He played with his elbows

We moved to Ojai in July 2000 and began the process of inserting ourselves in the community. Our nearest neighbors were gentle with us and made us feel welcome. Some became fast friends.

The Sunday movies at the Ojai Playhouse found other friends who enjoyed foreign films, and the challenge of the closed captioning that was partially blocked by those in front of us. Because the old seats were in a straight line rather than staggered, I could only read the left or right side of the captions; the center, usually obliterated by tall, wide men with hats, was a mystery. Ila and I often turned to each other and asked with some annoyance, “What did he say?” But it was a minor price to pay to be part of the community.

We marched in the July 4th parade, attended concerts and plays at the Art Center, and volunteered our services to organizations in need. We were willing to try almost anything to complete our metamorphosis from L.A. to Ojai.

And then we heard about the Ojai Music Festival.

In 2001 we leaped at the opportunity of this new adventure. We didn’t investigate Festival history or even the current offerings. We bought tickets to what we assumed was a typical classical music extravaganza, complete with an orchestra, singers, and lots of I know that one music. I was sure that Brahms, Beethoven, and Bach would be well represented.  Lots of people regularly attended the June event, so what could be bad.

We prepared ourselves with seat cushions that took some pain out of the Bowl’s wood benches designed by Torquemada in the 15th century. Seat numbers had been pretty much eroded by the last glacier that came down Ojai Avenue, and the seats were sized for people on perpetual diets. With cramped quarters, we quickly became close friends with those on either side of us.

A bell chimed and silenced the crowd. A piano was center stage. A performer entered stage right to polite applause, sat at the piano, remained motionless for an eternity, lifted his hands, and began to play.

At first, I thought the piano was out of tune. And then I noticed that he occasionally removed his hands from the keyboard and substituted his elbows. His hands returned to the keyboard, and then gave way to elbows. Hands and elbows trading places over and over. A cacophony of sounds attacked my ears. I was stunned and fearful. And so it continued; a baptism under fire. Like Dorothy, I realized I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

The performer with the talented elbows ended his performance. A rumbling spread through the audience. At first, I assumed they were as mystified as I was by what they had just heard. The rumble grew louder and more strident. People rose from their seats. I wondered if, like in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein movie, the villagers were going to lynch the pianist.

And then, the 60ish woman seated next to me rose to her full 5-foot-two height. But rather than encouraging the idea of a lynching, she began shouting Bravo, bravo, bravo. Over and over, infused with an ardor that would not be satisfied until her vocal cords ceased to function.

Ila and I stared at each other and sent silent messages that included rolling our eyes, shrugging our shoulders, and displaying our up-turned palms. Who were these people who surrounded us? Were they victims of mass hypnosis? Did they need medical attention?

It ended. We began the trek to our car and bumped into some friends who had been at the performance. Normally a levelheaded, calm person, Sally asked “Wasn’t that a marvelous concert? Wasn’t it amazing? Didn’t you just love it?”

Still feeling raw-edged due to my overexposure to the elbow man, I threw political correctness to the winds and said No. With that bit of honesty, I had firmly labeled myself a non-believer, an agnostic, antiquated, a has-been. Maybe even a Tony Bennett fan.

In the years that followed, and despite our better judgment, we continued to attend the Festival like it was some kind of virus. Like the flu season, it returned each June and evaded our best attempts at eradication. I’d either relax on the lawn or, after the Bowl’s reincarnation, sit on a nice green, waterproof, stiff plastic chair. I’d watch and listen, using the Elbow Man’s performance as a baseline measurement for weird, annoying music.

Anna, the Festival’s happy-faced fund raiser, has become my personal concierge in picking a performance that would least offend me. Because of Jackie’s work schedule, our choices this year were limited. Anna suggested the Sunday morning program featuring a pianist. Always one to foolishly let history repeat itself, I sent them a boatload of cash and got two tickets in row E.

We arrived, located our seats, and were surprised to find no one in rows A to D. After a thorough astronomical evaluation, we realized that those rows were exposed to full sunlight while Row E only allowed a solar invasion of my ankles. The movement of the Earth around the Sun, and the possibility of cremation, became something else to worry about besides the music.

The chimes sounded. The audience quieted and our attention was drawn to the lonely Steinway grand piano in the middle of the stage. The pianist entered stage right, sat at the piano, flexed, and then fell silent. He waited. Memories of the Elbow Man flooded through me.

Close enough to see his hands and elbows, I watched. I held my breath. He played.

I loved it.

3 Responses to “He played with his elbows”


  1. 1 jackielakshmi June 17, 2022 at 3:49 pm

    You are so amazing!
    I feel like I got a history lesson on the Music Festival without the price of a ticket!
    So glad you enjoyed the Sunday morning performance – I did too😍
    I appreciate the splurge for a one hour performance!
    Love you❤️

    Like

  2. 2 Anna June 17, 2022 at 5:54 pm

    Hooray! Literally my first thought right after he finished was, “I hope Fred didn’t hate it! 🤞🏽“

    Like

  3. 3 Glenda King June 21, 2022 at 2:17 pm

    Fred – I had the same kind of experience a number of years ago but with a violin. Like you, I was anticipating beautiful music with a melody but instead was bewildered by something that I just could not call music! It was very hard to listen to.

    Like


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