Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Mozart in the Jungle

Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music

by Blair Tindall

“Her description of life in the famous Allendale building…is delightful, as are her portraits of fellow musicians and her stories of life in the pit.” –Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 336
  • Publication Date July 11, 2006
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4253-5
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $18.00

About The Book

In the tradition of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and Gelsey Kirkland’s Dancing on My Grave comes an insider’s look into the cloistered world of classical music.

From her debut recital at Carnegie Hall to performing with the orchestras of Les Misérables and Miss Saigon, oboist Blair Tindall has been playing classical music professionally for twenty-five years. She’s also lived the secret life of musicians who survive hand to mouth, trading sex and drugs for low-paying gigs and the promise of winning a rare symphony position or a lucrative solo recording contract. In Mozart in the Jungle, Tindall delves into her own life and the lives of the musicians and conductors who inhabit the insular world of classical music.

After having an affair with her forty-three-year-old teacher at the age of sixteen, Tindall graduates from the North Carolina School of the Arts to the backbiting New York classical music scene, a world where classical musicians trade sexual favors for plum jobs and assignments in musicals and orchestras across the city. Tindall and her fellow journeymen musicians often play drunk, high, or hopelessly hungover, live in decrepit apartments, and perform in hazardous conditions–in the cramped confines of a Broadway pit, the decibel level of one instrument is equal to the sound of a chain saw. Mozart in the Jungle offers a stark contrast between the rarefied experiences of overpaid classical musician superstars and those of the working-class musicians who schlep across the city from low-paying gig to low-paying gig, without health-care benefits or retirement plans. For lovers of classical music, Mozart in the Jungle is the first true, behind-the-scenes look at what goes on backstage and in the Broadway pit.


“Her description of life in the famous Allendale building . . . is delightful, as are her portraits of fellow musicians and her stories of life in the pit.” –Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

“A cautionary tale from the trenches . . . An unsparing glimpse into that world of small triumphs, easy frustrations and surprising excess, dispensing dirty little secrets usually reserved for late-night bar talk and backstage gossip. . . . Tindall succeeds at a more ambitious goal: presenting a surprisingly through analysis and scathing critique of the classical music business. . . . This is a fascinating examination of a peculiar culture that provides so much joy while breaking so many hearts.” –Anya Grundmann, Newsday

“A scathing, eye-opening look at life in the orchestra pits.” –Gayle Free and Laura Raposa, Boston Herald

“Salacious . . . An in-the-gutter, name-dropping memoir . . . Tindall is an engaging storyteller. She puts the reader onstage with her. . . . She weaves her professional and personal misjudgments into the institutional dysfunction of classical music. . . .Tindall plumps up her argument with abundant data.” –Pierre Ruhe, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Chronicles her life . . . with a candor meant to set tongues clucking. Tindall spares almost no one in her tale of indulgence and career advancement.” –Charles Ward, Houston Chronicle

“Blair Tindall crams two books into one, mixing a tell-all narrative about the classical-music world’s seamier side with a history of the economics of postwar American arts. Classical-music admirers might think that its performers are sensitive, refined intellectuals, but Tindall sets out to puncture this precious assumption with gusto. . . . The sections that trace classical music’s history and point to where it should go reveal that Tindall has a true passion for her subject.” –Brian Wise, Time Out New York

“Blair Tindall gives us what we’re looking for.” –Valerie Scher, San Diego Union-Tribune

“A raucous, ribald and often raunchy romp . . . She spares no one and nothing. . . . The cymbal-crashing of these two disciplines [music and journalism] is the exact double whammy needed to bring this story to life. . . . She tells a tale that is at once frightening and redeeming. . . . Any artist who’s ever tried to make it as a purist in a world where the rent’s forever past due will undoubtedly find solace and familiarity in Tindall’s scathing, intimate look at the classical musician’s world. All others will enjoy Mozart in the Jungle because it’s an exhilarating, albeit often excruciating, ride. B+” –Cathie Beck, Rocky Mountain News

