I sat in Miss Larsen’s English class and with my classmates listened to a tuba player across an open yard practicing scales. Or one scale, middle C to the next C in the octave. He was having a hard time of it.
It was fall 1946, Webster Groves, Missouri. I was 12, poised at the beginning of that season in a boy’s life when he will scale he knows not what, but clearly upwardly bound by growth of body — hopefully with correspondence in mind and spirit. I had become a Boy Scout whose oath was to be “physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.” Nonetheless it was a problematic time in the way of things, and not all notes in the upward scale would be hit clearly or with precision.
The tuba player in one of his attempts to scale the heights got to E and then went flat on F with a kind of splat of sound, like a musical fart. We heard this in our English class because September being hot with lingering summer heat, we had the windows open. We had at first politely ignored the tuba player, but we could hold it in no longer. Not to be disparaging of the unseen student’s practice but in the slow anticipation of repeated failure C, D, E, F, thplathh, we broke out laughing, Miss Larsen included.
Miss Larsen was a young teacher, blonde and statuesque, having just come to teach from Paia, Maui, Territory of Hawaii. That fall, to give us a writing assignment and to promote friendship she had us write pen-pal letters to students she had known in Hawaii. My pal was Francis Miyahira, age 14. He wrote that he hoped Hawaii would become a state “because of our showing in the war.” He collected matchbox covers, and I sent him some. I wrote a friend in Clear Lake, Iowa, about Francis, and he also corresponded for a time. “For a time,” meaning the correspondence carried us over into 1947 but not even to the end of the spring term. Interests change, as we were ourselves.
A new girl was enrolled in our class. Miss Larsen seated her just opposite me in the next row. Her name was Mosley de Loche, from a Southern state, Alabama or Mississippi. She had the drawl to go with it and used it to flirt with me. I doubt I knew the word flirt, but I knew she was projecting something my way that made me nervous. What scale was this? I don’t think I got to E after D before I too went flat. She turned her attention to Tim Moore, who, I knew before I knew the word, was foxy.
We were studying from John Warriner’s “English Grammar and Composition.” That year, 1946, was the first year of its publication, and it has continued to be a standard English grammar text. He died in 1987 at age 80 and lived in Amagansett, where I lived when minister of the Presbyterian Church. I didn’t know him.
But I knew his grammar. Miss Larsen took us through the various tenses of verbs, into the mysteries of who and whom, nominative and objective cases, gerunds and participles, prepositions, which weren’t to be used at the end of sentences to give meaning to. And never split an infinite. Our compositions in class were to practice our grammar, also to begin to hone the skill of writing. If I was to play the scale of language, it was not only to progress from C up the octave to C, it was to do so with timing, tone, balance, completion. In short, composition.
Grammar is the structure of language and is as important as scales in learning the structure of music. The laboring young tuba player sweating in late summer heat was working on the C scale. There are 12 scales in chromatic succession, and that is not to speak of major and minor keys and other matters of tonality. So in grammar, the challenge was to become at ease with far more than subject, verb, and object, but to become facile, for example, with perfect tenses and other nomenclature of instruction which when you become familiar with it you write automatically, forgetting what the name of it is. I had progressed through childhood to land on the molten keys of adolescence, and even then I would not have known what such passion would lead to. Will I ascend the scale of learning—or is it, shall I ascend the scale of learning? Either, depending on intent in the construction.
But these niceties escaped me at age 12 advancing to 13. I learned the rules before I yet knew how they might propel me in the scale of my growth and development. Nonetheless I was assured that without learning the structure I would not progress. Slipshod I would not be able to compose a letter or composition and thus somehow fail — Life. I was also to discover my voice, which would give my words their authenticity.
Meanwhile my literal voice was changing into a squawk, just as the tuba player was squawking his way up his scale. My voice would not finally settle until sometime in high school, and that was further groomed by speech class, just as my musical voice resonated in a cappella choir, and my piano voice developed with my teacher, Mrs. Bolsterli. All of this was consonant with character, as from the Boy Scout Oath and Law. To develop character by working at it. We didn’t see all those correlations at the time, we just moved up the scale as it was presented to us, and not just the simple C scale. That was for beginners.
Moving on from grammar, my first short story was written in ninth grade and was included in a literary journal produced by the class. Somewhere in the early years there was also a scrapbook of poetry — by assignment of an English teacher. And as early as 6th grade I had written a poem that I read at the dedication of a hawthorn tree for Arbor Day, spring 1946.
By some miracle — no, by perseverance and determination — the tuba player finally made it to the higher C without faltering. I think we felt like applauding, but Miss Larsen continued with her lesson and so did we with silent and amusing gratitude that our unseen friend had succeeded up the scale.
But then he needed to come back down the scale, as practice has it, and, perhaps overconfident and exhilarated that he had made it up the scale successfully, in descending no further than the B, he let go again with a musical fart. Oh, no! Miss Larsen could have said with playful touch, but didn’t, “For your homework I want you to write an essay on music.” An essay? Did we know yet what an essay was?
The World Series broke into our lessons that fall, the playoff between the St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Red Sox. There was no grammar taught on Tuesday, October 15, as the seventh game opened at Sportsman Park, St. Louis, just before school recessed for the day. No grammar except that defined by innings of play, pitches, hits, strike-outs, bases run, errors, runs batted in, all the stats. We had a radio in the classroom. The excitement got to me. I raised my hand for permission to go to the bathroom. With all classroom doors open for ventilation, I heard the radio broadcast by Dizzy Dean echoing along the hallway. The Cards won 4-3.
Those baseball stars ascended their scales and kept on going — up. Stan Musial, Red Schoendienst, Enos Slaughter.
Now their names echo in the distance, and this year 2014 I will be 80. My octave.
In the ensuing years from 1946 I played many scales, literally on the piano and in my writing. Among letters printed in The New York Times, one addressed that part of the Boy Scout Oath that says the Scout will be “morally straight.” That referred to sound character, I wrote, not sexual orientation. As grammar was the foundation of language, building character came from skills in camping and hiking, building fires and cooking, collegial responsibility and leadership, advancing to Eagle. Moral precepts from family, school and church transferred professionally into my career as clergy. Being a parent came with no textbook except fly-throughs with Benjamin Spock. Parenting had its share of scales going flat through error in the play, then the clear notes in their practice. Satisfaction in the result.
I often think of that tuba player from 7th grade. His determination to get it right. I hope he did, both in the ascent and descent and the ascent yet again as a practice for life.
In the octave of a present life I will descend again —some will say, “hey, you already have” — and then what, coming back to a middle C? Ascend again.
I will hand this essay on music in to Miss Larsen.
The Rev. Robert Stuart, pastor emeritus of the Amagansett Presbyterian Church, lives in Springs, where he is a member of the Ashawagh Hall Writers Workshop. His essays and short stories have appeared in regional publications as well as in The Star.