Practice, Practice, Practice. Playing at Carnegie Hall

by Joseph Sheeley

In high school I got a very unique opportunity. I was playing bass in the Phoenix Symphony Guild Youth Orchestra, a region-wide orchestra with members in 9-12th grade, and we were invited to play in Carnegie Hall in New York City. This is the story of the preparations and that trip.

The PSG Youth Orchestra was sponsored by the Phoenix Symphony. To be a member, you needed to audition and do well. Most of the members would also make the regional and all-state orchestras. It would practice weekly, then play performances around Phoenix. Some of the ones I most remember were an outdoor concert at a local wild west themed park, Rawhide, and the Musical Memories concerts, where we would play four concerts, one after another, in the Civic auditorium downtown for groups of school kids bussed in from all over the Phoenix area.

We even got to have the resident conductor for the Phoenix Symphony, Anthony Sedaris, as our conductor. He was fairly young at the time but just had the feel of “big city,” like Chicago or New York, about him. He was passionate and expected your best, but he was also funny and personable. We were very lucky to have him.

After he had been there a couple of years, he told us he had a big announcement: We had been chosen among a select group of youth orchestras to play at Carnegie Hall. He had applied for us and we had been chosen. We were going to be making the trip the next year.

Of course, once word got out, people from all over who had not been in youth orchestra suddenly wanted to join. Auditions the next year were tough and some people who had been in the orchestra the previous years didn’t make it. There was even a couple of teens who drove 100 miles from Payson, AZ down to Phoenix every week for rehearsals to join. I actually did fairly well, getting placed in second seat for the basses. The person who got first chair was a dark-haired girl I had never met before. The guy who had usually occupied that seat was in third seat. Apparently I’d had a good audition!

The next year we started working on music for the concert. One of the pieces I remember was Hoe Down from Rodeo by Aaron Copeland, which was a fun piece with a lot of musical gimmicks. Another was a piece that we had to rent. We couldn’t make copies of the rental piece and were warned that if anyone damaged, wrote on and couldn’t erase, or lost any of the music it would cost $20 per copy. We were worried. One night the librarian for the orchestra, who kept all of the sheet music, accidently drove off and left a box of extra parts on top of her car. Luckily someone from the orchestra saw this and got the box after it had fallen off. That could have been a disaster!

As we got close to the trip, a local news station came to film us during practice. Apparently they were going to report on us while we were in New York as well. During one of their newscasts they repeated an old joke our conductor had told us:

A young man was walking lost through New York carrying a violin. He asked a man he saw on the street, “Excuse me, sir, how do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The old man turned to him and said with a smile, ” Practice, practice, practice.”

We did a concert at the high school where we would practice that copied the program we were doing in New York City for our parents the week before we left. It went well.

New York Here We Come

We flew from Arizona to New York. We crammed instruments into every space in the plane. We were renting bases in New York because it was too much trouble to get hard cases and take them on the plane, so all we had was our music with us on the plane. I remember flying over the city and just seeing lights go forever. We flew into Newark, NJ.

It was a mad crush of people at the baggage claim. I put down the small bag I was using to carry my music on the plane while I looked for my bag. Later at the hotel I would realize that I never picked it up and had left my music at the airport. I called the airport to see if they had it somewhere, but no luck. Good thing I didn’t have the rental music in there.

This was 1988 when things were scary in NYC, and Newark made New York look tame. We boarded a bus from the airport in the darkness and silently rode into the city. When we got to our hotel, the New York Penta, not to be confused with the Plaza, we went up to our rooms, four to a room. The place was across the street from Madison Square Garden and wasn’t bad.

The first meal we had was across the street at a Sbarro. I had never heard of the restaurant chain at that point. I enjoyed a slice of pizza in this exotic place. It attached to the subway, as I learned when a man opened a door and walked out from the trains. Meals after that went downhill. We walked past Sbarro the next morning and went about a block away and upstairs into the deli. No one really liked the food, but then we found out that we had contracted with the deli to get most of our meals there. So, several times we had to walk past Sbarro,looking back longingly, and go to the deli. I think we got to eat at Sbarro one last time before we left.

The next evening we went to Carnegie Hall and watched a concert being performed by another high school group. They were pretty good. During the intermission I asked an usher if I should just give up my musical career, having done it all since I was going to play at Carnegie Hall. She said that I needed to come back solo.

