned one. And because of my short arms.
The waiter brought the bill.
Judge Blah drove us to the venue, so taken by my sad story that he drove the wrong way on a one-way street.
We found our seats at the Flint Center.
The lights dimmed; the conductor entered; the narrator (Linda Ronstadt) entered and plumped her large tush down on her stool.
Where are the trombones, Gramma? Noah whispered.
Behind the bassoons, there in the back.