An excerpt from
The Musical Mozinskis
Vincent Mozinski could grab music out of the air. He would reach out, grab the beat, and cup it in his hand, as though listening to it for a moment in private. Then he’d shake it — one–two–three– four — and throw the beat back out into the world for all to hear and for his children to see. It was something of a party trick. In performance, with an audience of strangers, it was akin to the flourish of a magician’s theatrics, because Vincent knew the audience couldn’t see what he saw. At home, in front of his family, there was the added intrigue of seeing the music. Seeing the beat, seeing the music, is just something everyone in the Mozinski family could do.
Do you know how music in cartoons is always signified by little musical notes floating through the air? Those notes are real. This mutual ability to see music — to see the notes in the air — is what started the Mozinski clan in the first place.
Vincent met his future wife in a music store on a lonely Wednesday afternoon in 1961. He was a 25-year-old jazz pianist wasting time before a gig smoking cigarettes and shooting the breeze with the owner while tinkering around on the old, beat-up piano in the back of the store when
a lovely young woman around his age came in for some small purchase. The woman in question walked over and stood next to the piano, which Vincent was playing to within an inch of its life. This was not the first time a woman had stood by a piano to watch him play. Vincent always maintained that music is a magnet that attracts all matter of organic compounds. No less than the mating dance of the blue-footed booby, extravagant musical flourishes are a courting ritual used by most members of the Mozinski clan.
Vincent was coaxing a joyful noise out of the piano. More importantly, he was pulling a delightful profusion of notes from the depths of its soundboard. They tumbled out of the piano hard and fast, sparkling and spinning, a constant stream of triads falling over eighth notes jumping over dotted thirds in one big, beautiful mass. The notes resembled the way snow looks when it’s swirling in the wind at twilight, when you can see each individual snowflake catch the light in its own way.
Vincent was not unaware of the presence of a beautiful but as-yet-unknown woman standing to his left, intently watching him play. He watched the notes stream over her as they poured forth from the piano. When he stopped, he gave the keys an extra flourish and the remaining
notes sprang up higher than the rest, bounced off the ceiling, and slowly settled on the young woman, the fortunate notes dropping gently on her shoulders or getting tangled in her hair, the not-so-fortunate landing gently on the dusty floor by her feet.
At first, Vincent thought he had merely encountered another ordinary woman who enjoyed hearing a reasonably attractive man play the piano exceptionally well. After he stopped playing, he turned to look at her and saw the notes from the music he had made falling gently onto a stranger. This might have been the end of their acquaintance had, at that very moment, the woman not lifted up her hands and her arms to catch some of the tinkling notes as they fell around her. Like a woman standing in a summer rain after a drought, she caught the notes in her hands and smiled at them as they slipped through her fingers and drifted lazily to the ground, as though their fall from the grace of floating had been softened by the mere touch of her hands. When Vincent realized that there was standing in front of him a woman who could see music as he did — and who was a real dish to boot — he stood up, introduced himself, and proposed to her on the spot.
His exact first words were: “Hello, would you marry me?”
“It might help if I knew your name,” she replied.
“I’m Vincent Mozinski,” he said, and immediately presented his driver’s license and Musicians’ Union card (AFM local #4) as proof of his identity.
“Hello, Vincent Mozinski,” she replied. “My name is Grace Klinefelter. Thank you for your proposal. Before I can even think of accepting, I need you to hear me play.”
The music store’s owner, who knew Vincent well and the young woman only as an infrequent customer, had watched this encounter with curiosity. For although he sold sheet music and instruments and instructed others in music and appreciated music in all its forms, he could not see music and thus had no idea why this young woman had been grasping at thin air and why one of his regular customers seemed so delighted by her doing so. Nonetheless, he pulled the best violin he had off the wall and handed it to the woman to play. While neither Grace nor Vincent can agree upon what he was playing on the piano when she walked in — he always insisted it was a Joplin rag while she was positive it was a stride version of “All of Me,” they both agree that the first piece Grace ever played for her future husband was the allegro from Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G Minor for solo violin.
She stood a few feet away from him and began to play. As she played, she observed the stranger who had just asked her to marry him. At 26, with perfect pitch and a figure to match, Grace Klinefelter had been proposed to before, but never so quickly. Then again, she had never met anyone who appeared to be able to see music the way she saw music, but she had to be sure. Vincent had seated himself on the piano bench for her performance then, as the opening notes hit him, he stood and took two steps toward her. The notes approached him tentatively, dancing back and forth like a shy dog approaching a stranger. Vincent stood with his arms at his sides then slowly reached out his hands. Grace’s music moved a little closer, and yet he stood motionless, his hands and arms open and welcoming. Grace continued playing, wondering, letting her music decide. Finally, in one immediate gesture of absolute trust, the notes pouring forth from her violin swirled around Vincent’s feet, then encircled his legs, his waist, his arms and hands, his chest, his head, until he was completely enveloped in the spiral of notes she had made. Grace watched this as she played and knew that if her music could trust this man, then she could too. She finished the piece, brought the violin down from her chin, and said simply, “You know what? I think I will marry you.”
