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WOSTER: Why I don't play the string bass

Agreeing to take lessons on the double bass, or string bass, turned into one of the more embarrassing incidents in my entire school life. No reason it should have been so embarrassing that I still remember it clearly six decades later. A typical ...

Terry Woster
Terry Woster

Agreeing to take lessons on the double bass, or string bass, turned into one of the more embarrassing incidents in my entire school life.

No reason it should have been so embarrassing that I still remember it clearly six decades later. A typical kid would have shrugged and moved on, probably to the western movie at the matinee the next Saturday. But I wasn't most kids.

I grew up shy, self-conscious as all get out. I stayed that way, I'm afraid. Consider this: When I walked along 51st Street in Manhattan when I was covering a political convention in 1976, I figured everybody was looking at me. Now, this was a city where nobody on the street looked at anybody else, except maybe if Rosey Grier or Jackie Onassis walked by. But I thought they were all looking at me.

Easy to understand, then, the pressure I felt when Charlie Roberts approached me between classes my sixth-grade year and invited me to become the double bass player for the Chamberlain High School band. Mr. Roberts was about as sincere a guy as you'll meet, and he was trying to put a little more pizzazz in the band. He wanted the fall and spring concerts to sparkle, I guess, and for some reason he thought a double bass next to the tubas in the back row would move the band toward that goal.

He hailed me down in the hallway. "Hey, you're the Woster boy, right? Jim and Jeanne are your brother and sister? Have you ever considered playing the double bass? Come down to the band room after last period and I'll start you on lessons.''

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My first thought was, "You have the wrong kid, mister.'' But shy kids process a lot of information quickly, even if they speak slowly. A movie some years ago, "The Perks of Being a Wallflower,'' explained it this way: "He's a wallflower. You see things. You keep quiet about them. And you understand.''

So, there I was, seeing things and keeping quiet. I definitely was not understanding what a double bass might be. I knew of a string bass. I had even heard it referred to as a "doghouse'' bass. But I'd never heard the term double bass, although I suppose that's what a music teacher would call such an instrument.

To cut to the chase, I've always been a people pleaser, so I said I'd do it. He smiled. I didn't smile the rest of the day. I briefly considered changing my name and catching a freight train to Arizona, but even for me that seemed impractical.

After class, then, I shuffled down to the band room. Mr. Roberts met me with another smile and pointed to the string bass. He directed me to place one hand on the neck and the other on the strings above the bridge. Then he started talking First Position and Fifth Position and a whole bunch of other nonsense. For a wallflower, I wasn't seeing much, and I sure wasn't understanding. I was keeping quiet, though.

I was quiet for an hour. I didn't have a clue what was happening and I knew I couldn't master the bass. Mr. Roberts smiled when the lesson ended. He said we could meet at the same time the next week.

He didn't smile the next morning when told him I was quitting. He told me people who quit never amount to anything. That seems harsh now. As a 12-year-old, I figured he could read my future.

Quite by chance this past weekend, my brother-in-law from New Mexico told me Mr. Roberts had asked him a couple of years earlier to take bass lessons. He turned the offer down flat, he said. He also turned Mr. Roberts down when asked if he'd consider being drum major. I accepted when I was asked, trying, I suppose, to show I wasn't a complete loser.

My brother-in-law and I were quiet for a moment after sharing those things. Then, together we blurted, "I can't tell you how many times I have wished I could play the string bass.''

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Neither of us said we wished we could be a drum major.

Related Topics: TERRY WOSTER
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