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Childhood's Musical Kernels

12/01/2011 01:57 pm ET | Updated Jan 31, 2012

As I was sitting in the dentist chair early Monday morning on my fourth visit in a week, my mind wandered to childhood memories, an odd connection to be sure. These were memories about music and what role it played in my life growing up.

When I was little I was petrified of the dentist. I refused to open my mouth, wasting the dentist's time and my parent's money. They tried everything, including changing dentists and administering a drug that had a very bad affect on me. There was even the one who offered me an odd array of shining plastic rings from which to choose if I would only open my mouth.

After numerous costly visits and a severe punishment, I started to hum while the dentist probed around my teeth and gums. It calmed me. In hindsight, perhaps it was the only thing over which I had some control. The hum may have drowned out the high-pitched squeal of the drill. I was so young that the only clear memory I have, aside from the punishment, is being in that mechanical contraption of a chair with the dentist, who looked more like an odd priest in a white, working while I was humming away with eyes wide open.

Back to my present dentist's chair, I rinsed, breathed a long sigh and leaned back to count the ceiling tiles and continue on jagged path of early musical memories.

In our suburban Philadelphia cookie-cutter home at the bottom of a cul-de-sac, conveniently situated just above on the Red Arrow trolley line that headed into Philly, my mother always had the radio on during breakfast (a habit she never broke) usually tuned to Arthur Godfrey or a channel with songs like "Lazy Crazy Days of Summer" or the instrumental piece "The Typewriter".

In our living room we had a large console housing both the turntable and the black & white TV. (Curiously, sitting on top was a pyramid shaped wooden metronome, even though we had no piano.) The only visible instrument, sitting off in a corner, was a beautiful old mandolin that had been in the family. Mom occasionally played 78s and LPs of Brahms Requiem (on Good Friday) or Broadway musicals to which I would help clean house. Dad had more quirky taste. He had an LP of a minstrel show that he loved- I can probably sing every tune- and he also got a kick out of comedic music like Louie's (the taxi driver) Love Songs, and Sing Along with Ush featuring the Freeloaders.

Once the TV was turned on and the little white dot in the center of the screen grew larger, we often watched and the sugary sweet Lawrence Welk show or Mitch Miller, gamely following the bouncing ball to sing along. I also vividly remember seeing the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. I had long hair at the time and sat on the floor in front of the tube swinging my head around to the point that I had marginal whiplash. For the record I was a Paul girl.

My parents took us to the grand concert hall The Academy of Music in downtown Philadelphia. To my recollection I was there maybe four times to see Captain Kangaroo, guitarist Theodore Bikel, Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado and the Sleeping Beauty ballet. Not bad for a lower-middle class kid from the suburbs, I suppose. Alas, I was quite young so my memories consist not of music, but of running around the hallway that wrapped around the top balcony, opening each door, thinking that every one led to a different theater. I also remember the frightening steepness of the seating area. I did, however, know about the great conductor Eugene Ormandy, just like everyone else in the Philadelphia area. He was a household name.

I was most aware of music through my mother and brother who both sang in choirs. My brother Frank attended Springfield High School did a production of Puccini's opera Gianni Schicchi and excerpts from Porgy and Bess. (This is unimaginable today.) My brother, who was six years older than I, also played the clarinet and saxophone in school band. I distinctly remember watching the band march by on Saxer Avenue, wearing white bucks and the blue uniforms with tall hats strapped below the chin.

One day my father decided that we should start a sing-along after supper so he bought a guitar and learned to strum a few chords. We would sing out of the thick, black Alan Lomax folk song book. One of my fondest memories is singing Dark as a Dungeon, Wabash Cannonball, Down in the Valley, Tom Dooley, Dog Named Blue, and many other mournful songs much to the chagrin of my mother who felt I should learn something less maudlin. It was here that I discovered my ability to hear harmony.

Less enjoyable was singing in the cherub choir at the Methodist church. For some reason I had an aversion to the dorky red and white robes. Mom sang in the choir and my brother often joined her. I would sit in the pew with my father, playing with his fingers, listening to his low voice while he pointed to the music and words in the hymnal for me to follow along, even though I could not read. Looking back, I really appreciate this.

When I entered sixth grade I was introduced to the cello. That was an instrument I loved and could actually play, unlike the flute that I had tried for weeks in elementary school never ever able to make a sound come out of it. I took cello lessons and hoped that perhaps the following year I could in the school orchestra. The warm sound only reinforced my sense of harmony. One piece I loved to play was the theme from Dvorak's New World Symphony. I did not have any natural affinity toward this beautiful instrument but I loved holding it against me, making these sounds, and feeling the vibrations.

The orchestra experience was not to be. We moved that summer to a Catoctin Mountain Park, a national park in the Maryland mountains. It was very rural and there were no orchestras or bands at the school. Little did I realize, this would be fortuitous and ultimately lead me in the direction of singing.

My eighth grade chorus teacher thought I could not carry a tune (It was actually my friend Liz standing next to me who to this day chuckles about the incident). But my freshman year in high school I had the most wonderful chorus director with whom I am still in touch. She used my friend Denise and me for solos and we also were in the musicals. My freshman year I was awarded the leading role in the "Boyfriend." I am not sure my voice even carried past the first row. I sang the national anthem at the Frederick County Dairy Princess pageant. My brother and I even sang a duet for President Nixon and his family when they attended our small church.

On sweltering hot summer days, Denise and I used to improvise songs in a culvert that ran the creek under the road up in the park She always took the soprano line and I, alto. (Perhaps I was destined to always be a mezzo.) Later we would be invited to sing for community groups like the Lions and Kiwanis clubs.

By this time my brother had mastered the guitar and when he was home from college we sang folk songs at park campfire programs. Many were Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez songs. I continued to adore the tight harmony of Peter Paul and Mary. (My brother later led a sing-along in the Rose Garden of the White House).

This musical high was not to last for we moved to New Mexico my junior year. The school my parent's chose for me had little music to speak of, let alone musical theater. It was a crushing blow. After the shock wore off and not to be deterred, I persevered and joined a community chorus and later started voice lessons with a local woman. I also joined a Presbyterian church just to be able to sing great music in their choir. There were musicals at the College of Santa Fe in which I was able join the chorus of "Guys and Dolls," coincidentally directed by Ed Purrington who would much later go on to run both Tulsa Opera and the Washington National Opera.

The eye-opener that affected me from then on was the Santa Fe Opera, where I was able to snag a job as an usher allowing me to see the cute guys from school who parked the cars and to legally stay out until 2 am. Once again, in the small world category, Charles MacKay who is now general director was my boss back then as house manager.

Meanwhile this past Monday, back in the dentist chair my reverie ended as he placed the temporary crown on my tooth. Instead of humming, I had composed my very own Scenes from Childhood. It is curious looking back at how the pieces of the puzzle all came together and I took the operatic path.