At the end of the hall on the second floor of Polk School was the “piano room.” Our music appreciation class met there once a week to learn things about music we never knew before. Music was my favorite class. Miss Webster never sat down at her desk but strolled around the room and called out our names while taking attendance. After each kid said “Here,” she looked up from her notebook and smiled or winked. It made us feel special and perked up any kid who wasn’t quite awake.
After attendance, she wandered down each row teasing us with her coming attractions such as “Did you know that at three-years-of age Mozart gave concerts and wrote music for an orchestra?” Someone asked who Mozart was and she said,”I’ll tell you about him sometime,” and she did. But my favorite lesson of all was something Mr. Edvard Grieg composed called the Peer Gynt Suite. She wrote the words “suite” and “sweet’ on the board and said, “Boys and girls, there’s a difference between these two words even though they sound the same.” Then she explained that the first word meant a group of things and the second word meant yummy things that tasted like sugar.
Then Miss Webster gave us a preview of Peer Gynt’s wild adventures which would take up chapters if the story had been in a book. In music a chapter was called a suite. For that reason each suite would sound very different from the others. She said, “Okay, are you ready?” Whenever she said that, we yelled YES real loud because that was her cue to turn on the record player. The music started and she paced up and down each row waving her hands and saying things like “Ya hear that? It was exciting, like “listening” to a movie where instruments were the actors.
Then the music got soft and easy-going. She whispered loud enough for us to hear, “Boys and girls, what do you think the music is saying?”
We guessed all kinds of dumb things that were sometimes funny. Finally, one girl said, “The tune kinda ends up in the air like it’s asking a question.”
Our teacher was so impressed with that girl’s wild guess that she clutched her chest and said, “YES! Now, students, listen carefully to what the music is answering back.” And she was right. The instruments were having a chat. Then she said, “Now, what do you thing is happening in this part,” and she turned the volume high while playing the suite called Hall of the Mountain King. One of the boys covered his ears and said, “That’s scary.”
“Henry, you’re RIGHT! Now everyone, get out of your seats and do what the music tells you.”
The instruments sounded like wild ducks attacking and she yelled over the volume, “Boys and girls, obey the music! Do whatever it says!
I, for one, was flyin’ all over the place.
During “The Hall of the Mountain King,” our whirling and twisting got kind of wild especially when small creatures tied up Peer Gynt on the ground and stabbed him over and over with their spears. The music said “OomPAH! OomPAH! OomPAH PAH PAH PAH” At that point, the boys started throwing make-believe spears. They were out to kill Peer Gynt, but I don’t think he was supposed to die; the story said he only had a few holes poked in him. The boys finally settled down during my favorite part of the suite because they didn’t like it. Anitra’s Dance inspired us girls to float and twirl around the classroom. The boys called it “girl music” and refused to budge, and I was glad because sometimes boys ruined everything.
During the fourth grade I learned even more about music when my Auntie Marge bought me a student-sized violin. That’s when I started taking free lessons in the piano room with our traveling teacher, Mr. Moehlman. His name sounded like “mailman,” but he delivered music lessons instead of letters. One day he demonstrated the “off beat” rhythm and for some reason I caught on to it real fast. He noticed and said, “Elizabeth, you got rhythm.”
I got rhythm?
That was the most exciting thing a teacher had ever said to me.
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