Like most people, I remember a lot of general information about growing up. As a child born at the end of the 60s, I spent those critical developmental early years in the 70s. Hey, did you know that in the 1970s, you could buy live fish at Kmart in the pet department, for example? Why you would, I have no idea. And you weren’t scared to death to drink out of the garden hose, either! At least, not yet.
I’ve been told that the human brain stores important issues for retrieval later after you’ve grown up, both the good and the bad issues. For example, I remember when I was just over 10 months old, my late mother placed me on the cold floor of a long, dim hallway. Then she walked away from me, turned, and watched me. I remember crying for a few seconds before she returned, picked me up, and continued to carry me towards the lit end of the passageway. I then remember a man with sandy brown hair and a mustache leaning over me as I laid still on a metal table. He wore a yellow, button-down collared shirt that had pens in the left breast pocket.
The day I recited this memory to my mother, a day in the 90s, I watched my mother’s jaw nearly hit the ground as she struggled for words. I had just described to her the day she took me for a final examination prior to surgery on my leg, a surgery to remove part of the bone destroyed by osteomyelitis. She had gone to the hospital after hours, and the hallways were not completely lit. She had placed me on the ground one final time to see if I could perhaps crawl for the first time, something I hadn’t done after 10 months of life. The man in the yellow shirt was to be my surgeon. I knew I had been a very sick baby, and that I had spent the first 6 months of my life in an incubator. I also knew I’d had osteomyelitis, and that I was not expected to survive. I had the scar on my left foreleg that would grow with me year after year. My mother then produced for me the cast I wore at that tiny age, a keepsake I saw for the second time after her death. I keep it in my nightstand next to my bed. I still study it from time to time to remind me that I am, indeed, supposed to be here, and that I am still searching for my best to give in return to…whomever and whatever…I can be very patient when I need to be!
As we grow, we gather more and more memories like this to add to our files. There are people and events to which we come in contact, and our paths are pushed or pulled in some direction. We follow our brick road as it is placed, brick by brick – no faster, no slower – each of us following a road that is unique to us alone, like a fingerprint. I remember my first piano teacher, Mrs. Lee, in Iowa. I remember the “Bedtime March” my grandmother in Chicago would play as my four brothers would literally march up the stairs to bed every night. I remember my father playing “The Tiger Rag” on the piano, the downbeat of the refrain played by his left elbow crashing to the keyboard on every measure! I remember listening to classical music on the car radio of my father’s Chrysler as I accompanied him on a veterinary house call to a farmer’s house, a small calf in need of assistance as it struggled to be born. I would watch the smoke from his cigarette float into the air, and force it to dance in the air along with the tempo of the music. I remember trying to get my head as close as possible to the speaker as the music coming from my parents’ 8-track filled the room. I remember making up a game with the music: I would listen to a song I knew, then leave the room as the song played in my ears and brain. I would try to keep time with the song as I ventured further and further away from it. I’d go so far that it was no longer audible, then turn around and continue the imagination as I returned to the room. The goal was to see if I could keep perfect time in my head. In my entire life, I think I accomplished this exactly one time, and given those statistics, I’d have to chalk that success up to dumb luck!
My first instrumental teacher was a gentleman named Dr. James Ryon. Dr. Ryon taught at Eldersburg Elementary School in Eldersburg, MD (Carroll County). The school had sent out letters and brochures to all fourth grade students early in the school year. That night, I took the brochure to my father who was sitting out on the porch of our old farmhouse at 6401 Woodbine Road in Woodbine. He was smoking his pipe, which meant that he was in good spirits and approachable – I grew up “old school”: Children were meant to be seen, not heard, unless spoken to. I shyly approached him with the musical propaganda. He asked which instrument I’d like to play. I quickly blurted out that I wanted to play drums. Just as quickly, he suggested that the French horn would be much better. Looking in his eyes, I nodded in agreement (“Yeah. A football…” – a la “A Christmas Story”!) as the pipe smoke wrapped around both of our heads and disappeared into the yard behind him. He took out his fountain pen, checked the appropriate boxes, signed, and returned the paperwork to me. Disappointed, I returned to the inside, crawled into bed, and went to sleep while trying to imagine how on earth the French horn would be cooler than the drums. That evening was etched in my brain forever, and my brick road took a serious turn in the moment I approached my father.