Afterwards we started the walk back to our hotel, passing through Times Square on the way. Walking back it was me, two girls, and one of the moms who was chaperoning us. Along the street there was a mentally ill guy who grabbed a man in front of us who was wearing a huge, puffy jacket. The guy in the jacket just turned around and stared at his assailant who turned and continued on his way. The chaperone cowered behind me while all of this was happening for protection. It was strange for me as a 15 year-old to be seen as a protector for an adult who was normally the one looking out for us. Suddenly I’d gone from a high school kid to a guardian on the streets of New York. In a separate incident, a guy through a brick through the window of a car as we passed, then stared at us as if to say, “What are you going to do about it?” There was also a group of girls from another group who said they had been mugged outside of our hotel. I never felt in danger, but maybe I should have.

At Carnegie Hall

The second or third day we had a practice at Carnegie Hall. I remember going into the building and into what I remember as a basement with a big concrete floor below the stage. There we found our rental bases and tried them out. We then went up to the stage and had about an hour to rehearse.

Looking out is was really beautiful. There was a main floor, then a balcony that wrapped most of the way around with big pillars that ran from floor to ceiling. There were boxes that went right over the left and right sides of the stage. Everything was white and gold, very ornate. Our conductor commented that the acoustics were so good, someone could be whispering on stage and a person way out at the back of the auditorium could hear. The hall had the big ring-back after sudden stops in the music where the echo would come back to you a split second after you finished that great halls do. It was neat to get to play rehearsal there since you can’t hear the ring back once the audience is there to dampen the sounds.

Between getting the instruments and the rehearsal, we had a few minutes so a few of us went outside. I saw an older gentleman walking by, so I decided to walk up to him and ask, “Excuse me sir, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?” He was about ready to walk by and ignore me as I imagine most New Yorkers do, but then the absurdity of the question sank in and he couldn’t help but answer. “It’s right here!,” he said with a thick Brooklyn drawl.

The Concert

The concert was the next night. That morning, we had a rehearsal at the hotel that the news crew attended and filmed. Back at home in Phoenix, our families were able to see our progress on the news each night. That afternoon, we took a charter bus over to Carnegie hall in our black tuxedos with our instruments.

I remember a few years later, sitting at a doughnut shop in Tucson at about 2 AM, talking to a teacher from a master class in a bass symposium. He talked about how with music, it is all fleeting. You can play a great concert, but a day later, people would already be starting to forget. By a week later, they would probably just remember that it was good. After a year, it will have been forgotten.

Unfortunately that night was something like that. I remember it went really well. When we played Hoe Down, there was a lady in one of the boxes that laughed when we hit a funny portion and there was a break in the music. Also, while we were playing the rental piece, a couple of friends of mine who played cello dropped the music and it tore when they tried to pick it up. I also remember at the end we got a standing ovation that seemed to go on forever. The news reporter mentioned this as she did her report outside of the hall after the concert. It was magical.

That night we went on a cruise around the Statue of Liberty and had dancing and food. I met a girl from one of the other groups and we danced and hung out most of the night, but then just said goodbye at the end of the night. I probably got to bed around 1 or 2 AM.

After flying back to Phoenix, we all got a copy of a video with our concert from right before we left. It also contained the news broadcasts from the trip. We also each got a picture of the orchestra during the concert in Carnegie Hall, showing a person standing during the standing ovation. I had each member of the orchestra sign the back. To this day I still have the picture hanging in my bedroom.

The Phoenix Symphony Guild Youth Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, Spring of 1987

My sister saw the picture on the wall a few months later and asked about it. She was surprised when my parents told her it was me in Carnegie Hall since she didn’t know anything about the trip. Apparently we didn’t talk much as a family….

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High School JROTC- Rifle Team

by Joseph Sheeley

This continues the story on my experience in JROTC. The first article is here. Today I’ll tell about the Rifle Team.

The first team I joined in JROTC was Rifle Team. Before joining I had never handled or shot a rifle before, so this was an all new experience. We used .22 rim fired target rifles and shot at targets that contained 12 targets on a 11 x 8.5 inch sheet of paper. The two targets in the center were for siting in the rifle, then you’d shoot one shot each at the ten targets around the edge. The targets were up to 10 points each, so your total score for each position was 100 points. We would shoot prone, kneeling, and standing each time, so your score was out of 300 possible points.

When I joined there were about ten cadets on the team. The captain was a junior, and there were a couple of other juniors on the team, including a female friend of my sister who was one of the best shots at the team. (During the time I was there I found that the best shots were normally girls.)

