It Made All The Difference
I was a typical thirteen year old brat with the full complement of indolence, rudeness, sloppiness, and aversion to baths and showers. In fact my single mother farmed me out to my father, when we moved back from Florida, hoping he would make a “Man” out of me. I can’t help but think that this must have been “Pay-Back” time for the vitriolic divorce five years previously.
Dad, who knew even less about raising a son than he knew about building a fire hydrant, thought that all he had to do to make a “Man” out of me was to plan a Bar Mitzvah, since the prepared speech usually includes “Today I am a man”. He suffered his first major filial rejection when I spent the critical after-school hours playing baseball instead of showing up for Hebrew school. So, on my proud day, I was forced to read the Torah passage using lumpy phonetics, instead of smooth Hebrew. Despite my poor pronunciation and abysmal sing-song rhythm, I because a “Man” in the Jewish faith.
Having deluded himself into thinking I was now a “Man”, Dad now set about trying to give me an air of culture and signed me up for piano lessons. This resulted in our next clash of egos. I preferred to either play baseball of hang out at Yankee Stadium collecting autographs and talking to the players. Little did I know that Dad’s sudden proclivity for culture was enhanced by the fact that dear old Dad was “Schtupping” Florence, the old maid piano teacher.
However, being uninformed about Dad’s rationale and his libido, I found myself really enjoying the lessons. Florence knew how to inspire me to learn and even practice, when I wasn’t playing baseball. She also granted me some notoriety, when I played at her annual concert. There was a reporter from the Bronx Home News reviewing the concert. I would guess that he was also schtupping Florence; otherwise why would he attend a local teacher’s concert? His comment on my performance was “Young David played Carl Philip Emanual Bach’s Solfeggieto with a deft hand.” Since I played with two hands, It would have been helpful to learn which one was the “Deft” one. I might have used it more judiciously.
After two years of piano lessons, it became time for Dad to plan my high school education. The local school was Taft High School. I wanted to attend DeWitt Clinton, an all-boys school, also in the Bronx, because of their active sports programs. But Dad wanted me to go to a specialty school like Bronx Science, Stuyvesant or Brooklyn Tech, where it would be easier to get into a good college. As usual, I fought him on this because I was not interested in the sciences. (This was ironic, because I majored in Chemistry in college). Frustrated by my attitude, he consulted my eighth grade teacher, Mrs. Mayer, who happened to be his podiatry patient.
Because of my press clipping as a piano student, Mrs. Mayor suggested The High School of Music and Art (which I never heard of and doubted that they would have a good football team). It was founded in 1934 by Mayor LaGuardia “To provide a facility where the most gifted and talented public school students could pursue their talent.” It also had a full academic program set to the highest standards. My major question was “How could an ungifted untalented kid like me get into such a special school”? Two years of piano lessons does not a talent make.
Chira K. Mayor, my eighth grade teacher in P.S. 90, was a lesson in contrasts. Her countenance resembled that of Whistler’s Mother, while her teaching style was pure Attila the Hun. She as the scrooge of the P.S. 90 and the students were afraid of her. I, of course, was treated as “Teacher’s Pet”, while my fellow pupils wondered in amazement.
The conversation about my high school plans occurred between Clara’s toes, (the podiatrist’s head is positioned at about the patient’s toe level), and Mrs. Mayor felt strongly that I should try out for Music and Art, even with my short experience on the piano. Dad reiterated my conviction that I was untalented and ungifted and wouldn’t have much chance to be accepted (Good old Dad; finally agreed with me on something).
Then, while Dad was exorcising an oversized bunion, Clara screamed in pain and said, “Ouch that really hurt! I think that David could be accepted. Ben Seligman, the Principal of Music and Art is my brother”. Dad apologized for the pain and gave her a big smile through his ill-fitting choppers, while Mrs. Mayor said, “I’ll arrange an audition for him right away.” She added, “He’ll have to sharpen up his audition solo and, if he learned any theory, brush up on that also”, (I never learned any theory from Florence, unless it was tied directly to the piece I was studying). When Dad told me about the conversation, I became very agitated and didn’t want to audition. My grades were good enough to get me in, but my music education was severely lacking. If I were an art student, I would have had to show them my portfolio. There is no equivalent work history in music, except for a piano solo. I was concerned about my lack of knowledge about music theory. It would take a lightning bolt from either Apollo or one of his muses to bail me out of this one.
I did the piano audition and then sat down to have my musical knowledge tested. (That was quite a mountain to climb for a guy who thought Mozart, Shubert, and Beethoven played the outfield for the 1922 Yankees.) It wasn’t as bad as I expected. They mostly tried to learn whether I had a “good ear” by testing me for pitch, rhythm, and simple theory. By some miracle, I was accepted. When I stupidly asked why, they told me that I had a very good ear and was easily trainable. (Hmmm, I wonder if Mrs. Mayor had anything to do with it”.)
I was lost among the musical geniuses in the first week. I learned that Jon was studying with Aaron Copeland, Edmund was studying with Ferde Grofe and Phil was studying with Leonard Bernstein. I didn’t volunteer the identity of my mentor. What was I supposed to say? “I studied with the great Florence Shapiro, who was Father’s “Schtuppee”?
Since I didn’t audition with an orchestral instrument, they gave me the bass fiddle and plopped me into their third year orchestra. I learned how to bluff the fast passages by playing every other note, until the conductor said, “OK Sahud, let me hear you play this passage”. My solo was embarrassing. The conductor admonished me with “I don’t think Mozart would appreciate your interpretation”. Despite that, my four years at M and A were enriching and enjoyable.
It made all the difference that I was such a brat that Mom farmed me out to Dad, that I went to P.S. 90, that Mrs. Mayor was my teacher and Dad’s patient, that he insisted on my piano lessons, that I was accepted to Music and Art (probably thanks to Mrs. Mayor), that my best friend at M and A was Walter, who brought me to Liberty AZA of the Bnai Brith, as athletic director, where I met the dark-haired beauty who later became my wife. (I don’t think she ever forgave Mother for starting the chain of events).