Music has always played a prominent role in the lives of young people, and there were plenty of opportunities to explore different avenues in St. Lambert and at Chambly County High School when I was a teenager in the 1950s and early 60s. I admit to having enjoyed music class in school – a welcome break from challenging French and geometry classes, mastery of which persistently alluded me right to graduation. However, students in my class were sometimes rough on our female music teachers, with considerable 'horsing around' going on behind their backs -- a tennis ball flying back and forth, and bouncing off the chalkboard, was just one example – and one teacher sadly suffered a nervous breakdown, not solely from our bad behaviour I hoped. On the positive side, we were all exposed to a variety of musical forms (I refuse to employ the over-used word “genre” in my vocabulary.), which stimulated some of us to pursue music as a hobby, or at least to broaden our musical interests.
In my case, my younger brother John wanted to take guitar lessons, which were offered as an extra-curricular activity at CCHS, and since he would not go alone, my Mother recruited me to take the lessons with him. As anyone who has attempted to play a cheap guitar knows, with high-tension steel strings perched far-too high above the neck, one's fingertips soon become as red and swollen as those of a tree frog. Ignoring the pain eventually paid off -- tough calluses formed, and I could manage my lessons and practice without much discomfort. I learned some simple chords, when to change from one to the other, and even how to read beginner musical scores. Soon I was playing along with tunes on the radio, providing impromptu backup for Elvis as he crooned such favourites as “Love Me Tender,” until I had a number of pop tunes down pat (at least to my ears).
Although most of the time I played for my own entertainment in the privacy of my room, or even better (acoustically) in the bathroom, I began to hitch up with several classmates who were also into popular music. One fellow in particular (Unfortunately my neural pathways fail to surrender his name.) loved country music, and he specialized in tunes that offered the chance to yodel – a real lost art (mercifully) even back then. Somehow he convinced me to accompany him in a couple of school acts in front of the entire student body, including the ever-popular Christmas Variety Show. Fortunately this was before the advent of the video camera, so AV records do not exist to prove that our performances ever happened.
An older neighbour on Logan Street was really accomplished on the guitar, and he kindly offered to introduce me to classical guitar and lute music. Under his guidance, I really began to make some progress on my newly purchased instrument – a considerable improvement from the rental “torture box” from school. Somehow word got around that I could play a few classical etudes, and then came that fateful day in early January 1964, when I received a phone call from a lady representing the Women's Music Club of St. Lambert, enquiring whether I would consider performing several classical compositions for the “An Evening with Young Artists” series, which highlighted CCHS students and graduates who were serious musicians and singers. I was so caught off-guard that without exercising my usual precautionary principle of playing only before family and a few compassionate friends, I stammered out a “yes.” As I put the phone down, I immediately thought; “What was I thinking and whom was I kidding? I wasn't that good!”
The following week, an official-looking series program arrived in the mail, listing a dozen young performers on piano, harp, wind ensemble, and voice, and yes, there was me on solo guitar. Too late to back out now, I trimmed my nails to the proper length, and pressed on with long hours of practice on the “Partita in A Minor” by Johann Anton Logy (1645-1721) and “Prelude in C Minor” by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). The latter piece was so complex and fast that I could seldom play it through without at least a couple of 'flubs,' and I doubt that Elvis ever attempted it, at least on stage. Trying to keep the fingers of both hands moving rapidly in a coordinated fashion, and memorizing the correct sequence of thousands of notes, were real challenges. I hit a performance plateau, and then time simply ran out. Talk about stress, as I walked to school with my guitar in hand. It crossed my mind that perhaps this is one of the reasons we went to school – to learn how to function under high-stress situations. Arriving at CCHS, I kept telling myself that it would all be over in an hour. Mercifully I was number two on the program. Back stage, I peered out between the heavy curtains at my jury, and realized I was one of the few fellows in the whole auditorium.All too soon I was on deck. My heart was beating 'allegro' when I heard my name being introduced. Both hands were moist. With a gulp, I headed out to centre stage, with a chair in one hand and my guitar in the other. I sat down, took a deep breath, and pretended I was back in my bathroom playing only for my pet cat. I proceeded with the easiest pieces (the Partita's Aria, Capriccio and Gavotte) and managed to complete them without incident, but J. S. Bach was next. Could I do him justice? I paused, flexed my wrists and fingers like a pro, to relieve the tension, but dared not look out into the dark audience, which I feared would break my concentration, or worse, elicit real panic. I felt a drop of sweat cascade down from my armpit. In the dead silence of the auditorium, I started to play this beautiful melody, and began to gain confidence as I plucked away with all five finger nails of my right hand. My left hand swept up and down the neck, straining to reach both the high and low notes in rapid succession, while trying to maintain an even tempo. It seemed like I was in a surreal dream, not fully conscious of my surroundings. Then, almost before I realized it, the piece was over, and I had made only the slightest dull sound on a note or two, but I think I got away with it -- perhaps only I had heard it.
