When did I discover that I could sing, that I could harmonize? Was it a special gift?
I remember singing in elementary school. I tried out for the role of Nanki-Poo in “The Mikado” and wound up in the chorus. And, in “I Hear America Singing.” I played the lead role — Walt Whitman.
Mrs. Flatow, our school music teacher, was the first to recognize something musical in me. One time, when I was in 5th or 6th grade, she took me and some other students to a classical music concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
The lobby was huge. We took our seats in the orchestra. The stage had many chairs; in front of each chair was a stand topped with a cradle-like receptacle to hold the music sheets.
From the wings, the orchestra members walked slowly onto the stage. It was the first time I had ever seen an entrance like this; it looked like a moving garden of musical instruments. Then, I began to hear sounds, the musicians playing notes, testing out their instruments. Then, they just sat there quietly as if they were waiting for something to happen.
Suddenly a lone figure, the orchestra conductor, appeared in the wings, walked center stage, and faced the audience. People started to applaud so I joined in. Then, it it got very quiet. The conductor turned and faced the orchestra, raised his arms, baton in his right hand. He made another hand movement and then I heard it: “Da da da dah, da da da daah.”
I immediately recognized the first notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. I was mesmerized.
I had heard this music before but in a small room coming from a small box on Mrs. Flatow’s desk. Sitting in an orchestra seat in the Brooklyn Academy of Music was a whole new ballgame. It was thrilling, a first.
I would never experience another first like this again.
Twice a week, I would go to Mrs. Flatow’s room for music appreciation. She would tell us about famous composers of the past and play music on a Victrola. I’ll never forget the day she played ”The William Tell Overture.” The music started out very calm and melodic, and then, the theme to “The Lone Ranger” blasted into my ears. What was the Lone Ranger music doing in a music appreciation class?
That moment of hearing turned into one of listening and seeing. In my mind’s eye, there was the masked man, sitting on a white horse on a high hill in the west, and I’m thinking, ”Hi Ho Silver, the Lone Ranger Rides again.” Without the music he would just have been a tall white guy, wearing a mask, sitting on a white horse, on a hill. The music brought “The Lone Ranger” to life. Little did Giacomo Rossini know that music from his opera, “William Tell” that premiered in 1829 would be the theme music for a radio show some 200 years later.
Was music associated with other radio shows I listened to? I wondered. Yes, “The Shadow” had a theme, and so did “Let’s Pretend.” Apparently, I had been surrounded by music, much of which I never really heard until I started to listen — really listen.
One day I got up the courage to approach Mrs. Flatow and ask if I could get into the school orchestra even though I didn’t play an instrument. She gave me a pair of castanets, and showed me how to use them, and just like that, I became a member of 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 pupils that got 100% on the music appreciation test. I didn’t realize then that Mrs. Flatow had accomplished her main purpose; classical music had become part of my life. She sent me on a musical journey that continues to this day.
My mother died when I was 12. For the next year, I lived with my grandparents. Occasionally I went to Temple Beth-El Synagogue, on 15th Avenue and 49th Street, in Brooklyn, with my grandpa. I remember the synagogue as being quite majestic. From the seats on the main floor I would look up to a balcony that the choir used when they were there for services. I thought that I would like to be in the choir. My voice was good enough, I thought, and I was taking Hebrew lessons to prepare for my bar mitzvah.
I spoke to grandpa about it and he said he would ask around. Not long thereafter, I was interviewed by Oscar Julius, the choirmaster. He auditioned me and said he would get in touch. A few days later, I was in the choir and very excited. Each week we would meet in a rehearsal room where we prepared for upcoming events. Occasionally, we would perform at Saturday night weddings. I was paid 50 cents a wedding. On the rare occasion when I would perform a solo part, I received $1. Sometimes, on Saturday nights, we would sing at two or even three weddings, rushing from one to the next. My father complained that it cost him more in gas for his chauffeur services than I earned. He was sure no Mrs. Flatow!
The Saturday of my bar mitzvah was an exciting day for me and my grandpa. After the Sharcharit portion of the service I sang my Haftorah, Miketz, which tells of how Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams and was appointed to implement Egypt’s anti-famine plan. Then, to the surprise of the congregation, I chanted 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 daven Musaf. After the service my grandpa was deluged by worshipers offering compliments about his grandson. It was one of his best days, ever, because he was so proud and loved me so much.
Time passed. My father remarried, and I moved to the Bronx to live with him and my new stepmother. It was a tough transition, but looking back I think I handled it fairly well. I was in 8th grade and I attended P.S.83, which was in a rough neighborhood. In those days, the bright pupils would be in one class, the less bright in another, and the poorer students in still another. I was mistakenly assigned to a class with the latter group, and I felt out of place.
I made my singing debut there at an assembly. When my turn came, I stood center stage, mic in hand and, accompanied by the piano, sang “Paper Doll.” Somewhere in the middle of the song, the mic went dead. Since I didn’t have the powerful voice of an Ezio Pinza, I was not heard, not even in the first row. Still, I kept singing until I finished the song.
Back in the classroom, the boys shot me smirky looks and said nasty things. They were a rough bunch. One unpleasant day, I heard some of them talk about how they were going to beat the shit out of me after school. So, every day I would tear ass out of school to stay ahead of them. That 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 look good to have some big guy do it.
Enter David Minescu, the school’s short, tough guy. He was perfect for the job. I was not a fighter, so I devised a plan. The school office had a panel on the wall which contained levers that, when pushed, would ring a bell in each classroom, signaling the end of the period; one lever for each room.
I investigated and located the room that David Minescu would be in at day’s end. I would push that room’s lever last, then quickly leave before David was able to lie in wait. The plan was successful for a while, until one day he caught me outside the school. There was no escape. He taunted me. A crowd gathered; the big fight was on. He punched me and I started swinging back. After a few minutes of swinging, a teacher appeared and broke up the fight.
I was scared to go back to school the next day, but I did. I walked into a stroke of luck; David Minescu didn’t show up that day because a lucky swing from me had apparently given him a black eye and he was ashamed to be seen in school. Somehow, that put an end to the “Beat up Berk” effort and school life went on.
I told my father about the incident and said that I wanted out of that class. Several days later, he went to school to talk to my official teacher. What they decided came as an unpleasant shock to my system; both my father and my teacher agreed that I should remain in that class and deal with situations as they arose — it would be a good learning experience, they said.
Things did calm down and it wasn’t long before I found myself in Christopher Columbus High School. David also went to CCHS. Our paths crossed occasionally. We would acknowledge each other with a semi-friendly nod. I think that we both had grown up a bit by then.
At my new home in the Bronx. I was starting to accept the situation of a new stepmother who tried her best to deal with a new, 13-year-old stepson.
There was a piano in the apartment, which she would play. Sometimes, I would sit down at the piano and try to make music. It was fun, and I would have done it often, but my stepmother would not allow me to play unless I took lessons, and I wasn’t interested. That ended my relationship with the piano.
Looking back, I regret that I didn’t take lessons because I think that it would have further enhanced my love for music. Should my stepmother have tried harder? Yes, I think so. She did, however, recognize that I had a beautiful singing voice. “You’re as good as Bobby Breen,” she would say, referencing a celebrated boy soprano from the 30’s and 40’s. She even went so far as to contact NBC requesting an audition for me to sing on “The Horn and Hardart Children’s’ Hour,” a weekly radio show in which talented kids would perform their art. They never responded to her request.
As the years passed, I lost my beautiful voice, and my singing career came to a halt. However, Mrs. Flatow’s influence still flourishes within me. I never lost my love for music, or 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’s.