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Where I relive my absolute favorite memory

by John on December 7th, 2011
Charles Bridge, Prague

First, we had MamaKat’s prompt – define your Seven Wonders of the World. I read MamaKat’s blog every now & then, but well, life has been especially crazy as of late, and I never got a chance to play along with her linkup.

And, honestly, I’m not sure what all seven of mine would be – but I do know the first. And, since I’m pretty sure I can make a pretty entertaining story out of it, here is my greatest wonder1.

As many of you know, I’m a wannabe musician. While I’m at my best when I’m serving as an accompanist2 (as accompaniment makes everything a little less-structured), I do love playing in a symphony (where performance is very, very structured). I played as much as I could through my freshman year of high school, but these were mostly in “learning orchestras.” We played some great pieces, and, according to our parents, we played some great concerts . . . but none of the “real classics.”

My sophomore year of high school, though, I tried out for the Regional orchestra. Most states have district / regional / all-state musical groups (symphonies, bands, choirs, etc), and they’re an honor to make. Well, I had a horrendous case of bronchitis when I tried out for my region — and I may have sipped a little extra codeine beforehand, to try to ensure that I wouldn’t cough in the middle of the audition.

So, I was high, and sick, and I might not have practiced a whole heckuvalot . . . but, I play an instrument that not too many people play. The NJ Region 2 Orchestra took 8 of the 9 bassists who tried out for the orchestra that year. I was #7.

I don’t remember what we played for the regional orchestra concert, but I certainly remember having fun with the other bassists in the group. Regional orchestra was fun – but wasn’t unlike any of the previous orchestras I had played with — it still felt like a bunch of kids who just happened to be playing in an orchestra — not an orchestra that happened to only have kids in it.

Despite my relatively poor showing in the regional level, everyone who made regionals was invited to try-out for All State orchestra, and I decided to try my luck. I certainly didn’t expect to make the All-State orchestra, having barely made it at the regional level, but I wanted the experience of the additional tryout.

Here’s the thing, though, I made the All State Orchestra. In fact, of the 6 of us in the regional orchestra who tried out (the other 2 were seniors, and the actual orchestra gets together in the start of the next school year), I was the only one who was invited to All-State. It was pretty cool. In fact, I was the 4th chair – meaning that I can confidently say that I was the 4th best high school bassist in the state of NJ that year.

In All-State orchestra, we played what I consider the first true masterwork, Bedrich Smetana’s Má vlast. And, I fell in love with all of it – especially “Vltava,” (The Moldau).

Even now, if I happen to be at a river for a spectacular sunrise, the theme of The Moldau rings true in my head.

This orchestra has two concerts that season – my grandfather, who was almost always there whenever I played, was all smiles after listening to the one that was open to the public. He loved going to my concerts, but this was the first time that I actually felt that he was impressed with the performance, afterward (as opposed to being “just a proud grandfather,” which was his all-time favorite activity).

After the second concert with the All-State Orchestra, I figured Má vlast was just a memory – a happy one, but that was it. I’d hear it again, and it would evoke that first “I’m a real musician” moment.

Then my grandfather died.

It was the summer after my sophomore year of college, and it was a very sad time. I was scheduled to head on a European tour later that summer with him — my cousin and I would basically carry his bags around while we went from location to location. While the trip was in the works, I didn’t pay too much attention to it — when you’re asked “do you want to go to Europe with your grandfather?” the answer is yes, always – who cares about the details?

After his death, we made the decision to continue with the trip – tickets were purchased and, well, he really wanted to make the trip, so we wanted to make it for him.

We started in Warsaw – myself, two of my cousins, and my grandfather’s best friend. In Prague, we met up with my aunt & uncle, who had planned the trip, but were unable to start in Warsaw with the rest of us.

Prague remains, to this day, my absolute favorite memory.

The city was brought up in countless anecdotes throughout my memories with my grandfather3. He loved the shops, he loved the food, he loved how a truly historic city somehow managed to avoid Soviet-bloc-architecture. He even loved the language – how Czech wasn’t a language he spoke, but he felt like he should be understanding every word spoken to him in it.

