Quietly Making Noise

64 Arts

I sometimes wonder if our choice of musical instrument reflects back on who we are.

Remember, the baritone was not my first choice of instruments. Sometimes, my life is not exactly what I’d call my first choice, either.

The baritone is not a quiet instrument. This is probably obvious based on it’s size alone–you expect something big out of it. I mean, compared to the flute with it’s lithe construction and breathy sound the baritone with it’s extra metal and bends and turns and valves and brutish looks, you expect it to sound brutish, too.

Looks can be deceiving.

The odd thing about a lot of the music we payed in band was that baritone would often echo the melody being carried by the flutes and clarinets. Imagine the aural equivalent of a bull in the china shop–that’s how I would sometimes feel.

Many times, too, I would be the only baritone in the class. Which meant that if I made a mistake, EVERYONE heard it. Man, that really sucked. So I’d try to play softer, blend in more (despite the fact that I was meant to stand out) and my instrument sounded strangled, struggling, not quite right.

It’s not that I wasn’t confident in my abilities. My middle school band director (a dear, dear man who I’m still friends with) said that I had perfect pitch. I was one of his pet students. In high school there were 2 bands: Concert and Symphonic and I tried out over the summer (despite the fact that I’d just gotten braces and was relearning my embouchure all over again) for Symphonic band and got in. I’d also learned trombone in middle school and did a stint playing bass trombone in jazz band in high school and even tackled Tuba for an ensemble during festival season. I was good. I worked hard. I loved what I did.

But I was still shy.

Knowing this topic was coming up, I picked up my baritone the other day after at least 4 years of not playing. (I had lived in an apartment complex for those 4 years and didn’t feel comfortable practicing such a loud instrument with neighbors beside and above me.) First I was amazed that all of the keys and tuning slides still moved. In fact, it’s my fingers that are more sticky than the keys, the joints are so out of practice it feels like my hands have shrunk. The double-jointed-ness of my right ring finger became all that more apparent as it’s reaching for the 3rd key and bending in, instead of out. (Yeah, that’s a fun thing to happen just before halftime when it’s damp and cold outside and suddenly one of the 3 fingers you need decides to hinge the wrong way, lol.) Then I blew some air through the mouthpiece.

Nothing happened.

I wasn’t buzzing my lips (embouchure, again), wasn’t blowing enough air.

I was scared to make a sound.

Who was going to hear me? Our neighbors are somewhat close but not that close. Todd was in his office on the other side of the house and I knew for a fact that he couldn’t hear me (the fact that the interior wall of my office is actually the old, brick, exterior wall of the house, my office being the enclosed carport guarantees a certain amount of sound-proofing).

So I took some baby steps. I remembered how to buzz my lips inside to get a kazoo-like sound. I took the mouthpiece out of the horn and just buzzed through it for a bit, to remind myself how it felt, blowing a little harder this time. Then I tried it again, mouthpiece in the horn again, and tried for an open note. An F.

Then I played a B-flat scale. Because I could. Because I remembered the fingerings. Because I could. Because it was what the horn was meant to do.

So, the baritone wasn’t my first choice, but I remember the great sound it had and how, when called for, it could soar above the rest of the band in a solo or counterpoint. And girls playing lower brass instruments still isn’t incredibly common. My life is not what I’d thought it would be, wanted it to be, or even imagined. In many ways, though, it’s exactly as it should be and, in terms of daydreams versus reality? The reality is better.

Sure, I put the instrument back in it’s case and went back to the comic that I had been drawing. But my thoughts were on the box of sheet music in the library.

We Are the Music Makers

64 Arts

The second of the 64 Arts is also musical, this time focusing on played instruments instead of the instrument of our voice.

This makes me happy.

Why? Well, I’m a band geek from way back (okay, technically only as far back as 1987; still, that’s 20+ years of band-related geekiness!). Mom was surprised when I signed up for band instead of chorus when it came time to pick our electives going into middle school. This was done, it should be noted, completely without parental input which does seem a little odd, looking back, but it’s just how it happened.

Mom was surprised because my earlier forays into instrumentation were not what you’d call a success. Recorder (through brownies, I think, it’s a fuzzy memory) was a bust. Guitar in 1st grade? Also not so hot. Piano in 2nd grade? That I was actually good with/at. Until I was busted for playing by number instead of by reading music.

I was not a sneaky kid looking to skate by, but the teacher (Mrs. DeRosier, my 2nd grade teacher who also taught piano out of her home) pointed out that the writers of the beginning piano book put the numbers under each note so that youngsters like me would know which finger to use for which key. This was great on the simpler songs but when my hands were supposed to start traveling? Yup, you guessed it, things went awry. Still, that wasn’t the end of my lessons. No, that end came when we moved and the piano had to be sold.

Such is life.

I still don’t know why I chose band, though, as this was several years removed from my last unfortunate music lesson. Mom fully expected me to sign up for chorus like my friends did but, I think, knowing me as I do, that that was the exact reason why I didn’t. Heaven help me, I was trying like hell to stand out, to be different, even if just a little, tiny bit. That and 6th grade orientation might have been made more impressive by the band playing in the Commons (the combo cafeteria-auditorium of my middle school).

So I joined band and on Day 1 we had to pick an instrument. My first choice was saxophone. Can you blame me? That is one sexy instrument. Unfortunately, they are also expensive and to say we were poor might have been gilding the lily a bit. School instruments it was! And this is how I ended up playing baritone (aka euphonium or the baby tuba for the visually inclined) for the next 20 years, off and on.

A definite plus to the baritone was that it required only 3 keys to play (and a hell of a lot of air). The downside was that it was, at least the ones I learned on, an ugly instrument. The bell screwed on and off. It was huge, heavy and made transporting it on the school bus a pain and a half. All I could think, for the first 2 years, was getting to 8th grade and being able to play one of the shiny, streamlined, one-piece horns that the older students got to play on.

It’s good to have a goal.