Those were the words I heard on the other end of the phone. The words that stunned me and left me speechless.
I know . . . hard to believe that I could be speechless. But I am still completely stymied when I think about it.
What I’d love to know is why.
There I am, immediately to the conductor’s right as you look at the photo, playing my flute during an April 2005 performance of the Stockton Concert Band at San Joaquin Delta College’s Atherton Auditorium in Stockton.
It is with that group that I realized a lifelong dream on March 28, 2007: We traveled to New York City and played Carnegie Hall! In June 2005, we had a great time in Hawaii where we played two concerts, but there is nothing like Carnegie Hall. Every musician dreams of being able to say “I played Carnegie.” We participated in a band festival, headlining the gala evening concert.
I have been having a love affair with music all of my life. My mother told me it all began when I would listen to my older sister practice her piano lesson and then go to the piano and replicate what she had played.
There’s a picture I found in an old photo album. I’m playing the piano in my red velvet Christmas dress that my mother sewed for me, of course. I was probably in about the fourth or fifth grade in that photo. I am sitting in the very same spot in the very same room as I type this article. You see, I live in the house in which I grew up and my computer desk is in the corner next to the fireplace where the piano was in that picture. Yes, I still have the piano.
All these years later, I’m still playing. This photo was taken a few years ago. I was in yet another rock band at a local church for more than three years.
Growing up, I was blessed by some wonderful music teachers, including Wylie Moffatt. I first got to know Wylie in elementary school chorus. He made us sing “Yellow Bird” while he played the xylophone. Hated the song, loved Wylie.
He also directed the Senior Choir at my then-church, and A Cappella Choir and Madrigals at Tokay High School. I sang in all three of those groups with Wylie, in addition to performing in Junior Variety Shows and local theater productions he directed such as “The Mikado.” He graciously agreed to play the organ and piano for my wedding in 1985.
Wylie was extremely eccentric. For instance, he would never put his own name on concert programs, instead creating an alter ego for himself, “Cosmo McMoon.” And I used to look forward to summer when his Christmas cards would arrive (he liked to be different). He pretended to be a tyrant, but was truly a dear, kind-hearted man and a role model for musical excellence. He called us his “Cherubs.”
After he retired and moved back to his native Wisconsin to care for his parents, he would come back to Lodi to visit and we would have A Cappella Choir reunions at one former student’s house. Wylie actually brought choir folders filled with music! He set chairs up on the patio, ordered us into our respective sections (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) and, after the ceremonial presentation of the pitch pipe (which was kept for him by our host), he made us warm up with those dreaded tongue exercises. We would laugh until we cried. In fact, I remember that during the last reunion, the basses were acting up (what else is new?) so Wylie went right over to the back row and straightened them up. One of the guys turned to me, laughing hysterically, and said, “I’m 40 years old and he’s still telling me what to do.” My response: “And you’re still doing it, too!”
I miss Wylie — and those reunions.
Check out this picture of the Tokay High School A Cappella Choir, 1973-74. That’s our beloved Wylie in the front row on the right. Can you find me? (That’s me, wearing glasses, in the front row, sixth from the right. Two of my best friends with whom I still hang out are on either side of me. In fact, the woman standing on my right as you look at the photo is my sons’ godmother.)
By the way, I hadn’t looked at that picture in about 30 years until I searched for it today to include in this article. I am amazed at how young and thin we all look in it! (Ironically, I thought I was horribly fat. The young man who uttered the words that inspired this post used to call me “Slim Pickens” because we did a musical production in which I played a character named “Rosie Pickens.” I wish my weight right now was the same as in that photo!) We were just babies, poised to go out into the world and morph into the people we are now.
It was about Wylie’s memorial service that the words I started this post out with were spoken.
I will call him simply “The Tenor.”
By the time I met him when we were in high school, he had already studied voice privately for a number of years (a rarity in this area back in those days), sang in his Catholic parish every week, and was the undisputed best singer in A Cappella Choir. (Yes, he’s in the photo.) He told me repeatedly that he wanted to sing professionally after high school and went away to college to study music. He even cut a record and, in 1978, gave me a copy. I don’t know what became of my original copy, but I recently found a copy on Ebay and bought it because Wylie played the keyboard on the recording.
