Learning Clarinet in the Time of Covid

…taught me about forgiveness and letting go. It also made me wonder about Nero.

took a train from New York City to suburban Connecticut on March 11, 2020 so I could spend a night at the home of a woman I had been dating a few months. The next day Broadway shut down and I decided to stay a little longer. The day after that a national emergency was declared and I extended my visit. By mid-April, when more than 2,000 people had died in the city and soldiers were picking up bodies for transport to the morgue, even if I could have come up with a reason to break things off, there was no realistic way out.

A month into my longest date ever, I wondered how long a lethal virus might prevent my usual romance-exiting behavior. I also worried about which bothered her most, my daily ice cream habit, the Third Reich books I read before going to sleep or the regular nightmares (I tended to yell and thrash)? She had mentioned all three. Might one be a deal breaker? Then what?

I texted a woman I had dated years earlier. I asked which had been the prime factor in our breakup, the Nazis, the bad dreams or the Chubby Hubby.

“LOL,” she texted back.

“No, seriously. I’m curious.”

“I wish I could give you the answer you’re looking for.”

I texted that she could, actually, and wondered why she wouldn’t. It was a pretty simple question, just a straightforward pick one of three.

“I want you to be happy and hope that one day you will be,” she wrote, “but, what the fuck dude? You need to do some serious work. Are you still in therapy?”

I called my therapist, Sandy. Yes, she agreed, my ex might have been a little harsh, and maybe she still held on to some residual anger, and it’s possible she was even slightly hostile … but she wasn’t totally wrong. Also, Sandy told me I should avoid asking anything of any exes, anytime, and instead seek people and activities in which to invest my “dormant but not dead” optimism. Finally, Sandy reminded me that the woman with whom I was living “exists in real life, not in the past, and not just in your head.”

An activity. Excellent idea.

The Ol’ Licorice Stick

hen I was fourteen years old, I chose typing class over band, and shut my pebbled black plastic case with blue velvet lining for what I thought was forever. In the past two decades, I had liberated the “Ol Licorice Stick,” as I called my clarinet, once or twice a year, to play Happy Birthday for children younger than five and to offer trill-heavy renditions of Tenderly to a series of first dates, until I understood that my performances never led to second ones.

On May 11, I opened the case with dormant but not dead optimism.

I played a middle C, then a low F. On my computer, I searched for the latest hospitalization and death rates in Manhattan, then Brooklyn, where a nephew lived, then in the cities my parents and siblings lived, then in Connecticut’s Fairfield county. I wondered how many people close to me might die soon. I wondered if I might die soon. I picked out the first few notes of Happy Together, then tried the theme from Leave it to Beaver. Each sounded like a dirge.

I was 64, months from Medicare. I had saved money, but not as much as I would have liked. I had never married. While in my 40s, I had torpedoed two what-in-hindsight-might-have-turned -into-happy-lives-together partnerships, then dated widely and wildly for more than a decade. I had high blood pressure and gout. I semi-regularly updated an enemies list and polished intricate revenge scenarios (though I never enacted any of them.) It was too late to have children.

I played a few bars of Mr. Lonely. I hunted for the latest news about two former writing students who had turned themselves into critically acclaimed, commercially colossal novelists. I might have softly moaned. The Sunny Side of the Street seemed to help, a little. So did Route 66, Frosty the Snowman and Yankee Doodle. I was familiar with the tunes, so I didn’t need to pay too much attention to things like eighth notes or rests, or tempo or articulation, which had always confounded me. I tried the songs fast and happy, slow and haunting, soft and then fortississimo. I really liked fortississimo. I felt like I was letting go of some things with fortississimo. I felt lighter. Feeling lighter, I added some fortississimo trills.

“Well?” I yelled, two and a half months into co-habitation, after the Ol’ Licorice Stick and I had wrapped up a particularly life-affirming version of Seventy-Six Trombones.

“I’m glad you found something to work on,” my real-life girlfriend, whose name is Laura, shouted from downstairs. She sat at the dining room table, which is where she spent most of her days, doing voice over work, shooting audition tapes and lining up directors, producers, performers and writers for a theater company she was putting together. Just a few days after I had started practicing, she had dispatched Ol’ Licorice Stick and me to the second floor.

“You think it needs work?” I shouted back. Mezzo-forte, with just a slight, barely perceptible diminuendo at the end.

“You want to improve, right? You want a goal, right? You seem so much happier these days!”

“Well, yeah, but…”

“Then keep practicing. I’ll see you at dinnertime.”

