Friday, February 19, 2016

music hall

Here's another reminiscence of performing as a flutist accompanied on piano by my mother, Charlotte. This one happened while I was in junior high or high school.

In addition to her regular jobs as a church organist and choir director during my formative years, Charlotte was often called upon to accompany singers and instrumentalists at community meetings and special events. 'Mrs. M',* a violinist, was one of these performers. On the occasion I want to describe, it was evidently Mrs. M's turn to play a solo for her music sorority's alumnae group. She wanted Charlotte to accompany her. Various issues were at stake, and as I try to reconstruct the scene I think they stemmed mostly from the fact that Mrs. M wouldn't have wanted to pay Charlotte's fee.

There were and still are two major fraternal organizations for women studying music in U.S. colleges and universities -- Delta Omicron (DO) and Mu Phi Epsilon (Mu Phi) -- and the competition between these can become fairly intense from time to time. Charlotte had been a DO and Mrs. M had been a Mu Phi.** Mrs. M would have tried to convince Charlotte that playing gratis for Mu Phi was actually a contribution to DO. I wouldn't wonder that Mrs. M offered to play gratis for Charlotte's DO group in return. However, Charlotte -- a deeply anti-social person -- didn't have a DO group and wouldn't have wanted Mrs. M to be seen or heard there anyway.

In retrospect, I think Charlotte insisted that I must play with her and Mrs. M because I would benefit from the experience and thus bring some kind of recompense to our family. This argument, of course, was totally bogus. Charlotte and I had recently played with Mrs. M for a mother-daughter fashion show at our church. Mrs. M had complained to Charlotte that it was difficult to play with me because I kept a too-rigid beat. She felt that she was "playing in a marching band," an indignity to which she had never before been subjected. Besides her penchant for rubato, Mrs. M had the habit of sniffing noisily on the upbeat when she raised her violin to her chin. This was anathema to me. I had spent years learning to breathe deeply but silently on upbeats and, to this day, am proud of that skill.

Thus a troika of mismatched and unwilling players appeared on the appointed evening at the gracious home of a Mu Phi alumna in our upscale suburb. Upon entering the living room, we noticed right away that there was no piano, though Mrs. M had been assured that the hostess had a wonderful grand piano. Alas! The piano was in the den, separated from the living room by a hallway of about 12 to 15 feet in length.

Charlotte played piano in the den, Mrs. M played violin in the living room, and I played flute in the hallway. Mrs. M and Charlotte could both see me, but they could not see each other, and so I acted as conductor. I have no memory of what we played, though I know that I must have played the second part. Charlotte had instructed me that "No violinist wants to play 'second fiddle' to a flutist." It was probably something like Dvořák's Humoresque or a Haydn Serenade (or both). Charlotte would have written out a 'second fiddle' part for flute, and none of us would have needed to spend much time rehearsing with each other.

The Mu Phi's loved us, of course, and plied us with punch and cookies. Charlotte's compliment to me was that my tone sounded great because I was standing in front of the open bathroom door and getting resonance from all the tile work. We laughed for years about the 'music hall' performance

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* In those days (the mid- to late-1950s, adults were always called 'Mr.', 'Mrs.,' or 'Miss' even if they were close friends. I once got in a lot of trouble for calling Judy's mother 'Doris' instead of 'Mrs. C.' It seemed so natural after hearing Charlotte refer to her regularly as 'Doris' for so many years.

** Years later, I became an honorary Mu Phi alumna, but that's another story.

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POSToccupations by Frances Talbott-White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License