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Musical Opportunities, Issue #001 -- teaser here
September 05, 2006

Ö.Exclusively For You, Our Subscriber

September 1, 2006 Issue #1

This is a totally new adventure for me. So hang onto your hats! While Iíve been in the music profession for more years than I can remember, writing a monthly e-zine is something Iíve never done before. So bear with me while I learn the ropes.

I think the best place to start is right at the beginning and tell you how I got into the music profession and how it progressed to where I am right now.

I was born in Chicago, the youngest of five children of my Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. I was not aware of any of my family predecessors ever having been particularly musical.

I first heard the sound of live music at home when an older brother took up the French Horn while he was in high school. He was seven years older than I was and he used to practice in our kitchen. Our family was dirt-poor, so my father couldnít afford to buy a music stand for him. His French Horn, of course, was owned by the school.

He fashioned a music rack out of a clothes-wire hanger, which he set on the kitchen table. With his music propped on the rack, he sat on a kitchen chair while practicing. He practiced every day after school. I found the sounds he made fascinating, so Iíd sit under the kitchen table while he practiced so I could listen. Of course, I had to sit there very quietly because if Iíd make any noise, Iíd be kicked out of my listening place.

It was during those days that I decided that Iíd like to play an instrument too when I got to high school. I hadnít made up my mind about which instrument Iíd like to learn until I attended a program in the Assembly Hall one day at my Elementary School. One of the schoolís students brought a snare drum to school that day which he played while another student played a bugle.

WOW!! I was really thrilled by what I heard. It was then and there that I decided that I wanted to learn how to play the snare drum. Perhaps, if Iíd be good enough, Iíd be able to play in the High School orchestra like my older brother did.

This all happened in the 1930ís while the nation was in the midst of the Great Depression after the Stock Market crash of 1929. My mother had died soon after the crash, and my father lost his job as a bathtub enameler when the factory he worked in closed its doors forever.

I graduated from my Elementary School in 1937, and as soon as I was registered at the High School near where we lived, I applied for the schoolís music program. The orchestraís director had an arrangement with some talented alumni to teach new students for only 25Ę a lesson. I was assigned to one of the orchestraís former percussionists, who had graduated in 1935 with my older brother, for my private lessons.

Although my father begrudged giving me a quarter each week to pay for my lessons, he did manage to pay for those lessons for the first year and a half of my studies. Heíd always say that my lessons were a waste of time because Iíd never be able to make a living playing an instrument. Fortunately, I never took his advice seriously and forged ahead with my lessons, regardless of his admonitions.

I advanced very quickly with my snare drum lessons and soon wanted to learn how to play the timpani. I bought a textbook on timpani that included many excerpts from the classical music literature and started studying on my own. By this time, I was assigned to play the timpani in my high school orchestra, and I really loved it.

Before I had been playing for six months, I tried out for the De Paul University Symphony Orchestra that I heard was in need of a timpanist. I was accepted and became the only high school freshman playing with that orchestra. They rehearsed at 4:00pm every Wednesday afternoon, a time that fit into my high school schedule very neatly.

The De Paul University School of Music rehearsed at its downtown campus. That meant I had to wheedle streetcar fare out of my father, which was no easy task. I rode downtown to the Chicago Loop every Wednesday afternoon directly from my high school.

I immersed myself into my music and soon sought additional performance opportunities. Before long, I was playing with the All-City High School Band that rehearsed on Saturday mornings at the Lyon & Healy Building in downtown Chicago.

I wasnít aware of it at the time, but music supervisory personnel from Chicagoís Board of Education often attended those rehearsals. Before the end of my second year in high school, I was presented with two opportunities that I had never anticipated. The first was a transfer to the Lane Technical High School.

At the time, Lane Tech was the worldís largest high school with 8,000 students, and the only high school in Chicago that offered a major curriculum in Music. They had a championship band, orchestra and chorus and although I didnít live in its geographic district, the Superintendent of Public School Music for Chicago offered to arrange a transfer there. I quickly accepted that opportunity.

But, that wasnít the only offer I had. The Chicago Board of Education offered to pay for my private lessons with anyone in the Chicago area I chose. That was an easy choice because one Chicago area percussionist had the reputation of being the very best in the city. That was Roy C. Knapp, the percussionist on staff at Radio Station WLS.

His reputation had soared when one of his pupils was hired as the drummer for the Benny Goodman Orchestra. That pupil was Gene Krupa, who at the time, became the worldís most famous drummer. In addition, Knapp had taught most of the drummers in Chicago that worked at its other radio stations and in the pit orchestras of several downtown Chicago movie theaters. Those were the days before television and many movie theaters presented vaudeville acts between showings of the feature motion picture.

At the time, I didnít know why I had been singled out for such honors. I learned later that the Chicago Public School Systemís Music Supervisors who had attended rehearsals of the All-City High School Band were on the lookout for promising students that needed financial help to realize their ambitions. I had been selected as the percussion student they believed was the most promising in the All-City High School Band.

Considering how tight money was in those Depression days, the fact that promising music students were nurtured in that way was quite remarkable. Even more remarkable was the fact that I had been singled out for such largesse.

It was only then that my father came to realize that his son may actually have some musical talent. He no longer begrudged giving me the money I needed for streetcar fare. By this time, I was not only traveling to my new school everyday by streetcar, but I was also traveling to downtown Chicago to play with a number of university and conservatory orchestras after school or in the evening.

When I started at Lane, I was the low man on the roster and was assigned to play the cymbals that no one else was interested in. I wasnít too happy about having to play the cymbals. What I wanted to play was the timpani or snare drum. In time, however, I learned to love playing the cymbals and became proficient at it.

