Music Appreciation: Lesson One

Setting: Jean Pierre Rampal Concert

Date: Early 1980s

As far back as I can remember I have loved music. In elementary school, I knew I’d join the Fernbrook School band as soon as I had the chance. In order to qualify for this opportunity, all 4th grade students took a multi-week unit learning to play the recorder as part of music class. At the end of the session, we took a test on the instrument and a passing grade secured one’s eligibility to participate in the band the next school year.

Our music teacher Mrs. Luck issued my classmates and I those recorders you might be familiar with; red body, white mouthpiece, made of strong, indestructible plastic and only capable of producing fierce, squeaky, artificial sounding notes. With my eye on passing the test and gaining entry into the band, I dutifully followed Mrs. Luck’s teachings and obediently practiced at home as instructed. When it came time for the test, I passed with ease and was on my way to playing the flute in the Fernbrook School band.

When 5th grade started, I threw myself into band with whole-hearted youthful enthusiasm. My friend Elizabeth also played the flute and our mothers were proud of their musically motivated daughters. During that time Elizabeth’s mother Sandra was attending Morris Country College in our hometown of Randolph. One day she noticed that world-renowned flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal was to perform on campus. Sandra secured front row concert tickets and both moms hoped this would be a great inspiration for the budding young flutists. 

Elizabeth and I were excited to get dressed up, sit in the elegant concert hall and listen to someone who could really play the flute. We soon realized the concert was a pretty grown up affair with very few people our age in the audience. Without being told, Elizabeth and I also learned that there was a strict set of rules to follow; when to clap, how to clap, what to wear. Concertgoers seemed stiff and overly formal, and the whole scene matched what I now know is the stereotype of a stuffy classical music recital. Elizabeth and I were further schooled in the genre when the performance began.

While I don’t remember why I chose to play the flute, I do know that the selections Mr. Rampal was performing were not the type of music that inspired me to pursue the instrument. It was anything but the fun, bouncy tunes we were learning in the Fernbrook School band. The sounds coming out of Mr. Rampal’s instrument were all over the place moving from fast and furious to slow and dreary to shrill and unpleasant. This was a solo performance so the music was completely naked. Even loud passages left the sound of the flute 100% exposed. You couldn’t tap your foot as Mr. Rampal played nor could you hum along. In our young minds, it was hardly music.

Elizabeth and I exchanged looks and commiserated with one another silently. In a moment of solidarity (Or was it boredom?), Elizabeth offered me a bon-bon from a small tin she pulled out of her sophisticated purse. I gladly took one but upon returning the tin to her bag Elizabeth proceeded to drop it.

The tin landed on the floor with a muffled twang but luckily bon-bons did not spill from the container. Did I mention that our seats were not just in the front row; they were in the front row on the side of the stage! These were seats were added at the last-minute to accommodate a large crowd eager to see Mr. Rampal.

Upon dropping the tin, Elizabeth’s mother shot her a look that could kill, Elizabeth bowed her head in embarrassment and I almost injured myself trying not to laugh. As a young girl who laughed regularly and at times uncontrollably, this was quite a challenge. It was the kind of silent hysterics where my face and sides hurt, tears rolled from my eyes, and I couldn’t look at Elizabeth for fear of losing it completely.

All the while, Mr. Rampal tootled on, oblivious to the shenanigans taking place on the stage just mere steps from his feet. Other than a nasty look from Elizabeth’s mother, we survived the evening unscathed. This experience did not strengthen our love for the flute, and over time both Elizabeth and I stopped playing.
Update, 11.15.16 - Elizabeth corrected me. Mr. Rampal actually stopped playing and looked right at us when this happened. Mortifying! Of course I was too busy looking away trying not to laugh so I didn't notice.
After the concert, Elizabeth and I used to pretend we were world famous flutists. We’d stand up at our music stands with great importance and blow into our instruments with every bit of mite we could muster. Fingers flying wildly, we would try to recreate the shrill sounds and outrageously passionate playing we saw in the concert hall. I can’t remember when Elizabeth stopped playing the flute, but I never go far enough along in the band to be able to play music anywhere near as complex and intricate as what we experienced that evening.

Despite everything, I eventually developed an appreciation for classical music and went on to spend a number of years working at two classical music festivals. I learned the etiquette, enjoyed the opportunity to participate in the pomp and circumstance, and gained a greater appreciation for a wide range of music.

During the weeks that followed, whenever Elizabeth and I talked about the Jean-
Pierre Rampal concert and the runaway bon-bon tin, we’d find ourselves in a fit of hysterics. Even now, as I re-tell this story decades later, a foolish grin creeps across my face. It is a happy feeling to recall one’s youth, a time when a good laugh came easily and an enormous world of music was out there yet to be discovered. Thank you Mr. Rampal.