There’s a famous line: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice. But like most clichés, a sprinkle of good fortune is indispensable. We were nearing graduation day in Mrs. Wolfson’s 6th grade class. I had already made my musical debut in various school plays, excelling in sticks and recorder. I was a mean triangle player too. A musical triple threat, with Jascha Haifetz potential. As a result, I was selected by Mrs. Wolfson to meet the man who would judge my musical skills and determine my musical future for years to come; Mr. Rubin from JHS 198. He was a teacher without a first name. It was a sign of respect, afforded those who earned it. He headed the music department and he was scouting elementary level raw talent for next year’s band. He was the first teacher I ever met who wore a suit and tie. I never saw him without that uniform over three years.
Though nearly 40, he had a cherubic baby face, that couldn’t possibly support facial hair. He wore his jet-black hair straight back, using a hair gel that resembled Texas Crude, right out of the well head. It glistened, even in fog, and I’m sure passing ships used him for their beacon entering New York Harbor. His solemn demeanor let us know that junior high school music was going to be more serious than triangles. He was a violinist, which explains all you need to know.
I wanted to play the saxophone. Jimmy Dickstein played the sax, and he was the coolest kid in the projects. Of course, all musical aspirants wanted to be just like Jimmy. He often played outside on the corner of Beach 51st and Beach Channel Drive, until the Rockaway Beach winter set in and made that impossible, as gusts screamed off the ocean to chill the soul and freeze the lips to the reed. Despite my obvious musicianship, I was one of the last to enter the interview room. I assumed my entry into the room was, unlike that of the sequential numbered tickets at Goldberg’s Deli, based on talent. They were saving the best for last. This could only be only explanation. While I waited, I practiced my line: “I want to play sax, just like Jimmy.” Like Prince, Jimmy didn’t need a last name in this context. Jimmy was Mr. Rubin’s protégé, and this was a twofer. It would not only disclose my interest, but would be complimentary as well. How could Mr. Rubin resist the sincere request of a 6th grader who was both talented and had advanced negotiating skills? The time arrived, and I was ushered into the room. This was my moment.
To my surprise, Mr. Rubin didn’t ask for my musical instrument preference, which I was told by exiting classmates was the procedure. This was 1964 after all, and the feelings of an 11-year-old were of no concern. Self-esteem had not been invented and the only safe spaces that existed were under the bomb shelter signs that adorned two apartments per floor in the projects. We were told that these signed locations would protect us in the event of a Cuban missile attack. We believed the instructions and were happy that in the event of a nuclear attack, we’d at least get to spend our last moments with our neighbors, the Touhy’s, and their six kids. Mr. Touhy sold Entenmann’s cakes door to door and always had snacks. That’s all I needed to know about nuclear fission.
Mr. Rubin needed a tuba player, and nearly everyone else who proceeded me, wanted to play sax or clarinet. I thought clarinets gave all woodwind players a bad name, particularly when excessive air flow over the reed attached to the licorice stick resulted in a sound similar to that of nails over chalkboard. Mr. Rubin was on a mission, and I looked like a stereotypical tuba player; overweight, puffy cheeks and lips that, unlike most my age, could fit comfortably into the oversized tuba mouthpiece, requisitely gracing the interior polished silver surface. The weight of the mouthpiece alone was equivalent to a well stuffed pastrami on club sandwich. “How would you like to play tuba?”, he asked. The thought never entered my mind. The honest answer was no, but I remained silent for an eternity. I was devastated. I would never be the next Jimmy Dickstein. A tuba? Are you kidding me?
Mr. Rubin sensed I was disappointed, but sweetened the deal. Unlike the others before me, there’d be no further auditions. If I agreed to his suggestion, I would be a shoe-in for band, and orchestra if I wanted. This, I now know, was the art of the deal. An offer I couldn’t refuse. And I didn’t. The job was mine without further preparation. Call it pragmatism; some might call it laziness. Great triangle players should never have to audition to play tuba. It was beneath me.
Fast forward and I was in all the obligatory junior high musicals. Oliver, Fiddler and Oklahoma. I loved it; not that there’s anything wrong with that. But let’s be clear. In junior high, tuba was more of an accompaniment, and not the main course. Ketchup, not steak. Oom pah pah, was the standard, and it wasn’t particularly challenging. In the annals of tuba history, I was barely on the plus side of mediocre.
When I arrived in high school, there was a similar dearth of tuba players. I continued to ply my craft by default, largely to break the rigor of AP calculus and chemistry, which was often far easier than playing endless harmonic scales. No longer the music teacher, John Bart, was the musical director when I arrived at Stuyvesant High School. Though we knew his first name, everyone except his closest friends, and he had none, called him Mr. Bart, with the emphasis on mister. Nearly five times my age, with a face like a warden, a shaven head and horn-rimmed glasses, he could make prisoners at Guantanamo disclose their darkest secrets. Frankly, prisoners were the lucky ones; he took none. Despite his age, he was a man of physical stature, undoubtedly a massive stone of a man in his younger days, whose lasting image was one with his hand cupped behind his left ear, a baton in his right hand, pointing at you and grimacing, no matter how well you did or how much you tried to please.
He demanded perfection always. To him, the tuba wasn’t just an instrument. It was a sophisticated mechanical device; the largest and lowest pitched musical instrument in the brass family. Sound was produced by lips vibrating within a large restrictive mouthpiece that captured the kinetic energy and transferred it into an ever-increasing radii of continuous brass tubes. The instrument had more plumbing than a small third world country. It wasn’t just acoustical physics. It was an ever-present demonstration of musical history dating back to 1835, that employed valves to make it possible to play nearly three octaves. I could barely play two. The history lesson aside, I was petrified by his presence and never wanted to disappoint. Music wasn’t a diversion to him. It was his DNA. A musical genome project.
