Rental Nights

If you have a child who ever played a band or string instrument, you’ve probably been through a rental night. The school (if they have a decent program) offers an opportunity for children and their families to explore various instruments and register for lessons and instrument rentals. I’m sure my music educator colleagues would agree that rental nights make parent-teacher conferences seem like a day at the spa.

Even though I’m retired, I still go back to my old school district and help with sizing youngsters for string instruments. I measure arms, get little fingers plucking strings, adjust cello and bass endpins, and explain to parents what to expect when living with a beginning violinist. Same thing I’ve done for almost forty years, except now I  don’t have to get up the next morning and figure out how to work one hundred beginners into a two-day schedule, group them by instrument, and make sure they don’t miss math.

Rental nights are an exhausting mish-mash of hope and excitement and apprehension against a backdrop of buzzing mouthpieces, squealing clarinets, and scratching strings. Most kids are over the moon about starting an instrument but have no concept whatsoever of how much work is involved. The potential drummers all want to be rock stars and the violinists think they’ll be playing Devil Went Down to Georgia in two weeks. Some know exactly which instrument they want to play, some want to try them all and some have no clue why they’re even there. I can almost predict who’s going to make it and who’s going to be GBT. (Gone by Thanksgiving.)

For the most part, parents are as excited as the kids. Phones pop out to video little Emily holding a one-fourth size violin for the first time. I meet former students proudly bringing their own children, so they can have the same experience in band or orchestra that they had growing up. Every so often, though, you get a nasty parent. Someone is angry when you tell them their child cannot play grandpa’s full-sized violin (with no bridge and a hairless bow) and thinks you’re trying to spend their money by insisting they rent a half-size. This week a dad lit into me because the school only offers classical training instead of jazz. Classical music is nothing but a boring waste of time, and he should know because he played with Maynard Ferguson and arranged music for Spirogyra in the eighties. I had a mother several years ago whose daughter had no left forearm past her elbow. When I gently suggested that violin might not be the best option, mom silenced the room by shouting at the top of her lungs, “Are you saying my child can’t be in this program because of her disability?”

But grumpy parents are the exceptions. Rental nights are all about the maybes, the why nots, the who-would-have-thought-its. The chance for a lonely child to find a best friend in the back of the second violins. The child whose heart is set on playing the flute but who simply cannot make even a whisper of a sound on the head joint and then wails like Maynard on a trumpet mouthpiece.  A shy child bursting  into a smile the first time she bows the violin. The young man who at age nine, informed his family of athletes that he was going to be a musician and is currently principal violist of a major university orchestra. The wiry little guitar-player I met this week who played “Smoke on the Water” on each string of a one-eighth bass the first time he had it in his hands. In tune.  

Rental nights, warts and all, offer children and their parents a chance to step into the unknown, to crack open the door and peek into to a world shining with possibility. They give them a chance to say, yes, I think I could do this. I want to blow the horn, grab the bow, tap a rhythm on the practice pad, hug the cello. The sound of this instrument makes me happy and feels like something that’s been missing from my life, something I need.  I know I’ll have to practice, and I’ll whine and say I want to quit by January, but I won’t. I will march on the football field, go on the trip to Disney World and play in the orchestra at graduation wearing my cap and gown. My instrument, who I will name Tabitha or Leonard, will teach me that wonderful things happen when you practice and that you shouldn’t quit when it gets hard.

The Sewing Box

I sewed a button on a pair of shorts today, which was a momentous event. Simple mending at our house  can linger for months, perhaps years, just like clothing that needs to be ironed. I have found myself ironing a sleeveless blouse on a snowy day in February, simply because the OCD part of me can no longer stand to see it hanging wrinkled and abandoned, in the back of my closet.

I despise sewing and have no skills whatsoever with a needle and thread, despite the best efforts of my mother and grandmother to teach me. I can remember the hideous maroon jumper that I hemmed with scotch tape for a high school Home Economics project (that’s what it was called back in the day) which caused me to receive the only failing grade of my school career.