It was two p.m.

I played My Way, sad, but defiant. That afternoon I worked out a complicated flourish with which to close any song, a coda that involved scales, lots of trills and a long, tidal crescendo.

Two weeks later, in the early afternoon, Laura inquired as to the nature of some of the sounds she had been hearing, and whether they had been intentional on my part. She was chopping sweet potatoes, molding hamburgers and shaving carrots.

“I like to think of it as my signature ending,” I said.

“Maybe you should play the songs the way they’re written,” she said, “at least at first.”

I excused myself, walked upstairs and downloaded sheet music for All by Myself.

I played it the way it was written.

Summertime

uring the long days of July and August, Laura and I played tennis, ran along a shaded trail in the woods. At night we watched television, played cards, or ping pong, read. She crooned to herself all day, lilting tunes I couldn’t name, and conducted philosophical conversations with Ziggy, her dog. Once I heard her ask him whether he thought the Mars mission was worth it, given the grievous state of our public school system. She read for pleasure, preferred horror films to romcoms and while she would sometimes scream obscenities at motorists who cut her off, she declined to honk, because she didn’t want to startle anyone. She liked holding hands in public. She started each day with a crossword puzzle, took a break every afternoon on a jigsaw puzzle, muttered darkly over each. She ate fast. She had blue eyes and soft skin, was trim and snorted when she laughed. At night, she pressed against me and rocked herself to sleep. She told me she didn’t mind that I was “slightly neurotic.”

She laughed often, cried once in a while. She was a world class mimic. She had stopped a successful acting career when she was pregnant with the first of three children, and worried often about how the divorce affected all of them. When her daughter, the youngest, struggled in her early 20s, and got a small peace sign tattooed onto the nape of her neck to cheer herself, Laura got one, too, to keep her daughter company. After the divorce, she had moved to Connecticut to be near her father and stepmother, both approaching 90, and once or twice a week she took them to dinner, or cooked and carried meals to them. She spoke on the telephone with at least one of her children, all in their 20s, every day, and talked about them every day. She kept in touch with friends from high school, and college and people with whom she had worked on plays twenty-five years ago. She and one of her best friends had attended grade school together.

She cooked almost every night, and washed the dishes. I offered to help, but she refused, said the activities calmed her, that all she asked of me was that I be “honest, and authentic.”

After seven months together, I worried that it was only a matter of time before Laura would discover that I was honestly and authentically, and primarily, a sweets-gobbling, Nazi-reading, worst case-imagining, nap-taking depressive. When in previous relationships that fear had become overpowering, I had left, or started an unwinnable-on-either-side argument or asked if everything was okay, so incessantly, that the woman in question ended things. With Covid, the first was impossible. She didn’t like arguing. And Laura was too nice to kick me out, even if she had grown weary of my antics. She would endure until the pandemic ended, then say goodbye. Had Laura already arrived at that plan, and was she waiting until infection and death rates dropped in Manhattan before announcing it?

Sandy told me to acknowledge my anxiety, maybe but not necessarily to Laura, and to keep myself busy and to remember that all the thoughts in my head were in my head. She told me to have patience, and to have faith. I took out the Ol’ Licorice Stick. I played Summertime. I played it Molto agitato.

Wailing

friend — a professional bass player — told me to lose the trills, to buy a metronome application and to “never, ever, in God’s name” play my signature ending again. Also, I couldn’t say “Ol’ Licorice stick” anymore. The clarinet was my “ax”, I was a “reed man” and I didn’t play, I blew, or, when I did so with particular vigor, I wailed. To practice a piece was to “take it to the woodshed,” or to woodshed, or to simply shed. To play in a minor key, Bill taught me, was to “get modal.” The key of C major required no sharps or flats, was the easiest to play, so when professional musicians (union members) wanted to quell an argument, one of them might say, “Hey, let’s keep it in a union key.”

“I dig the sausage and kale you made tonight,” I said at dinner, a week before Halloween. “You were in the spatula groove.”

Laura grunted.

“What do you have going on after dinner?”

“What do I have going on after dinner?” Laura repeated, in a tone that seemed suspiciously feroce. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe clean the dishes, for a change. Take out the garbage. Something new, you know? And do the laundry. And let Ziggy out and make sure he’s had his dinner and then fill his water bowl.”

“Hey, babe,” I said. “Don’t go modal on me. Let’s keep it in a union key.”

Her nostrils flared. Her eyes narrowed.

