Friday, November 24, 2006

The Recorder

A very slight story I wrote a year or two ago, but I thought it would be appropriate for Thanksgiving.

Payday was the first and the fifteenth of each month when I worked the counter at Burger Chef—ruled the counter, reigned as queen of the counter—in my brown double-knit tunic with orange stripes down the sides. I saved most of my income for college, but I set $10 or $15 aside every other week to buy old books at the Train Depot, a quaint store in town that occupied the old train station. At the back of the store was a small book room with dusty copies of Shakespeare and Hardy and boy scout manuals. I was a regular.

One week, the day after payday, I was considering the books I had spotted the payday before, but I changed course with a new idea. Instead of books, this time I would buy a wooden soprano recorder. I’m not sure where I got the idea for such a purchase, but I knew I wanted it more than a 1946 copy of Jane Eyre.

My mother and I had to drive all the way to Michigan City to find a music store that sold them, but I found a simple maple recorder with a fingering chart and cleaning rod and was on my way. I sat on the edge of my bed for about an hour and ended the session with the fingerings memorized and a few favorite tunes under my belt. I went to school during the day and worked the counter in the evenings, but still I tried to set aside a few minutes every day or so to play my new instrument. Without written music, I had to play through tunes I had learned from my sister's Joan Baez album, the one with hours of old English ballads, like Greensleeves and The Queen of Hearts. They were fitting.

Months later, after moving to Chicago to go to college, I had to learn a new way to live, a dorm way, a communal way that included a nasty refrigerator shared by everyone on the eighth floor, a yellow-tiled bathroom with cold showers, and a room all to myself, myself and a manic depressive roommate who vacuumed at midnight and slept at noon. It was difficult to find recorder time in this new life.

One afternoon, I stepped off the elevator on the way to my room between classes. It was an unusual day with an extra hour of spare time. The eighth floor was quiet, and my room was empty. Recorder time, I thought, and I pulled out the hymn book I had borrowed from the chapel. It was full of tunes labeled Welsh Tune or Traditional American or Irish Melody. They felt good with the recorder, and I sat cross-legged on my bed and played page after dog-eared page. After about twenty minutes, there was a knock on my door. I stopped playing to be annoyed with whoever it was who was about to ask me to quit disturbing her study time. Instead, at my door was a girl from another floor.

“Hi. I’m sorry to bother you. But I heard your recorder and had to come and see who was playing. It’s beautiful.”

“Really? Well, thanks. I was just unwinding for a little while. It’s hard to find time to play when it doesn’t bother people.”

“I know. I have one, too. Do you mind if I go get mine? Then we can play together?”

“No, of course not. I’ve got another half hour or so to play.”

The girl ran down the hall and up the stairs to her room. She was back in minutes with her own soprano and a few song books. We sat on the bed and decided to take turns sharing music. “How about if we play one of your English songs and then one of mine from home. Then we’ll switch again.”

“That’s fine. Where are you from?” I asked, flipping through her books. Nothing was familiar.

“Israel. My friends and I used to get together and play. These are some of my favorites.” She pointed to her own dog-eared pages.

Israel. I was about to play the recorder with a girl from Israel. I would have never guessed this situation. We played my Irish melody, which she had never heard before, then we played her Hebrew tune, which was new to me. We played my American folk song, then we played her worship song from a Sabbath celebration. Tune after tune we took turns learning songs that were a world away from our own homes. We finally quit when we realized that we were late for our next class. She grabbed her recorder and books, and that was last time we ever spoke.

When I could have added Wuthering Heights or Return of the Native to my growing collection of yellowing hardbacks, I chose a musical instrument instead. When I could have spent money on another Little Leather Library edition of Burns poetry, I spent it on a recorder that would lead to a an unforgettable experience.


dive said...

A lovely, uplifting story, Robyn.

I often wonder if non-musicians can understand that wonderful feeling we get when we pick up an instrument; be it a recorder or opening the lid of a grand piano (or a French Horn or an old Les Paul in our cases). There's a rush of joy and expectation.

And when two people get together to make music like in your story, it is just magical.

Robyn said...

There really is a feeling of expectation when you open up the case--look what I get to do now, I get to play the horn or piano or Les Paul. Good or bad playing, it's still playing.

I have since bought a tenor recorder, and on occasion I play with this couple (who will someday get their own post). The husband makes lap and hammered dulcimers. The wife plays the hammered one, I play my tenor, the husband plays a soprano recorder. We added a cello once, which makes a great undertone. More recently we've added a viola and guitar. It really just depends on who's around. We've done Amazing Grace, and next will be My Shepherd Will Supply My Needs. Regardless of what you might think of the lyrics, you should listen to the tune--it has a great folk quality.

dive said...

Informal get-togethers to play traditional tunes are wonderful (and ours go on very late into the night and involve a lot of laughter and ale).
I try to keep my music off my blog (it's nice to have a place where I can escape it) but the informal stuff we do just for pleasure may well start to creep in.
Did you get the "Transatlantic Sessions" on TV over there a few years back?
It was people like the Chieftans, Emmylou Harris et al just sitting in a room playing that kind of stuff together unrehearsed. Wonderful …

Sassy Sundry said...

That's amazing. What a wonderful and serendiptitous (sp?) experience. Have you ever read Sarah Vowell (she is also on NPR's This American Life sometimes)? She plays the recorder.

You have all kinds of unique interests. It's a pleasure to read about them.

RICH said...

another great story robyn with such a redeeming quality. Two worlds brought together by music.

dive said...

I'm picturing the two of them working their sedate way through Greensleeves, then breaking into some totally nutjob, over the top, wild Klezma dance (I love Klezma).

Robyn said...

I love Klezma too. My orchestra has a brillian clarinet who teaches at the same college as my horn teacher. He does great Kelzma solos.

Unfortunately, neither of us recorder players had that kind of skill.

Sassy, I love Sarah Vowell. I remember the story she told about playing trumpet in band and then buying a recorder for fun. And she ended up playing in a recorder ensemble with other kids' moms. My daughter (a trumpet player)and I sat in awe over that story because the band music was the same as it still is--What Do You Do With A Drunken Sailor.