gregbo (gregbo) wrote,

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waiting for your interview ...

nsingman's memories of playing in Stuy's concert band reminded me of my first encounter with the late, great Max Watras, head of Stuy's music department, circa 1975. It is also the story of how I wound up singing in the chorus, despite the fact that I had wanted to play in the concert band, among other things.

Actually it was andybeals' mentioning he played sax that got me to thinking of posting about this. I actually (accidentally) played sax in 7th and 8th grades. I had never touched a sax before 7th grade, actually. When I transferred schools, I was assigned to band. I didn't know what instrument to select, and I also didn't know that some of the kids who'd been there a year already had (at least) a year's instruction. So when it came time to choose an instrument, I selected clarinet. My cousin (who'd already been there for 6th grade) played clarinet, plus it seemed like a reasonable thing for me to do. But before I turned the sheet in, someone else in the class told me something like "if you want to pick something, you should pick tenor sax, 'cause that's a bad instrument." (Note, this was 1973, so bad meant good.) So I did. It was an adventure in the beginning, but fortunately, the fingering was not too difficult from the recorder, so I was able to play at the level of the class after a few weeks.

After the spring concert, the music director decided he wanted to have someone play baritone sax, so he asked me to switch. I said ok (again, never having touched a baritone sax before). It was more difficult than tenor sax for me, particularly playing very low notes. Also, the music we played for the remainder of 7th and 8th grade in concert band did not call for a lot of bass instrumentation, so there were multiple sections in each piece where I didn't play. However, we had a jazz band, which I did play in, and enjoyed a lot. Actually, on the day I went to take the test for Stuy, the jazz band played in the auditorium where we waited before going to the test rooms. When I got home, I remember telling my mother that I hoped I would get into Stuy so I could play in the jazz band.

That didn't happen, however, and this is where Max Watras comes into the story. To get into the concert or jazz bands, you have to audition with him. I was totally unprepared for the audition ... I didn't really know what to expect. He asked me to play major scales on sixteenth notes, four to the beat. I did that, but he stopped me in the middle and said I wasn't tonguing properly. So I tried again, and he said no, that wasn't good enough. I was really disappointed. My 8th grade music teacher suggested that I take the sax home for the summer and practice proper technique. (I had actually taken it home for the summer between 7th and 8th grade.) So I did, and practiced regularly. But I didn't have a private teacher, so I didn't have any way of getting useful feedback.

I showed up at Max Watras' office at the beginning of the semester to give it another try. I'm not sure he remembered me, but he asked me how long I'd been playing. I said two years, and he said that most people in the band had more experience than that, but it still might be possible for me to get in. He then asked me how many flats were in the key signature of C minor, and I said three, so he said ok, he'd let me audition. As you might expect, the result was pretty much the same. I was really disappointed, because I honestly didn't know what I was doing wrong.

I remember hearing some friends from my junior high who'd sung in my junior high's chorus talking about Stuy choral auditions, so I figured I'd give that a try. (I sung in my junior high's chorus for a little while in the 7th grade, but I stopped in the 8th grade for various reasons, not the least of which was my voice started to change.) I don't remember what I had to do in the choral audition, but I must have done something right because I got in. I was put in the bass section. I think I may have asked to be put there because of my voice changing. I recall auditioning for a solo a few weeks later. I didn't get it. The solo was supposed to be in F, but after hearing me sing it he transposed it to G and asked me to sing it again. He actually thought I sounded better in the higher key, and was wondering if he should put me in the tenor section. However, I stayed in the bass section and sung the baritone part when there was a divisi.

So that was the start of my choral career at Stuy. Now that I have had both piano and voice lessons, I understand why I didn't get into the band. I wish I could've had private lessons (long story). There's actually another longish article discussing the decline of music programs in NYC that mentions Stuy under Max Watras as one of the exceptions. There is a quote from one of the parents praising the Stuy music program but regretting that it was unfortunate that they didn't have enough staff to teach beginners.

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