When I Was But a Miniature Beethoven

When I was but a miniature Beethoven, I was placed in the back of our family station wagon and toted to two piano practices a week come rain or shine. 

“Well you do know the quickest route to Julliard,” you state in an old English accent. (I pause for the answer) “Practice!”

While this is true, yes, it does not apply to me. For you see, the Beethoven I am likening myself to is the St. Bernard puppy made popular in the classic 90’s children’s movies Beethoven and Beethoven’s 2nd. My siblings were the pianists and I quite simply the peon. I didn’t mind in the least though. In fact, I kind of enjoyed it. Their teacher was a cute old lady from our church who even had a cute old lady name: Grace. She conducted lessons from her home, which just so happened to sit right across the street from a McDonald’s. Sometimes I would whine and threaten full-blown tantrums about having to be dragged to Grace’s in hopes that my mother would bribe me with a six piece chicken nugget and French fries combo meal. 

Grace’s front room was full of children’s books and puzzles and a television that continuously played Disney movies--basically the F.A.O. Schwartz of Reading, Pennsylvania. 

She was patient with her students as they abused the keys. She decorated their workbooks with stickers and drawings for each holiday and gave them cool little prizes upon completion of each level like Chinese finger traps and plastic kazoos. When her metronome broke, she didn’t skip a beat, rather she tapped her foot and softly spoke, “Jo-sef-een. Jo-sef-een. Jo-sef-een” to keep time. I thought that in a few years, perhaps I too would learn how to tap those ivory keys with Grace at my side.

But Mother God did not have such Fantasia plans for my life. Grace was not in my cards (pun fully intended). 

For you see, in 4th grade, around the time I would have started taking piano lessons, the Schuylkill Valley Middle School band teacher visited my music class with about ten different instruments. He laid each instrument out before us as if to say, “Choose your weapon,” as he worked to build the future of his marching band. They were all so shiny: trumpets, saxophones, flutes, tubas…Oh how quickly we forget the finger traps and kazoos and sweet old ladies in the face of shiny new toys! I followed the flock of hair clips to the flutes and clarinets. Holding the flute made me feel dainty. I was the kind of girl who practiced football routes with my father in the backyard and sliced worms in half to watch their dismembered parts wriggle in the dirt. I was not dainty. And the clarinet? It made me feel uncomfortable, much like eating a popsicle or banana in public, I couldn’t help feeling like I was doing something extremely awkward and intimate to the tune of “Hot Cross Buns."

My destiny was brass. 

As soon as I got that trumpet in my hands, I knew she was the one. Well, not that one in particular, for that was a brand new, polished machine. The trumpet I ended up with was more of the ugly sister model, a hand-me-down from a buddy of my dad’s. I’m still not sure how I blew on that mouthpiece knowing full well others had done the same. I guess we all have our sloppy seconds moment. Don't judge lest ye be judged!

After a few weeks of beginner lessons with the band teacher, he stopped me mid-“Old King Wenceslas” and said, “I think you should consider private lessons." In retrospect, this was probably a nice way of saying “Dear god you're terrible!” But I was thrilled. I couldn’t wait to have my very own old lady, weekly private lessons, and a workbook full of stickers. "Private lessons are one of the main reasons I got into this biz, old man!" I wanted to say. Screw McDonald's, my teacher’s house would probably be across the street from a Dairy Queen! The anticipation had me giddy all over. 

It was a Saturday afternoon when the three of us set out: my mother, my used trumpet, and I, armed with a MapQuest printout to Mrs. Dubik’s house. Winding roads traced with forest and deer carried us to a dilapidated little cottage in the middle of nowhere. Okay, so there was no DQ across the street; that didn’t alarm me. This lady probably had a whole freezer full of Flintstones push-pops. Right? 

I was quite giddy when my mom knocked on the door. It felt like I was about to step over the threshold into womanhood. And though I would find out two years later that hemorrhaging from your vagina is actually the legitimate doorway to womanhood, this was IT for now. A screen door squealed open and there stood Mrs. Dubik, the nub of a cigarette shaking between her two fingers. She was probably in her mid-50s, but dressed as if she had just escaped from a nursing home. She wore elastic-banned pants, a solid salmon-colored oversized sweatshirt, and Velcro-strapped shoes with extra padding on the sole of the right foot. I swear if you shook her, heaps of dust would fall from her hair to the carpet.

"It’s cool," I reassured myself. "Don't judge a book by its cover, girlfriend. Play it coooool."

“Had to check on the crock pot,” she apologized and with that, welcomed us into her home. “Go ahead and warm up first. Let me hear some scales,” she managed to cough out. Gross, lady, cover your mouth like an upright citizen!