When I must sew on the occasional button, I grit my teeth and stitch through those little holes with a vengeance, anchoring it with an ugly glob of thread on the inside of the material. You better stay on this time, damnit! Anything beyond a button goes to the magical hands of the lovely seamstress at the dry cleaner.

I still use my mother’s little sewing box—a battered green tin once containing “Bowers Old Fashioned Creamy Mints, manufactured by Earle S. Bowers in Philadelphia” a company that according to Google, was in its heyday in the 1940’s. Nestled inside are two spools of cotton thread from McCrory’s, one of those great discount emporiums of the past and a cardboard packet of needles that came from Food Fair. There is the standard tomato of a pin cushion and a spool containing a yellowed strip of ribbon printed with my childhood last name, which I suspect was sewn into coats and sweaters to avoid confusion in the kindergarten cloakroom.  There is a tiny scissors and a thimble or two and an embroidered “R,” one of my mother’s initials from a mink jacket she owned. During the last year of her life, she removed her initials from the jacket, replacing them with mine.

My mother died in 1980 and I am still using her mending supplies, partly because I do so little sewing, there’s never been a need to purchase anything new. Fifty-year old needles and thread still work. I guess you can buy sewing supplies on Amazon now, but the five and ten was more fun.

I wonder how many junk drawers that little candy tin sewing box has been stowed in over the years. I wonder how many bell bottom jeans, polyester dresses and leisure suits were hemmed or repaired from its contents.  I can still see it on the table beside my mother’s chair, where she sat in the evening, doing a little mending while she sipped her Carling Black Label and watched Bonanza or Perry Mason.

It’s ironic that something as ordinary and mundane as an old candy tin filled with supplies for an activity I detest, connects me to the parent who has been gone from my life for so long. That once or twice a year, when I grudgingly open that sewing box and rummage around for a needle and thread, my mother comes back to me.

Naked Ladies

They magically appear in mid-August. Rogue flowers that look like some kind of miniature lily. Delicate pink faces on a smooth, crisp leafless stem, which I suppose explains why they’re called “naked ladies.” I never planted them and even when I thought I dug out all the bulbs in our front bed, there they are–incorrigible little beauties. They pop up in clumps of two or three in random places, bloom for about a week and along with the increasingly frenzied sound of the cicadas, remind me that summer’s almost over. That for those of us who are governed by the school year, the dreaded Sunday night of August is officially here .

For only the second time since I was five years old, I will not be going back to school this year. Our stint as part-time teachers is over, and that’s ok. We accomplished what we set out to do. But we still feel that sense of coming down the home stretch to Labor Day, of anticipating foggy early mornings walking into spider webs on the porch, driving home in oppressive late afternoon heat and watching the darkness arrive a little sooner each evening. The pool has grown bathwater-warm, my hanging baskets that were so lush in May are now straggly and tired, and my husband’s beloved Orioles should probably just forfeit the season and start over again next spring.

It had been a typical summer until last week when something happened that caused a seismic shift in our perspectives. In what we take for granted. In what we assume will never happen. When the phone rings because a close friend doesn’t show up for work and we are an emergency contact. When several of us arrive at her home to find her desperately ill and have to make decisions and do things we never thought we’d have to do. Things that probably crossed the line of getting into someone else’s business, but the circumstances offered no choice. A situation where you just take a deep breath, plunge in, and worry about the fall-out later.

Thanks be to God, our friend will recover. We will go to restaurants and concerts and spend time at the beach just as we always have. But last week’s events rattled us right out of our late-summer malaise. Reminded us that just like those chalkboard signs you see in the gift shops, friends do become our chosen family and sometimes that means you’re there when the ambulance comes.

Meanwhile, summer continues to drag herself toward fall. The hummingbirds are starting to tank up more often at the feeder in preparation for their long journey south. I always rejoice at the sight of the first one in the spring and reluctantly take the feeders down when they go untouched for several weeks in the fall. The naked ladies have run their course and are wilted and brown.

