The Euterpe of Stanton Avenue


So much to learn! So many new friends to make! So much authority to question!

By first grade, we were treated to an hour session of music lessons once or twice a week, meeting in a special room on the ground floor toward the anterior of Louise Elementary School. The great bulk of the curriculum centered on group singing, but we also practiced some listening skills (from phonograph records), gained a little appreciation of the history of music, and then later on in the third grade or so got the chance to try out some performance ourselves, piping away on cheap plastic song flutes procured from Eschbach's Music Store downtown, an instrument which was a sort of red-haired stepchild of the ocarina as I recall.

Our maestra was a very strange older-middle-aged woman named Velma. I would love to give you her last name, for it was a humdinger and when conjoined with her Christian name would make you burst out laughing, as it did all of us toddlers. But the Libel Suit of Damocles ever swings over my head as I plod along in this memoir, and there's just a chance she left behind some descendents of a litigious nature. I'll give you a hint, though. Her surname always conjured up images of some pungent garden tuber you might unearth in an East European peasant garden, or perhaps the Latinate medical term for an ailment of unmentionable parts. My brother also was treated to her musical ministrations, and we would constantly guffaw uproariously merely uttering her complete name aloud back in those days. (Hell, shortly before he died, we'd still burst out laughing when Velma's cognomen came up during our last social hours together.)

Anyway, Velma really was weird and all of us seven-year-olds picked up on it at once. This is going to strain my abilities as a writer to put across, but I'm game to give it a whirl.

For starters, imagine she had her back turned to the class, fumbling around to locate some errant piece of sheet music for the next foray at the piano, and one of my classmates tries to grab her attention:
Classmate: Miss R, Miss R!

No response.

Classmate: Miss R!

Spinning around in a fit of pique, she would then intone:

Velma: Waa-aaa-aaa-aaa-aaa-aangh!
To get the impact of this, try it out for yourself right now. Bellow a very nasal "waaangh" and then punctuate it periodically with a repetitive vibrato, indicated by the hyphens above. If she was particularly vexed, there might be some ten or eleven syllables to this odd response. I'm telling you, Velma was one weird cat. Were she auditioning for the role of Renfield in the 1931 film of Dracula, she would have pipped Dwight Frye at the post.

After fifteen minutes of us kiddiwinks acting up, she would eventually spout:
Velma: Children please! Try to be more serious!
Again, to get the full impact of this, you need to say it aloud for yourself. Set your metronome ago-ing and utter each and every syllable at a very slow one beat-per-second, completely through your nose as though a hillbilly sodbuster from Alabama.

By the way, Velma had stiff brown hair (lacquer was so common in the fifties), brown eyes, was diminutive in stature and wore lipstick redolent of those wax lips you used to be able to buy in the candy store for a penny. I remember those sorts of things, even these 55 years later.

So, have I gotten the image across to you? If not, then just imagine you've dropped two hits of acid, have been struck on the cranium with a blunt instrument, are on a date with Jack Nicholson hauling a typewriter around with him and have just wandered into music class at Louise, all at the age of seven years.

I mentioned that Velma spent a bit of time on music literature and listening skills. Unbelievably, all these decades later I still remember some of the things she taught us about Haydn, like how his Symphony #101 garnered the nickname "The Clock." I also recall when singing the Marines' Hymn, we (my little coterie and I) would chafe her no end by intoning the last word of the stanza:
Here's health to you and to our Corps...
as "corpse." She would halt to correct us, we'd nod "oh, yeah" and then continue to sing it as "corpse" on the rebop. In short order, Fake-Nose, Dugg Bedd, Whitey, Armpit and I had figured out early on how to rattle Velma's chain. These were all pals who would form the heart of The Gang later in life.

How about the riddle I posed her, which went thud?
Q: Why does a tightrope walker need to know music?

A: He has to C-sharp or B-flat.
Or the time I asked Velma:
Q: What comes after an etude?

A: A B-tude.
Yes, I really remember telling those to her, and that she smiled in the same way someone undergoing a colonoscopy might. You need to say them aloud to get them. They're not particularly handsome jests, but I suppose I posed them to Velma just to confirm she belonged to the same genus.

And then there were the filmstrips; now this was a real hoot! In that era before all the multimedia claptrap which clutters up a classroom nowadays, it was fairly common to run a filmstrip show, with an accompanying phonograph record featuring narration. The record would emit a one kilohertz beep when it was time for the instructor to progress the projector to the next slide. It didn't take too long for us kids to figure out we could perfectly imitate the beep with our tiny soprano vocal chords.
And Velma would advance the filmstrip. Then:
And so on. Within minutes, the filmstrip was hopelessly out of sync with the phonograph, Velma would sigh quite audibly, then in a flustered manner try to recoordinate the audio with the video after yet another "Waa-aaa-aaa-aaa-aaa-aangh!" If I do say myself, our filmstrip beeps were pretty convincing, and I can still do a decent one to this day, albeit in falsetto now.

By fifth grade or so, seeing whether we could push Velma to the limit had become a passion with some of us. She was clearly tottering on checking in at the Bates' Motel by this point. Or perhaps running it.

So, at home on Knapp Street one night, brother Bill and I rummaged around in the basement piano bench and found a piece of sheet music we thought might make a nice prank. I don't recall the tune, but it was something by Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Now even in those days, Bill possessed a well-developed calligraphy, and so we scrounged up some India ink, a pen and an ink eraser. Very carefully, he altered the composers' attribution so it read "Rodgers and Hammerhead."

Then, at the start of the chorus, whatever it was, he changed the notation "Refrain" above the musical staff to read "Refrain from Spitting."

And so it went, working in every sort of cheap gag we could, including some from Mad Magazine, along with an errant mustard stain on the score and a glued-on dead house fly.

The following day, I sneaked into the music room at Louise and slipped our work of art into the charts already on the piano lectern. I'd like to be able tell you the outcome of this little exercise into tomfoolery, but I wasn't there when she presumably came across our masterpiece.

I remember hearing some time thereafter that Velma had a nervous breakdown and bailed out of teaching for a year or two, rallied for a comeback, and then bailed out once and for all thereafter.

All these years later, I can say that I well recall "The Clock Symphony," and of course, "Waa-aaa-aaa-aaa-aaa-aangh!"

Next installment: A Chink in the Armor

No comments:

Post a Comment