When it comes to music, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never been extremely talented. At best, I’m clinically tone-deaf, with a prolonged lack of rhythm.
In my youth, as my peers captured the hearts of the Jewish community either through Jewish Community Center senior high musicals or day school “Zimriahs,” I proudly released those hearts.
I struggled with the elementary school-mandated recorder and only barely survived trumpet for three years. (My secret was to purposely load saliva into the instrument so most of the class time would be wasted on draining the tubes instead of actual playing — it’s as gross as it sounds.)
To say I’m musically challenged would be an understatement. Old men turned off their hearing aids when I read Torah. When I lead the Shema, people covered their ears instead of their eyes. They even invented a new shofar note for me — it’s called “Tekiah Kitanah.”
For those reasons and many others, I gladly keep my vocals to myself, accepting the title of “unsung” hero to the musical world.
Thankfully not everyone shares my musical ineptitude. Expatriate Pittsburgher Michael Reingold has the passion, skill, determination, vocals, rhythm, tone, pitch, delivery and hand-eye coordination that I was born without.
I met Michael a few years ago when one of his cousins married into my family, but only recently learned of his deep musical connections to Pittsburgh.
A native of Squirrel Hill, Michael, 42, spent his youth performing with the Wilkinsburg Civic Symphony (now Edgewood Civic Symphony), Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra and the Taylor Allderdice High School Orchestra.
He was even a famous Cantor Moshe Taube “sweetie pie.”
“Wherever I live I play in an orchestra,” said Michael, who specializes in the French horn.
Michael graduated from Stanford University and later received his master’s degree in music performance from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
Now a permanent resident of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, for the past 16 years, he’s served as the assistant director of the JCC Thurnauer School of Music in Tenafly, N.J. There, he manages the budget, supervises the faculty, plans the calendar, manages volunteers and board members, helps with fundraisers and teaches music theory and music appreciation.
“It’s a major substantive music program for the Jewish community,” said Michael, adding that it’s the only school within a JCC that offers lessons, chamber and courses in theory.
During his spare time, Michael also organizes house concerts for young new musicians looking for a chance to perform.
“It’s a special way of hearing music; it’s often the way music is meant to be heard,” said Michael.
His life in New York is, in a way a modest recreation of the community-oriented upbringing Michael experienced in Pittsburgh. “Anyone who grew up in Squirrel Hill knows what it’s like to be a part of a strong community,” said Michael.
However, Michael’s initial love for music didn’t come from a JCC or a house concert, but from his longtime teacher, Betty Levine.
“She not only taught me the skills of playing horn, but also helped instill a passion for music and the discipline of practicing and an appreciation of the rewards of hard work,” he said. “She was caring, patient, dedicated and usually ended each lesson by giving me a piece of homemade cake.”
Though a huge benefit, Michael admits homemade cake isn’t the only advantage to playing an instrument.
“[It] enriches lives and provides great aesthetic, expressive and social opportunities,” he said. That’s why Michael encourages all parents to help their children explore their musical talents at an early age through lessons, concerts and recordings.
Of course, if they turn out to be an “unsung” hero like me, be sure to encourage them to explore other areas of interest as well.
(Jay Firestone, a Pittsburgh native and staff writer for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, writes about Pittsburghers who now live somewhere else. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)