“Wonderfully poignant and powerful . . . Blair Tindall writes so well. I think the average classical music listener will find much of her story compelling and come away with a good understanding of not only the life we lead, but also the difficulties we face in finding a career in music that is creatively satisfying and yet provides us a living. . . . Tindall has a real and human story to tell.” –Alan Black, Charlotte Observer

“Exploding the stereotype of classical musicians as overcultivated fops in formal wear, Tindall chronicles her sex life with candor and lusty flair. . . . Laced with sordid stories that debunk the prim and proper image of classical musicians . . . Her memoir of the freelancer’s harried, marginal existence is a valuable reality check to the glamorous myth of classical music.” –John Fleming, St. Petersburg Times

“[This] tattling memoir is full of scandal, indulgence and the musical life. . . . An accessible primer . . . With sharp powers of observation, she captures revealing details of her times and surroundings. . . . Tindall’s writing is excellent and clear; she maintains the reader’s interest with clever twists of phrase and plot. . . . [Her] insightful analysis of this insular world’s overindulgence and misdirection should be heeded by all in positions of influence.” –Mick Scott, Winston-Salem Journal

“Yes, there’s plenty of titillating smut here. . . . This is also a jeremiad on the dangers of fantasy lives. . . . She suggests that the American classical-music establishment is overdue for some reality checks. She’s right.” –Scott Cantrell, Dallas Morning News

“This “Behind the Classical Music” memoir lays bare the unexpectedly steamy and sordid world of professional symphonies. Who knew?” –Jennifer Ceaser, Hamptons

“As appalling as it is irresistible.” –Mark Sauer, Copley News Service

“Fascinating . . . Begins as a lilting fairy tale, segues into opera and evolves into a dissonant, postmodern work–unflinching autobiography, bitter cautionary tale and riveting expos’ of the classical-music business.” –Helen Sheehy, Opera News

“The strongest moments are found in passages where Tindall is so overcome with emotional memory. . . . Her writing feels unforced and alive. No matter how much you do or don’t know about classical music, in these moments you care about Blair Tindall. . . . Her perspective as a rank-and-file freelancer is an all-too-rarely heard voice in the larger cultural debate surrounding the future of classical music in America. . . . There is much to absorb vicariously through this walk in Blair Tindall’s shoes, especially for those who have never experienced the thrill of reacting to a conductor’s downbeat or sat in a cramped orchestra pit playing the same show for the 40th time.” –Molly Sheridan, Symphony

“Written with pop culture-savvy flair . . . Mozart is a delightfully unlikely page-turner. . . . It’s sure to instill . . . an unprecedented admiration of this deviant art.” –Alli Marshall, Mountain Xpress

“No other writer has better described the realities of the music business.” –Ken Keuffel, Winston-Salem Journal

“Fascinating on many levels, and after reading it, you will never look at those prim, black-clad musicians playing Mozart the same way again.” –Dottie Ashley, Post & Courier (Charleston)

“Whether you”e a devout classical music enthusiast or a full tilt rock “n roller (or anywhere in between for that matter) this memoir is an interesting and overly informative look into the classical music scene.” –Bobby Blades, Curledup.com

“A provocative blend of no-holds-barred memoir and tough-minded reporting about the state of classical music. . . . A real eye-opener.” –Kirkus Reviews

“A fresh, highly readable and caustic perspective on an over-glamorized world.” –Publishers Weekly

“Scathing . . . Its scandalous peek behind the decorous façade of classical music is bound to cause shock waves.” –Michael Shelden, Daily Telegraph

“Tindall almost always comes down on the side of honesty. She is clear-eyed, cool-hearted and unafraid to bite the hand that has fed her.” –Edward Smith, Telegraph (UK)

“It really is a cracking read and a must for anyone seeking to expand their knowledge about the people behind the music.” –Colin Woods, Northern Echo (UK)

“Candid and intriguing.” –Observer Music Monthly (UK)

