VYO, SWAT, and Why I’m No Edgar Winter

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(Host) A couple of weekends ago, commentator Philip Baruth performed with the Vermont Youth Orchestra. It was a deeply humbling experience, one that caused Philip to revisit one of the most significant failures of his youth.

(Baruth) In 1974, when I was twelve, I begged my mother to give me a guitar for my birthday. When I got the guitar, I begged her for songbooks, and then I begged her for a year of guitar lessons. I did these things because I wanted to be like the guys in the posters taped inside my older sister’s locker at school: Edgar Winter, Lynrd Skynrd, and ZZTop. Never mind that all of the men in these pictures had really alarming beards, big beer-bellies and/or white hair. I wanted to be like them and appear on the insides of the lockers of older sisters throughout the country.

What I didn’t count on was that a guitar, a guitar book and lessons all implied that I would practice the guitar. And I found pretty quickly that I didn’t like to practice: it hurt my fingers, and it meant taking time away from Star Trek and Love American Style. So I solved the contradiction by pretending to practice, which worked until the first public recital. I was supposed to play “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” but somehow when I played it Michael never actually made it to shore, and so I began to fake illnesses on Saturday mornings. Finally, I traded the guitar to my next-door neighbor Doug Hurlbut for thirty-five of his best Justice League of America comics, and everyone was happy.

That is until I agreed to narrate the story of Peter and the Wolf for the Vermont Youth Orchestra. I had no idea that saying yes would mean confronting the part of me that was a quitter, but that’s exactly what happened. These Youth Orchestra kids started showing up at 9am for a one o’clock performance. They’re hauling bags and cases, these fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds, and more than musicians they seem like a classical SWAT team, all of them in black and white, securing the area.

They pull out their flutes and their French Horns and their oboes and their violas, and they start doing the most complicated and exacting things as a matter of course: they start soaking reeds in warm water and tightening and loosening strings according to some inner grail of perfection. They play scales faster than I can follow, and they do it while discussing what they downloaded from the Internet the night before. They practice without a break for two and a half hours. And then they do two shows, back to back.

I see these kids, and I see their parents, sitting through not one rendition of Peter and the Wolf but three, not because they couldn’t come back at the end of the day, but because they’re that involved. I see all of this, and I’m deeply thankful that these parents and kids have turned their energies to music and not petty crime or world domination; because, believe me, they can pretty much do anything they want to do. They know the secret, the thing I was never able to learn: they practice, these musicians and their parents. They practice not just the instruments, but the getting there and the getting home, the late dinners and the weekends built around six-hour performances.

All of them make me feel like I belong, but deep in my heart I know it’s a lie. And somewhere Doug Hurlbut still has my guitar, and he knows it’s a lie too.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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