I simply take for granted that I’m going to see those little pink flowers every year, poking their heads out of the forest of hydrangeas. Just like I take for granted that things are always going to be the same. But, like the naked ladies, our fragile beauty only appears for a brief time and we bloom best when grown in clumps of two or three.

pink lily 2


Beach Memories

 I’ve been a beach person since the days when my family would go to Stone Harbor, New Jersey, stay in a seedy motel painted green with a  lobster on the outside and where the bathroom sink was in the same room as the beds. From there, we moved up the coast to Ocean City to stay with my mother’s best friend who  lived  there year-round. Adulthood brought annual treks to the Outer Banks with a group of friends and now I happily set up my beach chair on the Maryland shore where we have a vacation home.

Our Outer Banks trips always included a dear friend who we lost at way too young an age. When several of us were sitting on the beach in Ocean City recently, (during the week with beautiful weather, not the monsoons) I couldn’t help but think about her, especially since last week marked twelve years since she’s gone to heaven.

She was one of a kind. Her soprano voice could make the angels weep, she constantly won radio trivia call-ins, and had amassed a vocabulary of truly spectacular profanity. One minute a prim and proper elementary teacher, the next a potty-mouth who would make us all burst into laughter with one of her creatively obscene expressions. She loved the Outer Banks and when she was there, her appetite knew no bounds. One of us would be foraging around the kitchen for a snack and she’d give us a guilty look—“Umm, the salt air makes me so hungry, I sort of ate the whole box of Wheat Thins.” Her first question in the morning was where we were going for dinner that night.
Deb eating 2

We spent our Outer Banks evenings watching movies (she knew almost every line from “Finding Nemo”) or sitting in the hot tub under the stars, sipping cocktails, eating Twizzlers, and solving the problems of the world. How were we to know that those movie and hot tub moments were so fleeting and precious, that in a few short years, we would look back and desperately wish for one more movie, one more night in the hot tub?

She did things that made us cringe and roll our eyes—powdering her sweaty underarms in the lobby of a restaurant, singing  an impromptu “Lonely Goatherd” from the open sunroof of my car while waiting for the Ocracoke ferry, (she was obsessed with “The Sound of Music”), vividly describing an erotic dream in the dining room of a bed and breakfast. She was unabashed, uninhibited, and completely her own person. She was also deeply spiritual, devoted to her God,  her family, and to her students at the school where she taught fifth grade.

She fought her illness valiantly. She lived Dory’s line from “Finding Nemo”—“When life gets you down, you know what you gotta’ do? JUST KEEP SWIMMING!” I can still see her getting in our faces and yelling that when we were whining about something. She showed us how it’s done.

Dory and Nemo

Twelve years later my friends and I are older, crankier, more set in our ways. After she died, it was like a tire flew off the vehicle of our friendship. Part of what we had together became like those truck treads you occasionally see along the road—ripped from the wheel and left shriveled and abandoned. We were torn away from her joy in life, her wonderful irreverence. The loss of someone we could indulge with an almost parental love, left us off-balance and we’ve never fully regained our equilibrium. Now we occasionally find ourselves driving along with clenched teeth, gripping the wheel too tightly, earnestly insisting that we’re still having fun while the car skitters from one side of the road to the other.

The sand and surf bring the memories tumbling back. Three of us who shared those Outer Banks trips with her stayed late on the beach one day last week, enjoying the quiet after the crowds left, watching the evening ritual of life guards pulling in their chairs and whistling everyone out of the water. We sat reading our books, sipping our drinks, and passing around the bag of slightly sandy Twizzlers. The ocean was calm, and it was one of those rare, perfect summer days you don’t want to end. I closed my eyes and I could see our beloved friend coming back from her usual late afternoon walk. She flops down in the vacant chair beside me, reaches for the bag of Twizzlers and says, “I’m starving. Where’re we going to eat tonight?”

obx Kay, Carol, Me (2)






Taking it to the Streets

Sometimes you need to get out of town to get a fresh perspective. I had the opportunity to do that recently as a first-time attendee at a conference sponsored by Chorus America, an organization committed to supporting and promoting community choirs across North America. I’ve done my share of music educator conferences and a few writing conferences, but this was different. I expected to hear great performing ensembles and get lots of information about how to better support the chorale that I currently sing with. What I didn’t expect was to be astounded at how the choral art is changing lives (and in some cases, probably saving lives) with a mission that has gone far beyond bringing people together in the pursuit of vocal excellence.

