The bane of my adolescent existence.
My parents were disappointed with the label I had affixed to the evenings on which my trumpet lessons were scheduled. Having spent a good deal of money to purchase the instrument itself, they no doubt would have been pleased had their son expressed any measure of gratitude over the further expense they incurred by arranging private lessons. Each week they took the time to drive me to the outskirts of town so that I could spend a half hour in the presence of my instructor, a stern man renowned in my family for his success in developing the musical talents of a couple of my siblings. Despite my parents’ sacrifices, I was far from grateful.
It was a dismal clash of disparate personalities. Mr. Steffman was a gifted teacher who expected his students to arrive motivated and well-practiced. Anything less was unworthy of his time. Had I the maturity and discipline to adhere to his regimen to any degree, I might have blossomed into a brass master. Unfortunately, I was a self-absorbed, sullen teen with little patience beyond instant gratification. Regular practice interfered with more important pursuits, like afternoon, early evening, and prime time television viewing.
Mr. Steffman was one of those people of whom admirers would say, “he doesn’t suffer fools gladly,” a curious phrase that makes an attribute of being unkind to people with whom one disagrees. Perhaps he was attempting to unearth a fragment of pride from my accumulated layers of teen apathy, a dogged disciplinarian seeking to awaken his pupil’s sense of shame and in turn spark his young charge’s redemption. If that was the case, it flew right over my pimply head. I sensed only contempt, which prompted me to respond with resentment. He was appalled by my laziness. I was indignant at his disgust. And so on it went, a classic vicious circle of mutual loathing.
A morbid gloom would descend upon me each week even before my mother had finished preparing our Monday dinner. It darkened my every pre-lesson activity, following me like a personal storm cloud. When at last the time for our departure arrived, I would settle into the back seat of our green Volare with Death Row resignation. There was nothing left to do then, no chance to improve my forthcoming performance, only a twenty minute ride to an unavoidable destination. As we followed the swerving road along the polluting oil refinery, I would stare out my window at its network of towers and catwalks, imagining not the reality of my backwater hometown’s unsightly employment source but rather the cosmopolitan skyline of some distant metropolis. Someday, far away from here, the cursed trumpet lessons would linger only as repressed memory traces while I fulfilled a greater destiny. All too soon my fantasy would evaporate into nausea with the turning of our car onto my instructor’s street.
I was always shown to a dining room that had just been cleared of its dishes. Mr. Steffman sat slightly behind me to my left, perusing the classified ads while sucking air through his teeth and chewing on an ever-present toothpick. A section of his newspaper lay on the floor ready to accept the contents of my spit valve. No pleasantries were exchanged as I assembled my trumpet and placed my music upon the stand. Finally, a sigh was exhaled from behind the classifieds, and I was prompted to begin playing. Often I exceeded his tolerance for poor playing within several measures.
“Stop. Do it again.”
It was a directive I heard with relentless frequency. Sometimes I wouldn’t even make it through what I had just played before I was halted a second time, then a third. To emphasize the elementary nature of the music and my disappointing grasp of it, it was not unusual for him to pepper successive directions with sing-song condescension.
“Alright, Bobby, let’s do it again!”
How I hated him for calling me that. It was the name he’d certainly heard my siblings and parents use over the years, but it was not what I preferred. Now and then I would hear it from a relative or a family friend, and it didn’t bother me a great deal. Somehow, though, coming from Mr. Steffman, it was painful as a schoolyard taunt. I flattened my lips against my mouthpiece and forced out bitter notes. Surely the experience was as exasperating for him as it was for me.
We were both caught in an unpleasant situation. I had no desire to take lessons from him and was not inclined to practice. He did not wish to teach lazy students who were offended by his criticism. The only common interest we shared was a sense of obligation to my parents. One night he could no longer keep this fact to himself.
“Bobby,” he addressed me with a clipped tone through his taut, thin lips, “I’m not doing this because I care about you. The only reason I keep giving you lessons is because I happen to like your parents.”
No doubt I had provoked his comment by my continual technical incompetence coupled with a perpetually dismal attitude. It wasn’t as though he hadn’t tried to accommodate my interests and meet my individual needs. He had even allowed me to bring my acoustic guitar for a few lessons when he discovered I was more likely to play it than I was to practice with my trumpet. But even though the instrument changed, the hostile dynamic between us remained, and little progress was made.
None of this made sense to me at the time, however. I was stung by the implication of his frustrated comment. I don’t care about you…I happen to like your parents.
We limped onward for awhile, pointlessly enduring week after week of fruitless lessons. Near Easter time we either finished early or my parents were late picking me up, for I waited uncomfortably for several minutes inside his foyer. Mr. Steffman offered me some jelly beans, but I refused.
“Aw, c’mon,” he tried again, a gesture that at once acknowledged our discord and feebly sought to establish harmony between us. Now it was my turn to toss a dagger into my opponent’s soft spot.
“No, thank you. I don’t like jelly beans,” I lied. “I’ll wait outside.”
I walked out of the house into the chill of an April evening, setting my trumpet case on end for a makeshift chair. My parents would be surprised to see me waiting out in the cold.