My favorite part of Christmas has always been the music. As a child, I looked forward to going to church and singing the Christmas hymns and traditional carols. At home, I wore out my parents’ records, which were largely sweeping, symphonic renditions of those same tunes. I believe it was my sister who first introduced me to Handel’s Messiah, and that recording immediately became part of my regular rotation on the turntable.
I studied piano for 15 years. I was never very good. But it helped me learn a little about music fundamentals and the classical repertoire. Eventually I came to love the practicing. It was my opportunity—my obligation, even—to withdraw from the demands and rigors of the outside world into a place where only the music existed. It was as if my peripheral vision blurred, and I could see nothing beyond the notes on the page and the keys on the piano. Practicing required my complete concentration, as well as a coordinated physical and mental effort. When I was tuned in to whatever piece I was working on, the grievances, the annoyances, the embarrassments, the insecurities that tormented me at other times could not intrude.
I have my father to thank for introducing me to music. I’m fairly certain he was the one responsible for the Christmas records, as well as the recordings of Burl Ives and Herb Alpert and Peter, Paul, and Mary (and the musical satirist Tom Lehrer) that were available to me as a child. But most importantly, he was the one who insisted that my sister and I start piano lessons at a young age. I imagine that was in part because he had not had that opportunity.
Recently, Bobby Cole’s daughter, Julie, sent me a newspaper clipping that indicated that Pud’s older sister, Virginia, did study piano as a youngster. The 1923 article states that she performed a piece titled “The Dawn of Springtime” at Miss Jessie Mae Lillard’s student recital at the Lawrenceburg Christian Church. She would have been about 13 then (and my dad would have been 1). There was still a piano in the Goodlett home when my dad was a boy: I have often heard the story of how his pet raccoon tripped lightly down the piano keys one day, casually flipping the ivory off several keys with his sharp nails as he went. I also understand that was the last day he had the honor of being a pet in the Goodlett household.
As an adult, my dad evidently educated himself about classical music, at least sufficiently to have a genuine appreciation for it. I remember casual family dinners at the black drop-leaf table in our pine-paneled den in Baltimore, my father listening to a classic radio station while conducting with his fork.
My cousin Bob Goodlett, who has played contrabass with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra for over 40 years, recently suggested that his father, Vincent—Pud’s oldest brother, also emphasized musical study with his children for similar reasons. Both brothers fiercely valued a classical education, and both battled long odds to complete their schooling. Bob reminded me that, to pay for law school, Vincent would go to school for a semester and then work for a semester. After serving in the Army for three years, my dad left his home and family again to pursue an advanced education. Years ago I stumbled across a classical high school curriculum that he had compiled at some point, perhaps for a school he one day hoped to open but, more likely, simply to show the public educators at the time how it should be done.
According to Bob, Vincent managed to collect a number of classical recordings, including a set of Arturo Toscanini conducting Beethoven’s symphonies. (Bob tells me that his parents had some success getting him to sleep when he was a baby by playing Beethoven’s 2nd Symphony. As he learned to talk, he would request “Teethoven No. 2.”) Vincent also had a 1955 recording of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto featuring Jascha Heifetz. When the recording reached the cadenza, Bob distinctly remembers my father saying, “Now he gets to show off.” That must have resonated with the 10-year-old boy, who spent the next few years mastering several instruments while simultaneously pursuing baseball stardom.
Bob recalled one more story of the fun my father had with music. While teaching at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Pud had a student, Sherry Olson, whose husband, Julian, played French horn with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra was evidently preparing to perform Beethoven’s 9th, and Pud and others were taking bets, I imagine while sipping a bourbon, about whether the fourth horn would mess up the famous solo in the quiet third movement.
Although as a teenager Pud struggled to appreciate Bobby’s devotion to the radio he brought to the quiet camp along Salt River, as an adult music obviously gave him much pleasure. He is not alone, of course. Listening to music—of whatever genre or style—allows us to shut out the raging noise of the world around us as well as drown out our own cacophonous thoughts. It’s also a way to share with others one of the truly sublime human endeavors.
For all those reasons, I hope your holiday is full of music.