Bring in da noize

Back in the 1970’s, I was a student at St. Mary Star of the Sea, a Catholic grade school and parish in the West Lawn neighborhood of Chicago’s southwest side. I therefore was privileged to have the full Catholic Experience, which of course includes being taught by nuns.

The Dominican Sisters are a teaching order, and comprised about a third of the faculty at the time. The rest were lay teachers, so named because they could get laid occasionally (rim shot). Naturally, the Sisters were a conservative lot, living in the convent next to the school and adhering to their order’s standards of conduct. However, I recall observing some flexibility in dress codes. The younger nuns seemed to prefer variations on the traditional habit, and our principal, Sister Jean, nearly always wore “civvies,” including a memorably ill-advised pair of bright maroon polyester slacks stretched to capacity over her ample behind. In fact, I did not see Sister Jean wearing a habit until eighth grade, as we gathered on the bus for a field trip and she came out to greet us in full penguin regalia. We hooted our appreciation and she rolled her eyes, being a good sport about the whole thing. She was cool, for a nun.

The older nuns, of course, stuck to their habits in both senses of the word. Even the most elderly of the sisters, who no longer taught, were a constant presence, faithfully attending 6 a.m. Mass daily and prowling the school hallways the rest of the day, scowling at you if you did not appear to be where you were supposed to be. In this way, all the nuns in the convent had a chance to participate in our education, in some manner.

Sister Celine, I suspect, had a particularly strong desire to maintain a role, even after the onset of senility had removed her from the classroom. Perhaps it was out of respect, or perhaps she just whined a lot, but for whatever reason, she was tasked with the significant responsibility of supervising the musical education of the students of St. Mary’s.

Sister Celine was the director of the Rhythm Band.

Once a month, the students in the middle grades would march down to the school basement, a large hall with bleachers set along one wall. Sister Celine, a roly-poly woman in her late sixties, whom I suspect never removed her habit even to bathe, would waddle down the stairs, carrying a large cardboard box. A student would accompany her, carrying her phonograph case. You may recall these one-piece units with the suitcase handle, the state-of-the-art portable from 1958, with a tube amplifier that took about thirty minutes to warm up.

The cardboard box contained, of course, the instruments. Since this was Rhythm Band, the instruments were primarily percussive in nature, consisting of bongos, wood blocks, tambourines, maracas, and triangles. There was also a lap-sized xylophone, the featured and most prized of the instruments, which Sister Celine guarded jealously and would only bestow on her hand-picked favorite student in each class.

I never got to play the xylophone, which I thought was particularly unfair since I’d been taking organ lessons since third grade and felt I was more than qualified. Maribeth Gabel always got the xylophone. The Gabels had something like seventeen children and were regarded by the school and church as their best customers. I was going to make a crack about how Maribeth should have been disqualified on the basis that her family obviously had no sense of rhythm whatsoever, but upon further reflection, I suppose the opposite was actually true. One would have to be a master of the Rhythm Method to be able to circumvent it so effectively.

Sister Celine would sit us in the bleachers and separate us into three groups. She may have had some criteria for the way she arranged us, but I never understood what she was shooting for since the instruments were distributed randomly. Except for Maribeth and her xylophone, which were always located front and center.

Once we all had our instruments, Sister Celine would stand before us, somber and serious, holding a conductor’s baton. We would then sit silently and wait for the phonograph to finish warming up. Gradually the static and line hum would fade and be replaced by a rousing German military march, the first of the two 45 RPM records she owned. Sister Celine would then begin to conduct us.

I should probably point out here that we received no individual guidance on how to perform our instruments, or follow a beat, or anything else for that matter. All we knew is that when Sister pointed her baton at our section, we should play, which meant making noise in some way with whatever instrument we were holding at the time. When she pointed away, we would stop. For some reason, there were always a few students who lacked either the cognitive ability or the attention span to comprehend even these simple instructions. As a result, Sister Celine never actually made eye contact with the section that was supposed to be playing. She would conduct one section while scowling at the members of the previous section who had failed to stop playing at the correct moment.

After about five minutes of this, the march record would end and Sister would place her second 45 on the turntable. She would then conduct the band to the accompaniment of “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” by BJ Thomas, a tune that I assure you is not enhanced in any way by additional percussion.

The highlight of our school year was the yearly recital, which gathered all of the Rhythm Band performers together for a major concert event with our parents in attendance. Sister Celine only had enough instruments in her cardboard box to supply one grade at a time, which meant that more than half of the students had to provide their own instruments for the recital. I still remember my parents, being unable to locate a set of toy maracas, having to plunk down big bucks in a music store for a set of professional ones, meticulously hand-painted in deep purple with white and yellow flowers. I treasured these maracas and kept them for several years afterward, until the day I busted one of them over my sister’s head, which, in retrospect, turned out to be a far more satisfying use of a maraca than shaking it rhythmically.

The parents, as I recall, were good sports about the recital, keeping the snickering and eye-rolling to a minimum. I can only now, looking back, appreciate the event from their perspective: Sister Celine somberly pointing her baton, invoking a sound reminiscent of a large wooden structure being demolished with chew toys, as BJ Thomas whines plaintively about inclement weather, his easy-listening voice straining to be heard above the din. Meanwhile, Maribeth, front and center, plunks away at the xylophone like a brain-damaged chimp, not even coming close to playing in the correct key. Not that I am still bitter about this.

Some years after I had graduated from St. Mary’s and moved on, I heard that Sister Celine had passed away. Apparently she was carrying her box of instruments down to the basement when she suffered an aneurysm and fell down the stairs.

I like to think that she went out of this world fulfilling the dream of dedicated musicians everywhere – giving her last and best concert performance. I only hope someone was around to hear it.

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