It was nearly sunset when we walked over the Charles bridge. It had been a long day on a long train ride from Warsaw to Prague. I had thoughts of my grandfather running through my head, and, as soon as I saw the Moldau – the river that Smetana had used as inspiration, the piece sprang into my mind. I could swear that those around me could hear it, as if my brain had turned into a speaker system.

I walked over the Charles Bridge with what I considered to be my first masterwork intertwined with memories of my grandfather running through my head, each step taking me closer to historic Prague — castles and spires and domed roofs and statues abound as the sun set and a hint of chill filled foggy air. The main theme from the Moldau ringing truer and truer with every step (some of you might recognize this, also, as the Israeli national anthem).

My Grand-Dad was with me at that moment, and that very moment is the one that cemented that my memory of his smile after the All-State orchestra concert will be the one that will always reside in my mind.

I never listen to recordings of “me,” but I still pull the All-State Orchestra CD out every now & then.

1 Yes, I’m a married father of two – and my greatest wonder is from before I met my wife and from a time that the absolute worst thing I could be was “a father.” I realize this may make me a shallow person . . . but there’s something about a bit of majesty that can never be beat.
2 I may not be a virtuoso on any of my instruments, but I’m good enough to not “step on my own feet.” I listen extraordinarily well. In short, I’m really good at adjusting my playing to best-benefit either the featured performer or the ensemble – this is why I think I’m at my best when I’m playing, as the sole bassist, in the pits of musical theater.
3 My grandfather was absolutely determined to use a computer, and after he learned the basics there, how to use the Internet — so throughout high school, I would set aside an evening every other week or so and head over to his condo to give him a computer lesson. We always had dinner afterward. This was on top of the second-Saturday-of-the-month-during-Opera-season days that we had together, taking the bus into the city to catch the Opera-du-jour at the Metropolitan Opera house . . . I was a very, very, very lucky child
  1. Elaine permalink

    It doesn’t matter that this memory is pre-marriage, pre-parenthood. It’s perfect and were it my memory, it would be the best of my 7 wonders, too.

    • Thanks, Elaine — the moment has actually become my happy/safe place.

  2. And to think, I wanted to go to Prague before…

    • Yeah – Prague really is something else.

      And the beer was cheaper than water 🙂

  3. What a wonderful moment.

    My boys and my husband are in almost all my magical moments. But, not all. I did live a bit before they came along. Nothing wrong with that.

    • I think my issue is that this is, easily, my all-time favorite moment. I mean, I remember giving my son his first bottle, and holding my wife’s hand as our daughter was born. I remember my wife walking down the aisle, with the goofiest of grins on her face. I remember my son’s very first step . . . and they all pale in my memory to this one.

      Still, some of them might be worthy of future blog posts 🙂

  4. I already know the story, but then you write it out and get me all emotional. Wish I’d known Grand-Dad.

  5. I think it’s awesome that you gave him computer lessons. Not all kids would do that.

    • He was a really, really great guy – the computer lessons were just an excuse to have time together . . . we never actually went over much, it was, essentially, our way of ensuring that we’d, at least, have dinner every other week.

      • Laura permalink

        I agree, he never really mastered the computer, but I know he enjoyed the time with you.

  6. You made me cry. What a beautiful story.

    • I certainly didn’t set out to make anyone cry – but, I’ll assume these were happy tears. 🙂

  7. Oh, I remember those days of high school choir competitions, what a different place in life than today, huh?

    One of my fondest memories of my grandfather was when he told me he was proud of me so I feel ya on that one too.

    And Prague? Beer cheaper than water? Where are my tickets b/c I am SO THERE!

    • You know, I’ve actually found myself judging the high school music competitions on a few occasions . . . it’s so very different to be on the other side of the equation.

      The strangest thing about being in the Czech Republic (I was there after Czech and Slovakia had broken apart, but before Czech was using the Euro . . . so I have no idea if the same “cheap beer” anomaly would still hold true) was that there is a Czech beer named Budweiser (brewed in the city of Budweis) – and it’s actually a very, very good beer . . . because of this, there’s a crappy American beer, in a familiar can, that’s titled “Anheuser-Busch” beer.

  8. Nice.

    Also: I play steering wheel drums. True story.

    We should jam sometime.

    • The problem is that, whenever I find myself playing with a steering-wheel-drum virtuoso, I end up singing.

