I remembered that Christmas concert far too well. I went to it last night. The Santa, who I recognized as a trumpeter named Dave though I had never actually met him, scolded us, jollily, for being FA100 students that wouldn’t have gone for any other reason. It’s true; I probably wouldn’t have gone otherwise. Going to concerts alone has never been my thing, rather going out in the cold at all has never been my thing, and I did have a date. She needed to attend one more performance for her Jazz and The Humanities class, plus the orchestral event requirement Santa mentioned. It bothered me: for once, Santa was right.
A year before, I was in that band, playing that concert. I was pleasantly surprised that they only repeated one song from the year prior, a Jingle-Bells iteration by the popular Glenn Miller, of whom I have never been a fan. Aside from a nerve-wracking piece where I was the featured soloist for about half the song, it was a very enjoyable concert, very family oriented. Frosty the Snowman, Santa, last year Chewbacca, this year Rudolph all came. We were all expected to make it more ‘fun’ (though I did not consider it at the time to be), which led to some unfortunate oldster being cascaded by my indeterminate volleys of candy when Santa came to town.
I had been in that band; I’m not in any bands now. My grandmother found that hard to believe. Sometimes, I do too. The truth is, it stopped being fun. That is a gross oversimplification. And an untruth, I think. But there must be some truth in it, or I would not be able to regurgitate it so easily without getting sick. And if I hated it so much then, why was Santa making me feel nostalgic now?
My parents kept asking me all summer when they were going to hear me practice, after all I had auditions coming up first day of classes and I should be ready. They never did. At summer’s end, my father confronted me with a lecture about procrastinating or something, it was one I’d heard enough to forget. I was in the kitchen, no escape, cornered between a rock and a dishwasher. I confessed that I was no longer interested in pursuing music at this time and admitted that I should have told them sooner but was afraid that they would be disappointed, which they were more so for my putting it off. When they asked specific reasons I scapegoated unpleasant relationships with previous band directors, a partial appeasement.
I come from a musical family. My father played drums in his small town high school. I am often astonished by the propensity of skills my siblings and I display in respect to my parents who I have never considered exceptionally talented. When one rivalry ended my sister had taken the visual arts and comedy, myself the fields of music and academics without considerable effort on either front. I maintain that I am the superior wordsmith, but this may only because Amanda predominately writes pulp adventures with themes rehashed from the television she watches. Though, my sisters play trumpet and flute respectively, music was always sort of my thing. It was what set me apart among my cousins, what we invited my grandparents to see whenever possible, though they struggled to understand “the jazz”. My parents encouraged us to join the band because it would give us “a place to belong.” I’m not sure it was ever really our choice to belong or not.
My mother played flute through her middle school career and retired in that transition that catches so many young musicians. I heard her once blame braces. She would bring out her flute every year Christmas morning, but she stopped some years ago, whether this was because my youngest sister, who had started on the instrument, or even myself, because the fingerings transferred across our respective instruments, were now able to best her. It may have been the shouting match we had when I was in middle school that pushed her over the edge. She said I was wasting my natural talent. I thought it terribly rash to quit over my adamant refusal to continue to participate in a parade with the high school music outreach program. She had been volunteering at CHOMP, as the acronym was called, as the flute instructor at the request of a family friend, the new band director.
I did CHOMP every year I could, it seemed, and quit before it was finished with the same regularity. I even volunteered a few times while I was in high school, but always for selfish reasons with the same conclusion. It was because of CHOMP that I ever started playing. I was playing with my Lego’s in my room when a parent peaked in and asked if I’d like to play an instrument, I shrugged and with a “sure” dismissed them from my presence. It was the single most decisive indecision I have ever had the pleasure to be disinterested in. A parent brought me to the fledgling CHOMP and introduced me to the various instruments. Having “learned” a portion of the recorder in elementary school, something with similar fingerings seemed ideal, as that would be three less fingerings to learn. I picked the saxophone.
