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Listener Essay - Classical Music Is Playing

Picture of Musical Notes - Classical Music

  Jan Allen Pfeifer lives and writes in Woodstock, New York. She is a native of Louisville KY.

Classical Music is Playing

Classical music is playing in the bedroom where my father is dying. I sit alone, next to him. In this liminal space, the music is a soothing companion for both of us. It knows its way.

As I listen, I am transported back to grade school and field trips to Louisville Gardens for orchestra concerts. An amazing feat, moving hundreds of school children downtown like a conveyer belt from all parts of the city, the only common denominator being our grade and the yellow school buses that brought us. Each bus arrives and empties their charges onto Walnut Street in clockwork fashion. Our own trip is short, the hard green vinyl seats still cold against our dangling bare legs. Some of the girls hold hands, the warm considerations of best friends.

We are greeted with the smell of fresh winter as we exit the bus. Dwarfed by the cavernous space of the hall, our lines move like legions of diligent ants marching up the stairs and across the rows to find our seats, classes from other schools repeating the same choreography.

Teachers move their arms like traffic cops, pausing occasionally to visit with other teachers or to pull an unruly boy out of the line by his collar, sitting him in the seat next to her’s where he will be close at hand. It is the sixties, it is always a boy. We settle in, arranging our plaid car coats on the backs of our chairs, some of the boys wad theirs and stuff them under their seats.

On stage, musicians warm up, arranging their sheet music on black metal stands. A woman pulls a bow along her violin strings skipping across segments of the score like a stone across Beargrass Creek, the timpani swells, filling in the dark corners of the hall. Our chatter rises and lowers like the music to come, set free to scatter across the endless space. Then, in one sharp circular moment, our attention is gathered like a drawstring to the conductor, quieting every instrument and voice. The echoes of our earlier excitement search quickly for a place to land. A sparkling hush tickles the hair on our arms.

Tapping his baton with a soft staccato, the conductor invites us into his narrative. Glockenspiel. Bassoon. Peter And the Wolf, all became part of my vocabulary, originating there.

As abruptly as it began, it is over. Repeating the same choreography in reverse, we fill the empty yellow buses along Walnut Street. Disrupting the camaraderie of the bus drivers, our presence pulls them apart like a magnet to iron filings.

The same day we are back in our desks copying dictionary definitions on mimeograph sheets, the purple ink still damp. As if we had just had a spelling test, instead of a magical journey adventuring with Peter in the dark forest. As if we had not had our bodies snatched with the strains of Shostakovich, traces of us still lingering in the concert hall.

Having been transported beyond the boundaries of what could be seen, the teachers seemed to be blind to the shift that had taken place in us. Didn’t they notice the classroom was no longer filled with the same kids? That it was a little bit harder for us all to fit in the room? How does one negotiate that kind of travel?

Back in my father’s bedroom the music continues to play softly. Pulled into its current, I release my arms to respond. It is seductive to feel its contours, to reflect its movements. I am free to get lost in it, to accept its invitation to dance.

The music transitions to another movement. I consider change. Walnut Street is now Muhammed Ali Boulevard. Winter has finally melted into spring. My father is dying, his life ending, right at the moment I finally step fully into mine.

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