I was told to bring some of the songs we were currently playing in school as well as any others I had chosen, so I opened my folder to “Faith of Our Fathers,” a song I planned to play as a duet during the evening communion at church in a few weeks.

“Oh fucking hell,” she muttered.

“Excuse me?” I asked politely. But before Mrs. Dubik could answer, a dog began to bark violently outside, right behind the window we were sitting in front of.  She slapped the glass with her hand, “Well go ahead and play,” she demanded as if I were the barking dog. Oh, my bad, I was distracted by your dying dog and the burning ashes from your cigarette landing on my shirt sleeve, but of  course I will play for you!

It was only a few notes later when the dog started again. This time, she smacked the glass and opened the window a crack in order to hack, “BAXTER! BAXTER! BAXTER!” I was reminded of Grace and her sweet Josephine.

I could have cried.

But I would not cry. 

Not yet.

Over the course of three weeks, Mrs. Dubik eventually wore me down. Her cigarettes  filled my childish lungs as my anxiety rose with the fear of second hand smoke. During one particular lesson, a day that would live in infamy, the sound of her trumpet blared in perfect unison with mine and we both ignored the exorcism of Baxter for a little while. It was all going perfectly…a little too perfectly. And I believe anxiety struck me, for I simply stopped playing. I couldn’t breathe. My folder, which I had purchased myself, was still void of stickers; I had yet to receive a single toy or prize for my perfect attendance. And the girl in the waiting room was not my sister putting a wooden puzzle together while snacking on McNuggets; No, it was Mrs. Dubik’s next student, Jackie: a girl who went to my school and played the French horn. Coincidentally, Jackie and I looked like we could be related. We were the same height with similar features and dark hair. Teachers at school had even noted how similar we looked, asking if we were sisters. 

On one occasion, after the usual 30 minutes of ridicule, I was on my way out the door when Mrs. Dubik noticed Jackie (though she had been sitting on the sofa for the majority of my lesson). She smirked and in her “you will never amount to anything” tone, stated,

“Oh, I see we’re trying the French horn now, are we?” Was I missing something? Jackie’s lesson had always been after mine. She had always played the French horn. AND I had yet to officially leave the room. My hand was barely touching the doorknob! WE WERE NOT THE SAME PERSON! But I digress…

I sat there with my trumpet in my lap, my head down like a scolded dog who had just munched holes in the crotch of her owner’s panties. I can’t recall if she even looked at me, but I heard her words, which weren’t particularly harsher than things she had already said to me, but I had reached my tipping point.

“You know, it’s kind of hard to play a duet with someone who doesn’t play.” And as Baxter began his crescendo of death and the stench of a burning beef pot roast lingered into the room, I burst into tears. The woman had no idea what to do with a crying 4th grader. I had stumped her.

“Well, okay. We don’t have to cry,” she said. But I kept crying. And I didn’t stop crying.

My mother, who had managed to somehow ignore the absurdity of these lessons and the emotional abuse inflicted on me during them, suddenly looked up from herFocus on the Family magazine and decided now was probably a good time to take me home. 

We never went back.

I would hate to give Mrs. Dubik all the power in being the driving force to my giving up the trumpet. She may read this and her cold heart would surely flutter triumphantly at the notion (because she is Satan). I like to picture her in a sealed rectangle case, untouched, much like my trumpet, with zero access to a laptop or iPad. But for the off chance she is alive and well, I must make note of the condition of Schuylkill Valley Middle School’s trumpet section:

We were a family of six: three boys and three girls. And a motley crew we were. I’m pretty sure I was the second best trumpeter of the group and that’s not saying a lot. I rarely practiced and the off chance I did practice, I was told to, “Please for the love of God stop” by one of my parents, my sister, or a neighbor. We were constantly missing our cues and holding up the entire band while our director reprimanded us. Instead of watching our sheet music with the anticipation of our debut note, we made paper airplanes and threw them at Sascha Miller’s boobs. In our defense, Sascha Millers’s boobs were massive. She once declared, “When I stand up and look down, I can’t see my feet because my boobs are so big!” And I wholeheartedly believe her. Charlie Reed once launched his mouthpiece at her chest and it bounced right off and sailed over the saxophones like a watermelon to a trampoline. It may have been this very incident that made me laugh, which then revealed the deep yellow stains on my two front teeth, which then made Charlie bluntly state that I needed my teeth whitened.

These were the things that distracted us and kept us from synchronicity with our fellow band mates. Somehow we always managed to miraculously “bang one out for the team” come concert time…because that’s just the kind of kids we were. You’re welcome, snobby flute section.

Nonetheless, the ridicule got old. There are only so many eye rolls one can take. I liked being good at things. And this was not measuring up to be one of them. 

So I got my front teeth whitened and I quit.