Daily Prompt: We Got the Beat.
Well, I guess I could pretend I was in a band – we never performed on stage, or in public at all, but we practised. Boy, did we practise – regularly together, almost daily. The number of band members ebbed and flowed according to the tides of commitments elsewhere, but generally there would be up to twelve – or as low as three – in the practice cells of the convent music block.
Yeh, we were all students at a convent, learning violin, piano, or flute. And all girls, from twelve to sixteen. Most were also school pupils, boarding at the convent, though there were a few “day girls”, or one or two who attended a state school and came to ours only for music lessons.
A little context, time-wise, may help here. Think early sixties, in a rural town whose radio station’s manager filtered what new releases would air to suit the tweed jacket and twin-set and pearls agricultural big spenders who’d come into town once a week to buy up supplies. So no Dylan, no Stones, no rock. And no radio at all in the dormitories. And one black and white television on which we watched a weekly documentary under the watchful eye of a nun, who’d avidly watch the screen while clicking her knitting needles. Anything to do with reproduction of animals, and “Off! Early night, girls.”
Back to the practice cells – and I mean cells. Each was off a central corridor that ran from the top of the flight of stairs to the two teaching rooms at the far end. The cells were only just sized to accommodate an upright piano, a chair, and a music stand. The windows were small panes of patterned glass, set in steel frames. Only the top one opened, and that so high you used a pulley to haul on the cord which turned the screw-rod – designed to forbid looking out. Not a note or a squeak left any cell, for all four walls were lined with pinex for sound proofing, as was the inside of the door. From the corridor, they showed their beautiful rimu panelling. From inside, they added to the grim feeling of the cell.
Always, the girl in the cell closest to the top of the stairs would leave her door partly open a crack, as from her piano seat she could see the shoulder of the supervising nun at her rosary or knitting, sitting on a hard, straight-backed chair. Until the refectory bell rang, for the nuns to attend afternoon tea and devotions (a quick Hail Mary then back to duties). Our look-out would wait until the nun’s rosary clicks faded into oblivion as she passed through the typing practice room and closed that door.
All cell doors would pop open, and we would gather in Mother Michelle’s teaching room, which gave us room to talk without the typists below hearing. We’d ask day girls what music they’d heard, and could one hum or sing parts of it if she’d heard it often enough to learn a verse or the chorus.
There was one day-girl whose sister worked as a technician at the radio studio. She would tell us of the releases we’d never hear until we got back to our home towns. And of the TV shows: the Country Touch, In the Groove and Let’s Go! on which she could watch country, folk music and pop – The Beatles, even! New Zealand city bands would play to a hand-picked studio audience – our town’s only glimpse of city fashion.
She couldn’t read music (nothing to do with the thick-lensed glasses she had to wear), so she’d cheated her way through three violin music grades, playing by ear . One day in the open door part of practice session, her fingers were flying – a static and erratic pace, given she was using recall, not sheet music like the rest of us – up and down the keyboard. Apparently a band called the Hamilton County Bluegrass band (hell, we didn’t even know what bluegrass was) had played a country number – the Orange Blossom Special. She said the band not only had guitarists and a drummer, but a player of the banjo, the bass, a mandolin – and a fiddle.
She brought us Orange Blossom Special bit by bit, by playing just enough on the piano for us to be able to pick out a melody for the pianists or the violinists to cover. Somehow it became the one song we all wanted to play. One day she brought in a 45 rpm recording, and a boarder sneaked away to the dorm to bring her portable turntable. At last we got to hear it properly performed! See? It was possible to play a classical instrument and have fun doing it!
We mastered our cover version, and moved on to whatever other pieces she was able to recall and pick on the piano for us. And that was our major focus for “band practice”, from nun’s tea-break bell to the call up the stairs from the typing room: “Penguin alert!” when all practice room doors would quietly close, and it would be back to Bach, Brahms and Beethoven.
But Orange Blossom Special? I can hear it now – just as I can “hear” The Band practising it.