After that, they devoted their lives to music and to the creation of more musicians. Their first-born was a girl, Clara, born in early December 1962. This first infant felt like a gift and a science experiment and a mystery. They fed her and loved her and played music for her, hoping that she carried within her the genes of music making. One day when Grace was playing with the baby, she sang. First, she sang “Hush Little Baby” to her, more colloquially known as the mockingbird song. Infant Clara gazed back at her with intense, hazel-brown eyes. It appeared she was listening, although who can tell with babies? Then Grace sang just the first note, a middle C, a simple laaaa that anyone could imitate. And baby Clara did, although it came out more like a baaa. But she was on pitch. Note by note, Grace sang the first few notes of the song to the baby, just a simple ba, with a simple progression, C–A–A–B–A–G–G. Her child echoed back each note with a perfectly on-pitch ba. It couldn’t be a coincidence.
Emboldened by Clara’s innate skill, over the next ten years Grace and Vincent produced five more children. The alarming frequency with which they procreated led to speculation that the couple did not practice birth control. Both Grace and Vincent were good Catholics and claimed that they used the so-called “rhythm method” of birth control but, as Vincent was a jazz musician, the rhythm was syncopated.
In the early days, when they had a growing family of small children, Vincent and Grace supported themselves by entertaining wealthy people in wealthy homes as they ate meals that cost enough to feed a family of eight — their family, in fact — for a week. Vincent played the piano, the accordion, and the clarinet. He was also a crooner, much to the delight of many a wealthy wife. He was, as they say, dreamy. Grace was primarily a violinist, although she had played trombone in her high school marching band and still knew her way around the old T-bone. As Grace Klinefelter, she played in orchestras and ensembles. As Grace Mozinski, she shifted her focus to birthing and raising more musicians and playing in string quartets on weekends.
Every one of the Mozinskis could play an instrument or two or three. The children played any number of instruments — the drums, the harp, the saxophone, the guitar, the violin, the piano, the cello, the bass, the trumpet, and, of course, the ever-present recorder. Vincent started everyone on the recorder because it’s relatively simple to get a sound out of it, even for a toddler. And make no mistake, Vincent started his children playing as soon as they could hold the recorder and blow. His favorite joke was that if one of his children couldn’t read music by the time they were eight years old, he’d put that kid up for adoption. It’s the kind of joke you can safely make when you have a house full of children who play music as well as you do. A house full of, let’s face it, prodigies. Like any parents, Grace and Vincent had no idea who their children would grow up to be, but they had hopes. And biases. When most parents were handing their children rattles, Grace and Vincent were handing their children maracas and shakers and cabasas. Just in case. Just to encourage whatever latent talent might be there. The music came to their children when they were in their cradles, leaving an indelible mark.
As the oldest, Clara strived to set a good example for her younger siblings by giving them much to live up to. She mastered the reading of both the treble and bass clefs before she could read the English language. She played the violin at three, the piano at five, and finally settled on the harp, or rather, the harp settled on her.
As Clara passed through the toddler stage and into school age, her mother looked at the child’s long, curly brown hair and stated: “Clara has the look of a harpist.” Clara wasn’t sure about the harp at first. Her first instinct had been for something louder, like a brass instrument or even a woodwind, but from the first moment she sat down behind a troubadour harp at age five, Clara knew she was meant to play that instrument. Her hands moved easily and quickly over the strings, almost as though they were born knowing how to play it. Grace and Vincent murmured that she was a natural. They were right. When it came to music, they almost always were. Clara moved up to a full-sized harp at age 11 and played her first gig at a garden party for wealthy wives who oohed and aahed over the angelic little harpist with long, curly hair. They tipped her $20.