Choirs are now going through all kinds of technical gymnastics to stream concerts so that elderly residents gathered in the community room of a senior living facility can experience performances they may be physically unable to attend. So that family members anywhere in the world can watch a child or grandchild sing or conduct or hear his or her composition performed in real time. So that members of a choir can receive an email that says, “I am a choral singer currently serving in the armed forces and being able to see and hear my choir’s Christmas concert was the greatest gift I could have ever received.”

In many urban areas, choirs are literally taking it to the streets. I was privileged to hear truly superb performances of youth choirs whose members were recruited from city neighborhoods infested with poverty, gangs, and crime. One was a gospel choir who sang with energy and conviction and then came out into the audience at the end of the performance to share their message of love with each one of us. This stodgy old Episcopalian was moved to tears and that doesn’t happen very often.

A select ensemble from the Chicago Children’s Choir, an organization which includes nearly 5,000 children from all over the city performed works ranging from Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria” to stark and painful texts about lynching in the south to songs about striving for racial equality in South Africa. They told their story in plain truth and sublime beauty. Two long-time members spoke eloquently about how the choir has impacted their lives and that the opportunity to make music with people from all walks of life has made them better human beings. One of the singers quoted in the program said, “We respect each other’s differences and are drawn to each other’s uniqueness.” What a powerful affirmation for the world we live in now.

I heard a brilliant researcher talk about the incredible, scientifically documented evidence that music enhances brain development in all stages of human life. No hocus-pocus, no spin, just the simple truth that music makes us smarter and healthier, and she showed us the data to back it up.

I heard someone who arrived here as a child speaking only Vietnamese and whose family could not afford nice clothes and a decent haircut, describe how an early morning choir rehearsal was the only thing that kept him coming to school. That he found a home in the choir room, where a music teacher welcomed him and changed his life.

I sat at tables and listened as representatives from choirs across the country talked about how they’re trying to expand their reach. Whether that means providing a vocal ensemble for those in their 80’s and beyond or funding more scholarships for a youth choir or figuring out the best way to address concert attire for those in the LGBT community, choir people are all in. They’re swinging at every pitch, not just paying lip service, but doing something. Trying in some small way in their own community, through their own organization, to heal a broken world.

Although I spent my professional life teaching instrumental music, my heart is in the choir. Most of us who do this are not paid. We do it because we love to sing beautiful music with other people, and if we’ve had the opportunity to work with fabulous conductors, as I have, all the better. I met many of the people I am closest to, including my husband, through singing in a choir. My life has been enriched from the relationships I have found there, and I suspect that’s true for a lot of us.

After what I have seen and heard in the last few days, I have never been prouder to be a singer. To know that I’m part of something bigger than just getting the notes and rhythm right. That the product of grueling rehearsals and aching backs from standing on risers for hours, can touch someone, change an attitude, soothe a hurting soul. That thousands of us around the world are truly taking our healing message of music far beyond the concert hall and into the streets.


Zombie on the River


Chiques Hill, a high out-cropping of rock near my hometown in southcentral Pennsylvania, provides a breath-taking view of the Susquehanna river. To the north, like a vision of Oz, lie the giant cooling towers of Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. Thin white plumes of steam spiral out of the towers for Unit One, the only reactor still in use.  From up here, it all looks so placid, like a futuristic settlement on a far planet.

I remember seeing the massive turbines roll through town on flatbed trucks, headed for the new power plant being constructed on a sandbar on the Susquehanna known as Three Mile Island. We just landed a man on the moon, and now this clean, modern energy produced without smoke or pollution, would be generated twenty miles north of us.

Ten years later, on a day in late March, we heard about a minor incident occurring in unit two of the nuclear reactor. I was out shopping for wedding shoes with my mother. We listened to the reports on the car radio and then went to our favorite restaurant for lunch as planned. My mother was fighting breast cancer, so I was just happy to spend a normal day with her.