We would practice once per week. We would load up the rifles after school into a white Chevy Bronco and drive to a school on the south side of town where they had a ten lane indoor range. Note that when loading we were carrying rifles across campus with boxes of ammunition, which seems bizarre given today’s standards where even a tiny pocket knife could get you suspended. We never had any issue, however. No one would even think about loading a rifle until at the range and just about to fire.

On the way to practice we would stop at McDonald’s. We always got food to go and you’d need to get it fast or the instructor, First Sergeant, would pretend he was going to drive off and slowly pull away while you chased with your bags. Another memory is that the team captain would get four waters, which they’d send in a cup holder, then spend the rest of the drive flicking water at those in the back seat until First Sergeant told him to knock it off. We’d eat on the way to the range, which was probably 30 minutes away from our school.

During practice would normally go through a full competition, which was siting in in prone, then ten targets in prone, ten in kneeling, and ten standing, or “off-hand.” I’d normally go in order, but one could go in any order one chose. One had an hour to shoot all 30 targets plus site the rifle. You would use a telescope or binoculars to see where you were hitting when siting in and sometimes while you shot. First Sergeant would normally sit in an area behind us separated by glass and either watch with a telescope or do other things while he waited for us to finish.

We would score our targets right afterwards while cleaning up or on the way back. The 8 point ring was a little smaller than a dime and we shot from 50 feet. The ten was a dot smaller than a period. The round would just fit within the eight ring and if it were fully inside it was a “10x” that could be used to break ties.

Prone was easiest since you had most of your body supported to keep you steady, then kneeling, then standing. In prone if you were good you never scored a seven or lower and had few eights. I became very good at kneeling and would score 80 to 85 regularly. In standing, because you’d sway, seventy plus was good. Once in a while it all locked in and I’d hit a ten standing, but it was rare. I knew when I fired that I did. Scoring over 200 such as a 90 in prone, 70 in kneeling, and 70 in standing would put you near the top for the team and the district. A 250 might win for top overall score. There were also trophies for highest on each position, so if you were a great prone shooter or decent in kneeling or standing you could clean up.

We would have competitions among the district, covering the greater Phoenix area, and also a state competition. All were held at the range at which we would practice. These would have trophies for each position and then overall individual trophies and team trophies. We would usually do very well in the district and win a couple trophies in the state.

We also did two out-of-state competitions while I was there. The first was a trip to San Diego. We drove (it was about an 8-hour drive.) One of the boys had a Beastie Boys “Licensed to Ill” cassette tape that we wore out during the trip. I also had a Back to the Future soundtrack cassette plus some mix tapes that I played on my Walkman during the trip. A couple of times I got to play Sammy Hagar on the car cassette player.

We participated in a national competition at one of the Navy bases in San Diego. At that meet there were two girls who scored in the 290s. We didn’t stay for the awards ceremony. On the way back we went to Sea World and Disneyland. The other trip was to the New Mexico Military Academy. We similarly didn’t place but had fun on the road trip to the competition.

By my Junior year I had become Captain of the team, a role in which I stayed through my senior year. I eventually was shooting in the low 90s for prone and mid 80s for kneeling. Standing was between the 50s and the 70s.

In the next article I’ll tell about our Instructors.

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High School JROTC – The Ranger Team

by Joseph Sheeley

Previously, our Army JROTC program at my high school was discussed. In this article, I’ll tell about the Ranger Team.

Our JROTC program had three teams, the Rifle Team, and Ranger Team, and the Drill Team. I was never an official member of the Drill Team, although I did compete in two competitions with them on short notice when a member had dropped out and they needed a replacement (more on that later). I joined the Rifle Team my freshman year, and the Ranger Team as a sophomore.

Of the teams, I considered the Ranger Team the best. I had never gotten to camp as a child. My father said once that if he got distracted and crashed the car one time that we would end up camping. After that we always joked that we were hoping that the car would crash so that we could “go camping.” Clearly he wasn’t the outdoorsy type, so I’d gone the first 15 years of my life without camping.

Ranger team camped, but not exactly. We’d go on what were called FTXes, which stood for “Field Training Exercises.” On these we would usually leave after school on a Friday, arrive late at night, set up in the dark, then spend Saturday and Sunday morning on activities before returning home Sunday afternoon.

