“Music has been my life.”
“I’m a person who always gets into stuff.”
My life started in Durango, Colorado. I was born in 1926. I’m quite sure I’m the oldest one in the band. (editor: But perhaps the youngest at heart.) My father was a minister. He was transferred to northern Michigan when I was very young, to Gladstone. It was a small town. You knew everybody; you walked every place; you walked to school. And it was a nice town, a lovely town. A lot of Swedish people. But it was winter, you know, about ten months of the year. We were all skiers and skaters.
We lived right next door to the church and that’s why I learned to be an organist because we would go to the church and play. All winter we would go in and one would play the pedals and one would play the keyboard.
I come from a family of musicians. My father was an organist and my mother was a pianist and she was our first teacher for all of us. When we were in high school we decided to play one instrument for the orchestra and one for the band. My brother was the oldest and he played the viola and the trombone. I was next and I played the French horn and the cello, which I stuck with through college. And my sister played the clarinet and the violin. So our Sunday afternoons were a quartet, playing around the piano with my mother as the pianist. It was all classical. We had a good start in music and when I went off to the University of Wisconsin, I minored in music and played the cello through college. And I had the privilege of playing in the Milwaukee Symphony one time because the conductor was one of our professors and he was short of people and if he was short a French horn or if he was short a cello, he would invite us and I got one invitation.
My mother and my father were both graduates of universities in Wisconsin and it was just automatic that I’m going to go. Which was fine. They’re Wisconsonites, both of them. Lots of family—grandmas and cousins, so it was nice to be there.
I majored in education. I was a teacher but my minor was music. I taught everything through ninth grade but my masters is in special education, behavior disordered children. I always had an aide that was my assistant and I had the student for three to five years. And it was an eleven months job in the public schools. I had autistic boys up to the age of twenty-one, quite a challenge. There was a need for it. I wanted to earn my masters and the school where I was teaching gave me a year off and paid me 40% of my salary. It was sort of popular then to go into special ed and so I thought, “I’ve done regular ed for so many years, why don’t I try it?” And I loved it. I was with a nice group of people.
I taught in Neenah, Wisconsin. That was my first job. That is the Kimberly Clark area, the paper industry. I taught in Kimberly which is another paper industry town. I met and married David when I was teaching in Wisconsin. David was one of the original New Horizons Band people. He was a trumpet player and he passed away about eight years ago.
We were transferred out to Fullerton, California. He was in management and they built a new plant and he was one of the managers of the plant. So I taught there as well.
And then our next assignment was New Milford, Connecticut, right next to Danbury. We were on the New Haven line and we could take the train right down to the center of Manhattan. And Wednesday was Ladies’ Day; we could go for half price.
Our two children were born there. My son, Alexander, was a music major at the University of Wisconsin also. Our daughter went into theater; she was not into music at all. But our son has his masters in music and he’s the conductor of the Bohemian Club and he does all the chorus and the music and the bands with them. That isn’t his major job. He’s a stock broker. He played euphonium and he was an excellent, excellent player, but being a music major he had to learn all instruments, all strings and all the wind instruments. He’s going to retire soon and they’re going to move to North Carolina.
My daughter lives in Palo Alto and she’s a costume designer.
We moved out here from Wisconsin when Dave retired because of the two little granddaughters and guess where they live? One is in Manhattan and the other one is in Chicago. Our son, when he graduated from the University of Wisconsin, he drove out here. He wanted to live on the West Coast. And our daughter married one of her classmates who was from here, from San Francisco, and they moved out to Palo Alto so our only two children were living on the West Coast. So when my husband retired from Kimberly Clark and I quit teaching (I’d had enough anyway.) we decided we’d move out here where the kids were ‘cause we’d had just about enough snow and ice in our lifetime so we drove around looking. We both were avid golfers and I’ve played golf almost all my life. We saw these golf courses out here and my husband David said, “Helen, this is where we’re going to live.” We fell in love with the golf courses. This street that we’re on was brand new; there were about three houses on it. So we picked out the lot we wanted and we went home. My husband had another couple of months to finish his job, or almost a year, so we picked out our lot and the house and everything and came out the following year and moved out permanently then in 1987.
When we came out here I was invited to come and help at Sonoma Country Day School. I was so sick of teaching I thought, “I don’t want any more part of a school” and this lady that invited me said, “Just come out and see it.” So the next day I did go out and they hired me right on the spot; they were kind of desperate for people. Here I am, I’m not even enthusiastic but it was such an interesting job because I worked directly for the headmaster. And I stayed there twenty-one years.
I always started my class with some music and I had a piano and I’d play the anthem and some stuff for the kids. We incorporated music into a lot of our programs because I studied piano for a long, long time. One day the headmaster said, “Helen, we need a music teacher. Will you start a program?” So I said, “Alright, let’s see what we can do.” So I taught music for a few years. That’s why we get to play at Sonoma Country Day School. That’s the gift that they give us. I asked Elena who’s in charge of the business part about playing out there, “Elena, what will you charge us?” She said, “For all you’ve done for this school, there is no way I can charge you people.” So we have always gotten it as a gift. Every year I very cautiously write them a nice note and say we’re interested in coming back. Can you give us a date? That’s how that has worked out.
