Weakness Strikes Early: Carol S**ks at Music but…

Everyone has a weakness. I have several. Here’s what one of my weaknesses has meant to me.

The trouble started when I was in grade school. My mother stood at the kitchen sink, her back to me, and said, “You can’t be in the band.”

“What?” Somehow I made it to her side. “But Susan Weber is going to play the clarinet.”

My mother scrubbed a pot, her eyes fixed on the gray dishwater, her forearms slick with spent suds. “You got a low score on a music test.”

I remembered that test. Our class had listened to a short series of tones and then been asked which one had changed the second time around: A, B, C, or D? Not even understanding what the word tone meant, I had guessed at every answer. “So?”

“Only one kid got a lower score than you did, Carol, out of both fifth grade classes. So they don’t want you in band.”

weakness with music and clarinet

“You mean I can’t get a clarinet?”

Mom shook her head, pressing her lips together.

Trying to take it in, I left the kitchen, imagining a long line of fifth graders placed in order of musical ability. Because I was standing next to last in that line, they wouldn’t let me join the band?

I had been measured and found wanting. I was excluded. It hurt.

I don’t remember Susan proudly carrying her shiny new instrument into our class. I don’t remember being left behind, one of the few souls remaining after the mass exodus to the band room. But I do remember this:

After my weakness was revealed, my attitude changed.

Mr. Wagner, my first man teacher, contacted my mother. He suggested that she provide me with an alternative activity, something that not all fifth graders could do. And thus it was that for the next couple of years my mother took me to Mt Solo Stables on Saturday morning for horseback riding lessons. I loved horses, and Cathy McRae became my buddy in the arena.

No, I never became an Olympic equestrian. And whenever I tell musical people that I was banned from learning an instrument in grade school, they are appalled.

To be sure, no one should be prohibited from making music. And yet, now that I’m familiar with aptitude assessments and not only approve of them but even advocate their use, I don’t want to ignore the information they provide.

In my case, I believe my fifth grade music test yielded an accurate prediction of my ability. I received an equally low score two decades later on a musical aptitude test at Johnson O’Connor. I’ve also done poorly in any number of informal “tests.” Nearly everyone who has ever heard me sing has asked me to stop. Even sweet little Rusty, a severely disabled boy I once babysat, didn’t want me to sing “Rubber Ducky” when he took his bath. Shortly after I’d start to croon, his palms would hit the surface of the water, drenching me with spray as he yelled “Pops!” (his version of “Stop!”)

Five decades later, I have some opinions about my weakness:

I wanted to sing and play an instrument, but I was born with a tin ear. As long as I performed in the realm of my musical weakness, a mentor’s ability to help was limited. His best options might be to express some sympathy and push a pair of plugs into his ears.

Although I myself had been unaware that my musical ability was in the low range, others were aware. If I had been allowed to play the clarinet, I’m confident that my performance would have earned scowls and scorn from my fellow fifth-graders, which would have been even more excruciating to me than being excluded from band.

The school should never have asked my mother to do its dirty work. Instead, an educator could have talked with me privately. I would have understood that even though there were plenty of things I could do well, remembering tones was not one of them. I would have understood that low tonal memory wasn’t my fault. Most likely I would even have accepted that my weakness would make it painfully slow and laborious for me to learn music.

I learned to play “Good King Wenceslas” on the recorder when I was in seventh grade, as part of a music appreciation class. That was last time I played an instrument. After making music on something resembling a clarinet, I did not rush out to buy my own recorder. So I can’t conclude that being kept out of band in elementary school ruined my musical opportunities.

My lack of talent limited my options. Fortunately I had other talents.

Although I’d still love to sing, it would have been kamikaze crazy for me to pursue a career in music. Of course I could learn and improve, work hard and persevere, but it would take an unrealistic level of outside support for me to succeed. At an early age, I had discovered that I could not be whatever I wanted to be.

I did not waste much time crying. I must have figured that, like everyone, I possessed a weakness or two. However, like everyone, I also possessed a strength or two. In a matter of weeks I discovered a new and true talent—reading—which gives me great satisfaction to this day.

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