© 2023 Robert Sickles
For my earliest career, I apprenticed to learn musical instrument making. The skills I acquired in woodworking and metalsmithing opened the way to side work through connections with musical people. I was in demand for custom cabinetry, instrument repair and general handyman projects. For example, a violin maker had me design and build under-bed storage drawers; a chamber music performer asked if we could build a roll top desk; a folk musician had an idea for displaying his collection of mandolins; a Salvation Army horn player wanted her vintage home’s windows and doors restored; an acquaintance had an unplayable harpsichord for me to tune and voice; and my business partner’s uncle, a wealthy land developer, wanted custom ceiling cove, wall molding and wainscoting throughout his new house.
About those people I worked for... I’d have to say that many musicians and their coteries live up to eccentric and temperamental stereotypes. Here are 3 stories of some very memorable individuals. (Names and locations may be changed)
He was an Austrian-American, a successful CEO of a Portland manufacturing company. Peter Richter hired my partner and me to create built-in shelving to hold his stereo system and vast collection of opera recordings. One entire wall of the living room was to be devoted to his great passion. The job lasted a couple of weeks and as we worked in their home, we became familiar with the Richter family and their routines.
Peter spoke with a slight accent, but his wife, Gerta, was less practiced in English. All the while we were worked, both Gerta and her parrot spoke in a thick mixture of English and German. Even before I met the kids, I felt I knew a little about the Richters’ two young sons, Arnold, 8 and Richard, 10, who were a frequent topic of the parrot’s chatter: “Quiet, Richard! Arnold is speaking!” and “Arnold! You are so smart!”
The shelving project seemed simple enough. Oak veneer plywood, custom moldings and drawers along the bottom with brass pulls. But as the installation progressed, Peter was concerned we hadn’t properly designed for the weight of his shelf-bending LP’s. We defended our design, "It isn't finished, Peter, there will be a bracing of woodwork that will strengthen and stiffen the shelves, plus these vertical dividers add even more stability." But Peter was becoming more irate. Ach du lieber, Herr Richter! I think he was about to demand we tear it out and start over, when his younger boy Arnold spoke up.
“No, Papa, I think it will be alright. Just let the men continue working. Come, let’s listen to some music. Pick something wonderful, Papa.” Peter selected a record from a crate on the floor, placed it on the turntable and stretched out in his easy chair. Like magic, father and son were serenely transported in a space filled with storming orchestra and searing voices of gods, lovers and warriors.
“Hmm,” I thought. “Personally, I don’t get it, but if that’s what it takes to get mellow around here, I support opera.” And we got back to work.
The next day, Peter asked, “Do you enjoy opera, Bob?”
“Um, not that familiar actually. It was never something I was exposed to growing up, my parents weren’t fans. But I can see you guys are loving it.”
“Yes, indeed we are! I see you are nearly finished with the shelves, and they look wonderful, by the way. I’m sorry for exploding at you yesterday! Please stay for dinner, and afterwards, too. Arnold has something amazing to show us tonight!”
After dinner we went downstairs to the rec room. Arnold had something amazing, all right. And weird, maybe a little creepy, in fact. 8-year-old Arnold stood behind a remarkable model of an opera stage. It looked like a large dollhouse—stage, wings, lights, orchestra pit, curtains and backdrops. Gerta acted as usherette and handed out programs. Then the overture started and curtain rose.
As the recorded music played, Arnold “performed” little marionettes for Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro. The curtain dropped after nearly 2 hours; I followed suit as Peter and Gerta stood to applaud. As the room lights came up, Peter beamed at me, “Aren’t the little figures so clever? Arnold made them and their costumes... and the beautiful props and backdrops as well. Now he has some set and costume changes to make. After a few minutes, we can be seated for acts 3 and 4! Look, Gerta has some tiny flowers to toss onto the stage when they take they final bows!”
“Oh... this is intermission? There’s more?” It was late. I thanked everyone, apologized and excused myself.
