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The Cracker Barrel: The Rock-a-Fellers

A recent conversation with a dear old friend brought back lots of memories, many of them about music. Like most American kids, we started taking music lessons in fifth grade. Our music teacher's name was Mr. Hodge. Mr. Hodge had horn-rimmed glass...

A recent conversation with a dear old friend brought back lots of memories, many of them about music.

Like most American kids, we started taking music lessons in fifth grade. Our music teacher's name was Mr. Hodge. Mr. Hodge had horn-rimmed glasses and a David Niven mustache. He was in charge of the high school band and choir as well as the smaller bands and choirs at two of the grade schools that fed into the high school.

Somehow, despite being stretched thin as paint, he not only taught us the rudiments of music, but generally made learning fun.

When confronted with the question of which instrument to play, I chose the cornet, a brass instrument very similar to the trumpet but smaller and with a mellower tone. Later I learned that Louis Armstrong started his musical career as a cornet player before switching to the louder, more penetrating trumpet.

Since I knew next to nothing about music, other than the natural delight all kids take in making lots of noise, my mind was not obstructed by any mistaken concepts or expectations, and took to learning the rudiments of horn playing with gusto.

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It took a few minutes of experimentation learning to tighten my lips together well enough to produce a sound through the instrument, but once achieved, I had no problem repeating the action. Additional attempts at forcing air through the mouthpiece revealed that raising or lowering the pitch of the sound could be accomplished by tightening or loosening the set of one's lips - or what Mr. Hodge called one's embouchure.

Since the cornet uses three piston-like valves to change the length of the tubing through which the player's air flows, thus producing a further variety of pitches or notes, the concept of using one's embouchure in conjunction with one's fingers quickly became clear, and together with millions of other fifth-graders across the land I commenced to start practicing scales.

The noise of a neophyte blatting off-key notes on a brass instrument is not a sound guaranteed to gladden the heart, but my parents never complained or made derogatory observations about my efforts. Neither of them had ever played a wind instrument (though Mother had taken piano lessons as a child), so the experience was new to all of us.

Father tried blowing a few notes, failed and never touched the horn again. Mother seemed more interested in how it looked than how it sounded, and contributed a small container of brass polish and some rags to the cause.

My younger siblings, Dick and Beth, ages 4 and 3, broke into delighted smiles every time they heard me play, and loved pushing the valves down with their tiny fingers. Beth in particular was taken by the pearl tops of the valves and seemed to regard them as jewels. The three of us had occasional jam sessions with me on cornet, Dick on an old toy drum, and Beth wafting about the room as interpretive dancer.

As might be expected, my progress as a musician came by fits and starts. Some weeks made learning seem effortless; others produced a mood of despond. But little by little my command of the instrument grew surer and my range of available notes larger.

And at some point along the way, perhaps a year or two later, Bruce Nelson, Donny Smith and I decided to start a band.

We named ourselves The Rock-a-Fellers, Bruce on percussion, me on cornet, and Donny on guitar. I cut three-inch-high letters out of aluminum foil to spell our name and taped them to the side of my horn case. We took to practicing outdoors, and I must say the letters glittered with a satisfactory shine when the sun hit them.

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As a band, our playlist was rather short. If memory serves, we never expanded much past three or four songs. "When the Saints Go Marching In" was probably our best. The rest don't come readily to mind, but I'm positive there were others.

As to concerts, I only remember one, which was held on the sidewalk at the side of our house, next to the entry steps. I seem to recall a handful of neighbors standing on the adjacent lawn and felt a vast surge of pride when, at the conclusion of our concert, they burst into vigorous applause.

And while it's true that three kids making noise in front of less than a dozen onlookers hardly compares with a professional concert at Carnegie Hall, the joyful response that music creates is the same in both cases.

Collections of Craig Nagel's columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com

Related Topics: THE CRACKER BARREL
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