North Coast Journal


Ascending to the perfect A

Story and photo by Miv Schaaf


"OH, IT'S SILLY," WAS THE LAST SENSIBLE thing I said."If you don't do it now, you never, never will, Mother," said darling daughter.

"Go ahead, be silly," said Alfred.

I signed the rental slip. So excited was I, that I carried it with me into the restaurant and held it on my lap all during luncheon, fingering its curious little convolutions. Finally, for the first time in my life, I had an oboe in my hands. An oboe! Ever since junior high the siren charm of the oboe, like a mermaid singing on a lost sea island, has captured me.

The school orchestra is tuning up. Miss Ayres, barely big as a thistle and looking like the fairy standing on a buttercup in one of my children's books, points with her wand, er, baton, I mean: "Oboe -- A, please."

The random ripples of the woodwinds, the boisterous show-off bursts of the brasses, the happenstance hurdlings of the strings -- all are sliced into insignificance when the oboe pierces through with its perfect plaintive A. Like a hot iron, the note singes the other instruments; like sheep they huddle, hush, and then, section by section, tune up or down to the oboe's A.

It was infallible, a papal edict, sounding out the one true faith, the dogma A the orchestra had to follow. It was the pure, beautiful voice of power. It was even startlingly biblical; the parable of the meek inheriting the earth.

For, while all the other members of the orchestra were sawing, trumpeting, blowing, the oboist sat there silently, sucking on his humble reed. And then, at his appointed time, soaring out in omnipotent glory, his A cut through clouds of confusion -- a ray of sun through a rainstorm.

When they put out a plea for cellos, I forsook the violin as a duck quits dry sand for water. But it never occurred to me to try for the oboe; that was ordained from above, one must have a vocation for it. Only now, decades later, am I emboldened by a confluence of coincidences -- a class at our city college, a friend (espoused to an oboist) knows where to rent an oboe, I have Friday afternoons clear -- to have my hands on an oboe.

Ah, those Friday afternoons. They are excursions into a new philosophy, initiations into an arcane craft, invitations to hilarity. The philosophy is patience, something I have not had much ä not much patience with, I was about to say.

I rush up the stairs. Already I can hear the oboe notes of my classmates, a liquid penetrating keening, the sound of bagpipes filtered through thick wet seaweed. I lurch through the door into another time zone. It is as different as stepping into the ocean -- one does not command the oboe to play. In its own good time -- after you breathe, blow, compress muscles you did not know you had, moisten, pray -- the oboe may give you a sound. Whether that sound is a nasally limpid A or a squawk is another matter.

"At Harvard you spend the whole first year playing A, nothing but A," says Miss Northcutt. She is thin and young, made, as was Miss Ayres, to play moonbeam flutes under meadow mushrooms.

If the oboe is not impossible to play, it is certainly intractable. As one placates angry gods with offerings, we fashion reeds for the oboe. A hair too far to the left or right with that beautifully heavy knife and the reed is ruined, not a fit sacrifice.

There are five of us, and the oldest is 12. Well, if you're going to be picky, I am chronologically older, but in that class I am about 11. Dan is 11, too. He is side-splittingly funny; he pretends to sharpen his oboe reeds in the pencil sharpener.

What? Not a tune exactly. I can play A, though. Except sometimes it's flat. I may have to go to Harvard for a year.

Miv Schaaf, a resident of Fieldbrook, is a former columnist for the L.A. Times.

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