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.