One day I was kind of looking around the building and I saw this oboe that was in a case, a student model, y’know? And I said, “Boy, I would like to try that.”
I was going to all of the concerts where David was playing trumpet. He sat right next to Lew Sbrana. And I was kind of sick of going to those concerts and I thought, “I guess I better get involved.” I’m a person who always gets into stuff. So I got this oboe down and this other music teacher helped me put it together. I had no idea . . . I didn’t know anything about it but I looked at the New Horizons Band and I thought, “There are a lot of clarinets, there are a lot of trumpets, there are a lot of euphoniums and trombones, but there’s only one oboist and that was Genie MacKenzie, one of the original members. So I talked to Genie and she said, “Oh Helen, I’d be so happy if you would play the oboe.” So I took the student oboe and I went to her teacher and I took lessons for about two years and then I thought, “I’m ready to start.” I have a custom made oboe now. My teacher took me over to a man in Napa who builds oboes—he buys all the parts. So he built me an oboe and gave me three of them and we decided which one worked the best for me. Genie was happy when she had somebody next to her. So she and I have been playing duets. There was a different bassoonist then and we had a little trio and we used to play Sunday afternoons. We would drink Bloody Marys and play our instruments. We did that for a long time. We had such a good time. We had lunch together and we’d go in the living room and set up our music stands. And we used to play for the Oakmont Gardens. We played around (laughs) when we were invited.
I’m very happy to be in the New Horizons Band. It’s my life right now. The folks we have met are genuine folks. Musicians are a breed of our own; we really are because we’re interested in something that very few people are really seriously interested in and will pick up an instrument at our ages and work at it. But our inspiration comes from our conductors.
Ray was really my mentor. (editor: Ray Walker, a premier clarinetist, former music teacher, one of the directors of the band and former director of the Swing Band and The Stompers, a trad jazz group that he tutored, died only months before this interview.) He would send me little notes now and then and he’d say, “Try this” and “We clarinetists try that” and I’m so happy that I saved all those notes. He’d send them email and I would print them out. At rehearsal he would never approach me too much unless I asked him but when I got home, I’d get a little note from him and he’d suggest how you’d gasp for air when you first start, how to control that and techniques that you don’t get even though I took formal lessons for at least three years.
I will really miss Ray. It’s a void.
But Lew is the enthusiastic person who keeps us all on our toes. He’s such a genuine person.
David played music all his life and I have pictures on the wall of the orchestras he was in. He was in a lot of dance bands when he was in college and played trumpet. David had a trumpet and a cornet. The trumpet is priceless. When David passed away I thought, “What will I do with these good instruments? They should be used.” So I gave them to Lew Sbrana ‘cause I knew he had grandchildren. To this day I haven’t met them but his little grandson is playing that trumpet. He took it to school and was playing in the junior band. When I said the trumpet was priceless, that came from the repair man in the music store downtown. He said, “I can’t put a price on this instrument.” It was sterling silver for one thing. I wanted Lew to play it but Lew said it was too hard for him to play it. For some reason . . . well, you know we all like our own instruments. He preferred his own. He tried it but he said, “I don’t know where David got all the wind to play this instrument,” so he stuck with his own but his grandson is playing it and I’m very, very happy that it’s being used. That makes me feel good that it’s being used by some little person.
I was on the New Horizons board for seven or eight years. I loved it. I kind of like being in charge (laughs). Debbie Weber was the secretary and when I was voted on the board I said, “Debbie, I’ll be the secretary and you be the president.” She’s an extremely organized person and knows what she’s doing and it was a pleasure to be on that board. And we worked hard. We did a band camp. I’ve gone to several band camps and I was going to go to this one this summer in Olympia and of course that washed out (editor: because of the pandemic).
The band camps were fun because you were sitting with other oboists or other musicians. You could sit around and discuss it, you know. And we could get together after the rehearsals and share different techniques that we had learned. And reeds! A good reed is like a hundred dollar bill to all of us. Oh, you get a good reed and that’s very precious. Ours is a double reed that you blow in the middle of it. I never learned to make reeds. A good oboist will make their own reed but I never wanted to waste the time learning that because they say you have to make 1000 reeds before you get the perfect one and I thought, “I’m too old for that.” But I have a good source and all summer I’ve been working on reeds. I have boxes of reeds and I went through each one and tried them and worked on them.