There was almost constant sound in the Mozinski house. Even after everyone had gone to sleep, there was a faintly distinguishable undertone of music in the house, like the hum of a refrigerator from another room. Music eventually dissipated into the air, but in bright light, one could sometimes pick out a few stray notes floating aimlessly through the house in the same way you might see dust motes floating through your living room on a sunny day. The notes from particularly heavy pieces — especially those written in minor keys — seemed to linger. Someone always needed to vacuum after a ballad. Vincent insisted that one night, arriving home after a late gig, he spotted three entire measures of “Tuxedo Junction” still floating above the roof, a song that his older sons, Ellington and Bix, had been practicing earlier in the evening. All seemed fine in the family until the birth of their sixth child. This youngest child, a girl named Viola, arrived approximately 20 months after her immediate predecessor, Thelonious. As they had with all of their other children, the family placed a child-sized mallet in her hand almost as soon as she could grasp it. Unlike their other children, however, this new infant did not immediately begin beating out simple rhythms on the wood block in front of her. They didn’t expect the complicated 5/4 time that Ellington, the second-born, began beating out at the age of 14 months. It was clear from the outset that El was born to be a percussionist, but everyone had hoped their new bundle of joy could at least manage something in common time. She didn’t. Not yet anyway. No one worried too much about it. After all, Viola was still a baby, and babies develop at different rates. Plus, the family had more pressing matters at hand.
Vincent gave music lessons and played out nearly every night. Grace took on the bulk of the childcare and housework, but on weekend afternoons, Vincent would mind the children while Grace played weddings and parties with her string quartet, sometimes two or three gigs in one day. If both parents had a gig, Clara was enlisted to babysit her younger siblings. Despite their hard work, money was, as they say, tight. Late at night, after the children had gone to bed, Grace and Vincent would talk about what bill to pay and what bill not to pay and how to make the remaining balance in their checking account dance like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.
Whether or not the family was poor at that time depends entirely upon your definition of the word. The children never went to bed hungry. They were housed and fed and clothed. However, the quality and quantity of said housing, food, and clothing varied. The electricity was shut off once or twice. Temporarily, of course. And the gas company came to shut off the gas two days after Allegro’s sixth birthday. It was the year Allie had the flu on her birthday. The three older children were at school, Vincent was off teaching music lessons, and Grace was home with one sick kid and two little ones. After lunch, Grace made cookies, nominally helped by Viola, who was not yet two and ate enough raw cookie dough that she no doubt developed an immunity to salmonella.
Sick or not, Allegro was in the room she shared with Clara practicing scales on the violin while Theo was practicing piano. Like all of his older siblings, he was using the beginner piano books that featured drawings of little elves with letters on their stomachs who introduced the notes. By the time the book got to Thelonious, it was held together with Scotch tape and one singular, courageous staple. When the children practiced like this, with one on one floor of the house and one on another floor or in another room, sometimes the notes would intermingle on the stairs. On that day, Theo’s music had wended its way up the stairs and into Allegro’s room as though it was asking her music to play. It was a long way, so not all of the notes made it, but if he played forte, enough notes made it up to Allie’s room to play with her notes. She occasionally threw in a forte phrase just to mollify her younger brother.
Allie didn’t hear the doorbell, but she noticed that Theo’s music had stopped abruptly. Unlike most families, the Mozinski children didn’t practice under duress. Playing music was a favorite activity. If Theo had stopped playing, it was a likely sign that the first tray of cookies was out of the oven. It turns out they were, and were being consumed by two men in blue East Ohio Gas Company shirts who were sitting at the kitchen table with Allie’s mother and Viola and Theo.
“Hi, sweetie,” her mother said, as though nothing was amiss. “How are you feeling?”
“Better,” Allie said warily.
“I’m so glad. The next tray of cookies will be out in two minutes, and you’ll get first pick.”
“We ate a whole tray,” Theo said. He looked a little too smug about this. If there hadn’t been two strange men in the kitchen, Allie would have smacked him. Conversely, if there hadn’t been two strange men in our kitchen, there would have been enough cookies for her.
“I’m sorry, little lady,” one of the men said. He was a rotund black man with a moustache and a kind smile. “I didn’t mean to eat your cookies.”
Allie caught her mother’s eye for a split second. Long enough to realize that the situation called for decorum. There were would be no smacking of younger brothers at that time.
She made herself sound extra cheerful as she said, “That’s okay. There are more coming.” Her mother would never know just how much saying this sapped Allie’s six-year-old self-control.
“There certainly are,” her mother said. “Thank you both for letting me finish baking.”
“Of course. And thank you for the cookies,” moustache man said. He glanced over at his partner, a younger white guy who didn’t look much out of high school.
“Yeah, thanks a lot. These are delicious,” the younger one said. Given the amount of crumbs on the small plate in front of him, Allie guessed that the majority of cookies from the first tray were now in his belly. There was an uncomfortable silence that was thankfully broken by the timer on the old gas stove announcing that the next tray of cookies was ready to come out. It took young Allegro a moment to piece everything together. She was in kindergarten, but she could already read. She could certainly read the word “gas” on the men’s shirts. And she knew that the stove and the furnace used gas because her father was always complaining about the pilot light going out. Things started to click in her young brain. “Can I do the cookies?” she asked.
