Saturday, March 4, 2017

Marcia Butler's "The Skin Above My Knee"

Marcia Butler was a professional oboist for 25 years, until her retirement from music in 2008. During her musical career, she performed as a principal oboist and soloist on the most renowned New York and international stages, and with many high-profile musicians and orchestras. She lives in New York City.

Butler applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Skin Above My Knee: A Memoir, and reported the following:
What a surprise to read my own 99th page, which not only supports the Ford Madox Ford doctrine, but also happens to touch upon a pivotal event in my memoir, The Skin Above My Knee. I was attending the Mannes College of Music in New York City to study the oboe in the mid 1970’s. This was my first taste of freedom outside my home, where I’d endured considerable hardships at the hands of my father, and the pain of a profoundly distancing mother. Yet, this newfound freedom brought contrary things to my life. I felt exhilaration almost immediately: I’d finally found my tribe among musicians who were also determined to pursue a career in music. Along with that came the daunting responsibility inherent when one explores what is essentially infinite and unknowable – music. Of course, at age 18, I couldn’t begin to glean this complexity. I simply seized on the joy of playing music with people who finally understood me. At the same time, I began to act out in a reckless manner with unsavory and dangerous men. This was a holdover gift from the lessons taught to me by my father.
In what felt like slow motion, I pulled my reed out of the oboe, returned it carefully to its small box, and placed the instrument down on the piano—a no-no in this school. Nothing was to be laid on top of pianos. Adelweird backed away from me, understanding the oddness of my behavior, as I walked to the corner of the room and leaned into the right angle. Laying my head heavily against it, I slid down into a crouching position on my haunches, my back to the room. The tears came. I could not look at him as I wailed. Unearthly moans came and came. No wonder the oboe’s sound shook. A roiling hell was in my belly and had been waiting for this exact moment, when it could release its immense, searing pressure. Adelweird went to the door of the studio and locked it. Click. I heard him walk back to me. He stood right at my back and did nothing. The heat of his body was warm and alive and compassionate. Motionless, he was witnessing his brilliant student fall into a billion shards of glass.
Page 99 shows a young woman at her oboe lesson, hiding a pregnancy from absolutely everyone, while attempting to play scales for her oboe teacher, unsuccessfully. He is frustrated with her inability to play a straight tone, without oscillation. After repeated attempts, she crumbles in front of him. He doesn’t understand why she faces the corner of the room, crouches down on her haunches and sobs. Only that it is imperative for him to leave her alone and simply be a witness to something private, something he might not even want to know, and something very, very awful. The truth and shame of what the young girl feels is not only that she’s pregnant and will soon get an abortion, but that her boyfriend is also spending several months in Rikers Island jail for a conviction of attempted rape at gunpoint; some other woman’s sorrow.

Page 99 highlights the confounding and contrary potential for my future; my conservatory training, playing the oboe, being nurtured by my oboe teaching, all of which left me breathless with hope. But the grip of my past portends future personal failings. My book attempts to tell these parallel narratives and ultimately gathers them together, as music transforms and saves my life.
Visit Marcia Butler's website.

--Marshal Zeringue