Trying to play the old, attic-resurrected cornopean was not an entire waste of time, nor wholly without compensation, inasmuch as I learned to finger two of the regular cornet scales, as well as the chromatic scale for about an octave, and, better than all, I really was blowing a brass instrument, although ancient, of the cornet type. But oh, what a tone! I drew only such woeful, wheezy noises from that old "band derelict" that it made me sore on both myself and the instrument. I stuck to it a while howeve, trying hard to play by ear some of the elementary exercises from the Arban Method that I heard my brother Ed practice hour after hour on his "real" cornet. Of course, I couldn't play any of the higher notes (middle C being about my limit), so had to struggle incontinently even to play these simple studies when they went above the middle C (as all of them did), while G on the top space was an impossible height for me to scale.
I certainly was "working my passage" when playing that cornopean, which was everything but a cornucopian (horn of plenty) when it came to tone. I actually had to hold the instrument together with my left hand when pressing it hard against my lips to get high tones, otherwise the thing would fall to pieces and then I would have to put the parts together again, stopping up the leaks with beeswax in order to keep the wind from escaping through the joints when I blew hard. I finally became mad and disgusted, buried the instrument in its old box and gave it all up. All my dreams of becoming a cornet player were shattered, and so I went back to my violin wholly, which I had been playing all along fairly well, as in those early days I seemed to possess some talent for that instrument of the stringed family.
They elected me as leader, perhaps because of my father's popularity, as well as my ability in mastering the first violin parts in the J.W. Pepper amateur orchestra publications, which contained simplified parts for all instruments and were easy arrangements. We met for practice every Thursday night at one of the homes of the boys, each taking turn as "host". I can remember that the older members of the family generally managed to be absent on "rehearsal" nights probably on account of the horrible noises we made when trying to play. We did not mind their going, however, as that left us alone to work with "might and main" for two solid hours (from eight till ten), all of us taking great interest. After rehearsing for two, or three months, and showing some improvement each week, we decided that the time had come for us to be heard in public and announced our preparedness to play for church functions (sociables, festivals and such). We booked quite a number of these affairs during the winter months, gaining considerable of a reputation as a boys orchestra (our average age was thirteen years). As remuneration for our services we generally received supper and "thanks".
The opportunity now came for me to play with the Philharmonic Society Orchestra, an amateur organization of some fifty capable players and a connected chorus of about six hundred voices under the direction of Dr. F. H. Torrington. I was one of the second violinists in the orchestra and learned much in good music that proved valuable in later life. Dr. Torrington was a very able musician who at one time played in the Theodore Thomas Orchestra; also, an excellent organist, having played in the Metropolitan Church in Toronto. He was a remarkable interpreter of classical music, as well as a fine drill master for both orchestra and chorus - thorough in every detail, even to having the bowing marked so that all the violin players would bow exactly alike.
The Philharmonic was a very fine amateur orchestra, and the work was most interesting to me. I became more matured in my musical efforts through playing with men who knew the meaning of each selection, consequently I was very proud to be one of the members. When concerts were given great singers were engaged from New York and Boston as the soloists; also, many first-instrument men from the great orchestras were engaged to play bassoon, oboe, trumpet, horns and other important parts, thus augmenting the orchestra to seventy-five or more men and insuring a more perfect performance.
Perhaps my readers can realize what this experience meant to me, a boy of thirteen - playing the standard overtures and great symphonies, as well as the fascinating orchestrations of such oratorios as The Messiah (Handel), The Creation (Haydn), Samson (Handel), The Golden Legend (Sullivan), St. Paul (Mendelsson), The Redemption (Gounod) and others. The work was extremely difficult for a boy of my age and so I took my parts home for practice, working mighty hard on them in order to do better work at rehearsals and concerts. What with my hours all my spare time was devoted to the violin. Realizing the benefits that were to be derived from opportunities which seemed coming my way, I also began to learn a great lesson in life, namely, always know and feel just when to grasp an opportunity and then hold to it with tenacity.
SOME IMPORTANT LESSONS
My musical education was now being molded in a proper manner, under the direction of a man who knew I was playing the very best class of music as it should be played, and I never was allowed to be careless in position and appearance even when only sitting and not playing. It was made imperative that not only must I bow and finger the violin correctly, but must first learn to hold the instrument right; that I must always sit facing the director, and never cross my legs or twine them around those of my chair. I was told that by keeping the feet firmly on the floor one could concentrate and play better, and this suggestion alone later on helped me to conquer what I thought was impossible at one time. It was fine discipline, all of which proved of great worth to me afterwards. Oh boys, if we were only more careful in the beginning with the smaller things, what a lot of time, energy and effectiveness would be saved! We all must learn by experience, however, which is the greatest teacher of all.