We’d always return exhausted on Sundays because this wasn’t roasting smores around the campfire sort of activities. This was things like ten mile orienteering courses through the woods, up and down hills, punctuated with activities like practicing first aid, target shooting, rowing a raft across a lake, or rappelling down a cliff activities. Generally you were out doing something physical from 5 AM; when you would get woken up for calisthenics consisting of push-ups (really slow ones), jumping jacks, squats, sit-ups, and then a two or three mile run; until you were ready to get into your tent Saturday night after a full day and evening of activities. The only time that you were able to sit around a campfire was at 2 AM when you got woken up for your hour of fire watch. (Often there would be four or five “fire watchers” at 5 AM since people would decide to just stay up all night after their shift. We eventually had to establish a “no all-night fire watch” rule.)

Getting onto Ranger Team was not easy at all. It started out with a qualification day at the high school where you needed to do at least 45 sit-ups/minute and 45 push-ups/minute, do 10 pull-ups, do a long broad jump, and run three miles in less than 25 minutes. You would need to meet at least all but one of these requirements. If you succeeded, the next step was the Canal Walk. Here you started at a supermarket in the middle of Phoenix at 10 PM, then walked ten miles out on the banks of one of the canals, then walked all the way back and over to the Squaw Peak Park, getting there around 6 AM. We’d normally fall asleep for about 30 minutes on the concrete or in the dirt because we were so tired by that point. You then needed to climb up and down Squaw Peak, which was about 1.5 miles and 15oo feet each way, to complete the walk, getting done maybe around 8 AM.

If you succeeded there, you then on alternating years either do a hike up and down Mount Baldy in Easter Arizona, which is an 11,421 foot peak so named because it is above the tree line, or hike down the South Kaibab Trail to the river and back up the Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon. With Mount Baldy, because we started at our camp instead of driving tot he trail head, it was a 22 mile hike. Many people would get a headache once they got above 10,000 feet, making them grumpy until they got back below that level. The Canyon was 25 miles, starting from the early morning when you were freezing and lasting through the noon hours at the river when you were sweating like crazy, only to get back up to the rim around 8 PM, right after sunset when you were freezing again.

The uniform for the Ranger Team was the woodland camouflaged “battle dress uniform” (BDUs) of the Army with a camouflaged Marine hat, starched crisp so the points would stick out full and the black Army boots, shined so that you could see your face in them. Some cadets had a wide-brimmed “booney hat” that they would wear when out in the field. You’d stick an ace of spades in it to be cool (I put a Joker in mine). You’d bring your backpacks with your gear in on Friday morning before an FTX and wear your BDUs all day at school. You would bring knives for the FTX and there got to be a competition to have the longest knife. I won with a ten-inch survival knife that would hang off my side like a sword, sharpened on both sides with a saw blade on one side. Note we brought these to school and left them in our packs in the JROTC building and never had any issues. Things were really different back then.

On the FTXes, we would have the National Guard support us by bringing out a deuce-and-half truck with a water buffalos on back for transportation and water. We would ride in the back of the deuce-and-half, which had only a canvas cover so it would get really dusty in the air when we took many of the long dirt roads to one of our campsites. Often on Saturday night we would play what we called “escape and evasion,” and sometimes the guard members would join us since they didn’t have anything else to do but sit around for the weekend.

In escape and evasion, two teams would separate and form a base, then the other team would try to sneak in and steal your flag and get back to their base without getting caught. If you got caught, you’d sit near the capturing team’s fire until the game was over. I don’t remember anyone actually succeeding at doing this, but it was a lot of fun. You would often go out for miles in the dark, doing as quietly as you could as you got near the other camp, just moving a foot a minute or so on the ground. One of the most successful tries was when one of the older cadets just came stomping into base, acting like he was directed to do so. He nearly got away with it, but one of the guardsmen caught on and tagged him out.

When you got back on Sunday evening, you were often so sore that you could barely walk out of the truck. I often feel like that now since I’m older after a long hike, but this was back when I was a teenager and bullet proof. But the Ranger attitude was always that you could do anything and nothing mattered. If you were driving out to the campsite and someone asked how far you were, the answer was always “ten more miles.” On a 20 mile hike, the answer was always “ten more steps.” You were on the Ranger Team, so you could do anything.