“This is the most candid and unsparing account of orchestral life ever to see print. It details both the petty corruptions of power – the cliques that control who plays in orchestras and who doesn’t – and the more sordid corruptions of flesh and cash. Blair Tindall tells it how it is – the sex, the drugs, the influence racketeers. The abuses she exposes begin at high school and persist at the deathbed. But she also illuminates, vividly and unflinchingly, how classically trained musicians have lost their grip on reality and, with it, their place in society. This is a valuable book, a must-read for anyone who cares for the preservation of live performance.” –Norman Lebrecht, author of The Maestro Myth and The Song of Names

“Parents of young classical musicians beware. After reading Mozart in the Jungle you may want to redirect your children towards more wholesome pursuits, such as playing drums in a speed-metal band.” –Jacob Slichter, author of So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star and drummer for Semisonic (Closing Time)

“Blair Tindall blows the lid off the world of classical music in this book that transcends the genre of memoir. While an intensely personal and revealing story, Mozart in the Jungle is also fine investigative journalism, with an abiding sense of history. It’s a remarkable multi-layered work of non-fiction. Blair entered the sacred temple of classical music–for so long shrouded in mystery, off-limits to critical examination–and emerged with this tale of a non-profit “industry” bent on self destruction, conductors feeding at the trough of excess, both monetary and sexual. This book is a must-read for anyone concerned about the arts in America.” –Dale Maharidge, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning
And Their Children After Them

“Busloads of kids arrive in Manhattan daily, driven to ‘make it there.” But for many, the climb to the top is more often like a trek through a jungle. Blair Tindall brilliantly captures the energy, excitement and existential angst of it all, including the Allendale Apartments, the place where the lives of so many of us–musicians, artists and writers–intersected. It took a ‘double threat” like Blair Tindall–a world class oboist whose musical talents are matched by her journalistic skills–to tell the story. It makes me long for those days, leaky ceilings and all.” –Bill Lichtenstein, senior executive producer of public radio’s “The Infinite Mind”; president, Lichtenstein Creative Media

“No book before this has so accurately captured the harrowing life of the free-lance artist trying to make a career in the music business as Blair Tindall’s Mozart in the Jungle. While her experiences are unique to her, all musicians recognize the financial insecurity, artistic frustration and personal chaos that she describes. And, along the way, framing her story, is an unblinking, thoughtful, detailed analysis of the recent difficulties in the symphony, opera and ballet fields and some insights into the current state of musician employment–or, more accurately, non-employment in the recording field. A valuable and engrossing work.” –Bill Moriarity, Former President of Local 802 American Federation of Musicians

“In her wonderfully eloquent memoir Blair Tindall takes us into the rehearsal rooms and the orchestra pits, the dressing rooms and the bedrooms of the classical musicians who make such beautiful music in some of America’s best known orchestras. Mozart in the Jungle is a remarkably candid and courageous book.” –Margot Livesey


A Book Sense Selection


CHAPTER 1: The Magic Flute

WHEN I WAS seven years old, I wanted a magic dress. Our family had just moved to Vienna, Austria, by way of a summer’s voyage across the Atlantic, and every corner of my strange and wonderful new world was filled with fantastic stories, beautiful music, and paintings about real kings and queens.

Fairy-princess clothes, like nothing I’d seen back home in North Carolina, were everywhere. The native garb of the Austrian provinces was adorned with pleats and flounces. Museums displayed golden robes from the Hapsburg Empire. Ballerinas at the opera house twirled on point in pink satin shoes and fluffy tulle skirts. Even ordinary girls wore pretty dirndl dresses that looked like costumes.
I’d looked at pictures of Europe in my grandparents’ stash of National Geographies, and now it all came to life. I’d never seen huge old churches, cobblestone streets, or snow-capped mountains at home. The world’s tallest Ferris wheel and the real blue Danube made Vienna into a child’s wonderland.

Europe also cast its spell on my parents, who had almost never traveled abroad.