If there was anyone more shy than me growing up, I’d like to meet them! I couldn’t even look a person in the eye if I wanted to because I slouched so badly, the poor posture that would stay with me my entire life. I don’t remember the days leading up to getting the French horn, a “F” single tubed horn – yeah: old school. I didn’t even know they made Bb French horns until I went to college – but that’s another blog…I remember that Dr. Ryon guided me through the beginning year in the way in which he was taught. I loved it! Just being in command of an instrument made me feel like a painter with a blank canvas – I could do whatever I wanted to do, and no one knew how to play in my house, so I had to be right! Or, at least, I wasn’t wrong – there’s a difference! Dr. Ryon had the patience of a saint. He gently encouraged me and all of his students in the most supportive of ways. I remember a mouthpiece buzzing exercise he’d taught me in which I would play a note on the horn, then pull it away from my lips as they continued the buzz, and bring the horn back as I tried to maintain the buzz and the note when the instrument was in place. I developed a tremendous amount of respect for this gentleman while he taught me a skill that allowed me to “speak” in a world where I wasn’t supposed to.
The first concert of the year was performed for the student body in the cafeteria. It took place after lunch, our plastic-bagged chocolate milk stabbed and long dead! I was prepared and ready because I’d practiced. But I was still terribly nervous – not for me, but terrified that I’d make a mistake, and that those listening would identify my mistake with the shortcomings of my teacher. Geez, I put a lot of pressure upon myself! The time came for the concert. I don’t remember what we played, but I’ll never forget it. Because it was the first time in what would be a lifetime career in which I would make musical mistakes. I played loud on a wrong note, and immediately felt my cheeks turn to fire. What happened? I was so ready! I couldn’t look at Dr. Ryon. I was so ashamed. He did nothing wrong, but I did something wrong. I felt like my already-slouching-body would just sink into the concrete and tile below me. And in one 8-year-old instant, I was introduced to humility. After the concert, I sadly returned my horn to its case. Dr. Ryon congratulated us on a job well done. How could he say that? I’d just pooped all over one note, and he didn’t mind! I ran to the school bus that afternoon, certain that everyone was talking about how awful I was! Of course, they weren’t! I went home and cried because I’d let Dr. Ryon down in my mind. What I realized many, many years later was that what he taught me in that moment was, “So what?! So, you’re human! Did you expect to be something greater? No one is. You worked hard. You made a mistake. That’s life, and you’re just a tiny child. Stop beating yourself. I’m proud of you.”. Upon that realization, I forgave that little girl, finally!
Years came and went. We moved from Maryland to Kansas. While in Kansas, I’d switched to trumpet since there was only one trumpet player in the small Catholic school I attended, and I thought the trumpet parts were way cooler than the French horn parts. My career, while turning another direction as the bricks fell into place, was born as a trumpet player. And here I successfully musically sit, and write.
Why do I write this now? For one, I want to! My mind isn’t getting sharper – it’s getting duller as the years add up. I want to document these things for me, my children, and anyone else who might be interested in reading them. But for another, I’ve spent years trying to find Dr. Ryon. My father’s service in the Army took my family on a crazy ride. Friends wound up in the dust as we sped along. But I never forgot Dr. Ryon. I think back on that night on the porch with my father, when I wanted to play drums. He “volun-told” me for the French horn. Dr. Ryon ever so gently gave me the tools I’d need to tap into not only the hardware of the brass instruments, but also the voice of music and expression that lived so deep down inside of me! One of my first field trips ever was to a National Symphony Orchestra rehearsal in Washington, D.C. I remember staring at each section as if a major chord was ringing while the spotlight found one, then the other. The French horns cried and screamed, sang and played throughout, and I was in love! Music was my passion, and I knew right then and there that it would never leave me. I would never be alone again!
I finally found Dr. Ryon, thanks to FaceBook. In a strange coincidence, he is the father-in-law of one of my Field Band colleagues! The day I met Rose Ryon, I noticed that she spelled her last name the same way as Dr. Ryon. But I was sure it was just a coincidence, and I never bothered to ask her if there was a relationship. Last week, while looking through her friends, I saw the name “James Ryon”. I clicked on his name and learned that he was a public school teacher. What?! I sent a short message to him asking if he’d taught in Carroll County in the 70s, and apologizing if I’d mistaken his identity. The next morning, I had a reply that he was, indeed, THE Dr. James Ryon! Wow! We’ve exchanged a handful of messages, and tomorrow night, I will finally be able to thank him in person for the gift he gave me all those years ago: He is attending the Jazz Ambassadors concert in Harrisburg, PA! I’m both nervous and excited, much like that first concert I played under his baton over 35 (Yes, 35!) years ago. This time, I will dedicate my performance to him, and I will play with all the love, respect and honor I can muster. He changed my life. Thank you, Dr. Ryon – forever! There will never be enough words, dear sir!