Sunday, June 21, 2009

Musicians have the best funerals...

By some miraculous stroke, I was able to live 34 years of life with the presence of grandparents. I got to know all four of these important people for fifteen years before, one by one, it became time to say good bye. Grandma Jane, my father's mother, died first. Then, after a gap of about ten years, Grandpa Hutch. After surviving the second massive stroke in her lifetime, Grandma Marian died a few years ago. And lastly, Grandpa Bob, my maternal grandfather, died in February of this year just days shy of his 94th birthday.

As you may already know, Grandpa Bob was, by profession, a musician. A violinist, a trumpet player, an arranger, and (I have tapes to prove it) a singer. He and my grandmother met in the stream of mutual musical talent and, much to the benefit of those around them, they continued to make music together in various ways through the majority of their years.

Grandpa Bob, although jovial and sharp and deeply interested in the things that mattered to him, was admittedly not a warm and fuzzy grandfather type. He was not the man to invite you to his knee, to wipe away tears (not that you would think to show him tears in the first place), or to become vastly sentimental by the sheer presence of his outstanding wife, children or grandchildren. On this, I must be clear and honest.

But the man could play.

Growing up in a strict German family with a relentless work ethic, it was upon his sole determination to learn to play the violin at the age of eight that he took on an early morning paper route to earn the twenty-some dollars necessary to purchase a pee wee-sized instrument upon which he could learn.

Later in his youth, he would demonstrate similar initiative in acquiring and then learning to play the trumpet.

Years would pass and he would carve out numerous professional alleyways for his talent, the stories of which he shared with me over the years. Playing in a band at a party filled with mobsters. Driving with some pals to a gig in a classic Minnesota snowstorm, only to slide off the side of the road, eventually have a door of the car ripped off, and waiting for rescue. Playing in the band backing up the circus that came to town...the swish of an elephant's tail passing by the end of his bell being my favorite detail of the story.

And somewhere in the mix, I heard stories from both him and my mother of the years when he helped launch a drum and bugle corps for young men. In this group, besides helping with fundraising and administration, he directed, taught, and wrote original arrangements tailor-made for his up and coming troupe which would go on to win numerous awards throughout the Midwest for their musical style and excellence.

Now, as a certain rite of passage, I decided at the age of ten to learn the trumpet and play in our school's band. Then working at Torp's Music Store in St. Paul, Grandpa Bob supplied an appropriately worn-in cornet upon which I could begin, and gave me my first lessons.

As I mentioned earlier, he came from a German family with a penchant for working hard. So what did these few lessons with him look like? They looked like a stern man giving direction befitting an older player, a ten-year-old girl huffing and puffing into a horn for what must've been an hour and a half, with no break, and a set of young lungs not capable of sustaining such a routine!

But would I dare say anything to him about it? What do YOU think?!

Well, just like I wish I had the mind to have understood my physics lessons on a deeper, more sustained level, I wish I could have had the potential on the horn to have taken advantage of Grandpa's strict - but effective - teaching methods.

Fortunately, there were many...MANY...young people who did. And many young people whose lives were impacted by his dedication to teaching players in such a way that pushed them to their best.

Much to the delight of our family, a group of six such students - now all close to seventy years of age - assembled a musical reunion to play tribute to Grandpa at his memorial service. They played a handful of pieces, a few of which were arrangements written by my grandfather many, many years ago.

And as I sat there in the front row with my family, I was struck by how completely perfect this demonstration was. That there was no other elegy or poem that could've expressed the character of my grandfather more accurately.

Musicians are complex characters. On one hand, they can be ripe with frippery and balderdash at one moment, flourishing a final note with a dramatic gesture in order to secure a crowd's approval. On the other, they can be deeply internal and private, wishing for no one to hear a note before the whole picture is fully in place.

And a postmortem performance in dedication is, in a sense, a combination of both.

Naturally, there is oohing and ahhing over the talent and brilliance of the musician lost. Like opening your ears to an auditory monument of the greatness that laid within the deceased person.

But there is simultaneous homage given to the private person, the person who spent hours working away in solitude to perfect notes, pitches and inflections to create such a thing.

And what better background to honor this kind of trait in a person than a funeral?

I realize I have a limited range of funerals from which to judge. And perhaps professionals from other fields - actuaries, dentists, postal workers - could find similar meaning in services honoring their dead. But I truly believe there is no other memorial service quite like that of a musician. To sit for minutes at a time, listening to and honoring both the outward and inward person he or she strived to be...through the rhythms and colors of the music they created...

...there is no greater salute.

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