“I’m going to go upstairs and do some sheddin’” I muttered. When I was wounded, or grumpy, I tended to drop my ‘g’s.

But Reed Man did not snap at Laura. He focused on hitting the right note, and the right note after that, and the next one, too, with his ax and with Laura. He did not compound squeaks and missed notes with cursing or complaining when his real-life girlfriend shushed his predictions as to the killer’s identity when they watched a movie (Reed Man was usually correct) or when she made hamburgers too salty and coffee too strong, though he brought the subject up a few times and did sometimes wonder, what the hell, was it that difficult to go easy on the shaker and scoop? Yes, Reed Man knew and knows he is an unusually lucky, inordinately whiney ingrate and yes, he wondered and wonders what was wrong with Laura that could explain her tolerance if not affection for him. But he tried to not push things. When they were playing tennis one sunny, brisk November morning, after Reed Man had won an especially spirited point, and exclaimed “I guess that drop shot will make The Cheetah think twice next time before she tests his backhand” (that’s what I call her when I am feeling especially affectionate) and after Laura told Reed Man that if he couldn’t shut up and quit trash talking and stop calling her Cheetah, she was not going to play tennis with him anymore, Reed Man did not pout or ask her to please stay in the union key.

Baby Elephants

December, I hired an instructor and we met every Wednesday evening on Zoom. Jay told me I had a “heavy tongue” and that my breath should be “dumb” and that I should think of my fingers as balloons rising and falling on the invisible air blowing out of my ax’s holes. When I finished off a triumphant, error-free performance of a broken arpeggio in E Minor with an especially grandioso low E, Jay frowned.

“What?” I said.

“That felt great, right?” Jay asked. “That low E?”

“Yeah!”

“I get it,” Jay said. “Playing like that, total release, just blamming it all out, liberating. Nothing like it. Fantastic sensation.”

“Yeah!”

“But it does no one else in the universe any good. You need to pay attention to every note. You can’t just let go.”

I paid attention. I labored to make my tongue lighter, my breath dumb. I ascended and descended scales and blew middle B’s and high D’s until my Total Energy Tuner app promised I was pitch perfect.

Then he told me he wanted to hear my latest attempt at Frosty the Snowman.

“Okay.”

“Without looking at the music.”

“Funny, Jay. Look, I’m sorry about blamming that low F, but…”

“No, seriously, play it without looking at the music.”

“But I can’t.”

“Play it!”

I tried, failed. Tried, failed. Tried, failed. Sighed.

“You’re like an elephant,” Jay said.

I had been hitting the ice cream pretty hard at night, but I thought that was a little harsh.

“That’s a little harsh,” I said.

Jay told me to imagine a baby elephant tied with a single piece of rope thick enough to keep him from running away. Then I should imagine that after a few futile attempts, he gives up and ceases his efforts at escape.

“Right,” I said.

“Now imagine him grown, strong enough to snap the rope with barely any effort.”

“Uh-huh.”

“But he doesn’t know his own strength. So he doesn’t even try.”

“Hmmmm.”

“You’re the elephant. You can play a song without looking at the music whenever you want.”

Going Modal

’m proud of you,” Laura told me one mid-winter morning, as she sipped coffee and worked a crossword puzzle. “ But would you mind not listening to your recordings on your phone?”

“Sure,” I said. “No problem.”

“Also, don’t you think it’s time to retire the holiday tunes? It’s almost Valentine’s Day.”

“No problem,” I said.

“Don’t sulk,” she said.

“I’m not sulking,” I lied, then stared into the mid-distance for a few minutes of what I could have sworn were silence.

“Also,” she said, “Would you mind not whistling your songs.”

“Sure,” I said, without moving my lips. My jaw hurt. From wailing on my ax, or grinding my teeth at night? Or holding my tongue? I was glad my dentist had insisted on a mouthguard.

“Or humming them?”

That afternoon I shedded It’s Been a Long, Long Time, discovering a vibrato accessible only to the most grievously betrayed. Afterwards, Laura suggested I might like shedding in the basement better than upstairs because the basement was “roomier.” The basement, unlike the upstairs office, had a thick door.

I practiced. Sharp. I practiced. Flat. Jay told me to concentrate on proper fingerings, correct embouchure, accurate, not-my-imagination timing, and to stop thinking of wrong notes as failures. He told me I need not dwell on how dreadful something had sounded, or worry whether I could ever make it sound sweet. He promised I would improve. Miraculously, I did.

