My Conducting Debut

I attended school in Womelsdorf, Pennsylvania, for first and second grades as we were still living on my grandfather’s farm just outside the borough in those days. My recollection is hazy, but I seem to recall that the school held two major events each year, one in the fall and one in the spring (May Day, I think), where all the classes participated.

I only have a relatively clear memory of one of them, which occurred during second grade, probably in the fall so this would have been in 1956. Our music teacher, Mrs. McLean, prepped everyone in our class with percussion instruments of one sort or another and rehearsed us to play them at designated points in sync with a musical selection that she had on a 78 rpm record (remember 78s?). Once she had us sufficiently rehearsed so that we knew our parts, she decided it was time to select a conductor.

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Womelsdorf SchoolWomelsdorf School

Womelsdorf School

Several of us auditioned for the part, including me. I’m not sure why, but I recall it was extremely important to me that I should be selected. Maybe it was because my uncle Curtis was a music teacher and somehow I felt music ran in our family, I don’t know, but I really wanted to be the conductor.

There were maybe two or three other kids who tried out, and when I saw how they lamely tried to beat the time with the baton, I was sure I was a shoo-in. Because I knew I could do something they weren’t doing. My turn came, I did my thing, and I sat down, confident that the conducting position was mine.

Mrs. McLean turned to the class and asked them what they thought. There was some discussion, and then Mrs. McLean asked the pointed question that I had been hoping for, “What did James do that the others didn’t?”

The answer came quickly: “He pointed the baton at whoever had to play their instrument next.”


While all the other applicants were just trying to beat out the time to the rhythm of the music, I was also cuing the musicians.

Needless to say, I got the job.

Well, the big night arrived, and we were all assembled on the stage in the auditorium with me standing in front of them with the baton in my hand my back to the audience waiting for the music to start. Off stage to my right was our teacher, Miss Wagner, standing at the record player about to drop the needle on the 78.

Then the music started and—

Oh no! Miss Wagner had put on the wrong side of the 78 so the wrong music was playing!

We all erupted in laughter. Miss Wagner was waving frantically at us from the wings, and we were making motions to her to turn over the record, which just led to more laughter. The audience must have been bemused. (The next day in class, Miss Wagner explained that she realized that she had put on the wrong side of the record, but she was trying to get us to settle down before switching it.)

Then I saw Mrs. McLean moving quickly behind the curtains at the back of the stage. She reached the record player, righted the record, and finally the correct music was playing.

From that point everything went smoothly, and there were no more snafus.

Later on in the car on the drive home, I mentioned to my mother how funny it was when Miss Wagner put on the wrong side of the record.

“You all acted like a pack of animals up there,” she said. “And you were the worst of all!”

Not exactly the response I was looking for.

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