Musical Themes

Handel’s Messiah at Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

 
 

During my third year of life I woke up from afternoon naps singing. This continued for years, until I stopped taking naps. Or so my mother claimed. My earliest memories of musical joy date from about age five, when I would belt out songs from Your Hit Parade, swinging as high as I could on our swing set. But my first experience with music lessons, at ages six through eleven, did not go well.

 

Mrs. Siefkin’s twenty piano students ranged in age from first-graders through high school. Mrs. Siefkin wore silk blouses, straight skirts, and white-framed glasses that dangled from a gold chain around her neck, her dark hair pulled back in a severe bun. She taught in a strict, no-time-wasted manner, sitting with perfect posture on a straight-backed chair to the student’s right, never beside us on the piano bench. Prim, staid, humorless. My dislike of her was compounded by the fact that my sister Melinda, four years ahead of me in age and everything else, also took lessons. Our second-hand, upright piano sat against a wall in the den, the center of our small house, making it impossible to avoid hearing Melinda practice. My first year, after Melinda had worked through the intricacies of Bach and Schubert, I plunked out short pieces with stupid titles – Willy Willy Will, Sleep Baby Sleep, My Little Wigwam. When I’d advanced to pieces with sixteenth notes, the titles were better, but I couldn’t get the runs as fast as Melinda played hers. The worst part was that my father noticed.

“You’ve got a long way to go if you want to catch up to Melinda,” my father said, as I struggled with a run. Not as bad as some of his observations: “Your handwriting isn’t nearly as neat as Melinda’s. Melinda is such a clever conversationalist; why don’t you talk more?” Comments about piano bothered me the most, perhaps because he showed no interest in our musical studies other than to contrast our achievements. I tried to avoid practicing when my father was home, but even without his disapproving presence I frequently got so frustrated and angry – at both myself and the piano – that I considered the Bible verse: “If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off.”

The nadir was during fifth grade when I played Debussy’s Clair de Lune in a Christmas recital. I felt calm while the first five students played their pieces. Then the person before me, an eighth grader, sat down to play. From her dress, hair style, and demeanor she appeared even more poised and grownup than Melinda, who was a year older. She performed a Bach Two-Part Invention flawlessly, followed by enthusiastic applause.

By the time I sat down to play, my knees felt wobbly and my hands shook. Despite this, the first part of Clair de Lune went well. Then I went blank and stopped abruptly. “Damn” tumbled out of my mouth. Shocking language from a well-bred Southern girl – and in front of all my parents’ friends. After what seemed like hours of silence, Mrs. Siefkin spoke from the darkness of her living room.

“Just start over,” she said stiffly.

The second time the piece went well, but that didn’t lessen my shame. I felt disgraced, as if I’d stripped in front of everyone. Melinda never forgot a piece in public, much less shocked her parents by swearing. Ostracized at the reception after the recital, I stood by myself, cheeks flaming, too upset to eat any of the fancy cookies. In the car ride home no one said a word.

At the first lesson after Christmas Mrs. Siefkin greeted me coolly. The specter of the recital hovered between us, and when she asked me to play a Bach piece I’d worked on, my heart started pounding. I made a few mistakes but kept going, as she’d taught us to do with short pieces.

“How much did you practice after Christmas?” she asked.

“Not much,” I admitted.

“Then we’ll start over. I’m going to give you just the first page for next week.”

“Okay,” I said, but it wasn’t okay. Several times a week I begged my mother to let me quit. Mother wanted me to finish out the year; I wanted to avoid the May recital. In mid-March my mother let me quit on the condition that I tell Mrs. Siefkin in person.

 

“Why don’t you join the band?” my friend Anne asked, early the following fall.

“Sure. What should I play?” I asked.

“The flute,” she said.

I envied Anne, who was my only friend in the clique of popular girls. So in September, in order to work my way into Anne’s circle of friends, I joined the band and learned to play the flute.

Right away I felt a personal connection with the flute. Instead of hitting keys, like piano, I made the sound with my breath; even at age eleven that felt natural, as if my breath made the flute an extension of my body. Although the second-hand flute was a bit tarnished, the blue velvet case lining worn in spots, it was mine, and playing the flute was my skill – a skill my sister never had. A few weeks after joining the band I stopped comparing myself to Melinda, and even though Daddy didn’t care about my interest in the flute, I would meet surrogate father figures who did.

