My sophomore year in college, the choir went on one of its many tours around the Midwest, including Vermillion, South Dakota, which (among other things) is home to the National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota.
No, that’s not true. The National Music Museum and the University of South Dakota are really the only things Vermillion has going for it, and I say that as one who spent a good chunk of his childhood in a small, Central Plains town that was also home to an institution of higher learning.
Sorry, people of Vermillion.
Anyway, at one point during the tour of the various collections we entered the keyboard room, and this is where our story begins.
First, some background.
As some readers may know, I play the piano. At one point I could’ve been called a pianist. I started lessons at age eight, and by age eleven was studying pretty seriously.
Like, hours of practice a day seriously.
Now, I just play the piano.
Unlike most kids who take piano lessons, I decided to specialize in what’s known as period (or historically informed) performance. I read books on 16th and 17th century keyboard and embellishment technique, checked out journals from the library, studied recordings to absorb stylistic mannerisms, mastered skills like finger pedaling and use of ornaments like mordants, appoggiaturas, and doppelt-cadences.
For birthdays, I asked for recordings of pieces by Mozart, Bach, Purcell, Tallis, Josquin, and Monteverdi.
(I did discover 20th century music around age sixteen, but that’s another story.)
Basically, if it was written before 1800, I wasn’t interested.
One of the instruments I always wanted to play was one with a Janissary pedal, a reference to Turkish military bands that Europeans went mad for in the mid 18th century. This is referenced in the film version of Amadeus when Katherina Cavalieri tells Salieri her hairdresser says that “everything this year is going to be Turkish!”
These bands featured lots of percussion–including bells and drums. Piano builders catered to this craze with a pedal that activated a drum, bells, cymbal, and/or triangle built directly into the piano itself.
One of the pieces written for this device is the third movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11, better known as the Rondo alla Turca.
Fast-forward to 2003 during my sophomore year, on a tour of the National Music Museum. As we entered the keyboard room, our tour guide began to talk about some of the pianos featured there… including the one in the picture at the top of the page.
Which happens to include a Janissary pedal.
The tour guide played a few of the pianos to demonstrate the differences in sound quality and timbre between them. Then she got to our piano. Now, I’d only ever heard a recording of the Janissary pedal on the radio, but never in person.
So when our tour guide played through that movement of the Mozart rondo, when she got to the A major section and activated the pedal, I inadvertently let out a sound that was a combination of a shriek of elation and squeak of surprise. It wasn’t an effeminate sound, per se. It was too feral and wild for that. But it did catch everyone off guard. Every head in the room whipped around and I must’ve turned numerous shades of red.
I’ve often reflected on this moment, especially in the years since coming out. Much is made of the differences in mannerism and expression between gay and heterosexual men. One moment when I became acutely aware of such differences was when listening to an episode of This American Life when I was almost fourteen years old titled Sissies. In one segment, an excerpt from an advice book for young men written in 1942 was read aloud:
Here’s a list of gestures commonly associated with women and another list commonly associated with men… Feminine gesture: hand on hip. Masculine gesture: hands folded over chest or clasped in back… Feminine gesture: looking at people from the corner of eyes. Masculine gesture: direct look; entire head turned toward person… How do you laugh? Are your laughs pitched high like a woman’s? Lower the pitch. Develop a masculine laugh… Roar. Bellow. Do anything but giggle.
This was one of those landmark moments when I realized that to be effeminate (i.e., faggot) was something negative and shameful. It was when I began to scrutinize my own behavior, looking at myself how I imagined the world might be seeing me.
To this day, there is little about gay culture and lifestyle today that I identify with–and by “culture” and “lifestyle,” I mean perceived culture and lifestyle as defined and reinforced through shows like Will & Grace, Modern Family, Glee, and in places like gayborhoods and gay urban meccas like Los Angeles and New York City where trends develop and are exported from. Things like speech and vocal patterns, clothing, mannerisms, preferences, and the like become community tokens of belonging, powerful totems of identity in a world that is often unkind to those who do not conform to heteronormative values.
But I’ve realized that for me, this goes much deeper. It’s not that I wasn’t socialized as a gay man.
It’s that I wasn’t really socialized, period.
That moment wasn’t an expression of my “queer” self. It was the unfiltered delight of someone who never learned what is a socially appropriate expression of delight.
Homeschooled until my junior year in high school, I grew up in an insular world within an insular world. In those years when most people learn what’s cool/uncool, how to read social signals and express yourself in acceptable ways, I was learning what it meant to be an outsider in a world dominated by Satan. While other kids were running to get to class before the bell, I was doing my own thing.
Sure, I missed out on the various traumas of middle and junior high school. I also missed out on the growth opportunities that time affords.