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About the Music

Updated on April 21, 2019


Still Playable
Still Playable

It started innocently enough, as childhood lessons often do, with a young lad practicing his first off-key lessons on a slide trombone. I practiced with the windows open, as it allowed some of the sound to escape the house, but had the side effect of allowing the whole neighborhood to hear. Mom and Dad used to limit me to one hour of practice a day; I was that bad at it. Dad was, or should I say ‘is still’ a Musician, so the expectations were pretty high. I never knew how far away I could be heard, I only knew that it was fun trying to get that thing to carry a tune. The slide was sticky (and still is sticky) so it’s awful hard to get the slide into exactly the right position at exactly the right time to make it sound close to the intended musical note.

My sister played the flute. The flute was not nearly as loud as the trombone, but shrill enough so that the cat and dog always left the room. Nothing special about either one of us, or either instrument, except everyone knew when we practiced.


The Tuning Fork

Neither one of us played the piano, or even tried, but Dad did. Dad has a really good ear for that sort of stuff. He can tell when the musical notes are right and when the notes are wrong. It must have been a nightmare to listen to us practice. One day he encountered a piano that was out of tune, and a few days later, Dad brought home a tuning fork. Of course we asked and were told that it was used for tuning pianos. He talked about the tuning fork some, and told us about how it worked. You could tap the fork, and it would make a note. You could then tighten or loosen the corresponding string on a piano until it made exactly the same note. You could tap a different fork and it would make a different note. If you had two forks that made the same note, you could tap one and the other would start ringing, even if it was not touching the first tuning fork. Dad called it resonance. Of course we did not believe that right away, because he did not have two tuning forks of the same note.

However, he had bought Mom a set of crystal glasses. Mom told us you could do something like that with really good crystal glasses. Then she showed us how. She took one of the glasses out of the cabinet, and cleaned it off. Then she licked her finger, and started running it slowly around the rim of the glass. After a few seconds, the glass started to make a tone, real clear. We tried it too, and soon found that we could make different notes if we filled the glasses up with different levels of water. That fun lasted for a bit, because we soon found we could make sour notes from the crystals as much as we could from the trombone or the flute.

Resonance: As it turns out, this is the same principle that makes radio work, just the frequencies are different. It is amazing the things you can learn by running wet fingers around the rim of a crystal glass, or by tapping tuning forks.

Walt Disney's Fables - Pied Piper

The Flute that says Follow Me

The Visitor

But back to the flute.

As kids, before television took over children’s entertainment, we also listened to all sorts of tales. Most of us older folks have heard at least one or two of Aesop’s fables, or heard of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. The Pied Piper was a really cool story to someone who played the flute. If you have never heard the story, the short version is this: A man with a magic flute comes to a rat infested town and strikes a deal to get rid of all the rats. He leads the rats away by playing his magic flute (it resonates with the rats, and they are drawn to it). The town decides not to pay for the service after it is performed. The piper leaves, then returns and leads all the children away. While the story is intended as a lesson in paying your dues, to a child, it can be seen as a symbol of leadership, as if to say ‘follow me’.

At least that is the story I told our vacationing visitor when he came over the house to play, and wanted to know what was making that sound. Of course I told him truthfully, my sister was playing the flute. But then I exaggerated a bit, and said, she wants go grow up to be a leader. Never mind the Kool-Aid and all its artificial sugars, the flute was a magical thing, and if she learned to play it well enough, all would follow her lead, except for those who could not hear.

The Flute Runs Away?

A few days later when he came to play again, he brought a friend with him. Mom had a terrible headache, and told the friend to go home since he was not invited. She also told my sister to not play the flute. The visitor stayed, his friend went home, and believe it or not I recall that we spent time reading through an old almanac put out by the Chicago Tribune, reading about far away countries of Africa, looking at pictures of former Presidents, and trying to make sense of our own countries Constitution. Pretty heady stuff for kids only ten and seven years old.

Altogether, an uneventful visit, only made memorable by what was noted after he had gone home. Sis’s flute was missing. For whatever reason, my sister and parents thought our visitor had taken it. Musical instruments are pretty expensive things, so the housing’s military police were called. Naturally, they wanted to know about the visitor. I told them I didn’t think he had taken it because he had been with me the whole time. But the police did their job and investigated.

The flute was never found. However, Dad was a musician, and had connections with other musicians. A short time later he was able to get a flute, bought from a flutist or a pawn shop in Chicago. Dad told us it had been owned by a flutist in the local symphony, so it became a special flute to Sis. In no time at all Sis was back to playing the flute, and we were no longer allowed to have visitors come over to play.

The Lesson – All is Not as it Seems

Looking back, several lessons were learned. First was, noise attracts attention, not all good. Second, the lessons on resonance stayed with me all my life, and provided motivation for understanding math and physics.

But there was one other lessons with respect to how people treat one another, and that lesson was clear. We tend to suspect outsiders of wrongdoing before knowing the facts. We tend to trust those we know, right or wrong, before we trust those we do not know so well.

But those were not the only lessons. Recently I have found myself thinking back on that one small event and wondering if perhaps, while all our attention was on the visitor, perhaps someone had taken advantage of everyone knowing he was there to engage in a bit of mischief. You see, we rarely think in terms of folks being used as dupes to act as the innocent face for what others are doing.

Either way, music helps you remember.


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