Both born in 1921, they were the first in their families with college degrees, and our year in Vienna immersed them in the culture, history, and arts they’d come to love.

My father had just been appointed a visiting lecturer in American history at the University of Vienna. Like many World War II vets, Dad was educated under the GI Bill after returning from duty, in his case earning a PhD in the history of the American South. By 1958, he had settled into a suburban professor’s position in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which aside from the university was a quiet spot. There were occasional concerts, and the Varsity showed first-run films uptown. Dinner out meant the S & W Cafeteria over in Durham.

Before the trip, my mother had exercised her wry humor by naming our toy boats after our ship, the SS Atlantic, then sinking them at bath time. She showed me pictures of the vessel, the pier, and the “women and children first” emergency drills, which turned out to be true. Nothing she said could have prepared me for the glamour on board, however.

It was 1967, and people traveling on ocean liners took dressing for dinner seriously. A string trio played as my brother, Bruce, and I checked out the grown-ups in their long gowns and dinner jackets; there was even a top hat like the ones in New Yorker cartoons. The captain could have been a movie star in his epauletted whites. As an enormous tuxedoed Arab twirled his cigar, I could not look away from an exotic darkness and blue-black hair I’d never before seen.

On the seventh day, land rose from the horizon. Casablanca! Mosques and minarets. Ancient buildings, fountains, paving stones. I smelled strange things–spices, maybe–and heard bleating goats and shouts from food stalls. Since my idea of good eating meant processed lunch-meat, I gawked at entire animals roasting. Beside a vat of turtle soup, a man wailed like a grieving widow, blowing tunes through his Moroccan rhieta, a sort of snake charmer’s reed instrument. Men raced by in white cotton djellabas, tassels bobbing on their red fezzes.

We sailed to Mallorca, Nice, and Genoa. In each strange city, I slung my shoulder bag diagonally across my plain jumper dress for security. At the last port, we transferred to an overnight train bound for Vienna. There, amid loud sirens and clanging trolleys, our sprawling apartment overlooked the cupola of an old wooden food market, which literally sat in the middle of a busy intersection.

Dad soon traveled to Munich, bringing back a white Volkswagen bug he had bought there. In it, we bounced down the Autobahn to weekends in Bucharest, Belgrade, and Budapest. In Thessaloniki, I remember the Aegean’s aquamarine sea, white stucco houses, and ancient ruins. In Capri, the surf had carved the Blue Grotto, a natural vaulted cave accessible only by a tiny opening for boats. On the Hungarian border, I set a toe onto Communist soil and tried to understand the meaning of “Iron Curtain.”

The sixties were a tumultuous period of change around the world, but none of it touched Vienna, which felt locked in the past. We immersed ourselves in Austrian treats, sampling schnitzel at the Augustinerkeller, sugary cream horns at Konditorei, and apricot Sacher torte and cocoa smothered in whipped cream. On Kaerntnerstrasse, a string quartet played Beethoven for ten-schilling coins pedestrians threw into an open violin case.

Classical music was everywhere in Vienna. Franz Lehar’s operetta The Merry Widow played near our apartment at the Volksoper–the People’s Opera–whose music filled Vienna’s streets. During shopping expeditions at the nineteenth-century market hall on our street, light streamed in from windows far above our heads, and the building’s walls sealed us into everyday local life. The butcher sang arias off-key as he wrapped Die Presse around our meat. The old woman who sold us milk clotted with butter hummed a familiar Merry Widow tune.

Even the white Lipizzaner stallions at the Spanish Riding School danced to classical music, as they had since 1572. Their arena looked just like a ballroom or concert hall, with chandeliers hanging above riders wearing bicorne hats and tailcoats, guiding their horses through routines of synchronized prancing.

