I was exposed to music as soon as I was born, as my mother was the church organist before her children started arriving and made her too busy. She always sang to us and I can still remember the chords of such songs and "Little Annie Roony", popular at the beginning of the century. My dad sang tenor in the church choir but I don't think he had ever had any music lessons. I can't remember when I was not able to "carry a tune."
One day, when we were living in the Lowenthal house - I was eight or nine - I was lying on the living room floor leafing thru a Sears-Roebuck catalogue when I came across a colored illustration of a violin, front and back views, about the only colored illustration in the book, and I suddenly decided I would like to play the violin. That evening when my father came home from work I asked him to buy me either a violin or a bicycle. I had my doubts about getting either one but a couple of weeks later he had the occasion to go to Chicago on business and while there he went to a secondhand store and purchased a cheap, German-made violin for $12 in a beat-up wooden case.
My first violin teacher was the daughter of the Lutheran minister, a young woman of about 30 who lived with her parents in the north end of town. I am unable to recall her name tho I trudged thru snow or rain or sunny weather to her house every Saturday morning for several years, until I started working Saturdays at the Moore and Bashore grocery. There was one interruption, however, when my dad thought I should study with the other violin teacher in Paulding, and old German named Max Nobis who had an orchestra that played for dances and other functions. He lived alone over one of the store buildings on the north side of the square. My dad thought it would be to my advantage to study with Max since I might be invited to play in his orchestra where I could earn a little money. He was not a very good teacher, however, and I soon went back to my former instructor. She lightened the drudgery of learning scales and arpeggios by giving me pieces with piano accompaniment that my mother could play. She was a good pianist herself.
Even tho it was my own suggestion that started my studying the violin, I wasn't any happier about practicing than any other child who has to stay in the house when the other children are out playing. I did enjoy playing short solos with my mother accompanying me, however, after I began to develop a good vibrato and my technique improved. Another factor was my first experience in playing with an ensemble, the Sunday school orchestra in our church. I consisted of Wally Nobis, the son of my former teacher, a violinist who had played in his father's dance bands - Max Nobis had died by this time - and was clerk in Snow's drug store on the southwest corner of the square, Floyd Barnes, an extremely shy man of about 35 who had been in the army and learned to play clarinet there, Earl Bybee, who played in the town band - as did Floyd - a cornet player who could hardly speak English, the regular Sunday School pianist and me, the only kid in the group. Earl played trombone. The cornet player was probably Hungarian, one of the workers in the sugarbeet fields. He didn't go to Sunday school, just came in long enough to play in the orchestra then disappeared. Neither he nor Floyd Barnes ever said a word by they were both experts on their instruments. The Hungarian always looked as tho he had a hangover from the night before although I was not a judge of such things. It was a custom for the beetfield workers to get drunk on Saturday night. The orchestra didn't have a director; we kept together by listening to each other, the pianist setting the tempo.
When the first black and white, silent movies began to spread out from the cities into the small towns two or three store buildings in the downtown area were converted into movie theaters. It was in one of these that I had my first paying job, the pay being free entrance to the movie. I suppose the adult musicians got paid in cash but I felt I was lucky to get to see the show for nothing. It was only on special occasions that an orchestra was hired. Usually music was provided by someone playing the piano, attempting to fit the mood of the music to the action on the screen. With no piano the only sound in the theater would the whirring, clicking sound of the projector.
Both Raymond and I taught ourselves to play the piano after mother had showed us where the notes were on the keyboard, a matter of an hour our so of instruction. Both of us enjoyed sitting down at the keyboard whenever we had a spare moment - oftentimes when we wanted to put off doing our schoolwork - and just fooling around aimlessly. Raymond developed into a very good jazz player (ragtime it was called then) but I preferred classical music and learned most of my pieces by heart, or rather, just by the feel of the keys, Chopin waltzes, Mozart sonatas and Beethoven, Traumerei by Liszt etc. Nearly all of them had a difficult section in them somewhere that I had to skip over but I played them anyway. As a consequence I was never able to read piano music very well. I think Bill had piano lessons in Peoria and be became a good pianist.
