"What's the difference between a terrorist and a French horn player?" our conductor once asked us during a rehearsal.
"Terrorists have sympathizers!" The conductor and my fellow orchestra members practically fell on the floor with laughter. I just pasted on a smile and turned red.
They were laughing at me.
At the age of 13 I decided that I wanted to study an instrument and join the school orchestra like all of my friends. I chose the French horn because I liked the way it looked -- silver and swirling and oh, so unusual.
I did not realize that the French horn, in addition to being one of the world's most beautiful instruments, is also one of the world's most difficult to play. I did not realize that while gifted French horn players can create sounds as sweet as a slice of Heaven, not-so-gifted French horn players are famous for ruining concerts with a single slip of the lip.
"Not-so-gifted" would have been a generous description of my French horn playing skills.
For the 15 years that I spent in orchestras, quintets and concert bands, "not-so-gifted" would have been a generous description of my French horn playing skills.
First of all, I never really learned how to read music. I only managed to learn my parts with help from kind-hearted and knowledgeable trumpet players and panicking conductors. Year after year my conductors would schedule special emergency help sessions with their "not-so-gifted" French horn player on the day before the big concert.
Secondly, and even worse that my inability to read music, was my shaky record with high notes. Anything higher than a C was Russian roulette. If you have never seen smoke coming out of a conductor's ears, just pay close attention when a not-so-gifted French horn player strains to hit an E and lands on a D sharp instead.
Out of the thousands of hours I spent in rehearsals and concerts, there was one turning point that was a rare highlight in my otherwise thoroughly undistinguished French-horn playing career. One night, I was sitting in the orchestra pit during my college's performance of the musical "Oklahoma!" Curly starting singing "Oh What a Beautiful Morning," and I knew that if I missed the quickly approaching high F, as I had in most of the rehearsals, even the person sitting in the last row of the second balcony would grimace.
I began to tremble and I could hear my heart racing over the whole orchestra when Curly reached the line, "The corn is as high as the elephants' eye." I got ready. I placed my finger on the second valve and kept my horn in position. But when Curly went up for the high note, I did something I had never done before. Or, to be more exact, I didn't do something. I simply did not blow into the horn.
With that one moment of silence, I knew that in my own quiet way I had saved the show. And that moment of silence would be the first of many to save dozens of musicals and concerts and dress rehearsals in the years to come.
It has been seven whole years since I even opened up my French horn case. Still, there are moments in life that transport me back to the thousands of hours I spent sandwiched between the trumpets and the second violins in the back row of the orchestra. Classical music still causes me to stop, close my eyes and sway as though I am once again counting measures in the Bowdoin College music building. When the shofar starts sounding scratchy on the High Holidays around the 80th blow, I can still feel my own lips getting tired and numb, because I've been there too.
But the most meaningful legacy of my French-horn playing career was the lesson that I learned in that orchestra pit: that sometimes silence is the sweetest sound of all.
The other day, I met my friend Shira in the park for the first time in a few months. She is the rare kind of dear old friend that I can talk with about anything and everything. We spent an hour or two talking about our kids -- the good stuff and the hard stuff, and our lives -- the nice stuff and the tough stuff. Out of the blue she mentioned someone she had met that week. "Do you know him?" Shira asked.
The victim of my gossip would never know I had said anything. And if he did hear about it, who cared?
Shira had no idea that she had mentioned one of my very least favorite people and I was ready to tell her so. The words were sitting right there on the tip of my tongue and this person deserved it! He really had been terrible and selfish! The victim of my gossip would never know I had said anything. And if he did hear about it, who cared? I would tell him to his face how impossible he is!
At that moment, I had deja vu. Once again, I was sitting in that orchestra pit in front of that auditorium full of people preparing myself for that high F. I remembered that God created the world with words. Words are powerful enough to create and negative words can destroy as well -- lives, families, even whole communities. For this reason, our Sages explain that gossip can be compared to murder.
On that park bench sitting with my dear friend, I remembered the words of King Solomon: "Life and death are in the hands of the tongue," and even though it was far from easy, I bit my own.
When I was silent, Shira switched subjects to her dripping air conditioner and then to summer camps, and before long my potential victim was out of sight and out of mind.
Not one mother or father or child in that whole crowded park on that summer afternoon knew that I had done something very important sitting on that park bench. Nobody knew that I had chosen to stay silent even though it was very tough to do so. But in my heart I knew that once again, with a touch of well placed golden silence, in my own quiet way I had saved the show.