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"Smile When You Get to C"

When I was 12 years old, and had been playing the B flat Clarinet for a couple of years, I was asked if I wanted to try out for the Denver All-City Band. They said the guest conductor was from the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Sounded good to me. Being severely hearing impaired and too poor for music lessons--unlike the other contestants--should have made me think twice before saying "yes". But I didn't hesitate, and played a college level piece titled Concerto in A by Mozart. (I wanted to play Benny Goodman's Tin Roof Blues, but they said they wanted something serious.)


A few weeks later a letter came in the mail congratulating me. I was selected for the band and the dates and location for the first rehearsal were detailed. The day came, and I found myself walking onto this massive stage that held about 280 other students from all over the city, milling around, awaiting seat assignments. One by one, nearly all were seated but me and a couple of others. I hadn't heard my name called (as if I expected to). So, I meandered back to the 3rd Clarinet section where I thought I belonged--after all, these students could hear and understand what was going on--they had to be lots better than me!


Finding an empty chair in the back row, I sat down and took out my Clarinet. Standing behind me was another boy with his clarinet. He looked a little lost. After a while he tapped me on the shoulder. 


"Is your name Max?" I smiled and ask him how he knew me? "They've been calling your name for 15 minutes. You're supposed to go up to the first chair!"


Embarrassed and red as a beet, I made my way to the front, sat down in the seat where the Concert Master was to sit, and gave it my best, much to a few smirks and worried looks coming from the guest Maestro. After the rehearsal, which I assumed was out of this world, he praised the band and told them they can all go, “except Max Chartrand”.


And, of course, I was the first one on my feet to leave. Someone grabbed me by the shoulders and said, "Didn't you hear Mr. (intelligible name)? He said he wanted to speak to you!" (Like a lot of things in my life then and now, I had no idea what had been said.)


After everyone departed and no one was within ear shot, a flustered, square jawed, wavy haired fellow, gritting his teeth, demanded to know, "Who let you in??" 


I thought that was a strange question and asked what he meant? 


His reply: "Here you are, my first chair and your C's are flatter than a pancake!". Pausing with exasperation, he went on, "Did you try out for this band?"


"Yes, I did," I said with a bit of hope. "I played Mozart's Concerto in A."


"Play it for me." 


Without skipping a beat I dove in and played impeccably. Before I could get halfway through, he cut me off, shook his head, and admitted with a painful look on his face, 

"By golly, you can play! Now," folding his arms, "tell me why your C is so flat?"


Having never heard the high notes, I told him I thought those notes were clicks, not notes. It must have dawned on him that his star player was hearing impaired. So, being an able teacher of considerable experience, he instructed me to "smile when you get to C, and see what happens".


I smiled wide, and haven't stopped smiling since when I approach  C.


It was much later in life that I learned the man under whose direction I sat, and who taught me to smile when I came to C, was none other than Leonard Bernstein, the great Maestro of all time!      

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