Outside there was no evidence of anything amiss.  No mushroom cloud or strange light in the sky. It was a typical end of March week in the mid-Atlantic, still more winter than spring. There was no assault on the senses that made you think something terrible had happened or was about to happen. We joked about holding our breath and glowing in the dark.

News reports told us that a pressure valve in unit two failed to close, and contaminated water drained into adjoining buildings, causing the core to dangerously overheat. Emergency cooling pumps were activated but human operators in the control room misinterpreted the readings and mistakenly shut down the pumps and the reactor. Residual heat from the fission process was still being released which caused the core to overheat to just 1000 degrees short of a meltdown.


Most of us had no concept of what any of this meant. Men in short sleeve dress shirts and narrow ties reassured us from our television screens that all was well. Governor Thornburgh, calm and professorial in his horn-rimmed glasses, initially suggested a precautionary evacuation of nearby towns but was quickly silenced by the corporate owners of the plant.


The core had come within an hour of a complete meltdown and over half the core was destroyed, but it had not broken its protective shell. No radiation was escaping. Sighs of relief. Crisis averted. No need to evacuate or scurry into those buildings with the ubiquitous yellow “Fallout Shelter” signs leftover from the Cold War days.

On March 30, we were told there was a bubble of highly flammable hydrogen gas within the reactor building created two days earlier when exposed core materials reacted with super-heated steam. The day of the incident, some of this gas exploded, releasing a small amount of radiation into the atmosphere. The sound at the time was attributed to a ventilation door closing. The experts weren’t sure if this bubble could create a further meltdown or possibly a giant explosion. Residents were ordered to stay indoors. The governor advised all pregnant women and young children who lived within a 5-mile radius to evacuate. The floodgates of panic burst open.  

My uncle, a retired physician, who had been shepherding my mother through her cancer treatment, tells her it’s time to head out, especially for someone with a weakened immune system. Schools and businesses closed. We decided to leave until whatever was coming was over, if it was ever over.

Lines formed around gas stations, banks were emptied of cash, roads were jammed with cars packed with possessions. People who never dreamed they would be refugees suddenly found themselves leaving their homes, not knowing if they’d ever return. With the looming specter of nuclear annihilation now a reality, those duck and cover drills we did at school during the Cuban missile crisis seemed utterly absurd. 


 My parents went to the New Jersey shore to stay with my mother’s best friend from college. It was the last time they would see each other. For my mother, who found it ironic that she was being evacuated to avoid radiation exposure, this was a brief reprieve from her radiation and chemo treatments. By the first anniversary of TMI, she had been dead for a month.

I went to my fiancé’s apartment outside Philadelphia where we practiced being newlyweds while waiting for Armageddon. We were young and idiotic, so we drank cocktails and watched TV, cooked meals, and walked the dog, all the while pretending we were grown-ups, just in case we didn’t get to do it for real. We found it darkly romantic. Huddling together safe from the sinister bubble. Waiting for news.

We returned to our homes after President Jimmy Carter toured the plant in his haz-mat suit and reassured us that the danger was past. TMI became a touchstone, a reference point. “I started teaching the year TMI blew up.” “Our first child was born during TMI.” “We live just south of TMI.” To this day, I never think of those three letters as standing for “too much information.”


In the years following the accident, disturbing studies on cancer rates of those who lived within a close radius of the plant popped up on a regular basis, only to be quickly discredited by representatives of the company’s owners. Investigative reporters dug deep, but that data was banished into the far recesses of the state department of health. Hard copies probably now long destroyed.

 TMI is once again back in the news because it is to be permanently shut down in 2019.  Nuclear energy generation is no longer profitable and at this point, the state is not going to bail out the company. This morning an article in the local paper described the potential dangers associated with long-term storage of nuclear waste. Beyond the environmental impact, there is concern that with reduced security at closed plants, the waste itself could be more vulnerable to attack by terrorists or anyone with a deadly agenda.

 40 years after a nearly catastrophic nuclear event, the dancing atoms will at last be stilled. Insidious spores of radiation will no longer be spewed into the atmosphere. TMI will become an island wasteland, an abandoned behemoth rising out of the river, a permanent shrine to one of the greatest human screw-ups in modern history, its deadly innards sealed in lead and concrete but always with the potential to come back and destroy, given the right circumstances. TMI is our zombie on the river. It will never really die.











