Competition in orchestra was intense in the violin section.
Daniel Johnston © 2020
In 1962 when I was in the 7th grade I was the first chair violinist for the 7-8th grade orchestra. It didn’t last long, only two weeks, but it was glorious.
In those days I played piano and violin and I had perfect pitch—or so they said. My parents would sometimes demonstrate my remarkable skill when we had visitors. They would make me stand in the kitchen and they would all go into the living room and play a note on the piano. I would then dazzle them by telling them what note they played.
“OK Daniel are you ready?” they would ask from the living room.
“Yes. I’m ready.” I would announce from my position in the kitchen.
Then they would play a random note, “Plink” and awaited my verdict.
While I was in the kitchen I would hum the middle C note to myself. Back then it simply seemed like a part of me—middle C. Once they played the mystery note I would, humming to myself, step up or down note-by-note until I got to the note they just played on the piano.
Do, Re, Me, Fa,—three full notes above middle C and a bit sharp. “F sharp” I announced.
From the living room to those around the piano it must have seemed magical.
They would do it over and over. I loved the way they gasped in wonder. I was a natural born wunderkind. I didn’t like telling people how I did it because I felt that it detracted from the magic and wonder of it all.
While the violin was my favorite instrument I did play piano too. My piano teacher Mrs. Birchby was an elegant old lady. While she was rather ancient she still possessed a rare beauty – most of her. She was bony and her cheeks seemed sunken and hollow and she had dark circles under her eyes. But she had clearly once been a beauty. That still showed through. She would sit next to me during my lessons with her aura of perfume. Here she explained to me how I should hold my hands “as if there was an apple underneath them”. She didn’t like flat hands.
She had long bony fingers with webs of purple veins pulsing beneath her parchment-like skin. When she held her hands to show me the proper position they looked like dancing spiders. For some reason I feared that if I played piano too much I too would have hands like that. I realize now I was simply observing the hands of a very old lady. But how is a kid to know? That is how I remember it.
Mrs. Birchby had a famous son—Nicky. He was a violin virtuoso. He even had a two-hundred and thirty year old Stradivarius violin (1726 vintage if I am not mistaken). This was an astonishing thing for a boy from Wyoming to own a “Strad” and often when I went to my piano lessons I could hear him upstairs practicing. As young as I was, I felt that I was experiencing something wonderful, almost sacred. He was my hero.
Years later he came to our high school for a special performance. There was a mandatory school ‘assembly’. The entire school, approximately 700 of us, packed our carcasses into the auditorium. The teachers were thrilled and frankly so were all of us orchestra nerds.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, students, we have a special treat for you today.” The principal announced from the stand-up microphone on the stage.
“I am pleased to introduce Mr. Nicky Birchby who is going to perform for us on his violin. We are very lucky to be blessed with such a gift.” He continued.
There was a collective groan from the audience. Off to a bad start.
And there up on the stage was one of the world’s great violinists with one of the world’s great violins looking self conscious and miserable with his violin in one hand and his bow in the other. He was not a pretty sight. He was short and hunched a bit and had a serious acne problem. And his mousy-brown hair was rather unruly and kind of flopped over onto his forehead. To me he was heroic but few of my classmates appreciated this gift the teachers were so proud to present to us. He was also pathologically shy. After he was introduced, by the principal, he gave a short bow and announced the piece he intended to play. I don’t remember the name of the piece. I do remember how rude the crowd was. It was awful. High school students. All four grades from Freshmen to Seniors. They had no idea that one of the most talented people to ever live in Sheridan, Wyoming was standing up there on the stage holding a priceless violin. We were probably the worst audience he ever played for, before or since then.
And unfortunately he didn’t play something fun and exciting. Instead he played some damn complicated long-hair music that probably wasn’t as funereal as the Adagio by Albinoni or something from Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. But it was close. And then things got worse. Up there on the stage Nicky was playing his heart out and tears started to roll down his cheeks. And that too was not playing well with our crowd. I was heart broken for him.
I can understand how someone would see this as a classic casting-pearls-before-swine situation. This crowd would have preferred corncobs – like Orange Blossom Special or something. But there is probably some law against playing the “Special” on a Strad.
For me the violin had a more natural feel than the piano. I probably would not have taken the violin were it not for my Mother. Mother and Relda Mossholder (Kirk’s mother) had conspired together and thus David and Kirk and I all ‘took up the violin’ as they say.
There was a serious drawback to taking the violin though. Growing up in Wyoming in the 1950s could be dangerous for a kid with a violin. It was almost like having a bulls’ eye painted on your chest. We got beat up regularly smuggling our violins back and forth to school. But I liked playing the violin. Our teacher, Mr. Sabo was a sweet guy. My grandmother also took lessons from him back then. He was tall and slender and combed his fairly long grey hair straight back like a mad scientist. His wife was quiet and made herself scarce most of the time. She was from another time or dimension. She had very long hair that she braided and then she wrapped the braids around and around until she almost looked like she had on a turban. The lessons were $5.00/hour for each of us. Sometimes Mother would give us a twenty-dollar bill and after we paid Mr. Sabo we would go to the liquor store across the street and change our ten-dollar bill into silver dollars. David loved silver dollars. He had quite a collection.