It wasnít long until I was able to advance in the schoolís percussion section. The most important student in the percussion section had won the National High School Solo Contest, so he was at the top of the roster. He soon graduated and I was able to move into his spot. It wasnít long before I was able to choose whatever I wanted to play in the schoolís band and orchestra. That was because I was able to win the National High School Solo Contest.

I didnít own any of my own instruments as yet, but the Ludwig Drum Company loaned me one of their top of the line drums to use in the solo contest. I was sitting on top of the world when our Lane Tech Concert Band won a contest in Chicago that awarded all its members free enrollment in the Chicago Federation of Musicians. The Lane Band played against the Lane Orchestra in the finals, and I was a member of both. There was no way I could lose!

While still in high school, I played with a small semi-professional dance band that played for picnics and dances. It was my first opportunity to play the drumset. Fortunately, the band owned a set of drums, because I couldnít afford to buy any of my own instruments.

I graduated from Lane Tech in 1941 when I was still only 17 years of age. And suddenly, my musical activity came to a screeching halt. I was thrust into the real world by the necessity of having to make a living. I wasnít prepared to do any musical work because I didnít own any instruments. Besides, Iíd been freeloading off my father all these years. Once I was out of school, my scholarship with Roy C. Knapp also ended.

I needed additional musical training and couldnít afford to go to college to get it. Having concentrated so heavily on music while in high school, I stupidly neglected much of my other school-work and graduated with low grades in many academic subjects. I figured there was no way I could qualify to get a college scholarship. I had to find a job and make some money. My prospects were dismal for continuing my musical education. I answered a want-ad for a delivery boy at a downtown millinery firm that sold supplies for making womenís hats. Since I knew the Chicago downtown area well and knew how to get around by streetcar, I got that job that paid $16 a week! I was now in the workforce.

I heard that the U.S. Navy had a very good music program and a school in Washington, D.C. with an excellent reputation. However, I was still too young to enlist in the Navy without my fatherís permission. That was when two events changed my life.

On December 7th of that fateful year, Pearl Harbor in Honolulu was attacked by the Japanese Navy, and the United States went to war. Four days later, I turned 18 and became eligible to enlist in the U.S. Navy. I wrote to the U.S. Navy School of Music and requested an application.

Within a week, I received a four-page application that asked all about my musical background. Fortunately, the Navy was not very interested in my academic achievements, so long as I was a high school graduate. I completed the application and mailed it, hoping for a quick reply. I patiently waited while continuing to deliver millinery supplies.

I finally received word that my application for the Navy School of Music had been conditionally accepted. Before traveling to Washington to take an audition at the school, and being enlisted in the U.S. Navy, I had to pass a physical examination administered by my local Navy recruiting station. I passed that exam without any problems.

I finally received my orders to travel to Washington for an audition at the School of Music. I was advised that if I passed that audition, I would be immediately enlisted in Washington, D.C. and sent to Norfolk, Virginia for basic recruit training before returning to the school. So, at government expense, I was to take an overnight train to Washington from Chicago. My father saw me off at the train station at which a very poignant incident occurred.

He realized that I was probably leaving home forever and didnít know how to tell me how much he loved me. Hearing words of endearment around our home was not a common occurrence after my mother died. In desperation, he offered me his prized gold pocket watch. Knowing how precious and prized that pocket watch was to him, I simply could not accept such a valuable gift. I realize now that I probably broke his heart at that moment. We finally parted with a kiss and a hug and I was off to hopefully join the Navy as a musician.

I traveled in an upper berth sleeper car for the overnight train trip to Washington, D.C. The School of Music was situated in the Old Navy Yard in the SE section of Washington in an old two-story brick building. There were two other applicants with me that morning to audition for entrance into the school. We all passed our auditions and were sworn into the U.S. Navy for a six-year enlistment. We were ordered to take the overnight ferry down the Potomac River to Norfolk, Virginia to report for our basic training.

At the conclusion our three-week basic training, we were ordered back to the School of Music to begin our course of training. The school was staffed with wonderful musicians, some of whom had been members of the nationís top orchestras while the others had all been in The Navy Band stationed in Washington. The Officer-in-Charge of the School was a former French Horn player in the Philadelphia Orchestra.

So, I began my studies there in better physical shape than I had ever been in my life. Three weeks of conditioning at the Norfolk Naval Training Center had done that for me, although there had been nothing pleasant there that I had been subjected to.

The musical training I received was everything I had hoped for, including finally playing Timpani in the schoolís 90-piece concert band. We played a wide range of concert band literature including transcriptions of the symphonic literature. We also did a weekly radio show that was broadcast over the Mutual Network. The entire musical experience was really great once I learned to tolerate the military aspect of my life in the Navy.

The members of my class graduated from the School in May, 1943. We were divided into six twenty-piece bands, each with our own bandmaster. Three of those bands were ordered to battleships in the Pacific Fleet while the other three were assigned to foreign shore stations. I was one of the lucky ones assigned to the U.S. Naval Station in Recife, Brazil.

I had enjoyed my life at the school and made many wonderful friends that I am still in touch with to this very day. On week-ends that I had no duties, I would ride the train up to New York City where I would attend performances at the Radio City Music Hall and at Carnegie Hall. Those were opportunities I would never have had staying home in Chicago. I came to know the area in Manhattan where I could not only hear great music but also indulge in a fantastic corned beef sandwich on rye and a slice of that famous New York cheesecake.

(To be continued in next monthís Musical Opportunities)

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