We met other Americans, gathering for parties in the American Embassy and private dinners at home. At Thanksgiving, I played with our hostess’s Christmas doll, Krampus, an Austrian archenemy of St. Nick, and listened to a pretty first-grade schoolteacher from Chicago. She said she’d won a singing contest, and the prize had brought her to Vienna. She only knew two songs and didn’t speak German, but the Vienna State Opera had heard her voice and begged her to sing Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. Her name was Arleen Auger.

My parents talked to Arleen about music, since they both played the piano and listened to symphonies on the radio at home. My grandmother had played the organ at church, and my grandfather said he played a little violin during World War I. Even though my brother, Bruce, was only eleven, he could already perform some pieces by Mozart on the piano.

I knew a little about Mozart too, after visiting his house in Salzburg. His parents had trotted him around Europe as something of a curiosity. He could play several different instruments and repeat a piece of music blindfolded after hearing it only once. His Magic Flute, written just before he died at age thirty-five, captured the composer’s childlike imagination in a story of sorceresses and enchanted animals. Music itself was almost a character in the opera, as Prince Tamino could pass through fire and water with the power of his magic flute.

We went to hear Arleen in The Magic Flute at the State Opera, an ornate temple to music built in 1869. Busts of conductors who had performed here lined the lobby: Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Herbert von Karajan. I was glad we weren’t going to the Musikverein, where I’d already sat through three or four boring concerts. The old men there played symphonies for hours without telling any story at all, leaving me to stare at the naked gold ladies holding up the balcony.

I’d already been to the opera house to see Swan Lake. I imitated ballerina Margot Fonteyn’s boneless arms and imagined myself wearing her jeweled white tutu and sparkly tiara. Tonight’s story would be different. As we walked through the opera house lobby, my mother traced out scenes from The Magic Flute that were woven into the foyer’s huge tapestries. There was Papageno, dressed like a bird, his lips padlocked by the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting. Then Pamina, the sun-cult priestess, in the temple of Isis. And finally Arleen’s character, the evil Queen of the Night.

As the usher seated us, I smoothed the skirt of the Austrian dirndl my mother had bought me. It was pink and chocolate-brown, with a lace-up bodice, puffy underblouse, patterned skirt, and fringed scarf that tucked into the neckline. It was the first time I’d worn it, and the dress made me look like an Austrian girl.

I fidgeted during the overture music, but at last our schoolteacher friend came onstage. In her embroidered velvet costume and towering headdress, Arleen had been transformed into something very special. She began ordering Pamina to murder the priest of Isis:

Hell’s revenge cooks in my heart,
Death and despair flame about me!
If you do not kill Sarastro
You will be my daughter nevermore.

Suddenly, my dirndl felt ordinary, something that everyone wore. If only I could snap my fingers and become Queen of the Night like Arleen, with all these people watching! I wanted all that attention. I wanted to be a queen onstage, like her. I wanted that magic dress!

One year later, in 1968, we sailed home on the SS Michelangelo. New York’s skyline had changed; construction had started on the World Trade Center at the tip of Manhattan. The city felt somewhat European, with French and Italian restaurants crowding side streets near the Taft Hotel, where we were staying. International travelers came and went from the West Side piers. Uptown, fancy cars and fancier people streamed by the white plaza of Lincoln Center–a shopping mall for the arts, bigger and newer than anything in Vienna.

North Carolina had changed too. I was eight now, and my old classmates had grown into third-graders. They asked where I’d gone during second grade. “Austria! Did you see kangaroos?” My classmates bopped along to Beatles songs I didn’t know, so I secretly hummed the Magic Flute tunes that reminded me of Arleen’s magic transformation.

Vienna started fading from my memory as I moved back into my old pink bedroom. Mom tried to re-create our European life and its sophistication by spreading out books full of paintings from Austrian museums–she hung up a D’rer print that I liked–and tuning in to Metropolitan Opera broadcasts every Saturday. She found marzipan bunnies and Konditorei pastries at a little shop on Franklin Street, owned by Hungarian Jews who’d fled Austria in 1939 to escape the Nazi occupation.

