by Alice McClintic Moore
1904 ~ 1986
I spent my childhood and grew up in a small town. That phrase, grew up, is literally true, for when I grew I didn’t fool around with inches, I grew by the yard, and finally attained a mature height which is still regarded as phenomenal; and which is not altogether unrelated to my musical life, especially the recitals.
In that age and town, no female of the species was regarded as a lady unless she had taken or was taking, music lessons. By music lessons we meant piano lessons. The other musical instruments were sublimely disregarded. My mother, of course, was determined that my social attainments should compare favorably with my friends’. She was even ambitious for me. Once she told me that her joy would know no bounds if someday I could take Cousin Grace’s place at the Presbyterian Church and play for services.
The question of ability, or talent, or inclination did not enter into consideration. To the society of the town, music lessons were in the same category with spelling lessons. They were a necessary part of every young girl’s training. To me, they were in the same class with calomel. Only, instead of taking them twice a year, I had a dose twice a week. The only time I laid a finger on the piano was during my half-hour lessons. I didn’t practice; when my mother mentioned the piano, I took to the treetops.
As the years go past, I grow more and more certain that there is no music in my soul. My aunt once told me of a relative of hers who said that he knew two tunes, one was Yankee Doodle and one wasn’t. I’m not quite in that class. I do know “The Star Spangled Banner” when I hear it, and, usually, if the melody is not too obscure I can recognize some of the current popular music. If I hear a piece of music about fifty times, I can sing it. Of course, I provide variations not included in the original score, and I don’t even know what “key” means; – but I can entertain myself when I am sure I am alone.
Nevertheless, I took music lessons for six years. Every Tuesday and every Friday, I dragged my music roll and my reluctant feet to Miss Harris’s studio and endured a half-hour of torture. Miss Harris counted time while I played. I never played more than a few bars until I would make a mistake and have to start over again. As a result, I usually achieved a mechanical knowledge of the first part of the exercises – but I never knew anything about the ending. I would carry a sheet of music about with me until it finally wore out and went to pieces – but I never knew the last lines.
Miss Harris once called her entire music class together and told us she had decided to give prizes at the end of the year for excellence in our work. She was sure that each of us could win a prize if she only tired. We were all talented, and with our natural gifts all we needed was a little practice. This special dispensation didn’t bother m at all. I went my usual way and finally spring, and the end of the musical year, arrived. One of my friends told me that each of us was going to receive a prize. To say that I was surprised is not adequate – my curiosity knew no bounds. To save my soul I could not think of any musical excellence of mine that would merit a prize. I gave it up; if Miss Harris could think of a prize for me, she was an exceedingly smart lady. Prize day came, and I received a prize for always being on time for my lessons!
The part of my musical education I hated most, the function that, to me, was an agony almost beyond endurance, was the yearly recital. On this superb occasion the town came to the Opera House en masse to hear us play.
An Opera House in a town of less than two thousand inhabitants is a distinct anachronism. The title, however, is not in any way related to fact, but, since the gentleman who built the edifice thus fancifully dubbed it, it was always the “Opera House” to us. Now, it houses some several Chevrolets and serves as a garage, but it is still the Opera House.
At different statges in its career it served in varied capacities. Originally stock companies performed there, and amateur theatricals were produced upon the stage. It was in the course of a rehearsal for the “Pied Piper of Hamlin,” to which I was lending my incomparable histrionic ability in the part of a big grey rat, that I saw in the shadow of the wings, a gentleman kiss a young lady. For years, I waited for their surely forthcoming marriage. I am still waiting!
Basketball games were played there; the Amusu Theatre presented “The Diamond Form the Sky” and “The Iron Claw,” those worth serials of an earlier day, within its portals. For a season it became a skating rink.
When the Presbyterian Church was being rebuilt our services were held there, and, unfortunately, during the church era the signs of its former occupations still decorated the building.
A cousin of mine from New York, accompanied my mother to church there one Sunday morning. Being possessed of a mad and devilish sense of humor he had to be lied, choking, from the ‘church” upon whose walls he had read: “Don’t Spit on the Floor,” “No Reversing” “Twenty Cents An Hour,” “No Skidding on the Corners,” “No Drunks Allowed,” My mother was so embarrassed that I doubt if she has ever forgiven him.
Our recital, the musical event of the year, became a part of the entertainment provided at the Opera House. We, dressed in our best and scared to death, shivered in the wings while our fond and doting parents waited out front for their prodigies to perform. The yearly program was arranged according to ability, the beginners appearing first and the more skilled players coming, by way of climax, at the end. Needless to say, I was always one of the first performers of the evening. Even when My contemporaries were presenting the grand finale, I, overgrown, awkward, suffering an agony of shyness, stumbled across the stage and played my little “tra, la, la, la,” as the second on the program in a class of twenty-odd. Those recitals did something to my soul. I find I cannot speak of them with levity; they left a permanent scar.
Finally, after six long years, and several fruitless rebellions at home, I took matters into my own hands. When I was excused from the schoolroom to go to the studio, I left the schoolroom – but I never did reach my destination. I would hide for half an hour and read. When I was finally discovered – and the music in my life came to an abrupt but timely end – I was found behind the Episcopal Church, reading “The Call of the Wild.”