When did I find out that I could sing, that I could harmonize? Was it a special gift?
I remember singing in elementary school. I tried out the role of Nanki-Poo in “The Mikado” and found myself in the chorus. And, in “I Hear America Singing”. I played the main role – Walt Whitman.
Ms. Flatow, our music teacher at school, was the first to recognize something musical in me. Once, when I was in 5th or 6th grade, she took me and other students to a classical music concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
The hall was huge. We took our places in the orchestra. The stage had many chairs; in front of each chair was a support surmounted by a cradle-shaped receptacle to hold the scores.
From the wings, the members of the orchestra slowly entered the stage. It was the first time I had seen an entrance like this; it looked like a moving garden of musical instruments. Then I started to hear sounds, the musicians playing notes, testing their instruments. Then they just sat there quietly as if they were waiting for something to happen.
Suddenly a lone figure, the conductor, appeared backstage, walked to the center of the stage and faced the audience. People started to applaud so I joined in. Then it became very calm. The conductor turned and faced the orchestra, raised his arms, wand in right hand. He made another wave of his hand and then I heard him: “Da da da dah, da da da daah.”
I immediately recognized the first notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. I was hypnotized.
I had heard this music before but in a small room from a small box on Mrs. Flatow’s desk. Sitting in an orchestra seat at the Brooklyn Academy of Music was a whole new ball game. It was fascinating, a first.
I would never see another premiere like this again.
Twice a week I would go to Mrs. Flatow’s room to listen to music. She would tell us about famous composers from the past and play music on a Victrola. I will never forget the day she performed “The William Tell Overture”. The music started off very calm and melodic, then the theme of “The Lone Ranger” exploded in my ears. What was Lone Ranger’s music doing in a music appreciation class?
This moment of hearing turned into a moment of listening and seeing. In my mind there was the masked man, sitting on a white horse on a high hill to the west, and I was like, “Hi Ho Silver, the Lone Ranger Rides again. Without the music he would have been just a big white guy, wearing a mask, sitting on a white horse on a hill. Music brought “The Lone Ranger” to life. Giacomo Rossini was unaware that the music for his opera, “William Tell”, premiered in 1829, would be the musical theme of a radio show some 200 years later.
Was the music associated with other radio shows that I listened to? I was wondering. Yes, “The Shadow” had a theme, just like “Let’s Pretend”. Apparently I had been surrounded by music, much of which I had never really heard until I started listening – really listening.
One day, I had the courage to approach Mrs. Flatow and ask her if I could enter the school orchestra even if I did not play an instrument. She gave me a pair of castanets and showed me how to use them, and just like that, I joined the school orchestra.
How many teachers would have done that? She extracted from my depths a love for classical music, which I was not aware of. I was one of the few students who got 100% on the music appreciation test. I did not realize then that Mrs. Flatow had accomplished her main objective; classical music was now part of my life. She sent me on a musical journey that continues to this day.
My mother passed away when I was 12. The following year, I lived with my grandparents. Every once in a while, I went to the Temple Beth-El synagogue on 15th Avenue and 49th Street in Brooklyn with my grandfather. I remember the synagogue as being quite majestic. From the downstairs seats I looked up at a balcony the choir used when they were there for services. I thought I would like to be in the choir. My voice was good enough, I thought, and I was taking Hebrew lessons to cook my bar mitzvah.
I told Grandpa about it and he said he would ask around. Shortly after, I was interviewed by Oscar Julius, the conductor. He auditioned me and told me he would contact me. A few days later I was in the choir and very excited. Each week we would meet in a rehearsal room where we would prepare for upcoming events. Occasionally we would perform at Saturday night weddings. I was paid 50 cents per marriage. On the rare occasion that I was singing a solo part, I received $ 1. Sometimes on Saturday night we would sing at two or even three weddings, running from one to the other. My father complained that it cost him more in gasoline for his chauffeur services than what I was earning. He was sure there was no Mrs. Flatow!
