Chops is what you got to have, chops, the music teacher urgently explained to the class, and if you don’t have chops, you don’t have a chance. His tone made a few of us perk up, but being twelve- or thirteen-year-olds, most of us didn’t quite care about making it yet. The rest of us stifled our groans and he led us through the scale again.
My arms were tired from holding up the violin but if I relaxed my arms he would loudly strike the podium with his baton, which was usually a pencil, two or three times and point and say up, up.
Music class was after lunch and we attended it instead of P.E. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. There were mostly girls but a few boys who tended to play the larger instruments like the bass. One of them, TD (though I was never sure whether those were initials or his name was TeeDee or Teedee, but it could very well have been TT or TeeTee, though that would have been odd) took it all very seriously as he did everything, whether music class or science or eating his lunch. It was always a sandwich, a juice box, a bag of chips, and a piece of fruit like an apple or a banana that he would eat last. He would eat it all, with sips from his juice, and not say a word to his tablemates until he was done.
TD thought everything the music teacher said was important and worth remembering. He would sometimes repeat it under his breath. Chops, have to have chops, have to have chops. I don’t think he ever had any musical ambitions. I learned that he became the executive director of a blood bank, probably with a few other positions and maybe even careers on the way that I did not hear about
It was the day of our Christmas performance and we were rehearsing at a special time. It was a Wednesday. TD was struggling with “Frosty the Snowman.” He would mess up a note. Get angry. And strike his bow against his head. I was sitting next to him. After the fifth or sixth time he did it, I leaned over and told him it was okay. It’s not, he said, I keep messing up. But that’s alright, I said, it doesn’t matter. He seemed to think about that for a moment, as if he was trying out the thought and then nodded as if he had concluded it was a good one. The music teacher led us from the top. TD messed up a note. And he hit himself on the head with his bow again.
The performance that night went well. Our parents and siblings attended. TD did not mess up—or at least did not get angry at himself. I was too nervous to notice and was focused solely on my own playing. But he probably played as poorly as the rest of us. None of us were any good.
I saw him with his parents afterwards. They seemed ecstatic, so happy. They hugged him and kissed him. I always wondered what they were so happy about. My parents were happy but mostly about it being over and getting to go home.