At the final rehearsal before one of our concerts, things were not going well. We were playing the overture to Wagner\’s Die Meistersinger, and something we were doing was bothering the conductor. He kept stopping and explaining–it seemed to have to do with us first violins–making us repeat, beating his baton on the lectern, and explaining some more.
Way in the back of the section, I as usual had no idea what he was saying. I was counting the minutes until time to go home. I wasn\’t even watching the concertmaster, the blue- and brown-eyed boy, very much. \”Let\’s try it again,\” said the conductor. \”And this time…\” but again, I didn\’t understand him.
We played a few measures, the ones where the strings go up and up a series of intervals. \”Stop!\” he yelled, at the top of his voice. \”You!! Back there!\” and he jumped off the podium and walked to where I sat with my violin under my chin. He stood over me in a fury, yelling and jabbing his finger at my music and waving his baton until his breath ran out.
If there is one thing worse than being yelled at in front of an orchestra of teenagers (and I had never been yelled at by anyone before, except my mother), it is not understanding the content of the yells, because then the tone and the body language and the grimacing face convey rage at a much scarier, primordial, animal level.
The rehearsal over, I wept in the car all the way home. I\’d had it with the Youth Orchestra. I\’d had it with sitting all week in school not understanding what anybody said; trying to keep up and do my homework on weeknights; helping my mother with housework on Saturday; and then spending Sunday morning at Mass and the afternoon in rehearsal, being yelled at.
Miraculously, for once, my parents relented. My father spoke to the conductor, who played violin in the Birmingham Symphony, and explained that I hadn\’t understood him. He, the conductor, in turn apologized to me. But even then I disliked people who yelled and later apologized, and didn\’t really forgive him.
Maybe my father got tired of driving me to and from rehearsals on Sunday afternoons. Maybe he and my mother decided that I had enough on my plate. In the end, I didn\’t have to go to rehearsals anymore.
To this day, in a persistent Pavlovian reflex, when Die Meistersinger overture comes on our local public radio station, I turn it off. I hate the bombast of the opening measures, despise the strings\’ endless climbing scales.
And every time, as I switch off, I am touched that my parents gave in to me, stopped forcing me to do something I hated and was scared of–that they were soft. They probably felt guilty at not insisting that I do what was \”good for me,\” little knowing that, many decades later, that single instance of parental indulgence would become one of my most cherished memories.