The saxophone is an instrument of curious workmanship. It uses bass clarinet reads, flute key-work, the neck of a bassoon, and a body made of brass: The platypus of music. I’ve been told there was a feature from the oboe inserted, but the illustrious qualities of the oboe have always eluded me in both retention and discovery. It is relatively new, invented in the 1840s, and was intended for military and orchestral bands. It came in some 14 variations, of which only about 5 ½ remain in use, all of which more so in the idiom of jazz than anything else. I eventually grew to prefer the Bb tenor sax to the horn I had cut my teeth on, the Eb Alto, which now sits derelict in my room.
I detest Jim Dunlop. I am an anomaly in this; most people celebrate him as one of their most influential educators, and I cannot deny that he is influential but I would contest that it was in an adverse way in my instance. Certain alumnus will visit every opportunity for some years to come. I regret that I also fall victim to the gravity of that band room, but only because my sister doesn’t have her license. While I know I should put it all behind me, I am far too tenacious to allow it. Petty rifflings like “you hold grudges like a girl” do little to sway me, and it is doubtful that an apology would either. I can recall only one time when I ever received an apology from him, and it had been prompted by an irate phone call from my mother, who was probably more upset than I ever could have been over such a solo.
I had the distinct disadvantage of being a member of the few Mormons in the Mormon band director’s program. It is a curious religion populated by mavericks and missionaries, all of whom delight in being called peculiar, although I believe they are the only ones to still use the word and perhaps ever to have described themselves with it. As one of the fringier religions, it was custom to be scrutinized by peers, to be judged by a higher standard. There would be gossip if we slipped a swear, our actions had connotations that echoed through that hall, and our director knew our parents, he played volleyball with my dad, we were held to a higher standard on all accounts. I didn’t care for that, but it was nice to have somewhere to belong.
The high school band was, with few exceptions, fairly good to me as a musician, up until senior year. It feels ludicrous to explain that while I was arguably the second best tenor saxophonist of my class in the state I played second chair in my high school jazz band. I made little effort with the audition piece at the beginning of that year, because I was the best. I played the piece with a few flaws that I had never strained myself to work out, but with a low volume, which was his biggest complaint in my playing the season prior. When the other player auditioned much louder (and with little else), she received the first chair, perhaps to teach me a lesson about arrogance or following instructions. He may have misjudged my character, though it seems very unlikely given the circumstances. I never challenged for the part; the opportunities he presented for that purpose were quite obfuscated. Though my peers continued to ask if I would challenge Xiang, the (un)fortunate overworked, overstressed girl who was handed the part meant for me, I would always declined; I couldn’t do it to her. She was nice, which made it all the most frustrating, and just a little delicious, whenever Dunlop would ask me why I wasn’t soloing and I would reply, “there aren’t any chords in the second tenor part.”
Playing inferior parts was not rewarding, and became less so as Dunlop continued to select songs I had played my sophomore year, on the lead alto part. They were boring and I craved amusement. I shared my frustrations with my peers and we found ways to occupy our minds in ways our music was not. Things became worse, or rather felt infinitely worse, after All-State. Having tasted the nectar of the gods, how could we return to the poor packets Dunlop offered us? At one point, the tension between the director and myself was great enough to quit, but I didn’t; I didn’t want to be a quitter, yet I have only played once in the past eight months.
The fiasco that was senior year was compounded by the experiences I had the summer prior. One of Dunlop’s offshoot programs, a version of CHOMP for the summer, was finally picking up steam and he wanted an admirable jazz band to be showcased, which required a more competent director, Mr. McKelvey. We sounded good; for a bunch of white kids from the suburbs whose bluest thought was that we were a bunch of white kids from the suburbs. I spent the hours after that concert lying on my girlfriend’s couch, trying to recover from a solo.