As he walked me to the door, Peter enthused, “Can you believe it, at only age 8? This is Arnold’s third production this year alone.” I shook my head in wonder as Peter continued, “In the Fall, Arnold stages Wagner’s Das Rheingold! He plans to do the entire Ring Cycle!”
“Wow, that is quite a...” I bit my lip; so hard not to wisecrack about the little genius' puppet show. I did have one last question. “So how about your other son, Richard? He seemed low key. I haven’t seen him since dinner, is he OK?”
“Oh, Bob,” he sighed, “I don’t know what to do with him, I sent him to his room. He says he hates opera, hates his brother and hates me. I asked him if there’s anything he likes I could support him in... anything else, you know—art, books, history… do you know what he said? ‘Rocks.’ They studied rocks in his science class. Rocks, for God’s sake! Maybe he has rocks in his head! He is such a disappointment.”
I drove home, imagining the parrot saying, “Rocks, for God’s sake!”
A while ago I googled the Richter brothers. Arnold, now in his 60's, has won many awards as an internationally renowned set designer for opera productions. I wasn’t surprised that I couldn’t find Richard on the internet—except for the mention of his name in his brother’s bio.
A clavichord is an early keyboard instrument, sort of an ancestor of the piano, but with a much simpler mechanism and a softer tone. The action consists of only one moving part: the key lever. The strings are struck by metal tangents at the ends of the keys. Because there is very little force in the keystroke compared to the catapulted hammer of the piano, the sound is very quiet, and the instrument was mainly enjoyed for personal use in intimate settings. Take a pencil and lightly tap the side of an empty glass or mug—that’s about the size of the sound! Modern ears are usually too jaded to appreciate musical volumes that low!
Despite the obvious question of "why", while partners in a keyboard instrument building business, Ken Bakeman and I built a clavichord and were surprised it was actually quite amazing. Word of it reached a woman from California who actually performed and recorded exclusively on the clavichord, a professor of early music at UC Santa Cruz, and a truly odd bird, Miss Stephanie Noseworthy.
I had met Steffie a couple years earlier during my apprenticeship, while traveling with my teacher to see her instruments at her home in the hills outside Santa Cruz. We offered to install Japanese shoji screens she had purchased. She wanted to create a special place for her music by partitioning off an alcove of her living room.
Steffie was a very fragile person. She'd need to be away from home while we were working, because our power tools and hammering were too much for her sensitive ears and nerves. She focused her attention to soft subtleties of tones, and was ever-vigilant of her hearing health. More than the obvious offenders like leaf blowers, jackhammers, jet airplanes, blenders and motorcycles, Steffie’s level of sensitivity went down the scale to the smallest degree. She claimed she couldn’t bear the sound of a car approaching on her gravel driveway—the sign at the street read “Park here and stop engine. No noise. No toxic fumes. Use path on right to front door.” Then another sign on the house: “Please do not knock. Enter in silence.” Her doorbell button activated a silent flashing light.
When Steffie greeted us, she quickly put her fingers to her lips and whispered, “when you enter you must remove your shoes and speak softly. Sorry, I don't hug or handshake… here, please spritz your hands with some of this, and please wear these gloves and masks while in the house.” Apparently, Steffie was also hyper-alert for germs and fumes that could find their way into her ears. She said she was sensitive to scented body products like lotions, cologne, shampoo, or deodorant. "All very stressful to my nervous system." Well, it was a very short social call! The next day we let ourselves in and quickly installed her shojis while she was gone. It was just fine with me that we had other business in the area and wouldn’t be hanging around for Miss Noseworthy to come home.
Two years later, Steffie was coming to the Northwest and had arranged for a concert with our second clavichord. It would be held in a Seattle church that was known for its fine natural acoustics. Of course she’d never allow microphones near her on stage—amplified sound would be distorting and unauthentic. When I think about it now, I don’t know how she justified making records, but maybe the microphone and sound engineering had to be very organic and unintrusive.