There was home-grown culture too. The North Carolina Symphony soldiered from Manteo to Murphy on a rattletrap bus with its mission of music education. Founded in 1932 as a Works Progress Administration project, the state’s Horn-Tootin” Bill of 1945 had funded it ever since. My third-grade class rode the bus with the rest of the elementary school to one of their concerts. First we listened to them play Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf; then we made a horrible cacophony by tweeting along on plastic tonettes the school provided.

My parents enjoyed playing piano for fun and encouraged me to start piano lessons too. After a few months, I found that scales and easy melodies were boring. I wanted to learn the loud dramatic Brahms and Beethoven pieces my now-thirteen-year-old brother could play. I didn’t realize how much work he put into learning them.

Sometimes my family drove thirty miles on two-lane roads to see the Philadelphia Orchestra or pianist Arthur Rubinstein in Raleigh’s cavernous Reynolds Coliseum. Just one stop on a nationwide “community concert” circuit started in the 1920s, Raleigh brought in culture by selling subscriptions in advance, offering arts managements the fees up front and eliminating middlemen. Over three hundred towns in America had formed these civic music clubs, bidding on whatever artists they could afford. By filling the vast basketball arena’s fourteen hundred seats, our series could sell seven concerts for seven bucks.

Even though I knew the concerts were considered a cultural resource since we lived so far from a big city, I found them dull. In addition, the barnlike sports arena couldn’t compare to Vienna’s elegant State Opera House. The huge stadium’s boomy acoustics made it hard to hear the instruments or see performers on the faraway stage. My mind would wander to places I’d rather be: watching tadpoles in the creek near our house, riding my bike to the swimming pool, or canoeing past rhododendrons on the Neuse River.

All through elementary school, my parents urged me to keep taking piano lessons. I hated practicing and wasn’t particularly interested in piano, but by sixth grade I had finally advanced enough to play in a local group recital. My mother rewarded me with a fairy princess dress with candy-pink chiffon pleats and a satin ribbon around the waist. I loved walking out in front of the audience in it. Once the applause died, though, I suffered an attack of stage fright. Sitting at the nine-foot Steinway, my hands shook. I had a memory slip and stopped, then started again. I wanted to disappear or run offstage, but I managed to finish my halting performance. Only when I walked away from the keyboard was I transformed back into the fairy princess.

That year, 1971, someone from the music store brought trumpets, flutes, saxophones, and trombones to Estes Elementary. First, the bandleader gave us a music test: Is this note higher or lower? Softer or louder? I got all the questions right. So did Johnny Edwards, a black kid who lived in a house with a dirt floor and an outhouse in rural Orange County.

Afterward, Johnny wandered outside while I stayed behind with other budding musicians. Our schools had been racially integrated for six years, but renting a trumpet for thirty bucks a month would have been a challenge for Johnny’s parents.

The bandleader started handing out instruments alphabetically by our last names. Finally I’d get my magic flute! I watched impatiently as Miketa got the last trumpet, Osborne the trombone, and Smith, the last flute. By the time he got to Tindall, my options had narrowed to two unfamiliar instruments, oboe and bassoon. (Anyone named Zebulon was destined for a kazoo.)

“I’ll take the little one,” I said, pointing at a dull black tube scattered with metal keys. I sure wasn’t wrangling the bedpost-sized bassoon.

If only I’d stayed awake during Peter and the Wolf! In Prokofiev’s tale, the sinuous cat slithers around a clarinet, wolves sneak through the forest to the sound of French horns, and a silver flute pipes sweet birdsong. The oboe plays a goofy waddling duck that is devoured by the wolf and left to quack plaintively from his belly.

Trotting home with my consolation prize, I put the plastic Selmer oboe together, stuck its reed mouthpiece in the top, and blew. Nothing. My mother sprang into action, paying for oboe lessons. My new teacher demonstrated how difficult the oboe was compared to other instruments by inviting Dad to blow on a flute just like he did a Coke bottle. Then he tried the oboe.

