Crawling around on the floor as a normal, curious little boy, I discovered a black leather pouch underneath my mother and father's bed. The metal latch was particularly intriguing and I finally managed to flip it open and dump the contents upon the floor. Out rolled a small wooded toy barrel, then a wooden bell, and then two wooden cylinders like telescopes but with holes on the sides to let in light and strange metal rings, rods, and keys. The wood was dark black but the metal was shiny and silver. As I began peering through the telescope and sending the little barrel careening across the room, I must have thought, “what a wonderful discovery. My own little toys to play with all inside this black pouch under the bed.” Of course, soon my play world was interrupted by my father who quickly scooped up my toys, placed them back in their leather case, and explained to me this was not a toy but rather Daddy's clarinet and that maybe someday I might be big enough to try one out.
That day came in fourth grade when a round little man named Mr. Kessen bounced into our elementary school to announce he would be back next week to teach a scale to any of us who could find a musical instrument at home and bring it with them to school. My father rented a one-piece Conn metal clarinet which I wouldn't be able to break and inside the long case with the clarinet was a bamboo reed for the mouthpiece. The bamboo tasted green and porous and this I could break. I soon learned the idea was not to chew it, but to make it vibrate by placing my lips around the reed and mouthpiece and blowing through the clarinet. Somehow the subsequent squawks and squeaks and my perseverance in producing them convinced my father to find a private teacher for me and that's how I ended up taking the Market Street Trolly with my Grandma every week to Sherman and Clay Music store for a clarinet lesson with Mr. Howard Thompson.
I have always been blessed by wonderful teachers who somehow taught me what I needed to know when I was ready to know it. As a beginner, I thought I needed to know everything at once. Howard Thompson allowed me to understand that the next thing he showed me was exactly what I was to supposed to know next.
The crucial insight it gave me was in preparing me for my first moment to shine during his students' recital at the end of the year. He gave me two little pieces. The first was from a book entitled, “100 Favorite Classical Tunes” (or something like that) and was Rimsky-Korsakov's “Hymn to the Sun.” The second piece was two choruses of “Stardust” by Hoagy Carmichael. I played the introduction and first chorus as written. On the repeat, Mr. Thompson had jotted down in pencil a few embellishments on top of the melody line to lend it a sense of improvisation. I loved this chance to play both something “classical” and something “jazzy.” So my very first public appearance presaged my path in music, thanks to Howard Thompson. He was a kind and gentle man and when my parents announced the family move away from San Francisco to Cincinnati, I was very sad for my last lesson and felt my life in music would now be over. Howard Thompson looked at me, light blue eyes through his thick glasses, which made his eyes seem larger and luminous and told me, “Now Richard, don't cry. You just continue the way you're going. You'll find another teacher and just remember you have something to say with your music.”
Excerpted from Another Name for God, Copyright Richard Stoltzman, 2015