On the side table in Mr. Sabo’s waiting room was a photo of his daughter. In it she wore a long black gown with her golden hair cascading down over her bare shoulders. And in her arms she cradled a violin and a bow. It looked like she was getting ready to solo with the New York Philharmonic. That’s how I imagined it. I stared at that photo every Saturday morning for many years while I waited for David’s lesson to be over. Sometimes he would go first and sometimes I would. I loved that photo. I figured if a creature as exquisite as her played the violin then it was my kind of instrument. The contrast between that golden haired creature and her sweet mother was stunning.
At school, our orchestra teacher, Mr. Wheeler was a rather large muscular guy, which seemed strange for a leader of nerds. He had large strong arms and hairy forearms and would often roll up the sleeves on his white shirts. His tie always seemed to be a distraction and he looked out-of-place at times because he always seemed as though he should have a nail apron on working construction. But he thoroughly impressed us because he could play anything. Sometimes when the cellos were not getting their part right Mr. Wheeler would borrow the 1st chair cello and sit down to demonstrate what he wanted. From there he would comfortably take over a trombone and play that too. For us that was pretty spectacular. He was somewhat impatient with us at times but I only saw him angry once and it was frightening.
We were just getting ready to start a rehearsal of the Merry Widow Waltz. Earl Pust, one of the cello players, was just getting ready to sit down when my buddy Kirk, another violinist, quietly pulled Earl’s chair out from under him. Earl and his cello both fell over backwards with a crash that wiped out three music stands, and two viola players.
In an instant Mr. Wheeler, in a rage, charged through the music stands and grabbed Kirk by the throat and pulled him close to his sputtering lips. “Don’t you ever do that again.” He screamed, his eyes bulging. Kirk was petrified dangling in mid-air like he was and his big brown eyes bulged in terror. The whole orchestra held its breath.
It was certain Kirk would never do that again. Ever. We all thought Mr. Wheeler was going to throttle him. But the urgency subsided fairly quickly. Mr. Wheeler deep down was a decent person and Kirk would live.
Earl slowly picked himself and his cello up off the floor. He had a little help from his friends and soon we were all back in business.
Our junior high orchestra was the typical collection of, violin, viola, cello, clarinet, oboe and trombone playing nerdly people. I usually held a comfortable position as second chair violin because I was the best violin player among the guys but a girl, Leslie Carlson, was first chair. Every two weeks we would have “challenges”. During the challenges, we could try to “move up”. Anybody who wanted to could challenge someone seated in a higher chair.
One Friday my turn came again to challenge Leslie’s first chair position. We were given the sheet music to play for one of the pieces we had been working on and we went into one of the side-rooms just off the main orchestra room and shut the door. Once we got in the room we flipped a coin. It landed on the concrete floor and spun noisily until it flopped over on its side—heads! I was first.
I worked my way through the piece without much trouble. I made a few little mistakes and all-in-all submitted a fairly mediocre effort. When it was Leslie’s turn she played the piece beautifully except for one rather unfortunate large blunder. She quickly recovered and played on wonderfully. But that one big mistake cost her the position.
After we both finished playing we waited inside the room until the votes were counted. We could hear the election taking place.
“OK, who votes for the first player?” Mr. Wheeler asked. Various members of the orchestra would vote by holding up their bows, hands or instruments.
“OK, who votes for the second player?” and again the votes were counted. Then we were called back into the room.
“You can come out now.” Mr. Wheeler announced and we left our little room and re-joined our friends.
“The first player won.” Mr. Wheeler announced.
I grinned triumphantly and the guys too were also quite pleased.
Leslie, bless-her heart, cried quietly as we changed places in the front row of the violin section.
I now sat in the first chair position and my buddies were congratulating me by reaching from the back rows and tapping my shoulder with their bows.
Not everybody was pleased of course. Leslie obviously was devastated the poor thing. She was a better violinist than me and we all knew it. And she had only made that one major mistake. I on the other hand had managed to torture the piece without making any particularly big mistake.
Regardless of all this, I was now first chair and I was very pleased with myself. I had two weeks in which to bask in the glory.
The following week at school as I was walking down the hallway a bunch of the 8th grade cheerleaders walked towards. They were wearing their adorable little green-and-white cheerleading outfits with their sinfully gorgeous thighs sticking out from their short skirts. The head cheerleader was a redheaded creature named Judy Fischer. She was gorgeous and had some particularly excellent thighs that each sported a constellation of freckles. Stunning!
To my surprise these gorgeous creatures stopped right in front of me. And then Judy asked me, “Are you now first chair violin?”
To me this was very strange. First of all I was surprised that they even knew me. And secondly, few people I knew outside of orchestra gave a hoot about orchestra – especially cheerleaders.
“Yes.” I replied humbly. There wasn’t much else I could think of to say.
“Congratulations!” She said as she reached out and shook my hand. The other girls chimed in and I shook hands with all of them. Then they smiled and walked on down the hall. I continued on my way too but I was floating.
About 10 days later it was time for challenges again. But before launching into our rituals Mr. Wheeler gave a little speech.
“Now. I would like to remind you that these challenges are not a popularity contest” he explained. But we all knew who/what he was talking about.
Needless to say, that was the end of my career as first chair violinist. Fair enough. But fair or not I got to bask in the glory of it all magnified by a redheaded angel and her sweet spirit.
I still fondly remember the image of that gorgeous angelic creature standing in that busy hallway. It was so sweet of her to do that. It really touched my heart and has been an inspiration to me my entire life. It was such an unusual, yet thoughtful thing for a young teenage girl to do.