 

At age thirteen I began taking lessons with Warren Little, principal flutist in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. My mother had heard he was the best flutist in Atlanta, if not the entire Southeast. Belying his name, Mr. Little was big – six feet, two inches, and heavyset – with a large, round face and straight black hair swept back from his high forehead. Rimless glasses accentuated dark brown, almond-shaped eyes.

My first lesson with Mr. Little took place at 8 a.m. one Saturday morning in early October, when most Atlantans experience renewed energy after summer’s oppressive heat. But I was a teenager; I didn’t want to be up early on Saturday in any weather. Reluctantly, I climbed the steps to Mr. Little’s house and rang the doorbell. Framed by the doorway, Mr. Little was large and intimidating. At the sight of him, my sullenness became tinged with anxiety.

“You must be Ernestine,” he said, a little awkwardly.

He led me to the back of his small house where a den had been converted into a music room. There were two chairs, side by side, a music stand in front of one of them. Somehow the room felt inviting, maybe because it was right off the kitchen. It was 8 a.m., I was in an unfamiliar house with a strange man, but at least I recognized the smell of bacon.

The room was crowded: a faded, floral-patterned loveseat sat at right angles to the chairs, facing a wall of bookshelves crammed with stacks of music. After we sat down, I placed my music on the stand, a solo I knew well from studying it the previous year. Still feeling engulfed by this big man, I took a deep breath and started to play. When I finished, Mr. Little beamed at me. The awkward, threatening man disappeared, replaced by a welcoming, reassuring presence.  I wanted to swim around in the comforting warmth of his remarkable smile.

After complimenting me on the solo, Mr. Little put a Mozart duet on the stand. Since I’d decided he wasn’t an ogre, I was thrilled to be playing with a bona fide professional flutist. Having heard only fellow band members play, I’d never imagined the flute could sound beautiful. Mr. Little’s tone had none of the fuzzy, white noise that plagued most band flutists, and it was fuller, even when he wasn’t playing loudly – as if it were composed of lots of colors. At the end of the lesson, I wanted to shout, “Hey, I just played duets with the principal flutist of the Atlanta Symphony!”

Mr. Little’s role in my life quickly progressed from odd flute instructor to beloved teacher. By the end of the next year he had become a father figure.

Halfway through my freshman year Mr. Little assigned a solo I hated, Kent Kennan’s Night Soliloquy. Its strange melody never seemed to settle into a key; half the time I wasn’t sure I was playing the right notes. The quirky rhythmic groupings of the piece were daunting. How, I wondered, can a composer write more than eight 32nd notes in a beat? After two weeks I considered refusing to learn it – a Night Soliloquy boycott.

One spring day at dusk I decided to practice on the screened-in back porch. Our low-rent residence sat on a steeply sloping lot, making the back of the house almost level with the treetops of a wooded ravine that led down to some old railroad tracks.

The porch’s seclusion drew me. My sister and parents rarely went to that part of the house, perhaps repelled by the moldy furniture. I decided to give the crazy piece one more shot and, phrase by phrase, Night Soliloquy began to make sense. Its eerie melancholy seemed to reflect a quality in the fading twilight. Alone on the porch, looking out over the treetops, something happened: I forgot who I was, where I was. That evening Kennan’s piece became my own soliloquy, and playing the flute became my refuge, a way to work through the troubling emotions of adolescence. Being fully immersed in the music gave me a sense of freedom: nowhere else could I be both in control and entirely unselfconscious.

 

“Now try it the other way,” Mr. Little said at a lesson midway through my sophomore year. We’d been working on the Presto section at the end of Chaminade’s Concertino. Chaminade wrote two versions of the piece’s most difficult bar, one with extremely fast articulation, the other with an awkward high register run that repeats four times. I had played the first version.

“Go back to the beginning of the Presto,” Mr. Little said, “so I can hear this version in context.”

I played the Presto, this time with the gnarly sixteenth-note runs.

“Hey,” Mr. Little said, giving me one of his extraordinary smiles, “you can do either one. You have a choice. Which one would you rather play?”