      And that always ends badly.

  9. Laura permalink

    As the auntie who hosted this trip, I love the story. That was a great way to celebrate Dad’s life and legacy. But you know? I prefer the city of Budapest…
    Love The Moldau, and had similar thoughts the first time I visited Prague. I think I’ll upload it on my Itunes account today.

    • I was hoping you’d get a chance to read this one — the entire trip was, really something else . . . just a great day followed by another great day. But, the highlight, for me, was certainly Prague (I still remember Larry’s friend, the manager of the hotel that we ended up moving to, talking about being able to touch one of the Spice Girls).

      I was actually in Budapest about a year after our trip – my biggest memory of it was admiring a Roma woman drawing a sketch . . . she noticed me noticing her and started asking, aggressively, if I’d like to buy the sketch. I said “no” in every language that I knew, walking away . . . I yelled “нет!” and she froze.

      I actually really wish I had spent more time in Budapest – we only had a few hours (this was prior to New Years, 1999, where I was touring the area with my college jazz band).

  10. How sweet of you to teach him computer lessons. That must have been great quality time for sure. Wonderful gesture to continue with the trip! I see why you’d want to relive those awesome memories, John. Well written, my friend.

    • Thank you, Eve! I miss my grandfather, terribly . . . but I always think back with truly marvelous memories.

  11. Who needs seven wonders when you have one as miraculous as this?

    Beautiful and inspirational; the music, the place, your words.

    My grandfather is 92. He loves the internet, reads my blog and is on Twitter to follow me. He has an open mind and heart and is happy by choice every single day of his life. No exaggeration.

    He was born in Sweden and I wish now I’d had the opportunity to travel there with him. Or anywhere, really.

    But he is a living wonder to me and I know how lucky I am.

    • I love that “happy by choice” part — because, well, I see how he’s rubbed off on you.

  12. Magic is magic, friend.

    {Love this.}

  13. I took piano at age 7 because I wanted to play the Star Wars theme. I quit after a year because I realized I had to be an entire orchestra to do it justice.

    I envy those who can wring magic from instruments or their voice – for I am not one of them.

    I loved this memory and the story of your grandfather. Beautifully written, John.

    • My son can actually find the Star Wars theme in a book of kids music sheet music . . . so I play that, on solo piano, often. But, yeah, you need an orchestra.

      I don’t know about wringing magic from my voice – but I’m going to try that in the very near future. *eeek*

  14. First of all, how many instruments do you PLAY!
    Second, NINE bassists? That orchestra must have been huge.
    Third, beautiful story about Prague. I’d love to go there.

    • Well, the orchestra took 8 of the 9 that tried out . . . so, really, it was only 8. I think it was because the conductor was a bassist, or because the “modern orchestra” is supposed to have 8-10 (I’m not making that bit up:

      As far as how many instruments I play, that’s a good question. I usually say four: organ, piano, double-bass, and bass-guitar — but, well, that can be seen as only two.

      I can fake my way through playing guitar or ‘cello, but I’m far from good on either of those instruments, and while I can’t play a drumset, I can hold my own as a symphonic percussionist.

  15. Wow. What an amazing story. I love it.

  16. Great story! I used to front a rock band in LA (umm, more than a few years ago) but could never master much in the way of instruments so I am envious of those who can play well. How great to be able to remember your Grandpa through both your music and a travel experience – that is a gift for sure!

    • I really wish I could sing better (evidence to be posted here in the next few weeks), so it’s not just the instrumentalists who are envious 🙂

  17. haha – ok cool! Can’t wait to hear your “evidence”.

  18. One of my favorite memories also took place on the Charles Bridge. Not nearly this sweet – just crazy college stuff. But, still – this made me smile. I also have a wonderful Grandpa. They just can’t be be, can they?
    Merry Christmas.

    • I’ve heard rumors of non-wonderful-grandparents . . . but, I’ve never seen evidence of the sort.

      It’s funny, though, whenever I talk to other people about Prague, they talk about how wild & crazy a time they had . . . I was there right smack in the middle of college . . . but the “wild & crazy” just wasn’t a big part of my life, right at that moment . . . too captured in the music & memories (other parts of the trip . . . well, um, they were memorable in their own way)

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