I remember one night at rehearsal seeing Dr. Torrington take up a violin and imitate the awkwardness of one of the members; holding the instrument in the most awkward manner imaginable, and playing a few tones with his body in a badly crouched position, he actually made us see how absolutely silly and ridiculous it was to play in an unnatural posture. We all laughed heartily at the Doctor's grotesque posing, which was done in a most kindly way, but after that we were mighty careful how we sat, and played. We had been shown that the first essential for a good orchestra is appearance, after which comes the musical part to back it up. In other words, audiences as a rule never are over-educated musically, therefore, all the men sit in upright positions, in a business-like manner, and look alert and genteel, the audience never notices the little mistakes that so often occur in music. As Solomon might have put it: A good appearance is rather to be chosen than a great performance -that is, to the majority of listeners.
I seemed to possess a strong instinct for observation and analysis, even as a boy, and the superb concerts given at times by the Philharmonic Orchestra Society offered a glorious opportunity to indulge the instinct - possibly too gloriously, as I often so lost myself that I forgot to play my part when listening to the chorus and great soloists singing a massive oratorio and noting the wonderful orchestral effects behind the voices - not offsetting, but up building, accentuating or accompanying them. I would read beforehand the story or plot of the work to be given, gain a general outline of the work and its meaning, then at the performance could close my eyes and listen to the whole thing interpreted in tone-pictures. It was a keen delight first to listen to a section tonally as a whole, then try to separate their many tonal colorings and analyze their grouping and effects; strings (violins, violas, cellos, double basses and harp), woodwinds (flutes, oboes, bassoons and clarinets); brasses (trumpets, horns, trombones and tubas); percussion (tympani, drums, cymbals, triangle and gong) - searching into and dissecting musical sounds and training my ears to distinguish one quality of tone from another.
What a pity that there are not more good amateur orchestras in this country today! Of course, the public school orchestras all over the country are doing a wonderful work, but unfortunately their players are confined wholly to students. I certainly am grateful for all the many advantages that came to me during my youth, also that I never knew what it was to "hang out" nights on the corners as so many boys did. My mother, who was very strict, never would allow me to go out nights except to the orchestra rehersals, and not being of a too serious disposition I confess that deep down in my heart I rejoiced that these gave me an opportunity of getting out nights once or twice a week, but I was forced to get all my lessons completed before I could go. My mother considered that a good education was the best asset for a successful business man, and so my lessons had to be perfect before I could think of recreation of any kind, and she being a school teacher before her marriage was able to help me greatly with my lessons at home.
THE CORNET CONQUERS
In spite of my work in trying to improve myself on the violin and gaining an orchestra experience, I still had a strong liking for the cornet, which was in no way lessened by hearing my brother Ed play his. Listening to his constant practice every day finally "got my goat" musically, so I began devising some means where by I might try Ed's instrument and see if it were possible for me to do anything on a real cornet. He had a new one now, and as I was crazy with the desire to try it, I begged my mother to let me blow it just once one day when Ed was down town. At first I was met by a flat refusal, but she finally consented to let me play it for a few minutes, and I so surprised her by what I did as a beginner that she coaxed Ed to hear me play it.
Ed listened without saying very much, for he was a bit sore to find out that I had been blowing his new cornet: then he realized that possibly he might make some use of me. He recently had organized another small orchestra, and having acquired quite a reputation as a violinist was anxious to lead it himself with that instrument. He finally told me that if I would take good care of his cornet and wash it out each day, and if I made any noticeable improvement in its playing, perhaps he could use me in his orchstra. So at last I began to practice on a real cornet, and perhaps you can imagine how supremely happy I was - but I doubt it.
At the first rehearsal under Ed's directing I was careful not to make any mistakes and so get a "call-down" before the other players, and I left out many notes where the parts were difficult. In such places I did not blow a note, but kept my fingers moving and tried to look wise. "Safety first", even in those days! Strange to say, I could not seem to play soft and keep my tones under the others, so Ed compelled me to use a mute because when I let loose the whole orchestra would be drowned out. I was a mighty busy boy now, what with my schoolwork and the orchestras with which I was playing, but it kept me out of mischief. Even had I so desired and been permitted, I had no time to stand on street corners with a lot of loafers, also, I was happy in being industrious in a good cause.