When I started fifth grade, only one thing mattered to me: it was finally time that I could join the school orchestra. I had been dying to learn violin since the third grade, when a sleepover at my friend’s house introduced me to the smell of rosin. I couldn’t wait.
I knew that as soon as the day came, I would march right into that orchestra room and lay claim to a spruce beauty so that I could learn to make music with it. I knew my family would dismiss me as just making noise as I squeaked my way through my scales each day and night, but they wouldn’t mind because someday, I would play a solo on stage and get a standing ovation. My violin and I had big dreams.
Those dreams were dashed when an ill-timed job transfer moved us to the middle of nowhere New Mexico to a school so tiny, there was only one class per grade. I still hoped for an orchestra program and a violin with my name on it, but the school and its budget only had room (and people) enough for a band.
I couldn’t tell you the name of the band director any longer. She instantly became my nemesis. Since I couldn’t have my dream of someday being a concert violinist, I was hoping to get to learn flute. She greeted me and smiled as she grabbed my by the shoulders, looked into my eyes and said, “you have lips that were made to play French horn.”
I had no idea what on earth she meant by that comment. Was she saying I had no lips? Every brass player I knew of (which, let’s be honest, at the age of ten wasn’t that many) left much to be desired in the lip department. Except maybe Dizzy Gillespie, but he also had that cheek thing going on.
I was relegated to the brass section. The only thing that could have been worse would have been percussion.
I hated the French horn. It was big and awkward. The bus driver always gave me the side eye because I couldn’t lug it home with me without taking up a whole seat if I wasn’t going to block the aisle. He’d get so angry about it, as if I had a choice in the matter. Seriously mister, I was aiming for the flute. I’m just as disappointed as you are in this.
Not only was French horn big, it was gross. Although it has a little valve on it to let out all your spit that’s congested the pipe, you had to spin it around a few times to get it all out. God knows what would happen if you didn’t do that.
It was incredibly hard to learn. It has three paddles to change the pitch of the notes you play. Everything else is controlled by your embouchure. The slightest shift in your lip position makes all the difference. In addition, unlike Dizzy, you’re supposed to keep your cheeks nice and tight. It hurts.
Unlike most things in life, I never desired to get any better at French horn. I constantly tried to get the mean band director to let me change instruments, but she kept insisting that the French horn and I were meant to be.
I gladly left it in the band room when summer rolled around, happy to have it out of my sight for a few months.
When school resumed in the fall and we headed to band class, I was delighted to see that we had a new band director, Mr. Smith. (It’s funny that I remember his name and not the other one, but you’ll understand why in just a moment.)
As the class filed in, he called us one by one into the equipment closet to check out our instruments for the year. When it was my turn, he asked what I played. This was my chance, I knew it. I looked him dead in the eye and said, without hesitation, “clarinet.”
“Well I don’t have any clarinets left for you, but I do have a bass clarinet.”
“I’ll take it.” I smirked as I turned away, praying that no one would rat me out and I’d be stuck with French horn again. Thankfully, no one did. They probably knew how much French horn sucked too.
The problem was, I didn’t know how to play clarinet–bass or soprano. Before class ended, I swiped the fifth grade fingering charts and lugged my giant clarinet home, determined not to have my fraud uncovered.
Unlike with the French horn, I practiced day and night. The bus driver disliked me less because I could get my instrument into the seat with room to share. I really came to enjoy it and I was excited to continue learning this instrument.
When sixth grade was over, we moved back to Arizona and I enrolled in band as a clarinet player. I had missed the auditions to get into the honor band, so I started the year as fourth chair in the intermediate band.
I quickly moved to first chair, and embarked on a constant battle for the title with my friend. That summer, I attended my first music camp and I ambitiously double majored–I played both soprano and bass clarinet (and secured a spot on the handbell choir).
That summer was when I really fell in love with my clarinet. I practiced for hours every day, and I was proud of the performances I gave. In 8th grade, I took second chair in the All State band, and I remember being so excited I burst into tears trying to tell my mom.
I spent most of my high school years in the band hall, whether it was marching band or concert band. I was section lead, still playing tag for first chair with the same girl from seventh grade.
Our band director was a hard ass and often had us playing college level music so that we could challenge our skill set. I appreciated it (until I got to college and we were playing the same exact music) because he always pushed us to be our best, even if he was a huge dick about it (I have no doubt that some of my former band mates have PTSD from dealing with him). We traveled a lot and were one of the top bands in the state. So many of my best memories happened on those trips. Even the one where we got mooned by the cheer squad after a football game in Kingman.
I surrendered my first chair seat my senior year to become a peer counselor. The classes met the same hour so I had to choose. It was a tough choice—setting my love aside to explore a different passion was not something I was prepared to do.
I continued practicing every day and selected one of the most technically challenging pieces I’d ever played for my college audition. I taught myself the whole piece, practicing for hours upon hours for months.
When the day came, with nerves in my belly (and a raging hangover from my first adventure with alcohol the night before), I stepped in and played my last audition ever. I’m still amazed I was awarded the scholarship.
I haven’t played since those days in college, over 20 years now. Sometimes I wonder if I could pick it back up again. One thing I know for sure is that my dad was right: I can do anything if I put my mind to it.