John and I will have been married four years in August. I met him in 2015 at the Kenwood Restaurant that has a Basque dinner once a month. David and I had gone to it for years. We never had to make a reservation; we just went. And the people that owned that restaurant were very good friends of ours to the point where we’d go to their house a lot and they’d come to ours. I continued to go and there was a group of us that always kind of met there. John was from Maryland and was out here visiting his daughter who lived in Sonoma and is a doctor. He was out doing some things with her and he was at that dinner and he was seated next to me. We got to talking about food and stuff and John was talking about making his Polish food—borscht. And I said that I’d never had it. He said, “I’ll make a batch and I’ll bring it over.” And I thought, “Oh yeah yeah. I’ve heard all this before.” He said, “Give me the phone number” and I wrote it down and I thought, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard this before. What do I care?” But the next day he called and came over. Then he went back home. He left a week or two later and went back to Maryland and continued to work and then when he retired he was sort of at his wit’s end and I said, “Why don’t you come out to California in August?” So the next year he came out and we became very good friends and here we are side by side sitting on the couch talking to you. So it’s been a wonderful relationship. He’s still in medicine; he’s doing telemedicine now.
John: My best patient is the lady you’re talking to.
Helen: Yeah, because I’ve had a couple of episodes of atrial fibrillation. I’ve had some complications but I’m doing fine. He’s a wonderful partner. I know nothing about medicine and I’m not interested in it so I listen to what he says.
John: Well, number one, she is interested and sometimes she’s a compliant patient but sometimes she does what she wants (she is laughing) and I have to reinforce the idea because we don’t want her to fall. We both have stage B chronic kidney disease so we’re a little unsteady on our feet so I don’t want to fall on top of her and she doesn’t want to fall on top of me. I don’t want to fall and break my hip and the same thing with Helen. So we’re very, very, very, very careful.
Helen: John is interested in music and we go to the symphony together and have enjoyed it for all these years because I have been a member of the Symphony audience for ever since I’ve lived in California. David and I were members out at the Luther Burbank Center. We started out with Corrick Brown. And the orchestra . . . anyone who could play was in it. But now, I’m thrilled!
I was on the committee to pick the seats for the new building and the ones that we picked were never chosen. The ones out there are so hard and so uncomfortable. People are carrying in cushions and I don’t blame them (laughs).
I sure miss the symphony and do I worry about those people. What are they doing for a living? The symphony was paying them for a while but they can’t keep it up. But they have no income unless someone has donated a bunch of money. That’s how our conductor (editor: Francesco Lecce-Chong) is paid; somebody is picking up that tab, I would suspect; I don’t know. He was not my choice but I like him a lot and I do listen to his lectures that are on at 10 o’clock in the morning once a week when he’s describing an instrument or something. He did one on the oboe and Lew Sbrana sent me an email to be sure and catch it and I did. It was very, very interesting. And of course I like the lectures ahead of time.
I lived through Bruno, but I never came to his lectures because I couldn’t understand him. I met him one time personally. He had a son who was of school age and one time he came out to Sonoma Country Day School when I was on staff and brought his son and they were looking at the school. I happened to meet him in the hall and introduced myself and then the headmaster came out. The headmaster spoke fluent French and of course I was dismissed so I shook his hand and walked away (laugh). So that was my one and only personal exposure to Bruno.
He was very demanding and very particular and exacting with the orchestra. They all sat on the edge of their chairs, let me tell you, which is good. They sat up straight. We’ve come a long, long way and that venue is just . . . I so look forward to it.
We’re very active in the Lutheran Church but, my goodness, nowadays with the coronavirus we can’t even get inside the building. The church has been an important part of my life and I was a church organist for years.
I have two grandchildren. One is in Chicago in the theater. She is also a costume designer like her mother besides being an actress and she has a beautiful, beautiful voice. She does musicals. She’s very much involved. She graduated from Lawrence University as a theater major as her mother did. And Claudia, the older granddaughter went into the field of education and taught in New York City for two years. She said, “I don’t care if they ever have another school, I don’t want anything to do with it.” She was teaching foreign students and she said, “Here I was teaching kids who were 16 and 17 years old that already had businesses and I was teaching them how to write a sentence in English.” And she just hated it so she is deeply into computers. She got her masters and her doctorate at Columbia. And she’s a novelist and she’s writing a book right now which has been accepted so she’s quite into her work. She won the award one year for the State of California for high school English for the best writer.
The grandchildren are out doing their own thing but we do see them on occasion and keep in touch.
Music has been my life. I’ve always enjoyed music and I’m just so lost without the New Horizons people. They were our social life as well.
This inactivity is not me at all. I’m reading my head off to the point where I think I’ve ruined my eyes. I quit practicing because I thought, “Why am I practicing? For what?” But I’m going to pick it up again. I’m getting in the mood where I need to get familiar with the oboe again. I was going through my old exercise books but I thought, “What’s the future?” I do not believe we’ll be starting in September. And yet I think, “Why don’t we meet anyway. Wear our masks, take it off, blow your horn, put your mask back on.” I’m almost willing to take chances now.