I hardly remember hearing applause or leaving the stage, but I presume I bowed politely, smiled nervously, and departed as fast as the occasion would allow. And so, thankfully, ended my brush as a presumptive performing artist. From that moment on, I have had the greatest admiration for those brave souls that walk out repeatedly on stage to perform solo, fully exposed time and again, and risking a meltdown in front of an audience. In future, I would restrict my appearances to campfire-side and party venues, where alcohol was being served.
Today, I only occasionally pick up my 12-string guitar, adjust my mouth organ with a special holder around my neck, and belt out old familiar tunes from the last mid-century. I feel sufficiently gratified that my son Rob picked up a love of music, and has become an accomplished guitarist and banjo player. With his own band, he has released several CDs featuring bluegrass classics and pleasing songs of his own composition, including the theme song for a recent Hollywood film. While he learned a few basic skills from me, he was also the beneficiary of a special teacher in elementary school that encouraged his musical interests. I have a cherished photo of me playing the banjo, with little Rob on my lap, still sucking on his pacifier. To keep up the tradition, we have taken similar photos with his identical-twin sons, Luc and Aidan, who already at age four show some genuine interest in music and step dancing.
Unfortunately, music as a formal program or course has been dropped from many high-school curricula, and band and choral activities are usually relegated to after-school activities for those few committed students. This loss of formal training is one of the reasons symphonic music attracts fewer audiences today, as most young people now have little exposure to the classics. An appreciation of the complex scores of the great composers and musicians, and especially “New Music,” certainly requires more experience and desire to learn than popular music. It seems that the education system concentrates on courses that directly apply to common career paths, an unfortunate outcome of which is a loss of the arts and a well-rounded education. A recent example in Canadian society is the cancellation of most classical-music programming on CBC, in spite of a strong negative reaction from a large segment of the public. It is part of the “dumbing-down syndrome” so typical of certain segments of our culture.
This lack of early training in the classics is a particularly sore point for professional musicians like my wife, Arlene Dahl, who has spent the last 30 years as a cellist with the Saskatoon Symphony and Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. She and other musicians make a special effort through frequent outreach programs in schools to reach students while they are young and impressionable. I am gratified to see that Chambly Academy still offers a music program.
Of course I have attended many WSO concerts, operas, and other performances over my 38 years in Winnipeg, and in fact, I first 'fell' for Arlene from the second balcony during a pops concert while on a date with another woman! (We were married six months later.) Each season I go to see and hear Arlene and her colleagues play, and I never cease to be amazed at the wonderful repertoire and sounds emanating from the 70-plus musicians all working together with the conductor. A couple of bad performances from any of the highly trained musicians would place their job and career in jeopardy – quite a stressful situation to be in when considering the hundreds of thousands of eye-hand or breath-finger decisions, and counting of bars, required during each performance. I can't help but think back to my single concert on stage at CCHS in 1964, and I am so glad to be in the audience. In fact, I sometimes become so relaxed that I have been known to fall asleep in the soft reclining chairs.
At the CCHS 50th Reunion, Arlene and I entered the packed Auditorium, where I used to have gym class and play basketball and gymnastics with my buddies. I gazed up to the stage and focussed on the very spot where I played my first and last concert 41 years ago. A little shiver ran down my spine, in spite of the heat in the big aging space. I chuckled and then headed off to a designated room for my class picture. If my old music teachers had been at the Reunion, I would like to have thanked them for encouraging in me a broad interest in music. It was a gift to last a lifetime.