That’s probably the biggest thing I learned in Rangers was that your attitude is everything. If you had a bad attitude, you were miserable even on a five mile hike. If you just decided that it just didn’t matter, however, you could do twenty five miles and have a good time doing it. I also learned that you make the closest friends under adversity. When you go through things together, you become closer. I still remember seeing one of my best friends, who was the XO while I was Battalion Commander, head off from our all night senior lock-in to real Ranger School ( but first basic training and airborne school).

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High School JROTC

by Joseph Sheeley

When I was in high school in the late 1980s, I joined the Army JROTC program. Unlike ROTC in college, many if not most of the people in JROTC would never enlist in the military. But the program offered leadership training, a taste of what the military was like, and unique activities not found elsewhere. It was these activities that interested me the most.

The main program was a class taught during one of your periods during the day. We would learn about things like leadership, hygiene, military history, and how to properly wear a uniform. There was some class time, but most of the time was spent in learning by doing.

We spent a good deal of time drilling, where we would learn to march as a group. The first step was to learn to be spaced by extending your arm and nudging your neighbor until he of she was one arm length out. After that we learned how to all start on our left foot, the various commands to start, “Forward, march,” to stop, ” Halt,” and to turn left and right. Turning was one of the most complicated maneuvers and we practiced it a lot.

We would use our marching skills at the Veteran’s Day parade each year. There we would march as companies in the parade. The course was about a mile long.

Another activity was marksmanship. We would set up targets and practice shooting with pellet rifles. Normally we would shoot into pellet traps, but one time we used the hay bales the archery team used at the base of their targets. My sister, who was on the archery team, wasn’t happy about the lead pellets that would damage their arrows in the hay.

Another big part of the program was formation day. This happened weekly on Wednesday mornings from about 7 AM until 7:45. Here we would all come to school in uniform and assemble in a large area in platoons and companies.

We would form, present the flag, then give out awards and promotions. From there we’d have announcements and then dismiss. The battalion commander would preside over it all, with his staff in front, then the companies, Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie assembled with two platoons each behind. The whole event was fully student run as was much of the program. Afterwards we’d spend the day in uniform, which was the Army uniform with special JROTC ranks and patches.

The cadets were organized into squads, which were part of platoons, then companies, then the battalion. Students were assigned positions, with freshman in squad leader roles, then older freshmen or sophomores m0ving up to platoon leader, and so on. Students were chosen by merit for these positions largely by the two instructors.

There were also staff positions, including the S1 who was responsible for issuing orders, which were normally awards and promotions, then S2 through S4. ( I really don’t remember what the S2 and S3 did.) The S4 was the supply lead who kept track of equipment and ordered ribbons and ranks. For more information about JROTC organization, go here.

I was a dedicated participant, always showing up with my uniform spotless and my shoes and brass elements well shined. I moved up quickly, becoming squad leader within a couple of months and the platoon leader by my sophomore year. I was hoping to then become company commander, but actually went over to the staff as S1 for a year, then up to Company Commander of Bravo Company. By my senior year, I was Battalion Commander. About midway through the year I was moved on up into an advisory role to let my XO take a turn at Battalion Commander.

Probably the times that I remember most were my time as an S1 and time as a Battalion Commander. The S1 was in charge of “orders,” which for our battalion normally meant promotions and awards (ribbons). A good friend of mine, Alan, was the S4, who was in charge of supplies. Each week the two instructors would give us a list of cadets who had earned promotions or awards, I would type up the orders in the computer, print them out on a dot matrix printer, and then give a copy to the Alan. He would order them from somewhere, then they would show up about two days later.

Now, our formation day was Wednesday, meaning that we would need the awards and ranks by Tuesday afternoon at the latest. I knew that it took a couple of days to receive them, so the latest we could order them was Friday afternoon. I would prefer to send them out by Thursday afternoon or even Wednesday. Still, I would frequently get requests on Monday morning or something, which would put a lot of stress on me because I knew they wouldn’t arrive in time. I guess I hadn’t learned the expression yet that “Your poor planning is not my emergency.”

The summer before I became Battalion Commander, the retired colonel who was in charge of all of the JROTC programs for the city invited us to his place for a retreat. I remember that a big issue he mentioned was the forming of cliques, which he said hurt morale. Trying to do a good job, I spent that summer writing up policies. One of these was the avoidance of cliques.

I posted my policy on the bulletin board. Within a day, I heard complaints from some of the students. “What do you mean we can’t hang out with our friends? Anyone can join us.” I gave up on the policy within a week or so.

In the next entry, I’ll start telling about the special teams, starting with the Ranger Team.

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