Debbie Can Do No Wrong

Debbie Can Do No Wrong is my second book. It is a fictional childhood memoir, telling stories of my childhood, my family, and everything in between.

Please enjoy the excerpt below as well as the table of contents for the book and use the contact form to reach out with any questions.

Table of Contents


  14. RELAX
Chapter 19: Lessons


The clarinet is a beautiful instrument, as long as I am not playing it.  My cousin Bobby played the French horn in the local youth symphony.  The youth symphony played classical music at the high school.  This was the first time I heard classical music.  Mom made us dress up to go to the concert.  Mom wanted me to pay attention to which instrument I liked the most. This was a challenge because the music did not grab me.  In fact, it made me so sleepy that I would have conked out if it were not for the polite applause between concertos.

Perhaps I was conditioned to react this way because we also went to the local high school auditorium to watch the ballet.  Ballet literally weighed on me.  My head became heavy and drooped with languor.  I fought to stay awake.  I recognized the efforts and skills of the dancers, but failed to follow what was going on, and it all became a drowsy blur.  

My older sister, Debbie, was taking beginning ballet at a dance studio with a roomful of other girls.    I remember watching Debbie at the end of her ballet lessons while we waited to pick her up.  The girls, dressed in their ballet slippers and tutus, had one hand on a wooden railing and the other hand replicating the curve of their outstretched arms.  They were squatting in rhythm with their feet pointed at weird angles. Allegedly, Debbie loved the ballet, but she clearly wasn’t any good at it and that could not have been fun for her, or for mom, who so enthusiastically rooted her on.  The lessons mercifully puttered out after a time. I didn’t have to watch Debbie pirouette into the wall at home anymore.

My brother Stevie did a little better.  He took piano lessons at some lady’s house.  Mom and I waited in her living room at the end of his lessons.  The piano teacher’s house seemed ridiculously clean and orderly, in sharp contrast to our house, which was cluttered and busy with stuff heaped everywhere.  It was so quiet there, with the singular sound of the metronome and my brother’s repetitive attempts at Beethoven’s Fur Elise.  Stevie didn’t like to practice, putting in barely fifteen minutes and only when mom remembered to order him to, “Go practice”.  Stevie’s piano fingers were much more coordinated than Debbie’s ballet limbs.  After listening to him practice Fur Elise for what seemed like a year or two, a little statuette of Beethoven’s head appeared on the piano, a reward from his teacher.

Stevie played piano long enough that he also got a little statuette of Mozart’s head.  Ludwig and Wolfgang sat motionless, limbless, on the piano next to the metronome.  Their benevolent steady gazes failed to inspire Stevie.    He found excuses to evade practice.  Mom was busy hauling around her other kids too.  Stevie won his freedom from mom’s practice demands through a war of attrition.  Since Stevie didn’t practice, the private piano lessons were a waste of time and money.  Chopin’s bust never sat on the piano.

Mom never had music lessons, swimming lessons, ballet lessons, or dance lessons.  Neither did my father.  My parents entertained no illusions that they would join a wealthy country club one day.  They preferred camping and fishing in their spare time.  Nonetheless, Mom drove us to a country club for dance lessons.  The country club was an imposing mansion on a hill with a circle driveway.  To the right of the grand foyer was an even grander ballroom.  The boys clustered in one group and the girls in another, with everyone dressed up like someone had died.  It was a relief to see that half the boys my age from my school also had to go to the same dance class.  

I wore a hand me down suit outgrown by my brother.  The boys wore ties their mothers had to tie for them because none of the boys knew how to tie a tie. We also wore clunky black dress shoes.  The girls dressed up in fancy dresses and colorful shoes with straps.  We felt like gussied up dolls in a fancy doll house, awed by the grand chandelier that hung from the high ceiling of the ballroom.  The teacher wore high heels and a fancy dress.  She made the boys form an outer circle and girls an inner circle.   To pair us up the boys walked clockwise and the girls counter clockwise until the music stopped.

