T. W. Pyle Junior High School Band

1976-1979, Bethesda, Maryland

When I was in 3rd grade, my parents informed me that I was going to take up a musical instrument. I asked to play drums but was encouraged to try something quieter. I took up the trumpet. I took private lessons at a local music studio from a glum youngish man named Mr. Brimmer. I remember having to fill out a little orange practice log book.

In about 6th grade I switched to instruction from a much more jovial guy whose name I’ve completely forgotten. The jolly fellow came to our house. He actually played the euphonium, not the trumpet, and he’d often accompany my playing with oom-pah bass parts. He indulged my love of Monty Python by getting me music for Sousa’s Liberty Bell March. The only other thing I remember about him was that for some reason he gave me a photocopy of a pidgin English translation of Little Red Riding Hood called “Lik Lik Retpela Hat.”

I slayed the mothers in the audience at the 5th and 6th grade talent shows with solo trumpet renditions of “Speak Softly Love” (Nino Rota’s love theme from The Godfather) and Barry Manilow’s hit “Mandy.” But in truth, I was not a very good trumpet player. I practiced indifferently and would blast as loudly as possible in frustration when a passage gave me trouble.

When I got to junior high in 1976, I was able to join the school band. This is particularly momentous for readers of this blog, because it’s the first band I was ever in.

It’s also worth noting that the T. W. Pyle Junior High School Band is the only band I’ve ever been in that I hated.

Portrait of the author as a young and bad trumpet player

Our band director was Mrs. Gutoff, who I am astonished to find is still around. Even more astonishing, if the internet is to be believed, she seems to have started teaching in 1974. Which means she was a young woman in 1976. We all thought she was ancient. She sometimes wore one of those neck braces that people wear when they get whiplash, and my friends and I would imitate her saying “I’m fairly athletic,” which we found hilarious.

This is not actually Mrs. Gutoff.

I was particularly cranky that there was another kid with my last name in the band, also in the trumpet section. I didn’t know anything about Jeff Lerner except that we weren’t related and he was a year older and was a “first” trumpet (I was a second trumpet). You could challenge someone to get moved up to different chair, but I really didn’t stand a chance. So I just beamed invisible rays of hate at him.

The only time I did manage to move up in the trumpets was when a kid named Toby cut off his finger in shop class and couldn’t play trumpet anymore. Eventually he did return, with a new finger made out of a rib or something, but he was out of practice.

This is Mrs. Gutoff. Look! She was fairly athletic!

By 8th grade I had begun playing bass and my trumpet days were numbered. On bass I could understand a bit of how music worked, and I could play music I liked. When I left Mrs. Gutoff’s junior high band, we returned my rented trumpet.

12 Comments on “T. W. Pyle Junior High School Band”

  1. SZ says:

    This is fantastic. I wish there was audio. Well, sort of. Also, I am envious because my elementary school teacher, Mrs. Haines (no neck brace, though she was 4′ 8″), wouldn’t let me play trumpet. She said it was not a suitable instrument for girls. I ended up with clarinet. Boo.

  2. Invisible rays of hate! So glad not to have felt those just yet. But there’s still time, as Catskill 45s gigs loom and we are all under such duress. Speaking of hate, I also am glad this is the only band you ever played in that you hated. I thought you might be saving some of that for something involving me. *whew*
    I haven’t left a comment in awhile, but I’ve been loving the blog, as usual. Last post in particular, wherein you lose your shit briefly, plus become a dad and a working graphic artist before our very eyes. Deep dish deliciousness there, bittersweet and nutritious. Daddy like.

  3. Amy Rosen says:

    What, you were cranky already?

    I’m intrigued about this challenging someone to get moved up the ranks business, which you shunned in favor of those hate rays (love that, good practice for the workplace, and NYC subway) How did that work? And would you elaborate on the repertoire? Given the year, I imagine it may have been on the patriotic side? Or was it just good old 70s cheese?

    • Mark Lerner says:

      Oh, “challenging” a seated student for their position is a grand tradition in bands. (I think you can see a version of it in the movie Drumline). It’s like pistols at dawn but with sheet music.

      I remember *nothing* of our repertoire except for a concert band version of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. I doubt it was current pop hits, probably standard concert band literature: Sousa, maybe Copland or Ralph Vaughan Williams. My main impression at the time was “Wow, this is not rock music at all.”

  4. Matthew Reiskin says:

    Brings back memories….

  5. Andra says:

    We’re adults now, so let’s call her Olivia (yes, she has a first name). She insisted, for 2 years, on calling me Andra (read “Ah-ndra”). Hm. I did speak to her (on the phone) several years ago – she was working with a youth orchesta (having an office at the Strathmore Music center).

    • Mark Lerner says:

      Hi, Andra. So few people ever accuse me of being an adult, I’m delighted! That’s cool that you spoke with her (I still can’t call teachers by their first names) recently. My undistinguished trumpet career notwithstanding, Mrs. Gutoff seems to have had a spectacular career as an educator. We really were lucky back in Montgomery County to have such well-funded and well-taught music programs.

  6. ivanteach says:

    I wanted to play drums too, so my mom took me to a music store which had music lessons, but they said drums wasn’t a real instrument, and put me in a dark back room with a scary German lady and accordions. Now of course I wish I’d stuck it out and would today be a venerable, rich accordionist, but I think I stayed only for that first lesson. I made my stage debut about twenty years later, on: drums.

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