“I think it sounds more exciting with the runs,” I said, then added, “unless the runs slow me down.”

“Yes. I know you like to play flashy things fast. Just keep working those runs with the metronome – every notch.”

 

“Have you heard of the Transylvania Music Camp in North Carolina?” Mr. Little asked at the end of the lesson.

“I think so. Is that the one in Brevard?”

“Yes,” he answered. “It’s a very good program. And three weeks from today the Georgia Power Company is holding auditions for a scholarship to go there this summer. I thought you might try out for it. It will be mostly juniors and seniors auditioning, but I think you’re ready.”

Surprised, I just looked at him, probably with my mouth hanging open. He told me that every spring the Georgia Power Company held auditions for wind and brass players in seven locations around the state. The winner from each district received a full scholarship to the music camp at Brevard. The most competitive district was Atlanta.

Two weeks later, I sat on one of the grey metal folding chairs that lined a dingy hallway of the Georgia State University music building. That first time, I had no racing heart, no queasy stomach. Minutes earlier I’d warmed up in a crowded, noisy room filled with woodwind and brass players. I didn’t mind that my chances of winning were slim. Mr. Little had recommended me. That was enough.

After a pleasant, middle-aged lady called my name, I entered a classroom where the desks had been moved against the walls. Two judges sat behind a small table, one gesturing to the music stand in the center of the room.

The auditions were unaccompanied, but as I closed my eyes to begin, I imagined the introductory bars of the piano part to Chaminade’s Concertino. For the opening theme, I began with as sweet a tone as I could summon and tried to use subtle dynamic (loud and soft) changes to shape the melody expressively.

Concertino was the first solo piece I studied that used frequent changes in tempo, or rubato. Performing unaccompanied allowed me to take more liberties with the stringendos (speeding up) and ritards (slowing down) to highlight changes in mood. That morning I exaggerated the stringendos in the first few sections, building momentum to bring out the restlessness, the yearning in the music. As my fingers flew over the triplets in the first fast section, I concentrated on clarity of the sixteenth notes. After using a lot of rubato to create a dramatically paced cadenza, I finished the piece with the fastest tempo I’d ever tried for the final Presto section. I probably wouldn’t win, but I was happy with my performance.

When the thirty-five performers had played, we crowded around the door to the audition room, waiting to hear the result. Some of the parents were there but most – including my mother, thank goodness – waited around the corner in the hallway. We didn’t have to wait long. The lady who had ushered us into the audition room emerged.

“Thank you all for your wonderful performances. The level this year was excellent. The judges have decided to award the scholarship to Ernestine Whitman.”

Had I heard correctly? The other applicants walked away to join their parents, but for a few moments I was too dumbfounded to move.

Then I ran down the hall. “Mother, I won!”

She beamed.

I was stunned, trying to make sense of what had happened. I knew I was no child prodigy. Competing with the best high school musicians in Atlanta, I’d been singled out. I’d been chosen.

As soon as we got home, I called Mr. Little.

“Hello, Mr. Little? I won the scholarship to Brevard,” I said, a little out of breath, heart beating fast.

“Well, well, Ernestine, congratulations! That’s quite an achievement.” Although I couldn’t see it, I heard the warm smile in his voice. Mr. Little’s enthusiastic response meant as much to me as winning the scholarship. He’d sounded pleased. And something else, something I didn’t identify until much later because it was so unfamiliar. He seemed proud of me.

 

I couldn’t wait to tell my father. On Saturdays Daddy worked in his office at the Emory University School of Business until about 5 p.m. I pounced on him as soon as he walked through the door.

“Daddy, guess what?” I chirped.

“I won the Georgia Power Company scholarship to attend Transylvania Music Camp!”

“Well … good. What does that mean?” Apparently he didn’t remember why I’d gotten up early that morning to practice before Mother and I left the house at 8:30 a.m.

“I have a full scholarship to go to Brevard this summer to study music,” I said, my excitement receding.

“When is it exactly?” my father asked.

“I don’t know, I think it’s eight or nine weeks this summer.” Maybe the length of the camp would impress him.

“Okay, but what are the actual costs here?” he asked.