My bar mitzvah Saturday was an exciting day for me and my grandfather. After the Sharcharit part of the service, I sang my Haftora, Miketz, which tells of how Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams and was appointed to implement the Egyptian plan against famine. Then, to the surprise of the congregation, I sang the cantorial prayers of the Musaf service. It was a first for me and a first for the congregation – to have a 13 year old David Musaf. After the service, my grandfather was inundated with worshipers offering compliments on his grandson. It was one of his best days because he was so proud and loved me so much.
Time was passing. My father remarried and I moved to the Bronx to live with him and my new mother-in-law. It was a tough transition, but looking back I think I handled it pretty well. I was in 8th grade and I attended the PS83, which was in a difficult area. At that time, the brightest students were in one class, the less bright in another, and the poorest students in yet another. I was mistakenly assigned to a class with this latter group, and felt out of place.
I made my singing debut there at an assembly. When my turn came, I stood in the center of the stage, microphone in hand and, accompanied by the piano, sang “Paper Doll”. Somewhere in the middle of the song, the mic broke. As I did not have the powerful voice of an Ezio Pinza, I was not heard, not even in the front row. Still, I continued to sing until I finished the song.
Back in the classroom, the boys gave me smirk and said nasty things. It was a tough group. One nasty day I overheard some of them talking about how they were going to beat me up after school. So every day, I ripped my ass off at school to stay ahead of them. It went on for a few days and then I found out that they were looking for a kid my size to beat me up because they recognized that it wouldn’t be good to have a tall guy do it.
Enter David Minescu, the tough kid from school. It was perfect for the job. I was not a fighter, so I devised a plan. The school desk had a sign on the wall that contained levers which, when pushed, would ring a bell in each classroom, signaling the end of the period; a lever for each part.
I investigated and located the room in which David Minescu would be at the end of the day. I would push the lever for that room last, then quickly leave before David could look out for me. The plan was successful for a while, until one day it caught me outside of school. There was no escape. He laughed at me. A crowd gathered; the great fight was launched. He punched me and I started to back up. After a few minutes of rocking, a teacher appeared and interrupted the fight.
I was afraid to go back to school the next day, but I did. I stumbled upon a fluke; David Minescu didn’t show up that day because some fluke on my part had apparently given him a black eye and he was ashamed to be seen at school. Somehow that ended the “Beat up Berk” effort and school life continued.
I told my dad about the incident and said I wanted to get out of that class. A few days later, he went to school to talk to my official teacher. What they decided was an unpleasant shock to my system; my father and teacher agreed that I should stay in this class and deal with situations as they arise – it would be a good learning experience, they said.
Things calmed down and it didn’t take long for me to find myself in Christopher Columbus High School. David also went to CCHS. Our paths have crossed from time to time. We greeted each other with a semi-friendly nod. I think we both had grown a bit by this time.
In my new home in the Bronx. I was starting to come to terms with a new stepmom doing her best to care for a new 13 year old stepson.
There was a piano in the apartment, which she played. Sometimes I would sit at the piano and try to make music. It was fun, and I would have done it often, but my mother-in-law wouldn’t allow me to play unless I took classes, and I wasn’t interested. It ended my relationship with the piano.
Looking back, I regret not having taken a course because I think it would have further strengthened my love for music. Should my mother-in-law have tried harder? Yes, I think so. She admitted, however, that I had a beautiful singing voice. “You are as good as Bobby Breen,” she would say, referring to a famous boy soprano from the 1930s and 1940s. She even went so far as to contact NBC to request an audition for me to sing in “The Horn and Hardart. Children’s’ Hour, “a weekly radio show featuring talented children performing their art. They never responded to his request.
Over the years, I lost my beautiful voice and my singing career came to an end. However, Ms. Flatow’s influence still flourishes in me. I never lost my love for music, nor stopped singing, if only for myself.
Thank you, Mrs. Flatow, wherever you are.
Len Berk is The Forward’s award-winning lox columnist. On Thursdays you can find him behind the lox counter at Zabar.