Invariably, one of the tallest girls ended up with one of the shrimpiest boys.  The odd pairing only added to the self-consciousness inherent in standing face to face with a person of the opposite sex.  The mitigating factor was that we were all in the same boat.  

Little by little we awkwardly learned the two-step, waltz, and foxtrot while also hearing about proper manners.  At the end of each class, the teacher played a top ten hit of the day so we could dance the twist or the jerk.  Secret Agent Man was a top ten hit with blaring lyrics:

There’s a man who leads a life of danger

Everyone one he meets he stays a stranger

With every move he makes another chance he takes

Odds are he won’t live to see tomorrow.

You could dance the twist or the jerk to that one.  We didn’t need any instructions to do that.  

Dance class did not lead to advanced lessons in the cha-cha, tango, or merengue.  It came and went.  No one I knew was sad to be done with it.  The end of dance lessons felt like taking off your tie, something you did as soon as you got in the car.

Prior to that time, sometime after the piano and the metronome were abandoned by Stevie, it was my turn for music lessons.  Our indefatigable mother helped me pick out an instrument during the intermission of the youth symphony concert.  At least according to mom, I guess I liked the way the clarinets sounded.    The clarinets seemed to be in the mix a lot, unlike some of the other instruments whose musicians mostly sat there.  It also seemed like the clarinetists got to sit normally in their chairs while the string musicians sat exaggeratedly straight up like they each had a corn cob up their ass. With my mom’s prodding, I weakly endorsed an interest in the clarinet.

With the choice made, mom took me to a big store in the City.  She bought a used clarinet that the experienced clerk said was a very good quality instrument and would only need a little repair of one key and one pad.  Clarinets were expensive.  You could buy a superior used one for much less than a lousy new one.  

The horn didn’t feel used to me.  The first time we got it home and I opened the case, I felt like I was looking at a big piece of jewelry.  I didn’t have anything else that came in its own case, lined with plush dark velvet.  I put it together and couldn’t get a sound out.  I didn’t know about embouchure; I just tried to blow it.   I didn’t know you had to suck on the reeds to soften them up.  The reed had a funny taste.   I liked the cork grease, how it smelled and felt.  I figured out that the cork grease helped put the pieces of the instrument together.  The pieces fit back perfectly in the molded spaces of the little suitcase.

Even after I got a beginner’s reed and screwed it correctly to the mouthpiece, making notes without squeaks took a couple of weeks. The initial intoxication of owning a new toy that wasn’t a toy and trying something new paid off.  Soon, I could play basic scales, keep time, more or less, and play a little tune a couple of pages long.  Mom found a man who would have benefitted from antidepressant medication who came highly recommended for private lessons.  He rarely demonstrated how to play, but when he did it was clear that he was a master while my playing was at the level of a baby pooping his diapers.  We sat together for extremely long half hours that I intuited were more torture for him than for me.  He tried to hide the pain on his face, but he could not help but cringe as I massacred a page of notes over and over again.  I never knew a half an hour could last that long.  I wondered if any of his students were as bad as I was.  I was all thumbs.

I didn’t wage a war of attrition to quit the clarinet.  I confronted mom, letting her know what she already knew.  I didn’t want to play the clarinet.  We agreed that I would practice more and give it a go for another two months, but the writing was on the wall.  She was sadly frustrated and disappointed, but didn’t fight me when I quit for good several weeks later.  I didn’t have to serve out the entire two months of futility.  I got an early release from clarinet jail.  

After that the clarinet sat in its case in a closet. It sat, never moving, in what had been my room for years until mom finally sold the house.  By that time I had a musical son.    He took piano and trumpet lessons, played trumpet in high school, in a youth symphony, and in a university symphony orchestra.  He practiced seriously when gearing up to audition for the symphony groups.  He never got a little statuette of a famous composer, but he thoroughly enjoyed the music, his conductors, and made good friends with his fellow musicians.  My clarinet migrated to my son’s closet.  When my son grew up and moved away, the clarinet went with him.  

I wish my mom had seen him, dressed up in a tuxedo, handsome, mingling with a cookie and a glass of punch, after a concert at the University.

My Family: Scroll Using Arrow on the Right