A Musical Interlude

As I mentioned a couple of entries ago, I’m going to Columbus to meet up with my brothers and parents, and to play with my OSU band alumni at the football game against Cincinnati Saturday. As I’ve said before, it’s hard to torch one of the last summer weekends in Seattle to do this, but since all of my family (2 younger brothers and parents) attended OSU, and my youngest brother was in the band, too, it’s become a traditional family reunion.

So, the other night I crept down to the basement, oiled my trumpet’s valves and began to methodically abuse my dental work, to the presumed consternation of neighbors and the certain reproductive disruption of our basement’s spider population. It pained me, as well, to reconcile the sounds bouncing off the walls, the clangor of distressed metallurgy, with the remembered dulcet tones of my youth.

The trumpet I’m using is the same one that I had in high school, and the case is a museum of competition medals (I wasn’t that good, but our band was), OSU basketball programs from the Bill Hosket/Dave Sorensen/Jim Cleamons era. I know this is absolute nonsense to anyone not having an unhealthy level of knowledge of Ohio State athletics, but you get the idea.

My accompanist on this night is Miss Jean Ann Soda, an effervescent, if uncautious, complement. I warm up with long tones, lip slurs, chromatics. Yes, it IS like riding a bike, but the fingers fly ahead of the flaccid lip muscle.

From my trumpet’s sarcophagus I pull my book of exercises, Rubank’s Advanced Method Vol. 1 for Trumpet or Cornet, and page through it looking for something I can play. I play some arpeggios, some short ditties, and flit back and forth between different keys to awake whatever ability I retain to sightread music. As I move from page to page, I note handwritten dates, phrases and imprecations: “Dec 20. Long tones, go for 25 seconds”; “Nov 1-62″; “Nov 29-62 - both lines, ALWAYS!”; “Dec 6-62 Do again”; on page 26, “Feb 2-63″ and, on the same page, “Feb 6 - 63 Do it Please!“; on page 31, “May 26 - 63 Re-Do Correctly…sf..pp..staccato”; and on page 50, undated “Very Good”. A log in the front of the book has entries in the same handwriting spanning from October 12, 1962 to May 31, 1963, a period during which I took private lessons from our high school band director, Frank Menichetti, which would have been my freshman year.

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We probably all have that one teacher that we look back to and say he/she made a difference, was a fulcrum in our development. At the time I started high school, Mr. Menichetti had built a powerhouse high school band juggernaut at our school, with consistent 1 ratings at state concert band competitions. You could go anywhere in Ohio, say you played in the Perrysburg band, and have instant respect. He did it with a combination of teaching solid fundamentals, criticism when warranted and, above all, constant exhortations towards excellence. Our motto, on a sign above his podium, was “Quis In Tartaro Communis Es Vult”, “Who in hell wants to be ordinary?”. Although he wasn’t Bobby-Knight abusive, you definitely knew when you weren’t measuring up. I believe this explains why the private-lesson entries in my exercise book end on 5/31/63. Progress was glacial, I was lazy and complacent and we broke for the summer and never resumed.

At the end of my sophomore year, I began to appreciate more fully our legacy of success, and to want to step up to a more significant role, perhaps even contend for first chair. Then, sometime during the summer, word came that Mr. Menichetti had resigned and, apparently dismayed either with teaching or the administration, was returning home to Illinois to work in the family meat business. There was no comparable successor on staff, and it soon became clear that the administration was not going to make much effort to find one. When school began, our director was an earnest but overmatched young guy just a year or so out of college.

I recall the sting of this revelation, that internecine jealousy and academic politics could bring down something that we and the community seemed to value so highly. I also recall a little of the kids-of-divorce syndrome, that maybe if I/we had tried harder to be better, he might have stayed. The next two years were what it might be like playing for the post-Lou Piniella Mariners, stuck in a purgatory of high expectation and, well, merely ordinary performance.

Still, not everyone gets to experience the catalyst of success, of knowing how it feels and having at least an inkling of how hard it is to achieve and maintain, and there was more value in having played in Mr. Menichetti’s band than in anything else I did in high school. I’m not saying, by any means, that it was a launchpad to unalloyed lifelong success. But without it, I wouldn’t have had the personal and musical wherewithal to try out for and get into the Ohio State band, where I was able again to experience that elixir of excellence. Those experiences have given me a standard against which to measure any activity that I engage in.

I know Mr. Menichetti eventually returned to teaching, at a town not too far from mine. Last year, out of curiosity, I Googled him just to see if I could fill in any more of the story. I was startled to come across a reference in a small-town Illinois cemetery, with a link to this:
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Whether he’s in Tartaro or Caelum, the bastards had better be filling out their practice cards.