“Actually, if you’re feeling better, I was thinking you and Theo might want to play for our guests while the rest are baking.”
It was clear that this was what is known in the trades as a command performance. Their mother commanded; the children would play. Theo needed a little coaxing to perform — not much, because he was a bit of a drama queen even at three — and the two children led the men from the gas company into the living room where the family’s old upright piano lived. Allegro fetched the violin and bow from her room and went first, playing Minuet by Boccherini. It was a fairly standard piece for a younger violinist, but the guys from the gas company didn’t know that. They sat next to each other on the sofa and were suitably impressed. Viola wandered in while Allie was playing and leaned against the easy chair. She didn’t say anything — she was shy and a toddler to boot — but she clapped enthusiastically and cried “Yay!” when Allie was done.
“Wow,” moustache man said. “You’re very talented.”
“Thank you.” Allegro saw that Theo had opened up the beginner book with the elves and was about to play a song about something called a Kangarooster, which is just as insipid as it sounds. “Excuse me,” she said to her little audience. “Don’t play that,” she whispered to Theo and quickly started looking through the music books and sheet music stacked on the piano.
“Why not?” Theo’s response was not whispered.
“One moment, please,” Allie said over her shoulder. To Theo, she whispered “It needs to be something a little more special.”
“You mean harder?” he whispered back.
“Yes,” Allie replied as she found what she was looking for. It was a book of simplified classical pieces that she was pretty sure Theo had seen before. He ought to be able to play it. She opened it to Grieg’s “Morning Mood” from Peer Gynt. It was ridiculously watered down, with the left hand playing only one note per measure almost the entire way through.
“Here, play this.”
“I can’t,” Theo said in a voice bordering on whining. “I wanna play ‘Kangarooster.’”
“This is the same thing,” Allie snapped. “You can do it. You’re a Mozinski. Take a look while I introduce you.” She turned around to the gas company guys with a broad smile and saw that her mother had joined the audience. If Mom wants us to put on a show, Allie thought, then that’s what we’ll do. “Thank you so much for that warm response,” Allie said in a voice that almost exactly matched what she had heard her mother say while watching her perform at a garden party the summer before. “You just heard Minuet by Luigi Boccherini. He was Italian. Next, Theo will play Edvard Grieg’s “Morning Mood” from Peer Gynt, Opus 13. Edvard Grieg was from…?”
“Norway,” her mother said softly.
“He was from Norway. And Theo and I are from Cleveland, Ohio. Obviously. Are you ready?” Allie asked her little brother.
With a terrified look, Theo gave a quiet “Yes.”
“Great,” Allie said with a big smile. “Take it away, Theo.” She stepped aside and hoped that he had had enough time to look at the music. He had, and gave a passable performance. It wasn’t up to Mozinski Family Birthday Solo standards, but it served its purpose. When Theo was done, the men from the gas company applauded and stood up.
Moustache man did the talking for both of them. “Thank you for the wonderful performance and for the cookies.”
“Thank you for the extra time,” Grace replied. “The last two trays will be done in just a couple of minutes. You can go down to the basement and do whatever you need to do.” She hadn’t sung this, but Allie could almost see her mother’s words hanging in the air between her and the men who had come to shut off the gas. Viola hadn’t been looking for attention, but Grace scooped her up anyway and the youngest Mozinski snuggled against her mother’s shoulder creating a wholesome tableau. It had the intended affect.
Moustache man looked over at his partner and raised his eyebrows just a little. The younger guy shrugged and looked almost as clueless as Theo and Viola. Allie, on the other hand, was in awe of her mother’s powers of manipulation. “Ma’am, we’re just going to put down that we were unable to gain access to the gas main and were not able to complete the shut off,” moustache man said.
Grace’s face changed in an instant. It reminded Allie of just how pretty her mom was. She wasn’t entirely sure what moustache man meant, but it was clearly good news. “Thank you so much,” her mother said, and it looked like she might even have tears in her eyes.
“Now this doesn’t fix everything,” moustache man continued. “It just delays it a day or two.”
“We will get the bill paid pronto. Thank you again from the bottom of my heart.”
After she had walked the gas company guys out of the house — still holding Viola — Grace plopped down on the sofa. Allegro and her younger brother cuddled up on either side of her, none of them saying a word. Allie felt like they had all suddenly become members of a special club that the rest of the family knew nothing about.
Later that day, after everyone else was home, Allie heard her mother singing the old Rodgers and Hart song, “Sing For Your Supper,” as she folded laundry in the basement. For the first time but not the last, Allegro Mozinski realized she had done just that.