“Well, I know it covers tuition to the camp.” Think, think. “And it covers meals, too,” I added.

“What about where you stay?” he asked, somewhat impatient.

“Students stay in cabins, so that should be covered,” I said.

“Well, you’d better find out before we do too much planning around this,” he said sternly. “I’d hate for you to be unable to go because of hidden costs Mr. Little didn’t bother to tell you about.” Would you really hate that? I wondered. Over the past year, as I’d become more interested in the flute, Daddy’s disapproval of Mr. Little had become more pronounced.

 

At the beginning of my junior year, Mr. Little suggested I try out for the Atlanta Community Orchestra, a group composed of adults who love playing an instrument but have other professions. A few days later I played for the conductor and was invited to join the group.

Entering the huge room at the Jewish Community Center, I felt disoriented. Because my high school had no string program, I didn’t know where flutists sat in an orchestra. Violinists occupied the seats where flutists would have sat in a band, so I timidly ventured into the mass of chairs and music stands. Seeing my flute case, a woman pointed to a chair in the center of the group. As soon as I sat down another woman, frowning, told me to move over two chairs. Embarrassed to have taken the first chair seat, I moved to a chair in front of a flute two part and slumped down into it.

I was immediately struck by the conductor’s joy. When Mr. Sieber lifted his baton, he looked as if he were about to devour the best meal he’d ever tasted. The three band directors I knew had never exuded such enthusiasm. After about ten minutes, he started working with the string sections. I’d never heard anything so beautiful. It’s one thing to listen to a recording, quite another to sit amidst that glorious sound. I was mesmerized first by the viola section right in front of me, then the higher-pitched warmth of the violins. After a few moments, I noticed the most enticing sound of all – the deep resonance of the cellos. It was difficult to wrest my attention away from this dazzling aural tapestry and focus on playing the second flute part.

From that moment on, I wanted nothing more than to be part of the magnificent orchestral sound.

Each time Maestro Sieber praised my flute playing – perhaps a quick wink after a solo – I felt the same surge of confidence Mr. Little’s compliments had evoked. They each provided what my father had been unable to give: belief in my abilities and delight in my achievements. Two surrogate father figures.

Many teenage girls remember the moment they first fell in love; that night I fell in love with the sound of the orchestra. Unlike most teenage crushes, my first love determined the course of my life.

 

 

Author's Comment

Writing this piece reminded me just how important Mr. Little was to me as the charismatic teacher who developed my talent and introduced me to the world of classical music. After idolizing Mr. Little for years, in an odd quirk of fate, at age twenty I won an audition for Second Flute in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, landing me beside my former mentor. The memoir I’m writing is about his changing role in my life from mentor to tormentor. Warren Little shaped my life profoundly in both good and detrimental ways.

Bio

Ernestine Whitman was born in Charleston, South Carolina, but moved to Atlanta, Georgia when she was two years old. She holds degrees from Emory University, New England Conservatory, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison. After playing professionally with the Atlanta Symphony for seven years she decided to pursue college teaching and for thirty-three years was the flute professor at Lawrence University, earning the Excellence in Teaching award early in her career. While teaching at Lawrence she wrote articles for flute journals, but since retirement has begun writing a memoir about her years with the Atlanta Symphony.

3 Comments on “Musical Themes

  1. I found reading this absolutely thrilling, recalling my own mixed experiences trying to master piano with lots of put-down and minimal enouragement beyond an uncle who swore I had “the touch” and led me to believe i ought to become “great.” Big mistake. Never quite abandoned either my love of the music I played and the instrument of my delight and torment, never became “great’, but continue at 84 to draw nurture and joy from being able to make my own music at will. Your descriptions of playing speak to my heart, as do your reports of disappointment dished out by your father. I’m eager to read the next chapter with Mr. Little, but am prepared to find that your playing survived the disillusionment — it sounds as if you had the spine and dedication to survive and use what came to you — Wonderful story!

  2. A lovely piece. Brought me to tears. From age 8-22 I ate, drank and lived music through my horns—clarinet, saxophone, flute. Majoring in music in college I was counseled out a career in it by a counselor because “women had no place in a professional orchestra. So pleased and inspired that you found your place in your life’s work.

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