Sage City Saga Revisited

Here’s another piece from the “old blog” that I truly enjoyed writing:






It was once common for a mentally ill person to lose all his or her friends upon becoming ill.  Back when I got sick (1980) it was almost universal.  It became a sad joke among us when we realized we would have to earn a new set of friends and that these people would most likely be from inside the mental health system.  Even those that I thought were friends for life didn’t stick around after my first hospitalization.  Many patients agreed that social discrimination was worse than job or education discrepancies.  Having experienced all of these, I would have to agree.


I once played in an orchestra called the Sage City Symphony, in North Bennington, Vermont, conducted by Louis Calabro.  I began with the orchestra in 1978 when I first moved to Vermont; Lou personally invited me to participate.  The orchestra was made up of community residents, Bennington College faculty, and students at the college, and we rehearsed in an elementary school in North Bennington.  Because I had studied music at a previous college and my main instrument was trumpet, I was given a special welcome; they needed trumpet players and now they had one.  I played first trumpet, the lead part.  There were three trumpets altogether.


During my second year with Sage City Symphony, I composed a five-movement suite for orchestra called Tara’s Dream.  After many rehearsals, the orchestra could play the piece, and the performance was fairly well done.  Both the audience and the orchestra itself gave me a rousing standing ovation after the piece was finished, and several people gave me flowers right up there on stage. 


That year and the year that followed were perhaps the peak of my experience with Sage City Symphony; from then on, everything went downhill.  I was too ill to continue with my studies at the college, so I moved in with my parents near Boston for about nine months, and then returned to Vermont.  I moved into a half-duplex near the school where the rehearsals were held.  I had gained a few pounds, wore thrift store clothes and make-up.  I was assigned third trumpet, not first as I had played in the past.  It was about the same time that I’d been seeing that therapist Pete Collier, whom I mentioned in my last entry.  The concert for which we were rehearsing was to be held a few weeks before Christmas, 1982. 


One of the pieces we rehearsed I was already familiar with: Charles Ives’ Variations on “America”.  I had played a symphony band arrangement of the piece several times with high school and college groups.  Variations on America wasn’t my favorite piece, but it did inspire me to write a short piece called Variations on “Pomp and Circumstance” to celebrate my high school graduation.


The passage in question involves the three trumpet parts at the end of one of the middle variations, which ends with only the three trumpets and percussion.  The third trumpet plays on the downbeat while first and second play on the upbeat.  Boom (rest) (rest) boom (rest) (rest) boom-chick! the “chick” being the first and second trumpets.


Because it’s a well-known passage, every trumpet player who has played this piece is familiar with the discrepancy.  Apparently Lou Calabro wasn’t, though he had the score in front of him while he conducted.  Again and again he had us play those last few measures, yelling all the while, “Julie, it’s on the offbeat, the offbeat!  What is the matter with you?”  I was playing what was written in my part, and I knew I was right.


Discrimination against people with mental illnesses takes on many forms.  At we sometimes discuss discrimination on the job and in school.  With the advent of the Americans with Disabilities Act, discrimination has diminished significantly, but when it comes to disability resulting from mental illness we have a long way to go.  Lou Calabro was discriminating against me in the most cruel and blatant fashion that I could have imagined.


Over and over he had us play those few measures.  I held my ground and continued to play on the downbeat.  Lou slammed his baton on his music stand.  One of the cellists excused herself and tiptoed off to the ladies’ room.


Finally, I handed my part to Susie, the first trumpeter, and she said to Lou meekly, “She’s right, Lou, she’s actually right.”


I know what I should have done.  I should have marched up to Lou and told him myself: “Look, see?  You are not blind.  Look right here in the score.  The third trumpet plays on the downbeat, while first and second play on the upbeat.  See?  See?”  I would have pointed to the exact spot on the score.  I knew it was there.  Boom, boom, boom-chick!  I should have said, “Lou, I know you’ve lost all respect for me because I have a mental illness, but having an illness doesn’t mean I’m suddenly stupid, or that I’ve lost all the musical knowledge I had before.  Boom, boom, boom-chick!  See?  You only doubt me because I’m sick!  Admit it!  If I had the flu, would you doubt my musical ability?  If I broke my leg, would that mean I could no longer distinguish an upbeat from a downbeat?  Is this kind of illness much different?”


I never truly made a comeback in the musical world.  You hear about people, talented people, leaving the field for a while to recuperate, and then creating a sensation upon their return.  It was not that way with me.  When I returned to school in 1998, I concentrated on the written word.  It hurt too much to play music.


On the night of the concert, I wore a skirt two sizes too big for me, a sweater with holes in it, and carelessly applied make-up.  My hair was greasy and uncombed.  My sleeves barely covered the razor cuts on my arms.  I decided to drive to the school so I could get home quickly after the performance.  This was it.  I would show them I knew the difference between an upbeat and a downbeat.  I was not stupid.


On the occasions that you think you’re on top of things. You are often the biggest fool of all.  Lou Calabro was a fool, and I was going to prove it to the world, but I, too, was a fool….


The temperature was in the single digits that night, and the roads were thick with ice.  My old Saab sputtered around the school and toward the parking lot for the performance.  I shifted gears and rounded the corner.  And then I saw before me an empty parking lot.


The concert had taken place the night before.  I had missed it.  I came on the wrong night.


After I was discharged from the hospital, I did not return to Sage City Symphony.  I was done.  Finished.  Ruined.  No mention was made of my absence that night.  There was no need.  Someone sent me flowers and then I never heard from her again. 


I threw the flowers away.  I threw everything away.  I made friends with people I met in hospitals, but most of the relationships didn’t last.  I gave up driving.  I gave up cigarettes.  And eventually, I pulled my life together, and I’m able to see my experience with Sage City Symphony for what it was: discrimination, plain and simple.  I don’t regret not showing up for the concert; it seemed a fitting end to the story.  What I do regret is that I didn’t speak up for myself.


Lou died several years later of lung cancer.  The orchestra staged a performance in his memory.  I didn’t attend.