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Classical 101

Cymbology (Blog Novel Episode #2)

(Continued from part 1) Even as Maddy and Katie were gazing at trombone-shaped clouds and wondering about the strange-looking man from the theater, Mr. Watkins was back at Hillcrest School grading math homework.  He shared an office with three other teachers, a tiny room carved by partitions and the strategic placement of furniture into roughly equal quarters. Over the years he had been able to claim the desk closest to the room's only window, allowing him every day to work in a flood of radiant natural light.  Using his knowledge of plane geometry, he had managed to arrange a filing cabinet, a desk (which sat just beneath the window), and an overstuffed recliner into a pleasant niche for his late-day grading.  On chilly days he'd make a cup of tea, and the place would feel downright cozy. That sunny Thursday afternoon, as on every weekday afternoon, Mr. Watkins looked forward to his time in the office.  When his last class--Algebra I--ended, he gathered up his papers, left his classroom, and made the brief trek across and up the corridor to the office. The sun cut a swathe of golden light from the office door to his desk--the Yellow Brick Road, he quipped to himself.  He placed his papers on his desk in a stack close to the corner where his easy chair sat tucked away, pulled out his burgundy red sweater with the suede patched on the elbows, and sat down in the recliner. From the chair he turned on his stereo and pressed the CD player's "play" button.  He closed his eyes as the opening phrase of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony unfolded.  There was something about Tchaikovsky that helped him think.  Maybe it was the lyrical simplicity of his melodies, or maybe it was the richness of the instrumentation.  Whatever it was, something about this music soothed him. Until the finale rolled around.  Far from soothing, that rousing movement always inspired him, particularly so that Thursday afternoon.  The part for the cymbals, which demanded the percussionist to play incredibly quickly almost without stop throughout the movement, Mr. Watkins found thrilling, as though a military band were marching right through the orchestra. He had always dreamed of playing the cymbals in the last movement of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony.  In fact, that piece, perhaps more than any other, always made him regret having followed his father's advice (orders, really) not to study music. "No money, only heartache," his father had said of the musician's plight, though now that he thought about it, Mr. Watkins realized he had never asked his father how he knew that. By the time the finale started, Mr. Watkins had almost finished his grading. The assignments were better than he had expected, and the Tchaikovsky further buoyed his hope that, despite the odds, he really was getting through to the students.  He left the office with a spring in his step, energized to come back and teach the next day. He walked down the corridor past his classroom and turned right at the dead end.  As he passed the band room, Mr. Watkins looked into the open door and saw the chairs arranged in a semicircle.  The giant drums of the percussion section caught his eye on the far end of the room.  Mr. Watkins stood in the doorway for a moment, then walked in.  He moved slowly around the semicircle of chairs and stopped in front of a large carpet-covered cabinet on which lay a triangle and its thin metal beater, a ratchet, and two sets of snare drum sticks.  Two black metal arms affixed to the right end of the cabinet held a pair of large, shiny cymbals. Mr. Watkins gazed at the cymbals, running through the finale of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony in his mind.  He imagined the band room was Avery Fisher Hall and that the blue plastic seats were filled with his fellow black-clad members of the New York Philharmonic.  He imagined that the dull gray soundproofing squares lining the room's front wall were the audience of a full house, obscured by the bright lights that shone into the musicians' eyes. As the Tchaikovsky reached a climax in his mental soundtrack, Mr. Watkins picked up the cymbals and twisted the frayed and faded nylon grips around his wrists.  He held the cymbals barely shoulder width apart.  Then, keeping time with the music in his head, Mr. Watkins banged the cymbals together in the rapidfire rhythms he had heard on his recording so many times before. When the piece had ended, he set the cymbals back into their holders and stood beside the percussion cabinet.  He imagined the conductor--Zubin Mehta, maybe, or Bernard Haitink--gesturing for the other musicians in the orchestra to stand and acknowledge the applause.  A standing ovation, of course--did the New York Philharmonic ever receive anything else?  He imagined that the conductor singled him out for a solo bow for his stunning performance of such an athletic part.  Mr. Watkins took two steps toward the front of the room, made a deep, dramatic bow, stood up again, and waved his right hand to his imaginary audience. When he turned around to walk back toward the percussion cabinet, Mr. Watkins noticed a smallish figure standing in the doorway.  It was Lenny Campbell, perhaps the most challenging of his Algebra I students.  For a moment Lenny and Mr. Watkins stared at each other, neither saying a word.  Then in a flash Lenny ran off.  From the far side of the band room, Mr. Watkins could hear laughter echoing all along the hallway. (Continue to part 3)