At her concert, a host introduced Steffie and requested the audience to be as still as possible, set programs and papers on the floor, refrain from talking, shifting position, avoid removing coats and leaving the seats. And certainly, restrain your cheers and applause! Steffie smiled and added, “Please unwrap your cough drops before I start and give me your undivided attention, as I will give you mine.”
I noted that the lady next to me was wearing a lot of perfume. I just wanted to see what Steffie would do if that lady approached her for a big hug!
It didn’t go perfectly, how could it? An audience of 75 people—there has to be breathing, sighing, snoring, throat clearing, pockets and purses being fumbled with, seats squeaking. It was very hard to stay focused on the performance. My companion had never heard a clavichord played, and I’d say she didn’t on that day either.
My friend and partner in keyboard instrument building, Ken Bakeman, got a call from a fellow named Pierre Rothschild, who said he was in Seattle from Europe on business for an extended time, maybe a permanent move, and that he had rented a home on Lake Union. He expected to do a lot of VIP entertaining, and since he was a member of a prestigious European family, his guests would expect to see him living in palatial splendor. He’d be borrowing or renting some fine art and filling the wine cellar, of course. And he said, “The reason I called... is it possible to lease a harpsichord from you—something to give the house a lavish, classical touch.” He added, “Perhaps you’d come over and see my home, and let me present a bottle or two of my family’s wine as a gesture of thanks for arranging this for me?”
After the call, Ken looked gaga-star struck. “Things are looking up! The guy’s a Rothschild, Bob. That’s really big!”
The early 1900’s house was lovely. It looked like a small French country manor, in a neighborhood of very nice waterfront properties. Pierre showed us to the space he had in mind for the harpsichord. Ken asked, “Do you play?”
“Not really, no,” Pierre smiled, “for now it’s just décor. When my staff arrives later this week, I may have time to relax with it, even take lessons. Perhaps I’ll even arrange to purchase it. When my work is finished here it would be a fine addition to my family’s collection! You must show me photos or a brochure of your other creations. I'm sure our curator will be very interested.”
We were so excited! It all looked so good! We delivered our most recent harpsichord, one of our best instruments yet. It was based on a German design with classic inlaid wood detailing, which pleased Pierre. Ken waved off my comment that Pierre apparently forgot about the swanky wine he promised. “Pierre is here on his own, Bob. He’s probably used to having someone take care of all those little things for him.”
Skip ahead three months, we have not been paid. The arrangement was informal, unfortunately, but Ken insisted that a person from the wealthiest of families shouldn’t be expected to sign a contract for a mere two hundred dollars a month. Ken made a friendly reminder phone call, and Pierre apologized and made reasonable excuses.
Skip ahead another two months, still no payment and another couple of phone calls. No answer this time. Now Ken and I were really worried that we were getting skunked.
About another week passed when we were contacted by Pierre’s landlord. She asked us to come retrieve our musical instrument ASAP. She explained that she had just been through several levels of hell over this Pierre fellow. It turned out that Pierre Rothschild from Cannes, France was in fact Chuck Crockett from Yonkers, NY. Chuck was known in several cities under various names, and wanted by police departments and debt collectors; he was now in FBI custody. Chuck had a sociopathic flair for lying, and would con his way into sophisticated social circles, very convincing at impersonating wealth and status. He had finally been arrested, confessed to a number of crimes, and gave details of his current scheme, whatever that was.
Chuck came clean with his landlord and said one of our harpsichords was in the house and should be returned to us. We were relieved to get it back in perfect condition, but Ken was miffed about the deception and the loss of hundreds of dollars of rental fee.
I was put out because “Pierre” never paid me the $200 for creating that fancy frame for a photo of himself at Monte Carlo.
Robert these stories just keep getting better and better. What an amazing life you have lead.
Hi Robert, when we were remodeling our kitchen in Bellevue, Jim introduced me to Saturday morning opera. I loved it, our kids, not so! I have forward this piece to son, Doug!