A Great Deal of Noise

November 25, 1985 isn’t going to go down in history for anything terribly exciting. It was a Monday, and I was 10 years old. Rocky IV was the most popular movie at the time, and if you haven’t seen it, stop what you’re doing right now and go watch it before you talk to me any more. It’s the best sports movie of all time (yes, including Rudy), and I refuse to argue about it.

But I digress. And I will continue to do so, but I have a point, I promise.

In the show Doctor Who, there is an episode titled “Let’s Kill Hitler.” In it, the main characters discuss the idea of using the TARDIS to go back in time and kill Hitler before he can completely fuck everything up. It turns out that messing with the timeline isn’t as easy as you’d think. There are some things that are simply fixed points in time and therefore cannot be changed, however much we’d want to.

November 25th, 1985 is a similar fixed point in time. Had that day not happened exactly as it did, I really doubt I’d be sitting here at my laptop now, in 2016, writing about it. A quick internet search doesn’t turn up much for that day, but for me… it is THE DAY.

It is the day of my very first saxophone lesson.

I was in 5th grade, and I’d never played an instrument before. I wasn’t a natural musician – I have very little natural rhythm, and I have been asked, more than once, to just not ever sing in public, ever. My parents aren’t particularly musical, either. My dad can whistle, but there wasn’t much musical creation in our household.

ENTER THE SAXOPHONE. I didn’t even know how to put it together, so that was the bulk of Lesson One. I was sent home with a book and an instrument in a case that was nearly as big as I was, and told to give it a half-hour every day. So I did. I made terrible noises. Horrible, awful, “who is stomping on a duck” kinds of noises. My mom asked me to “please, for the love of God, practice before I get home from work, please.”

About three weeks after that first lesson, I performed in public for the first time, because when you don’t know how terrible you are, you don’t care. It was Grandparents’ Day at my school and with Christmas coming up, I thought a rousing rendition of Jingle Bells would hit the spot. It did! It was loud and awful but everyone applauded and that’s when I knew what I was going to do. I was going to be on stage, making music. I spent the remainder of fifth grade going to my lessons and practicing until my face hurt.

In 6th grade, we all started band. Up to then, everyone had been taking weekly lessons and learning on their own. Now we were going to get it together and REALLY make some noise. If you’ve ever had to sit through a first-year band situation, you know. We were objectively terrible, but that’s by design, right? I was First Chair saxophone, a position I grew to love. We played horrible music, badly. One notable tune we played was John Mellencamp’s “R.O.C.K. in the USA” arranged for a beginner band. It’s a square song already, and this band full of small-town white kids had no swing whatsoever. It’s been 30 years, and I can still hear it in my head.

The next year, when I moved up to 7th grade, I was met with some competition. 7th and 8th grade band was mixed together and there was an 8th-grader who was miles ahead of me, musically speaking. How I envied her! I practiced SO HARD that year and never even got close to her natural talents, and that is when I started to branch out.

I acquired a flute – my sister, who had played flute in high school was off to college and needed money for books, so she sold it to me for all of my babysitting money. I bought a book and taught myself how to make even more horrible noises! I was now a multi-instrumentalist! Still not the best musician, but I put in so much work that year. If the flute section needed an understudy (with roughly 22 flutes vs our three saxophones, they did NOT), I could have stepped in and played any of their parts, no problem.

In 8th grade, I was back to first chair. It was the last time I’d sit there. By this point, I was a technically proficient musician. I wasn’t a genius, and I wasn’t truly gifted with it – my skills were the result of practice and practice and more practice. I was very, very good, but there was something missing that kept me from being great. I was never very emotionally connected to it. The very best musicians feel the music they’re playing, and they make you feel it, too. I was never good at that part of it, because ew, gross, feelings! Yuck!

And then… high school marching band. My one and only true love. If I could have stayed in high school for another 4 years just to be in marching band, I would have done it. There are few things in life I love with the intensity of the love I have for marching band. So much work. Such ugly uniforms (our uniforms redefined the words “tragic” and “uncomfortable”). SO MUCH FUN. I learned so much in marching band, and decided to be a band director so I could be in marching band FOREVER AND EVER. My career path was decided!

For concert season, I was asked to switch to oboe. Since there was no way I’d be First Chair saxophone anytime soon, I agreed and set about learning that. Horrible noises ensued, et cetera, and my band director asked me to go to an EXTRA band camp over that summer between my freshman and sophomore years so I could get more practice in on the oboe and be ready for concert season, and that’s what I did. I met a friend there and we are still friends to this day because band bonds are unbreakable.

By the time I graduated high school, I was a pretty talented multi-instrumentalist. I played saxophone in marching band, saxophone and flute in jazz band, and oboe in the wind ensemble. My grades were good enough in my other classes that I spent a good 90% of my senior year in the band room and nobody seemed to notice or care. I won all the awards that were available to me, including the John Philip Sousa Award, which is kind of a big deal.

I thought college would be more of the same – go to class, go to band, football games on Saturdays, be awesome, repeat. And for the first year, it kind of was. I did not pass my oboe audition but I was admitted as a saxophone major, and I did fairly well under an immense workload and a considerable amount of pressure. I fell asleep in a practice room under a piano more than once.

Then… well, then we entered what I like to think of as the Dark Times. A lot of things happened between 1993 and 1996, few of them good. I left school for awhile and then went back, but it wasn’t the same. Whatever spark that had been driving me was completely snuffed out and music, once my joy and my comfort and my “thing” was now a source of pain and frustration. I quit playing.

I’d get the horn out from time to time – in 1998, What’s-His-Name and I were in an impromptu klezmer band at our synagogue. That was fun, for awhile. But the idea of getting my horn out and playing would cause me to have panic attacks. Being on stage, once my Entire Reason For Living, was literally the last thing I wanted. My horn sat in the closet and gathered dust. The last time I played music in public was in 1999, when I played flute for a Mother’s Day thing at our synagogue.

Nowadays, I spend a lot of time trying to get The Jillian to practice. She plays piano and cello now, so “go practice!” is a refrain heard every day at my house. I still have my saxophones (three of them), my flute, and a clarinet I bought in a drunken eBay binge about 12 years ago, but I don’t play any of them. I got the flute out a couple of months ago to show Jillian, and I played for her a bit, but… whoa, man. It’s definitely not like riding a bike.

The saxophones are in the closet under the stairs. I guarantee they all need some maintenance before any of them are playable, and I toy with the idea of taking them in to my local music shop and getting them into workable condition. I hesitate, though. “I don’t have time,” I tell myself. “I physically can’t do that anymore,” I say. “My favorite neckstrap broke and none of the replacements were ever comfortable,” I hedge.

Those are just excuses, though. The truth is that I am afraid. Of what? I’m not really sure. Maybe someday I’ll get out a horn, clean it up, and see if I can do something with it. I know my hands still know what to do, but I’m not sure my brain and my heart are up for it. We’ll see. Someday.


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