Blat! Squawk! The vibrating reed tickled his lips.

She pointed out that good oboists were a hot commodity and dispatched us for store-bought reeds and various accessories. Mom even braved a black-lit head shop for cigarette papers to mop up spit under the keys. Fully equipped, I marched off to band practice.

I was already bookish, so no one would confuse me with the angelic cheerleaders who all played the flute. My nerd factor spun off the charts. I turned scarlet from blowing through the tiny reed; veins popped out on my forehead. Since no one picked the bassoon, I became band bozo by default.

The instrument didn’t play itself. Even the best commercial reeds, handmade one at a time from bamboo, barely made a sound. Since the fragile mouthpieces had to be crafted to individual players and instruments, there was little choice: I had to learn to make my own reeds.

With a bad reed, my oboe could be a beastly instrument honking and squeaking as if it had a mind of its own. When my reeds were working, though, I learned that making a sound spoke my emotions more directly than my own voice.

The pleasure of making music was not the oboe’s only attraction, however. My teacher had been right; the oboe did come with rewards. Composers wrote juicy solos for oboes that sent band directors into ecstasy. Teachers excused me for band competitions, a trip to All-State Orchestra in the mountains, and, finally, the university wind ensemble’s week-long tour.

At fourteen, I checked into a Pinehurst motel with fifty college students and within an hour was sipping a twenty-year-old drummer’s beer while he stroked my ego. The ensemble’s director–something of a local celebrity, having played French horn on the original recording of the Captain Kangaroo theme music in the 1950s–also fawned over his little oboe player.

That summer of 1974, I attended the Transylvania Music Camp, which was part of the larger Brevard Music Center near Asheville, North Carolina. There, I studied with oboists from the Dallas and Atlanta symphonies. Since I was advanced for my age, I was also placed in the Music Center’s Repertory Training Program, where I played through most of the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies with high school and college music students.

Upon returning from Brevard I took a summer job at the mall music store, a position I landed from a manager who liked my wholesome appearance. Before long I was sneaking drinks with the piano salesman and breaking for loading-dock tokes with Guitarman Ray. My parents and teachers didn’t say anything. I doubt if they suspected a junior high school classical music student could get into such trouble.

Back at school, I noticed that my classmates toiled harder over their textbooks than I did over my oboe, yet they didn’t receive the same special attention. I’d found my magic dress. If I played the oboe reasonably well, I was rewarded without having to do the difficult academic work required of everyone else.

There was only one hitch. I needed to spend hours making reeds, or my oboe would make no sound at all. Reed-making became the conduit to my elevated status. I didn’t visit my secret creekside spot anymore, or canoe, or even read much. I certainly didn’t study.

My adolescence had boiled down to swamp grass. Arundo donax is the bamboo used for wicker furniture, paper pulp, cellulose for rayon fabric, and reeds for the oboe, bassoon, clarinet, saxophone, and bagpipes. In my case, two pieces of the cane are tied together in a bundle and scraped until they vibrate, making a sound when the oboist blows through the reed’s opening.

A brown paper bag arrived from Antibes, France, every few months, packed with cane tubes that clinked like wind chimes. After measuring their diameter, I sliced lengths from the tubes, cutting them to uniform length and shoving a special gouging machine’s carriage back and forth to scoop out a U-shaped channel. Next, I bent the resulting cane strip in half, paring it to a tapered shape before tying it to the cork-covered silver tube. This step involved manual dexterity, twanging fishing twine, and a finished product that sometimes gaped where the cane didn’t quite meet, a problem remedied by pasting slimy so-called fishskin (a specialty item used by goldsmiths) over the space. I tried to forget the membrane actually came from ox gut.

Only then did I start scraping, thinning the cane enough to vibrate. My knife tore the reed’s ragged tip. I blew on the reed to test it. Nothing. I kept scraping, finally getting a loud honk, more like the primitive rhieta I heard in Morocco. Time to start over.