I still scanned for covid positivity rates, and various predictions as to final death tolls. I still dug for news on writers I envied, searched online for exes who, I hoped, mourned my absence. Then one day, as I was shedding a particularly swinging version of Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (I considered it a classic, not merely a holiday tune), an epiphany.

Maybe my past failures hadn’t been failures at all. Maybe they just had been well-intentioned squeaks, good faith missed triplets. Then I had an even more radical thought:

Maybe my (in my mind) rivals and ex-girlfriends had been squeaking and missing notes too, even the woman who dumped me a month after we signed a lease on a summer cabin together, then grabbed the cabin for herself. Maybe inside everyone I knew, even her, and everyone I didn’t know, a baby elephant thrashed and feebly trumpeted, struggling to be free of the ropes they imagined constrained them.

Was this profound Wisdom of the Ax? Or did I have the flu?

Something loosened in my chest, and it felt like grief at all the time I had wasted on enemies lists and revenge scenarios, at all the gifts I had denied myself, until it felt like forgiveness, for others and for myself and for baby elephants everywhere, until it felt like gratitude for wrong notes that hadn’t really been wrong at all, but had been practice sessions that had led me to the moment I was in — the perfect moment, like hitting a high D just right — until it felt like love — platonic, polite, grateful, and no-one-needs-to-worry-about-any-more-texts-from-me generalized love for my exes and imaginary rivals, vibrant, romantic, passionate, specific and calm love for Laura — until it felt like peace. I might have gone modal, just a little, but it was good modal. I might have wept a little. Then what was loose inside dislodged completely and I felt a release. It wasn’t like blamming out a low E in the way that feels fantastic but does no one in the universe any good. It was something better.

For the next hour and a half, I shedded an ultra larghissimo version of My Funny Valentine until I could play it with my eyes closed, and it was so melancholy and swollen with loss and bruised-but-still vital dreams, that there’s no way my exes would have been able to listen to it without sobbing their guts out. Even the wily little cabin thief. But none of them needed to hear it.

I played it for Laura.

“You’re Not Sammy Kahn. Or the other guy.”

abandoned my signature ending. I took out the garbage. I blew a swinging version of All of Me. When Laura was grumpy, I didn’t ask her more than once if everything was okay. I made an effort to whistle and hum less. Before she rocked herself to sleep, every night, I told her I loved her.

I still worried. Were we really nearing the end of the pandemic? When would she tire of me? Should I be working in a soup kitchen, or registering voters, organizing fund-raisers for the sick who couldn’t afford help?I worried about worrying, worried whether fretting about a high C while millions of people around the world had already died meant I was a modern, infinitely less powerful version of another musically-minded-but-not-really-getting-the big picture asshole who fiddled while all around him things generally went to hell?

Then again, didn’t Shakespeare create King Lear during the Plague Years? Didn’t Jule Styne and Sammy Kahn write It’s Been a Long, Long Time in the midst of WWII? Didn’t tortured genius Artie Shaw manage to breathe new grace into Begin the Beguine even as he endured his own private, inner carnage?

“Quit brooding,” Laura commanded as we sat together on her couch late one night, reading. It was March 9, 2021. Two days later would mark one year living together.

“I’m not brooding,” I lied.

“Honey,” she whispered, a few minutes later. Apparently whistling and humming weren’t the only things I did unconsciously. Laura knew it. Laura was okay with it, with me. “You’re not Shakespeare.”

“I know.”

“You’re not Sammy Kahn, or the other guy, either. You’re definitely not Artie Shaw. And Nero? Really?”

She closed my book. She closed her book. She took my hands in her hands. Her soft, kind, dexterous, tennis-playing, puzzle-assembling, burger-making hands that always seemed to play in rhythm with my heart, no matter how inquieto the tempo, no matter what kind of deranged bossa nova my heart was pounding out at any given moment.

“You’re Reed Man. Reed Man is plenty. I love Reed Man. Now go downstairs and wail on that ax! Go do some sheddin’!”

It wasn’t her fault that she didn’t know that the g was only to be dropped in times of sadness, or anger, so I didn’t blame her.

As I descended to the basement, Laura called from the kitchen. I could hear dishes clattering.

“And Reed Man?”

“Yes, Cheetah?”

“Don’t forget to close the door behind you.”

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Author of four books, co-author of two New York Times bestsellers, two time finalist for the National Magazine Award Stevefriedman.net

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Steve Friedman

Author of four books, co-author of two New York Times bestsellers, two time finalist for the National Magazine Award Stevefriedman.net