Miles to go...
I started playing the Baritone Horn in the fourth grade. No sooner had I mentioned to the music teacher in my elementary school that my dad played, then I found myself learning as well. I struggled with it at first, and remember my father's infinite patience when I'd practice at home, and break down in tears when I just couldn't play what was on the page in front of me. After two years, it was evident that I would need more than what the school offered if I was to continue. During the Summer between graduating elementary school and beginning middle school, I'd take my first private lessons once a week. My elementary school music teacher knew someone from the neighboring town, and for three months we'd visit him at the school. I made progress which surprised all involved, including the teacher. At the end of the Summer he recommended I continue taking lessons, but not from him. He himself was a saxophone player, and felt he'd taken me as far as he could. But there was another man, a retired school teacher in our community by the name of Felix Sangenito, whose specialty was brass instruments.
Mr. Sangenito, or “Mr. Sange” to his students and friends, was primarily a trumpet player, one of the best in New York, but he could play any brass instrument. Trombones, Baritones, Euphoniums, Tubas, Cornets and French Horns alike could be found in his home, along with his trumpets. He had a small room in his basement reserved for his lessons, and there cases of instruments were eternally open. He said if you put an instrument away, you'd forget to play it, but if you kept it out so you could pick it up and play any time, you would. Patient and wise, I learned just as many life lessons in that room as I did musical lessons. The first time we went to see him, I clung to my mother upon seeing his German Shepherd. He spoke in a soft voice and the dog seemed equally peaceful and reassuring. Despite my fear of dogs, I was able to sit in that room and play music. Perhaps it was the calming influence of Mr. Sange or knowing one or the other of my parents were always sitting a few feet away, but that dog never bothered me, and I didn't mind that she'd often sit at my feet as I'd play.
My previous teachers used printed books, and there were a few Mr. Sange used as well, but the greatest teaching tool at his disposal was a blank music book, which I still have today. Each week he'd take out a pen and add to it. First one scale, then another, until all fifteen were committed not only to paper, but to my memory. From there he wrote chords, and finally simple phrases using only one note. The note might have four beats, or be divided into quarter notes, and eventually it broke apart on up beats as he taught me syncopation. Only after mastering the STRUCTURE of music did he begin writing songs in that book, simple melodies within which I'd apply what I learned, and ultimately memorize. He took his time, and explained that it was impossible to learn everything at once, in life and in music. The key was to take small steps and build upon them. When I was young and frustrated, it wasn't a lack of talent, but rather the result of attempting to play too much, too soon. He never expected me to do more than I was capable of, so when he challenged me, I had faith that I was ready. Each year with his help I entered music competitions, played solos, and achieved high scores. With his help, I played in concerts alongside the best musicians in my area.
Sange also had an Italian festival band, and when I was old enough to play in the fire department band with my dad, it was only natural one year that he'd book us to play in a feast. My instrument was still bigger than I was, and I needed a strap to carry it. The day was long and hot, but there were a lot of games and rides to go on when we had breaks, and plenty of free food for the band. By high school, my schedule didn't allow me to make as many of his jobs, and so I wasn't there when he had his heart attack. My elementary school teacher WAS there, fortunately, and I later heard the tale of him picking Sange up from the street where he collapsed and getting him to the hospital. After he had a pacemaker put in, he cut down on the feasts and parades. I continued getting side work, and when I met a band in Brooklyn, I surprised them by knowing many of their songs by memory, thanks to Sange.
Of course, the processions and feasts I play these days aren't the same as the ones I did when I was a kid. Sange was the real star, often serenading the crowd with a trumpet solo of some elaborate piece only he knew. After his heart attack, he stopped marching and only met us at the beginning of parades to play a few warm-up notes and give us the repertoire. Time and age caught up with him, and in the last three or four years he's been close to death before. Last year, his son explained the grim problem of why his father's legs would swell up. His heart just couldn't pump fast enough to move the fluids. He began to develop sores and bruises, but his patience and positive attitude never wavered. Every time he'd go into the hospital and people would think it was the last time, he'd prove them wrong and come home, even travel to Florida with his wife. A month ago, when we visited him, it was the first time I even heard a hint of remorse. For a brief moment he said in a resigned tone, “I never thought I would end up like this.” It was only the briefest of moments though, and soon he was asking after my dad's health, and asking how I was doing with work, and if I still practiced. I knew he'd survive his surgery. I was right. He was sent to a home to recuperate and received dialysis treatments, and my dad visited him there last week. In the years after I stopped taking lessons, my dad continued to help Sange with his cars, and his children's cars. In college, the car I learned to drive in belonged to Sange before my dad, and I'd drive it for a good eight years after that. As my dad helped as a mechanic, Sange helped as a music teacher and my dad would often bring music and ask advice, becoming an unofficial student. Last week Sange was making plans for my dad to fix up his electric wheelchair, so he could get around when he finally came home.