The mess soon blossomed in my pink bedroom–three different lubricant oils, steel filings, and mountains of bamboo shavings. The process took hours, only to be repeated when the reed wore out, which was almost daily.

Not surprisingly, my next report card featured a D-plus in French, almost balancing the D-minus in algebra. I managed to hide it from my parents. What musician needs math? I had become isolated from everything at school, considering myself in a superior class: a musician. My only friends played instruments too; we were a proud bunch of geeks.

I was the girl chosen last for kickball teams. My classmates in the locker room huddled away from me with talk of hairstyles, makeup, and training bras I thought was silly. My music crowd wouldn’t have been caught dead at school dances or football games. Instead of the platform shoes and hip-hugger jeans that were popular in 1974, we wore piano scarves and music-note earrings. I was especially proud of the OBOE POWER T-shirt I’d had custom-printed.

The local music clique ranged in age from twelve to eighteen. Dedicated and diligent stay-at-home moms like mine drove us in carpools to band competitions, piano recitals, and youth orchestra practice. I chose a pianist named Forrest for my boyfriend. I was fourteen, he was eighteen, and his disowned brother was the national head of the American Nazi Party. I couldn’t get enough of Forrest, smoking pot in the tobacco fields behind his family’s farmhouse and swooning over his compositions. When he applied to college at the North Carolina School of the Arts (NCSA), I auditioned for their high school division.

My parents had offered to send me to private school, hoping I’d attend Exeter, the New Hampshire prep school where my brother had gone to study four years earlier among sons of Supreme Court justices and presidential advisers. My grades weren’t promising, but because of Bruce’s performance they had said I could come. At Exeter, I’d get a fine education, study with a Boston Symphony oboist, and bargain my way into an Ivy League college with a music scholarship.

My parents tried to help me make the right decision. Exeter sounded like a sure path to success, but NCSA’s oboe teacher, Joseph Robinson, wooed me with a flattering personal letter. Maybe he was something special, since a chorus director at the Transylvania Music Camp had already urged me to seek him out. Mom and Dad were careful not to discourage me, in case I turned out to be a colossal talent. Times had changed. In the 1970s, unprecedented arts funding might also make a career as a professional classical musician possible for someone of my generation, where it would have been considered absurd in my parents’ day.

They left the decision to me. I was scared, and too embarrassed by my bad grades to talk about the options with them openly. At fourteen, I couldn’t see myself as a professional anything, especially since I knew very few southern working women in the 1970s, except for schoolteachers. I was a teenager and could only see a few months into the future.

My music friends were confused by similar decisions too, since few parents and teachers were equipped to offer them guidance. Perhaps the adults felt discomfort about their unfamiliarity with classical music, fearing they would be labeled as ignorant. There was a sense that we possessed a divine gift they could never understand.

I considered my choices. NCSA, a boarding school about eighty miles away where Forrest was headed, was known for its loose academic standards and rowdy campus environment. There was drinking. There were drugs and high school pregnancies, which meant high school sex. It sounded very adult. It also sounded familiar, since I would be around other kids who were praised for being creative, wacky, and playful, even if they didn’t accomplish much.

On the other hand, if I went seven hundred miles north to New Hampshire, Forrest would break up with me. On top of that, Exeter had strict rules and tough academic standards. I’d already gotten a sense that I was good at music and nothing else. Surely I was too stupid and undisciplined to make it at Exeter. I couldn’t imagine passing the difficult courses that Bruce had aced.

My teenage mind reviewed what information I had. At fourteen, I had no idea how people eventually became doctors, lawyers, or professors. I didn’t particularly want to become a professional musician, but at least I could survive that way for the next few years, enjoy even more attention, and see what happened. This vague, unguided process was how many of my young friends ended up in musical careers before they were old enough to decide their life’s work.

My parents didn’t look happy, but they accepted my decision to attend NCSA. I felt that my life had already hit a dead end, but Mom and Dad said they believed in me, no matter what.