April 20, 2011

Strike up the band - Levittown's schools offered excellent music training and it was free

By Kathy Stahlman Zinn '63

I started playing the clarinet in the second half of the 4th grade. That was in 1955. During the first half, I as well as all other 4th graders, was taught basic music skills on an inexpensive plastic instrument, a cross between an ocarina and a recorder, called a tonette. I wonder where mine went to - it probably got passed down and played with by my seven siblings. I hope they have one in the Levittown Historical Society's museum.

This was the beginning of what I think was a really excellent music training program, far better than my children received in Virginia in the 1970s and 1980s. Our parents were "treated" to our tonette band playing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat", "Jingle Bells" and other hits. You had to love your kids to sit through a tonette band concert. This prepared us to choose instruments, which the school, Summit Lane, in my case, provided.

Mr. Title taught us tonette, group lessons in the instruments we chose, and led the Summit Lane School band. He was not a man who fostered great affection in his pupils, but he did teach us well. I chose the clarinet for one reason only. My father, a great Benny Goodman fan, had played it in high school. I may have even been using his old instrument. Coming a year after me, my sister Chris played the flute, brother Phil the clarinet as did the next sibling, Elaine.

My other four siblings were products of different school systems. I used free music education and the band as one of several reasons to fend off my mother's attempts to send me to Catholic school. At Summit Lane, I was also in the orchestra (the difference being the presence of stringed instruments) and the chorus. I loved the seasonal concerts and felt very proud running back and forth between the different performing groups.

At Division Avenue High School, I decided to stay with the band. Mr. East was our director, a sweet man, who, however, often looked as if he were on the verge of a heart attack. Leading student bands is not for sissies. The variation in both talent and diligence could be great.

We had both marching band and concert band. I remember when we received what I think were DAHS's first uniforms. They were unusual, not the military style with funny hats that most schools had. Ours had grey pants or skirts (the girls were happy as most female forms don't fit well into those typical uniforms), and blue blazers. We were supposed to wear white shoes, preferably white bucks, but some cheated and whitened up their tennis shoes extra specially on performance days.

I remember beanies, but my classmate Marilyn Monsrud does not. I preferred concert band, myself, and loved learning new pieces. It was a wonderful way to get to know music from the inside out. I still have an appreciation for many of the pieces we played. I tend to mix up what I learned at DAHS and what I played at Plainedge High School. But I know for sure that I first learned many of the John Philip Sousa marches at Division. They were great fun, even though I couldn't play half the notes. I never was a great player, and hoped Mr. East wouldn't hear all my clunker notes.

I remember Marilyn on the Glockenspiel, especially in marching band, when she had to carry it in front of her. She said she chose it because she already knew the piano, and it was easy to pick up the notes on the Glock. Sally Mann (class of 1962) was on the flute - I remember Jeff Harriton '63 playing the sax, and I hope some other former band members will check in to aid my poor memory. Being in band also helped my transition to my new school, Plainedge. It would have been harder to get to know people as an entering junior without that experience.

I did not continue clarinet in college. I was not good enough and ended up going with my first love, singing in the university choir. Then I discovered that my father, for whom I thought I was playing the clarinet (my projection on him - he never forced anything on us) - also loved singing the best and sang in community and church choirs until his death at 84.

But band gave me wonderful gifts, and taught me about classical music in ways that can only be appreciated when you have played a piece with others - no matter how badly!


Anonymous said...

Lord, how I remember that tonette in Summit Lane! I also remember how cool it sounded when I separated the whistle part from the body...boy, was that a loud whistle!

bobblog said...

Oh yes! I remember the tonette and Mr Title. I had chosen the trumpet, Buzzy Mann was in my group and kind of the student leader as he had already been taking private lessons...at the "Conservatory" at the North Green (I think)...well, my trumpet playing wasn't going well and I tearfully quit. Mr Title understood my anguish and distress and one day came up to me with a brand new instrument-the Mellophone-kind of poor man's french horn. I played it, and actually got proficient, and my musical education began. When I got to DAHS I switched to saxophone also playing in orch. and band (next to Carol Binninger)It was also in Summit la. band that I fell in love (abeit unrequited...I was too shy)with Kathy's sister Christine. I have been playing music all my life...off broadway, jazz clubs in NYC, and now with a pop/rock band and a jazz quartet in Montreal....thank you Mr Title, and Mr East. Bob Cotter

Wendy Max Dunford '68 said...

I also took clarinet in 4th grade with Mr. Title. That would have been 1959/60. I didn't last long. I couldn't seem to get the hang of it and got frustrated and stressed and remember tearfully begging my mother to let me quit. Thankfully for the music world, she said yes!