…If you can call it recovering, for it is really more like coagulating. For a brief moment, existence lights up, stored potential energy is released as burning sound. Many students are burned by this experience, others, like myself, enjoy playing with those scented candle solos, melting different parts of the wax. It is difficult to explain what happens during a solo, with the feelings of elation, fear, and some otherworldly feeling; but the result will be either satisfying, forgetful, or a failure. As I was coagulating on her couch, letting my fingers and knees harden that they might be useful again at some later point, I tried to figure out which it was. I tried to remember what happened, it was all a blur. There is so much to remember during a solo, patterns and other gimmicks useful to trick the audience into thinking you are competent, and much more you cannot learn but must experience, imbibe until it becomes intuitive. The gift and curse of improvisation is that it is temporary, allowing for infinite corrections and mistakes, which is of no consolidation after a solo feature.
I still feel pretty good about that ballad, I’ve Just Seen Her. A classmate had said it even “sounds like a Derek-song.” Mr. McKelvey remarked on day that if I continued to improve at the same rate I had between the last classes, “we’d be in business.” If a word exists for such a statement that both esteems and humbles a man, I wish I to learn it someday. I tried to uphold my end, spending more time working it out than I can recall (it blurs in the same way soloing does), listening to the same track on repeat, trying to play it along the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, failing miserably, but by less each attempt. That is called progress.
The concert was on a Thursday; we were to meet briefly on Friday to pass in our music and have a debriefing on the performance. Mr. McKelvey, whose high school jazz program is nationally ranked, gave us a little motivational speech about “musical highs,” which I understand to be much better than runner’s highs. I eagerly nodded my head in agreement, thinking I knew the rush he was describing that would get us so “hooked” that we “would never quit.” But I question now what I knew then.
The occasional fantasies of playing in the band of a late night talk show aside, I have never considered music as a viable career option, but I still forecast a greater portion of music classes, they have incredible GPA buoyancy. I didn’t know what I was doing, I just had to get in something to fulfill the needs of the scholarship I had received, only after I rejected it, then received a larger offer a few weeks later. It would pay for lessons and then some. Private lessons: the musical equivalent of braces, without which the masters still became masters, and say things like “Don't play the saxophone. Let it play you.” This is our scripture.
The “practice rooms” the housing sheet had described were really just “storage rooms.” After one was emptied sufficient to put a piano in, a very boyish man asked me to not use them in the evening because people were trying to sleep. I had been assigned to the “quiet floor,” and the boy-man promptly would promptly shush me at ten any night or Sunday. I was not a Music major, I had no idea how the practice rooms in the music building worked, so I just did not use them, except right before auditions.
I could never be an actor. I do not have the sort of expressive face with impeccable complexion required, or the desire to acquire an admirable physique at the expense of leisure time, and I’d break scene constantly. But more so, I am terrified of rejection. I wasn’t afraid of public speaking until I recognized the face of contempt on my classmates following an excessively detailed exposition on Isaac Newton, who really wasn’t that interesting and it made them late to the library. But auditions are so much worse than a presentation. Speeches allow for a natural flow of voice, and a few stutters may be forgiven, but the stutters of music squeak, squawk, murmur, and moan, make children cover their ears. Oration has the advantage of being a natural condition of mankind begun in infancy, the want to share ideas in a coherent fashion, but there is nothing natural about pressing a tube of metal to your face and making your body perform multivariable calculus; it is pantomiming public speaking. Auditions are a horrible rush, roller coasters without lap-bars. It’s a verdict without appellate. You’re not simply wrong, but more wrong than someone else, ranked by wrongness. I know of no other discipline held to a standard so high as music, in which the timing of breath has such a measure of perfection, aside from medicine, which has the definite advantage of having insurance.
Band directors are scheming manipulators. All educators are, why else would arbitrary number be assigned to performance, itself an entirely subjective thing, if not for some manner of coercion. It is a system of incentives, with prestige (and currency) for the teacher and accreditations for the student. Would any remember Socrates if not for the prestige his pupil Plato attained? I do not intend to destroy the system in my words, however corrupt it may be, as it has benefited me. Despite admittance in the All-State jazz band, my confidence has never permitted me to accept that I won entry into the top-tier jazz band, Sound Alliance, without some of this director corruption. They groom people, constantly; they play favorites.
