The End Of An Era - A few weeks ago, my brother called and told me our music teacher/director/guru from high school, Peter Thomsen, was retiring and that they were having this big party and concert for him in Longmeadow (see the "Education" portion, the part about the music program). Stu sent me an invitation and a link to a great website showing photos of Pete during his own musical training, then with students over his 34 years of teaching. (The website provides a good snapshot of what Pete's all about so I encourage you to click this link and head over there - "A Musical Life.") Looking through the photos nudged my thinking back to those days and brought a huge smile to my face. So of course, it didn't take long for me and Stu to start talking about the possibility of us heading back home together to be part of the celebration. I then spent a good deal of time on the web researching flight and car info, coming within a whisker of locking in plans for a trip to New England. I was that close.
Of course I wanted to see Pete; honor him. After all, singing in "Lyrics" (Longmeadow High School's cream-of-the-crop, chorus-wise) provided some of the best times of my young life, maybe my whole life, for that matter. In my yearbook at graduation, I wrote something which ended with this line: “... singing with friends is one great experience.” And it was. Come to think of it, it still is. Music has been, and always will be, a huge part of my life – it’s in the family blood. Apparently more than I ever knew, having discovered one long lost relative during this trip who ended up being a conductor of a major symphony orchestra. (See "We Are Family" - April, 2007)
I joined Lyrics in the fall of 1971, after making the team via a rare mid-season audition, (George Rommell will remember that). And that was it. The transformation was pretty amazing. Immediately, I went from being a low-B student who didn’t give a hoot about anything – to a straight-A student who started the process of putting things together, at least the pre-20 part of it. Just like that (snap!) I was in with a more-or-less different crowd, the honors students. Sure, I still played ball with my friends, but something shifted when I entered the music program. And I loved it.
Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get to the retirement shindig, having too much on my plate here and not feeling right about leaving my boss in a lurch with a key colleague being out for a bit. Add to that, I’ve been away a bunch lately and ... well … something had to give. I'm really digging in to finish this book. That, and that, alone, has become my priority.
Fastest 1,357 Mile Trip Ever - Stuart called me about ten minutes ago. There was a racket. It sounded like people clapping? Then singing? What the f ... ? I saw the caller ID so I knew it was him but what the hell was that about!? I tried to call him back. No Answer. "He’s playing games," I thought. Was he calling to tell me the Mets/Yanks score? I knew the Mets had won, so I wanted to fill him in in case he didn’t’ know that. I tried him back again. No answer. He left me a 2nd message in the interim. "Playing games," I thought again. I listened to the second message. Noise and more noise. It sounded like he was in a train station - somewhere in a crowd. Or a concert??
Light bulb - "On."
Stu had driven back to MA a few days earlier to pick up some things to bring back to Chicago, see Emma, friends and … that's right. To head over to Pete’s retirement celebration.
I felt ... well … I was thrilled for Pete. Happy for Stu. But suddenly I wished I was there, too.
I kept the phone on vibrate and set it next to the laptop while I continued my work at Starbucks on 39th.
Stu called back a few minutes later. Somehow I was expected this call.
“Ready?" he asked. "I’m sitting next to Scott and Kim Hamilton ...”
“The Lord Bless You and Keep You?” Have they done it yet?” I asked.
“Here’s the thing….” Stu paused as the crowd started to settle down. There was lots of noise going on and clapping doesn't pick up all that well on a cell's tiny speaker.
“Okay. H? They’re about to do Hallelujah Chorus” and then “The Lord Bless You ..."
More clapping. I think I heard some cheering as well.
"And George is here. Rommell. "
My brother was like Dan Rather on the front lines in Viet Nam, providing me with a blow by blow description of everything unfolding in the LHS auditorium.
Man, Oh man - Western Mass. was tugging at my insides. "I blew it," I thought. "Really blew it."
You know something? A person has a chance to pick special moments in a lifetime, and those kinds of moments don't, how do they say it? Grow on trees? This was one of those moments, I could tell. And I wasn’t there. I made a choice, sure. But, I don’t know. This may have qualified as one humdinger of a mistake.
Singing with Friends - “You ready? Stu asked. "Okay, now – I’m going to put this on speaker. Don't say anything."
I sat at my Starbuck's table and covered up both ears so I could hear better.
"Okay, here we go. Now, don’t say anything – you’re on speak ...”
"You already said th ..."
"I said, don't say anything!!"
I smiled. Everything was in place.
Me in a Kansas City Starbucks.
Stuart with his cell phone sitting on the his lap in the Longmeadow High School auditorium.
The chorus, poised to do their thing.
Then, it was easy. I just listened.
Now, not to sound over dramatic ... Oh, what the hell? I'll be dramatic. It's as though the music coming over the phone lifted me from that little wooden Kansas City Starbuck's seat and transported me back to Longmeadow in the early '70’s. I was in high school, again.
Within about a minute of listening to Peter’s most recent and last Lyrics and super-chorus groups, I smiled when I noticed I was singing along, mouthing the words – every one of them. First to the Hallelujah Chorus, and then … well … here’s what happened next.
“Okay, we're goin’ up now…" Stu continued his play by play. H - It's like half the people here ... At least half the audience is alumni ...”
[A little background here: "The Lord Bless You And Keep You" (hereinafter -"TLBYAKY") is a gorgeous SATB choral piece, the signature sign-off piece for every Lyrics chorus for as long as I can remember. Pete actually carried that tradition over from his predecessor, Mr. Alfredo Carbonell (another terrific music teacher, by the way). I just remembered - Our group of students was Pete’s first at LHS. Mr. Carbonell retired after my freshman year and then - enter Peter Thomsen. Anyway… TLBYAKY was the song. In the years that followed, post graduation, off to college, then back for Thanksgivings ... I and fellow LHS music alumni would return to the LHS auditorium for concerts; we all wanted to keep that experience going for us, at least for a bit longer. We all loved returning home and seeing Pete with his new crop of talented voices. And when it was time to conclude a concert, Pete would turn and make his request. And alumni would head up to the stage and, for another moment, we all had a chance to, once again, sing with friends].
Some jiggling, lots of noise, then quiet. A few seconds passed. I could just picture it. Pete standing in front of this huge chunk of his past, right smack in front of him. Faces. 34 years of faces. People whose lives he has touched and have touched him, in return. The ultimate 2-way street. The obvious line: Mr. Thomsen's Opus - I'm positive that very thought ran through more than a few minds in that room. I could picture Pete, the first dip of his arms - the signal to ... commence.
I listened to the song. I remember thinking the tempo was very slow, slower than I ever remember singing it. Who knows? Was the chosen tempo Pete's doing - him holding back a bit? Trying to hold onto the moment - make everything last just a bit longer? I could hear Stu's voice every once in awhile and was trying to picture him singing while holding the cell phone.
This was great.
The song was great.
The chorus was great.
Everything was great.