Sometimes we forget wisdom, and other times we just ignore or bury the voices of our past, telling us where we're going wrong. Last night I worked until nearly 8 PM, skipping the gym for the first time in weeks, because I'd forgotten some of the lessons my teacher taught me. I can't do everything; no one can. I still tried, rather than ask others for help, and as a result found myself falling behind again. Driving home, I cursed myself for leaving a catalog half-designed, and knew that while I SHOULD go in early on Monday to finish the second half, my morning self just wouldn't move fast enough. I came inside the house venting, on one of my trademark rants about my luck and how things work against me. My dad used to do the same thing when he came home from the garage. My mother and I didn't understand carburetors, and my parents don't understand computers, but that didn't matter. Like my father, I just had to get it out of my system. Their silence didn't seem at all out of the ordinary, and when my tirade was through and I was emptying the contents of my pockets on my desk, my dad walked slowly down the hall, called me by name in a strange tone of voice, and said “I got some bad news today.” I stopped, looked at his face, and said only one thing, the first word that came to mind: “Sange?” He nodded, and lowered his head.
Sange's son had called my dad earlier in the day, crying and delivering the news. Today my dad spoke with not only my elementary school teacher, the one who once saved Sange's life, but with Sange's wife and daughter. In a few days, I think a LOT of people are going to gather to say goodbye to a man that taught many, and touched many lives. 85 years is a long time, and when I consider the 20 years that I knew him, I realize I only knew a small part of his life. Countless teachers, jazz musicians, and other professionals from many generations can trace their accomplishments back to one very wise man.
A good friend was telling me a week or so ago that the reason I'm patient and understanding of old people is because I spend so much time around my parents, more than most people my age. I never really HAD grandparents. My parents married “late in life”, and I only knew my maternal Grandmother before she passed away and joined the other three who'd departed before I was born. Now my mentor is gone, and I'm glad I got to see him that one last time. I look at my dad with his heart condition, see him get out of breath more and more easily and stubbornly insist “that's how I ALWAYS breathe!” whenever I call him on it. My mom, living with asthma her whole life, has been struggling the last few years with a very personal and painful condition known as interstitial cystitis, which seems to be getting worse, with doctors providing very few answers or solutions. Tonight she almost didn't go to church, and I dropped her off and parked the car. By some divine coincidence they had a blessing for the sick tonight, and as I watched the old lady slowly walk up with the other parishioners to see the priest, I wondered when my parents got old. People my age shouldn't witness this? We're ALL heading there someday. There’s value in seeing the future.
Nothing lasts forever. If one thing doesn't get us, another will, and eventually we all wear out. All we can do is appreciate our family, friends and teachers, for however long they're in our lives, and do what we do as long as we can do it. Sange never stopped teaching, and when he couldn't march he'd still be sitting in a car with his trumpet. At 75, my dad still fixes cars and builds things. Earlier today I carried in lumber for him, and later on heard an electric saw. I think he's building a bookcase or shelves or something, but he wouldn't let my mother or I near him while he worked. Even with her health woes, my mother continued working with volunteers at a local arboretum, and spent time in a greenhouse working with plants. We all have some skill, some talent we're capable of, that someday, we won't be able to do. Someday, taking a sip of water will be the greatest thing in the world for us, and we'll cherish it. I think that's the final lesson. Whether producing something at work, or partaking of something we enjoy, we can all step back from what's going on in our lives at any given moment and say, “Man, that's good.”
Thank you, Mr. Sange.