The Orchestra Kids are All Right

by parky

All Asian American children must play an instrument.
        I was ordered at the end of the sixth grade to choose an instrument. I would be joining the junior high school orchestra in the fall.
        My parents and I were seated in a large concert hall of a Southern Californian community college. We waited for my older sister's high school orchestra to perform. I had to wear a tie and a jacket but wore my grey basketball high top sneakers - punk rock rebellion.
        I loved The Clash, Pac-Man and Breakdancing.
        I lived in the suburbs: Temple City , California.1983.
        "I want to take wood shop," I told my mom.
        "No. You have to be in orchestra," she snapped.
        "But I play piano already.”
        "Just do what you're told," my dad joined in. "When I was young I wanted to play the piano, but we had to escape North Korea .” He shook his head and waved his finger like a metronome.
        "I'll just take woodshop or photography.”
        My mother squeezed the program tightly in her hand. "You're playing a stringed instrument," she said calmly through her teeth in Korean. "That's it.”
        "Bass guitar?”
        "No guitar. Classical instrument first.”
        Classical instrument? (Yikes! Sissy stuff!)       
It was hopeless. I was a sixth grade Sysphus against a teenage middle-class mountain.
        Before summer ended, my sister and dad went to the junior high school to pick up my instrument: a string bass. Sting played a string bass in the "Every Breath You Take” music video. Rockabilly guys spun those large violin-shaped boats and slapped at the strings. Black Jazz guys played bass. Even at that age bass was the apex of cool.
        "Here is your bass!" My sister returned with a three-foot high instrument in a worn purple cloth case. My dad stood next to her smiling, his eyes blinking behind his large glasses.
        "We got you a smaller string bass. Trust me," she said.
        It seemed very small for me, but what she told me made sense. I took it out of the case. I smelled the pine rosin but something didn't feel right. "It's kinda small for a string bass. I don't know."
        "Cello lessons are next week," my dad said.
        My sister shook her head at him and pulled her mouth into a tight minus.
        "Wait! This isn't a bass. It's a cello! You guys tricked me. Where is my string bass?”
        "Too big and heavy to put in the car.” My older sister scratched at the shoulder of her pink polo shirt. "You're playing cello.”
        The cello lessons were hell.
        My teacher was an old white lady with pendulous breasts who gave lessons in the basement of a Pasadena church that smelled of dust and burnt coffee. She was a very gentle soft-spoken woman who would really make angelic tones radiate and lilt from the cello. But when I drew the rosined bow over the strings, it sounded chaotic, screeching, messy, uninspired, and most of all, absolutely horrible.
        I was bored. It was a waste of time. I had reached the nadir of my 12th year. The gods had cursed me.
        At home I was forced to practice an hour each day, no matter how hideous the noises I produced from my cello. And to make matters worse, my parents spent a lot of money buying me my own German-made cello from a violin shop in Hollywood . At the shop I stood by the large string basses and plucked at their strings, sending waves of low-end vibrations through the air.  The violin maker, an old German man with bi-focals and a leather apron, nodded at me. "Maybe after you play cello for a few years, son.".
        First Avenue Junior High School in Arcadia , California started its year. Most of the kids in orchestra were Asians. There were a few white and Latins but when I looked up from my music stand, all I saw was a sea of black hair.
        Our first exercises were painful – scratchy scales and wobbly tempos clashed against abrasive harmonies.

It sounded terrible.

Our conductor, Mr. Jones, was a large, bearded man who also taught typing and computer science. He was kind, patient and loved teaching music.
        "That's okay, you guys," he said from his conductor's chair. "We'll break up into little workshops and practice. We'll get there.” He drummed a triplet with fingers over his music stand and pushed his glasses up.
        I thought we were hopeless. And the Christmas concert was only a few months away.
        While my other classmates were taking cool electives like woodshop, making chess boards and crossbows, I was stuck with orchestra. At least I didn't have I have to carry my cello around school. That would be certain death from the flunky bullies that smoked clove cigarettes behind the bleachers. The guys who had to carry their violin cases got harassed daily.
        It was three weeks before the Christmas recital. We still sounded terrible. Our orchestra teacher, Mr. Jones, brought in the brass, winds and percussions – the band geeks. Now the sea of black hair was peppered with blonde, red and brown as there seemed to be more white kids who played in band.  We met all together in the auditorium for practice. Students tuned their instruments. The shrill runs of flutes met the rumbling bass of the tuba as the celestial sounding horns resonated in the large auditorium. 
        "Okay, you guys, let's try it from the beginning. Really legato," Mr. Jones said from his conductor's chair.
        "What's legato?” asked Jennifer Chan.
        "Slow, gracefully.” He raised his baton; the students raised their instruments.
        The baton fell and something was born. I could hear the sinuous lines build a melodic structure, though a bit wobbly and unsteady, still blossoming. I don't even remember the piece we played. It could have been Brahms, Mozart or Schonenberg – though probably not Schonenberg. I could fell the vibrations of the cello through my chest as I bowed.  The cadence of the oboe trembled, the strings swelled, the brass radiated angelic lights, the timpani and bells shimmered with silver points.
        We were now a full orchestra. The gods awarded us for our practicing.
        For the next couple of weeks, I looked forward to practicing with the full orchestra. At home I went over my scales and parts again and again.  I got the feel of the fingering on the cello and eventually took the tape off the neck. Intonation developed.  I was able to figure out the bass line for Yes' "Owner of a Lonely Heart.” Sometimes I'd turn the cello sideways and pluck the strings, pretending it was a bass guitar.
        The night of the Christmas concert. The boys are in ties and jackets, the girls in dresses.
        Mr. Jones enters the stage and the audience applauds. He bows to the audience and takes the conductor's stand. The musicians are nervous and blinking under the bright lights. My heart thrashes underneath the thin wood of my cello.
        "You guys ready?” he whispers to us. "I'm proud of all of you. Just remember your cues and watch the tempo.”
        Mr. Jones raises his baton, we lift our instruments and take a deep breath. The baton drops and out comes a sound, although far from perfect, saturating the atmosphere and charging the air with vibrations. Melodies, harmonies and rhythms blossom, and for that seemingly transient duration of time and space, and even to my memory's heart today, we sounded all right.

parky aime toute la musique. il vit dans les califas.

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