Life went on and I lost track of The Tenor until Wylie’s sudden death a few years ago. I was involved in organizing a community-wide memorial service for Wylie. As my former schoolmates and I were planning the service, The Tenor’s name came up and it was suggested that maybe he would sing at the service — a solo, perhaps. He had allegedly remained close to Wylie over the years, as so many of us had. Somehow I found myself “volunteered” to contact him and ask him if he would like to sing.
I will never forget that phone call. First of all, I hadn’t spoken to him in many years. Secondly, I didn’t know if he was aware of Wylie’s passing and did not relish the thought of being the bearer of that news. But I steeled myself, made the call and inquired about the memorial service.
“I haven’t sung [or played] a note in years” are words that I can never imagine myself saying. Ever. For me, making music is as essential to my life as oxygen.
And I will never, ever forget what he told me: “I haven’t sung a note in years.”
I had no response because I wasn’t prepared for that simple, declarative sentence.
What I wanted to say was, “What? Are you kidding me? What do you mean you ‘haven’t sung a note in years’? Why on earth would you quit singing? Did you hurt your voice in some way? Did your wife demand that you quit? Were you too busy with your kids? C’mon, surely you could squeeze in a song here or there! Why are you wasting that immense talent and all those years of training?”
What I wish I’d had the presence of mind to say, but didn’t, is: “Well, now is as good a time as any to get started. Do you need an accompanist? I’ll be there, so let me know what song do you want to sing at the service. You’ve got __ days to practice! See you then!”
Rather, my memory is a bit hazy, but I think I regained my composure enough to mumble “ok” — or something equally brilliant and eloquent — and quickly hung up the phone.
I haven’t seen or spoken to him since.
But in the ensuing years, I have wondered from time to time what would make someone with so much talent give up music.
For me, to give up making music is unthinkable. If I quit playing and singing, how would I express myself artistically? What would I do with all the creative energy I wake up with every morning? What activity could I possibly engage in that would bring me as much pleasure, satisfaction, and sense of accomplishment?
I love being a lawyer and, more specifically, am proud to be a civil rights attorney. I am solidly committed to my work. In fact, every time I see one of my favorite professors from McGeorge School of Law, he greets me with a booming, “Siess! Are you still doing God’s work?” I assure him that I am and have no plan to abandon the ongoing “good fight” for equality.
But as much as I love my profession, I need more than the law in my life. I need to make music.
So were I to contemplate giving music up, the most important issue to be reconciled would be how I could live with myself, knowing that I was wasting the musical talents that were gifts to me from God.
We are charged with the responsibility to be “good stewards” of everything we receive. I am a firm believer in 1 Corinthians 12:4-6: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.” In The Message, a modern language translation, the passage reads this way:
God’s various gifts are handed out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various ministries are carried out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various expressions of power are in action everywhere; but God himself is behind it all. Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people!
There are many gifts that were not bestowed upon me, but I was granted the ability to play several instruments and sing, and I learned to love performing from fabulous teachers like Wylie at a very early age. My passion for nearly four years now has been the flute and that is the instrument I played at Carnegie Hall. But I have never stopped playing keys or guitar or singing or . . .
For me, music is as essential as oxygen. A day without making music in one form or another on one instrument or another is an incomplete, unhappy day for me.
No, I don’t currently make any money as a musician, although I was on staff for many years at a local congregation as the parish pianist/organist and choir accompanist. And I still regret not obtaining a degree in music. I might just go back to school one of these days and pick up a Ph.D. in flute performance. I would love to “Dr. Siess.”
But even though I’m not a professional musician in the sense that I do not earn my daily bread with paying gigs, I am a member of two bands presently, plus I play in small ensembles and as a soloist. There are always plenty of opportunities to make music in the community — local theatre productions, with community-based bands or choruses, etc. I am constantly on the look-out for new music to learn and there is music playing literally all day every day in my office, home, or car. And in my head. I mark the milestones of my life with music and all I need to do to transport myself back to a specific point in time, place or feeling is hear a particular piece of music.
Simply, I just couldn’t imagine my life without music.
Who knows? Maybe The Tenor and I will cross paths again some day and I’ll get the answer to the question that utterly perplexes me: “Why?”
In the meantime, however, I have to practice my piccolo.