For three years I struggled to stay on his good side. I largely succeeded and, under his tutelage, I advanced beyond mediocre, to somewhat less than good. It was progress, and my lack of tuba talent was often masked by the other musicians in the band who were far better, and most importantly, louder. Plus, I sat in the back and could hide as necessary. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the increasingly challenging musical selections and the featured pieces that highlighted the brass section. In the privacy of my own home, I’d admit that I also loved Sousa marches, occasional polkas and Klezmer tunes from ancestral homelands; eastern European soul music in the most minor of keys. Most of all, I enjoyed the fellowship of the kids in the band; some of whom I maintain relationships to this day.
The ultimate test was about to come. High school graduation. Our high school was built in 1914, without an auditorium large enough to accommodate parents and students on that final day. A negligent omission. Our alternate location for large events was Carnegie Hall. Yes, that Carnegie Hall. Mr. Bart unveiled the songs we were to play. The usual suspects like the National Anthem, the school song (which I still remember), several processions and as a finale, Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. The composition revolved around images of witches gathering to await Satan. Oh God, say this isn’t so. It was a familiar classical piece that featured the brass section, particularly the trombones and tubas throughout. This particular arrangement started with a tuba solo. Three beats, three valves down to maximize the length of constrained air flow and the resulting lowest note possible on an E flat tuba, the dreaded low A. That note was scored three lines lower than the lowest line on the standard five-line bass clef. It wasn’t even meant to exist, except in the maniacal imagination of a depraved Russian composer. For God’s sake, who could play that? Certainly not me. There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, to quote the metaphysical wisdom of Martha and the Vandellas.
To hit that low A, the mouth had to be inserted into the mouthpiece perfectly to allow the lips to vibrate as relaxed as one can be. Relax? Too relaxed and there’s no vibration, just embarrassing silence coming out of the bell; too much and you’re playing a low E, instead of an A. Impossible. I’m about to play a solo at Carnegie Hall and any fault would be magnified across one of the most acoustically pure auditoriums on the planet.
As we neared graduation day, we practiced the piece daily; I even brought the tuba home on the subway to practice, much to commuters’ discontent and my neighbor’s displeasure. At class, Mr. Bart would typically say I was pitchy, which was the conductor’s way of saying inappropriate things about you publicly; his private vocabulary was undoubtedly more colorful. I was sure he’d replace me with one of the freshmen, who were infinitely better than me. It would be the ultimate embarrassment. He didn’t. Maybe he knew something about me that I couldn’t possibly imagine at the age of sixteen?
It was graduation day. June 16, 1969, as best I remember. I wore the first suit I ever owned, a real tie (not a clip-on) and a white shirt, suitably starched, which I borrowed from my father, who similarly had no use for such formalwear. This was no time for casual Friday, my mom insisted. I must have looked like Mr. Rubin, including the greased hair, whose reflection illuminated those within 50 feet of me under Carnegie’s bright house lights. I was sitting on stage, looking out at the hundreds of assembled students, parents, grandparents and siblings, eager to memorialize the event that would see their kids off to colleges that none could possibly afford, but were destined to attend. We played our obligatory opening tunes nearly flawlessly, interspersed with a half dozen forgettable speeches. I was oblivious to all of them. I was counting down the minutes to my solo, in a manner that mimicked the intensity of an Apollo moon launch.
I needed a miracle. And then, the best speech ever delivered at a high school graduation in the history of mankind was recited. A Stuy High grad from the class of 1919, fifty years prior, and a century ago today, was given his 15 minutes of fame. He didn’t need all of them. He spryly jumped up on stage, grabbed the mic and knowingly proclaimed to all those still awake: “Not one of you in this hall has any interest in listening to one more speech. Particularly by me. You all want to celebrate, go home and get on with your lives. So, the very best to you all.” He received a standing ovation as he raced offstage and disappeared into the crowd. I felt as though the tension in me, left with him. He said publicly what I and everyone else in the hall was thinking privately. A former graduate, masquerading as a modern-day philosopher, who noted that life is only as complicated as you care to make it. I wanted to run out after him and shake his hand. But that was impossible. I was still shackled to the chair by fear.
Now was time for the big and last event. My solo. True, the band was also going to play too, but that was inconsequential now. An afterthought. I had three beats to deliver; the rest was detail. I felt that Mr. Bart was already regretting his decision not to replace me; the telepathic message sent across the stage through his piercing eyes was don’t screw this up, or worse. This was his day too. But the tension in me was miraculously gone, lifted by an anonymous stranger, fifty years my senior; a contemporary of Mr. Bart, who just encouraged us to celebrate and enjoy life above all else. An eternal message.
Mr. Bart raised his baton; the audience fell silent. He pointed right at me. It was my time to shine, or not. Three valves down, as relaxed as I could possibly be, the low A filled the hall. It was perfection. I knew it. And Mr. Bart winked at me; I’m reasonably certain. But even if it was my imagination, it was the first time I ever saw him smile in three years, and may have been the only time he expressed any public emotion. I was beaming. I not only played at Carnegie Hall, but I played a remarkable solo there. One note for three whole seconds!
So how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice. And relax.
About the author
Paul Levine recently retired from the rigors of environmental consulting and is now filling his free time with combinations of day dreaming, telling fibs, and teaching an introductory class in sustainability at Middlesex College. He also continues to be a regular at Nancy Demme’s writer’s group, exploring interests that have remained dormant for years. When not writing, he finds periodic solace in participating in current events and investing clubs, but most appropriately he is looking forward to the end of this pandemic, so he can revisit and attend to his bucket list.