54: If My Heart Had a Voice

54: If My Heart Had a Voice

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Just for Preteens

If My Heart Had a Voice

Music is what feelings sound like.

~Author Unknown

Some preferences you can’t explain, like choosing vanilla over chocolate ice cream, or marmalade over strawberry jam. It’s like that with me and the oboe. I can’t tell you why I fell in love with the instrument at age seven but I can remember the exact moment when I did. My sister Kris and I were playing with Barbies as we listened to one of my parents’ records. The smell of meatloaf with its melted cheese and ketchup crust floated through the house. Kris and I debated which shoes went best with Barbie’s miniskirt when I heard a breathtaking sound.

I ran to the kitchen and tugged on Mom’s blouse. “What’s that?”

She listened. “A saxophone.”

“Not now — before. Play it again and tell me.”

We waited until I heard the mournful wail. “That’s an oboe,” Mom said. “Pretty, isn’t it?”

She returned to the kitchen while I stood transfixed, listening to the passage while repeating the word. Oboe — it felt good in my mouth. I knew one day I would learn to play one.

I hadn’t forgotten my promise when I entered fifth grade. On the contrary, I’d memorized every oboe passage in my parents’ record collection. The sound washed over me in luscious waves. I heard it in my dreams.

On the first day of music class I couldn’t stand still. The new music teacher was a short, swarthy man with an infectious grin. Mr. Burke raced around separating children into groups for each instrument. When everyone but me was in place he asked if I needed help deciding. Kids tittered behind me.

I stood up tall. “I want to play the oboe.”

The room fell silent. Mr. Burke was so proud of my selection he was speechless. Eventually he cleared his throat. “You don’t want to play the flute or the clarinet?”

“No. I like the sound an oboe makes.”

He tugged his tie. “The problem is fifth graders can’t play the oboe. The fingering is too complicated and the embouchure too difficult.”

I knew there was a reason the oboe sounded so beautiful. When I asked how old I had to be, Mr. Burke said I could learn in seventh grade. “Okay,” I said. “What do I play to train for the oboe?”

Mr. Burke gave me a funny look and suggested the flute. I happily complied because I was an oboist-in-training. For two years I sat with the flute players and learned to read music and mark time. But I longed to play the oboe.

The summer after sixth grade I enrolled in summer school. Mr. Burke was now the music teacher at East Avenue Junior High. He’d put on weight and didn’t move so fast. When I told him I wanted to play the oboe, he didn’t look up from his sheet music. “You play the flute.”

Students swirled around us as they readied for practice. “You said I could learn in junior high.”

He studied his stubby fingers. “If you switch you’ll be two years behind.”

Didn’t he realize the oboe was superior? “That’s why I’m here, to catch up.”

He fiddled with his papers. “I don’t think you can.”

“But I waited two years.” A whine had crept into my voice.

“The oboe’s really difficult. It has an unbelievably tiny reed.”

“I know. That’s what makes it sound so special.”

His shoulders slumped as he pulled himself up from the stool. “If you’re determined to try, let’s find you a loaner.”

By the end of the day I was outfitted with the school’s ancient plastic oboe. I also had an old cassette tape and the companion book, So You Want to Play Oboe. When Mom picked me up, I proudly displayed my new possessions.

I spent the summer teaching myself to play. The oboe’s narrow double reed required more air pressure than the flute, so every day I blasted away until I grew too lightheaded to continue. I sat at the edge of my bed and blew until my head throbbed and my eyes bulged. The oboe screeched like a hundred cats in heat. My family huddled at the far end of the house. My sister said it was like sharing her bedroom with a psycho bagpiper. I barely registered the shrill whine and goose-like honk. All I heard was beautiful music.

By summer’s end I could make it through the band pieces without passing out. I sounded better too. Not good, but better. Suddenly Mr. Burke was thrilled with the switch. He bragged that he directed the only band with an oboe.

I kept at it, and every month I played better than the last. By the time I reached high school, my parents were tired of repairing the ancient instrument. When I was asked to participate in the school’s wind ensemble — an honor typically reserved for seniors and other talented musicians — I knew I was out of my league. Two years behind even the least gifted freshman, I shuddered when the conductor made it clear he wanted me to perform solos. The ancient loaner had to go.

On Christmas Eve I peeled shiny paper off a black case the size of a large jewelry box. Inside I discovered an oboe, its silver keys glistening against the ebony wood. I swallowed hard and pulled the two slender pieces from their red velvet bed. I twisted them together, interlocking the keys, and added the fluted bell at the bottom. I caressed the satiny finish, willing myself not to cry. My siblings already thought I was crazy for placing a musical instrument on my Christmas list.

With my new oboe in hand, Mom dropped me off for private lessons. Mrs. Traxler greeted me at the door. She wore a plaid skirt and sensible shoes, her thin frame held terrifyingly erect. Five minutes into my first lesson, she barked, “Who in God’s name taught you to play that thing?”

When I said I taught myself, she frowned. I pulled out the cassette, and her mouth fell open. “Just a tape?”

“I had a book too.”

She snapped her mouth shut and said to continue. Every few minutes she twisted the pearls at her neck and muttered. When I finished she said, “You have some bad habits, but you play pretty well, considering.”

It was Mrs. Traxler who corrected my embouchure, improved my fingering, and taught me to make my own reeds. Because of her I finally learned to make my oboe sing.

As the only oboist in the region, I was in demand. I played in the orchestra, the band, and every high school musical. I worked hard to master the solos, but I never regretted my choice. I was doing what I loved. When I was only seven, I discovered my passion. Now I open the worn black case and think that if my heart had a voice, it would sing like an oboe.

~Cynthia Patton

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