‘And the oboe, it is clearly understood,
Is an ill wind that no one blows good.’
– Danny Kaye, from the 1947 movie “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”
My mom used to sing that Danny Kaye line to me all the time, as I slouched toward my room to practice my oboe. Which may not sound all that supportive — but you should have heard her in the years prior, when I’d practice my violin: she’d come running into my room, hands on her ears, yelling, “Squeak squeak squeak!” in time to my futile bowings.
Looking back, I’m actually grateful that she didn’t try to kill me: I was a terrible little violinist!
As it happens, one evening, in front of our building, I was mugged by a group of teenagers. One of them held a knife to my throat and said, “Hand it over or you’ll get it!”
This was absurd on so many levels. For one thing, the violin had cost my dad something like five bucks: he’d gotten it from a friend who owned a music store, and I’m pretty sure the strings were made out of plastic. For another thing, I would have paid the kid to take my violin — and so would pretty much anyone in our neighborhood, after hearing my wretched practicing for day upon day.
I handed over the violin to my assailants, then ran into our apartment, telling my mom, between sobs, what had just happened. She comforted me for the required few minutes, then looked at me meaningfully and said, “So what instrument are you going to play now?” Neither of us considered for a second the possibility that I might just get another violin.
Is it a Jewish thing, or a middle-class thing, or both, that kids — at least of my generation — were expected to play an orchestral instrument? Doodling around on the guitar or the bongos simply wasn’t enough. Perhaps this derived from the American Jewish immigrant sense of what it meant to be a “cultured” person: you played an orchestral instrument, you mastered at least one foreign language, and — if you were really up to snuff — you won a Nobel Prize or two.
Why did I pick the oboe? Well, I can think of a few reasons.
One is that, on the magical trips that my godmother, Edith Solomon, had taken me to Lincoln Center to see Leonard Bernstein lead his delightful “Young People’s Concerts,” the New York Philharmonic’s great principal oboist, Harold Gomberg, had wowed me with a tone that seemed impossibly complex: both full and yet, somehow, also introspective. Listening to the oboe was like listening to someone’s internal monologue — something that you felt privileged to hear. Also, the oboe had a great, showy turn in Peter and the Wolf as the Duck — who ended up surviving being swallowed by the fascistic Wolf (leading to another example of internal monologuing!). But I think, in retrospect — in fact, I know — that what really drew me to the oboe was its specialness. In fact, that very evening of the mugging I remember asking my mom two questions:
- What was the most difficult orchestral instrument to play?
- What was the most obscure of all the instruments — that is, the one that was played by the fewest people?
And to each she answered: the oboe.
The next time Edith Solomon took me to a Young People’s Concert, I was determined to take up the oboe. In truth, I can’t remember if I mentioned this to Edith. She was a survivor of Auschwitz; my parents had repeatedly told me of how, when she was liberated from the death camp, Edith had only been “skin and bones.” Even now, decades later in New York, she was, as I recall, tremendously thin. And looking back almost half a century, I remember that she played the flute. I was keen, as a child with divorced (and often warring) parents, not to say anything that might give offense to an adult, or cause any distress — so it’s quite possible that I kept my oboistic intentions secret from my godmother, so as not to risk breaking her fragile flutist’s heart.
But really, how shocking would it have been to her, in the context of all her life experience, to hear that her godson was planning on taking up the oboe? Not much, I’d imagine. And when I think about the qualities that attracted me to this weird instrument — its difficulty, its obscurity, its fringeness — I wonder whether that childhood decision of mine might have struck Edith as being … well … Jewish. And possibly she would not have considered this a bad thing.
I played the oboe through my teens, then gave it up for many years — but now, in my 50s, I have started to play it again. It’s still very difficult — and often I can’t help asking myself why I keep going, when I know that I’ll never be very good at it. Perhaps — and this is just a guess — it is, at least in part, my sense that so long as there is wind, “ill” or otherwise, and someone willing to blow it, the universe cannot be a completely uncaring place.
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The oboe is — along with the Book of Exodus and other Jewish stuff — a major element of Josh Kornbluth’s upcoming theater piece, “Sea of Reeds,” which will open this summer at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley and then run early next year at the JCCSF. You can find out about all of Josh’s doings on his website, JoshKornbluth.com.