Ordinary Music

 As concert season winds down, the power of music still amazes me, even after all these years. I don’t just mean what happens in wonderful performances like I experienced in the last few days, but what happens when music pokes its nose into our daily lives, and subtly works its magic outside of the concert halls. When it pounds the pavement right along with us. When it takes us away from the madness, even for a brief period of time.

 I see its power working in a troubled student at the school where I teach. Her grandmother and I are both struggling mightily to get this young lady to lessons and rehearsals. She’s teetering dangerously close to the precipice of serious trouble and right now, needs to hold on to her violin for dear life. When I asked her one day if she still wanted to play, she looked shocked and said, “You know I do.” She finally showed up for a lesson last week, despite the siren call of friends she should not be hanging out with and for now, that’s enough.

I’ve watched another student who used to be very insecure blossom into a fine young cellist this year. She’s still at basic level but is playing with more confidence and has become the de-facto mother hen of our little cello section. She scurries around marking fingerings and bowings in the other kids’ parts, (without any prompting from me) or yells at them for missing a rest. I just sit back and enjoy.  

 A woman who recently took over as the drum major in my husband’s drum and bugle corps is so excited to be in front of a performing ensemble again that it’s all she can talk about. She was a dynamic middle school band director who left the profession to stay home with her young children and now she’s once again studying scores and practicing conducting patterns. She has rediscovered the passion of her life, and her energy and enthusiasm have revitalized this group of drummers and horn players who range in age from 15 to 82. And for some of these folks, “the corps” is what gets them out of bed in the morning.

Lancers DCA 2012 formal

 My husband’s Aunt, a lovely lady in her 80’s not only still plays the piano but takes lessons and practices. She is widowed, and her adult children do not live nearby but her piano is there to keep her company and give her daily goals and challenges. She proudly told us that some Beethoven and Mozart pieces she had been working on for a long time are finally coming together, and she occasionally plays for other residents in the retirement community where she lives. For her, music provides a future at a time in her life when some days, the future may look bleak.


Enjoyed lunch recently at an outdoor venue where a trio of older gentlemen were entertaining the crowd with some blues and classic rock. Their bass player was a local professional photographer who had recently taken up the instrument and this was one of his first performances. They’re never going to give the e street band a run for their money, but they were having a blast, especially the rookie bass player.

For me, making music is something I can still do reasonably well, unlike getting up from sitting on the floor or watching TV without my glasses. I’m singing with the finest choral ensemble I have ever been a part of and am re-discovering what it means to practice and even memorize a few pieces. Unlike the other person who shares my home who can instantly sing the harmony part to any tune he hears, I must work hard to memorize alto lines. I felt good this past weekend when I could sing our memorized pieces with confidence (except for the one that required off-beat clapping, but then I just didn’t clap much.)

Memo music

There is no downside to this music thing. There simply isn’t. Yes, it requires practice and discipline and at the professional level there can be bitter competition and politics, and some of us are inevitably going to be better musicians than others. But that’s true of most things in life. Whether you’re a concert pianist or a fifth-grader blowing the first few notes on a saxophone or a senior citizen singing in the retirement home chorus, it’s all good. Music quickens our pulse when our souls are dragging and comforts us when the storm outside becomes unbearable. Music stimulates our brains and bodies and it’s something we can do forever, unlike a lot of sports which, let’s face it—sooner or later, are going to cause our knees to pack up and say, “Ok, that’s it. We’re out of here.”

So keep singing or marching in the drum corps or playing in a local bluegrass band. Start taking lessons at 40. Or 80. Get out your old trumpet and play along with your child or grandchild. Sing in your church choir. Ring a handbell. Try out for a performing ensemble. Play in a praise band.  I often told my students that you don’t have to be first chair to enjoy making music. You don’t have to be great. You don’t even have to be good. There’s nothing wrong with ordinary people making ordinary music. Sometimes sitting in the back of the second violins (what I used to affectionately call “Margaritaville”) is just fine if you’re happy and it makes you forget about life for a while.

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