Paulding had a bandstand in the southwest corner of the courthouse lawn and during the summer the Paulding band, a group of maybe twenty or twenty-five players, gave concerts on Saturday nights and sometimes Sunday afternoons. I was always part of the audience and I didn't, as a rule, romp around on the grass and race thru the crowd like the other kids. I sat still and listened. The musical fare was mostly marches and waltzes and old-time dance music with an occasional overture by Von Suppe like Poet and Peasant or Light Calvary. Naturally, I wanted to play in the band. When I saw an ad one day in a magazine for a clarinet at a very cheap price, less than $20, I shelled out all of the money I had earned so far and sent for it. An instruction book and reeds came with it. After a month and a half of practice I could outperform Mahlon Barnes who had been taking clarinet lessons for a couple of years - Bob was studying cornet at the same time and neither of them had an iota of musical talent. Musical notation is the same for all instruments and I had the advantage of already knowing how to read music and practice in playing with a group. I thought I was getting to be pretty good so I went to the manager of the band before their regular rehearsal in an empty room over the bank and asked to join the organization. When I told him I had been a student of the clarinet for less than two months he said I had better practice some more and them come back to see him. I learned a short time later that the clarinet I had bought was outmoded. That was why I was able to buy it so cheaply. It had the older Albert key system instead of the modern Boehm system. I lost interest in it after that and didn't go back to try to join the band.
Mandolin and guitar clubs had been popular before the turn of the century and besides learning to play the harmonium my mother had played the guitar. Tho she no longer played, her old guitar and also a mandolin, one of the old fashioned pear-shaped mandolins, were still at my grandma Bashore's. My cousin Russell and I were in second year of high school when we discovered then, got new strings for them and set out to learn to play them, the mandolin playing the melody, the guitar the accompanying chords. We never strayed very far away from the key of C but we go to we sounded pretty good; at least the kids thought so. We played entirely by ear although I was able to read music for the mandolin since it is tuned the same as a violin and we exchanged instruments from time to time so we learned to play both.
The next year, when we were Juniors, William (Bill) Manahan, the coach and English teacher, who had played guitar and mandolin in college in Bowling Green, got the agency for Gibson Guitars and mandolins and invited us to his rooming house to form a trio using the instruments he had for sale. He probably hoped to sell us each an instrument but at more than $100 they were much beyond our reach. For the next two years, until Russell and I graduated, we were much in demand for entertainment at all sorts of social functions both at school and elsewhere. The second mandolin faked a sort of alto or tenor part to the melody played by the first while the guitar played nothing but chords, three each in the keys of C, G and F, nine chords in all, being sufficient for the harmonic background of most of the tunes we played.
As a group we played everything by ear but when I discovered one of my mother's old guitar books I spent some time trying to learn guitar music. I succeeded to some extent but after I moved to Ft. Wayne I forgot it all and didn't pick up the guitar again until I bought a guitar at the Libertad Market in Guadalajara, Mexico, after retirement.
Before the days of radio and TV nearly every house had an upright piano and at least one member of the family, the mother or one of the daughters as a rule, could play it well enough to play popular songs. Evalyn never learned to play very well but some of the girls in her class were very good and our house on South Williams street became a gathering place for kids who came in after school or on Sundays where we could gather around the piano to sing the latest hits and some of the old-timers. This was the period when the ukulele became popular and practically every youngster owned one. They had four strings, tuned like the top four strings of a guitar. If you could play a guitar you were also able to play a ukulele, that is, you could play the 9 chords necessary to strum the harmonic background of any song you wanted to sing, provided you stuck to the keys of C, F and G. With the ukulele for accompaniment you were not tied to the piano in the parlor and the group could sit on the front porch and sing on warm evenings. It was very romantic, especially when there was a full moon. Some of the songs that were popular in that day are still around but most of them had a short life and died an early death. There was a period of Hawaiian songs with the rise in popularity of the ukulele, Western songs, Southern songs, state songs - "On the Bank of the Wabash," Indian songs - "Cheyenne, Cheyenne, hop on my pony," "Pony Boy, Pony Boy, Won't you be my Pony Boy," "Redwing," automobile songs when horses began to give way to cars, "Come ride, Lucille, in my Automobile," and Airplane songs when the first planes were seen at county fairs, "With Josephine in my Flying Machine." The songwriters never lacked for subject matter. "Shine on Harvest Moon" is still going strong but "Waltz me around again, Willie" is gone. They were born then.