The day after auditions I called home. My mother was ecstatic. She wanted to tell everyone she could, but wanted my permission first, as if it mattered to me. She called weekly that semester, providing updates on things that could have been recapped later. “I told Dunlop you made the top jazz band. He seemed genuinely impressed.” Not proud, impressed. Like he really didn’t believe.
We recorded a CD. Someday I’d like to hear it, but I am not holding my breath. He said I needed to work on my breathing, my professor in all areas of music, which had shrunk at semester to the jazz band exclusively. That I had a small lung capacity, which I added to the list of quirks in my anatomy that have been secretly fighting me all along, and seemed to include the entirety of my vocal and respiratory systems. His prescription was to take up swimming, which I find terrifying. I find him terrifying. To me, he stands as a giant, easily six feet in stature; Polyphemus set to devour me at any moment. Each week we discover new some error in my tradition to rectify, to tear down and rebuild, and it seems we will never reach them all. I loathe lessons and their destructive nature that leaves me so self-aware, so naked in my playing. He asks me, “What are the two ways to get rid of a bad habit?” “Let it fade or just power-through.” It was the right answer. And the answer to what I was asking myself. It was the reason I quit.
My most immediate roommate cheers whenever he sees a clarinetist on TV; he says it is his instrument. “Played or plays?” tangent roommate asks. “Plays.” Like the television he watches, I suspect that to be a lingering pathetic fantasy, but I have never met a man who more exemplified the clarinet than him.
A family wedding brought my parents into the region, they called in weeks prior to ask if I’d like one of my saxophones brought when they came, I gave them a list of things. I thought it’d be nice to have around, incase I ever got the urge to practice.
I pulled it out. It had been a long time. I’d forgot how shiny it was, much more so than the tenor I usually played, or the tenor I was told to play. I couldn’t remember which reed was “good”; they’re probably wasn’t one, only various degrees of worse and used, all were warped and covered with tiny hairs from the case lining. The half-used box of reeds was labeled medium-hard; I shouldn’t be playing on those. I assembled the alto, Mr. Bandersnatch was his name, and pressed it to my lips. It struggled, the neck strap jumped, but I wouldn’t let it escape. It wasn’t like I remembered. It was an awkward embrace; a reunion of past lovers, the kind in movies with happy endings, but there was no intimacy between my instrument and myself. It was rape.
In the evening, adjacent roommate knocks on my door. We have thin walls, he’s recovering from a cold, he wants to verify that he wasn’t hallucinating I think. He asks how long I’ve played, fifth grade. “I don’t get to practice much with Mike sleeping all the time,” I go on to blame other things like the thin walls and not wanting to wake the managers’ baby. I justify it to myself with excuses that I’m a tenor player. I’ve never liked practicing where other people can hear me. They always revere it as some sort of art form, but it’s not. I don’t stare at them as they study.
These events haunt me for some time, as awkward conversations with roommates tend to be analyzed over and over, perhaps that they might reveal some snack bandit or toilet paper alliance. I discuss them with my girlfriend as we leave the bookstore, where I imagine they will have that CD at some point that I might have some record that I played in college, that I had not squandered my time with music having accomplished something substantial. I see a familiar face, no doubt my girlfriend thinks I was checking out some pretty face again, but it was something she was carrying.
“I thought…she…played alto…she switched to tenor…huh…” I’m not making sense. I notice more faces. “The jazz band’s up here...” She prevents any flight I might have taken, asking, “Is that bad?” “No, it’s just…” They recognize me before I can say awkward and I hope that it does not become so. While the tenor player has always been unapproachable, the alto player warmly greets me; they ask prepositions about my life. Responses are rushed as we are traveling inversely to each other, I promise to email them before I feel a jestful elbow from that professor.
“I’ve been going to all your concerts; they’re been great”
“Good. Come back and play”
If nothing else, my GPA could use the boon.