Shared Stories: Music Lessons

Many of us who have had music lessons as a child can relate to the musical journey of Vicky Williams. She was open to new experiences and had respect for her instruments, but she had too much energy to sit still for long. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns

By Vicky Williams
“Book learning” as my mother would say - “readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘rithmetic” -  was as important in our home as religion. Extra curriculum activities were also encouraged, so I decided to join the band at school. However, my band days at Swayze Elementary School in Monroe, Louisiana, were short lived. 

Mr. Turner, our band instructor, had a corn on his top lip from playing the coronet and trumpet professionally. He was short in stature but long in patience, as patient with us as Job’s long suffering in the Bible, faithful to his students, offering words of encouragement, never cracking a frown at our musical discord. 

He gingerly corrected us when our notes went sour and complimented us when we played our notes correctly. He was perceptive, passionate, professional, and dedicated to developing good musicianship in his students. He taught my brother Dorsey Williams Jr. how to play the tuba and countless other students to be good, young musicians. 

Unfortunately, my patience was not up to par at mastering a musical instrument.

I failed miserably at learning how to play the clarinet. It was an adventure and a risk -  the old musty instrument which my school provided smelled like bad breath. I took off the mouthpiece, used a mouthpiece brush with warm, soapy water to clean it, and rinsed it with cool water. 

Mother gave me vinegar in water, 1-part vinegar and 2 parts water, to further sanitize it. I rinsed it again with water, allowed it to air dry, and placed a fresh reed on the old mouthpiece after it dried. 

I made the long, sleek, black instrument with silver, shiny keys more attractive after cleaning the bell and joints using a swab on a string and a warm, soft toothbrush to clean the outside of the instrument, avoiding getting water on the keys. I put a dab of Vaseline on my finger tip and rubbed it on the instrument to make it shine and removed the excess with a dry towel.

The smelly, brown, gooey grease used to lubricate the joints and the aged, worn, brown, crackled leather case lined with faded, red velvet reminded me of an old rancid antique. Our band instruments were hand me downs. Everything in our segregated school was used instruments from white schools. 

I made it cry and make misery, when I played. When I practiced at home, I drove everybody crazy.

I made third clarinet and performed in one school concert. My instrument squeaked and squealed. I slaughtered my notes that day, pitifully off key. My performance was embarrassing. Mr. Turner kept orchestrating the band as if nothing ever happened, his head proudly held high and his hands never stopped waving instructions. 

My playing days evaporated quickly after that day. I was impatient at learning and walked away. I was in the sixth grade and my interest changed. Being in the band was on a voluntary basis.

I loved adventure. Discovering new things inspired intrigue and fascination.

I also tried learning to play the piano. I took free lessons next door at Mr. and Mrs. Foster’s house, our neighbors. My impatience worked against me. Lois, their daughter, was my teacher. She volunteered to teach me. I only got as far as learning to play chop sticks. 

I spent a few summer nights with them to escape being sandwiched between Jo and Peggy, my older sisters, in the bed we shared. Spending the night next door was more fun than learning to play the piano. 

I had my own bed with big fluffy pillows and stuffed animals, when I slept there. Their house smelled like Old Spice and fresh-lit cigars. The walls were freshly painted and the bathroom was wall-papered. They had an indoor toilet and a bathtub. I loved taking bubble baths in their pink tub. Their wooden floors sparkled and shined. Our house had linoleum floors, no wall paper, and no indoor toilet. 

I needed to be free. Playing a musical instrument was not my forte. My love for sports growing up was unquestionably better suited for my energy. I moved on to basketball assuming Champ’s role, my sister Peggy, whose team never lost a game. 

I remember mother buying me a bladder, a loud orange rubber basketball for Christmas, and I thought I had discovered heaven. I was so happy. I bounced it up and down the street introducing it to the neighbors. 

That was the last Christmas I believed in Santa Claus. I was twelve years old, so naïve for so many years. The cookies, teacakes, and milk mother would leave on the table for Santa would always be gone the next morning. I would hurry to sleep on Christmas Eve, so Santa would show up and not put ashes in my eyes.  How could he? We had no chimney for him to come down. 

What a snow job! Everybody in the family kept that fat secret from me. I was so hurt, when Mother told me the truth I cried a river. However, basketball and I were a great fit. I made the team and my love for basketball has never died. 

I started playing in the sixth grade and played for three years. Coach Hughey was a burley, thick woman with a heart of gold and knew how to get the most out of her players. She would nervously pace the sidelines during the games. “Switch,” she would shout, “go to a 2-1-2 Zone.” 

Later she might say, “Man to man, get your hand in someone’s face. D them up.” In the huddle she would remind us, “Put your foot to the pedal, now step it up,” clapping her hands loudly issuing instructions.

I was the point guard and aggressive at guarding others. My outside shot was suspect. I mostly made lay-ups, but my tenacity was unquestionable. I played with burning passion and an insatiable love for the game. 

Do Do, a nickname for Sammy White, Eddie P., my cousin, Lafter Jacobs who I had a crush on, and the boys in my neighborhood who roughed me up on the basketball court at the community recreational center were my mentors along with Coach Hughey. Their roughness fed my fire, my tenacity.

We only lost only one game the three years I played. My ear for listening to music as a child, without a doubt, was much better than my playing a musical instrument. 

No more misery squeaking out of an instrument for me. I was better at being a champion playing basketball with my tennis shoes squeaking up and down the court to victory.