I started playing the alto saxophone when I was eleven. I chose the alto because a boy I liked picked the tenor, and I didn’t want to seem like I was copying him. I changed schools the following year, grade 8, and when I got there in September I auditioned for my place in the band and got first chair. In December, we had to play again for our places, and for some strange reason I squeaked on every note that day. So I lost first chair and became second chair. I was okay with that. After all that squeaking I couldn’t expect anything else.
In grade 9 I was still in the second chair playing the second part. I had seen several full-school concerts where the older kids play. I especially loved the senior jazz band. They cooked. The teacher would count off: one — two — one, two, three, four! and walk away from them, snapping his fingers. The rhythm section kept excellent time, no conducting needed, and the horns all sang. There was always a very advanced piano player who translated years of classical lessons into pure soul. So I knew there were places to go with the saxophone. But grade 9 was boring, and the naturally loud saxophones, playing with flutes and clarinets who always had the melody, were constantly shushed. Be quiet. I didn’t mind. But I certainly felt no one needed me in the band; I was there to provide harmonizing notes. Quietly.
So when, at the beginning of grade 10, my little group of four friends, who were all in band with me, all decided to quit boring band class, I quit too. In September I quit, and followed my friends to typing class, something most girls did. Within days I missed band, and by October I slunk to the guidance counselor and asked to be allowed back in. I was now the bottom chair saxophone.
At the time I had no idea why I missed it so much and had to return. The boy who played tenor saxophone had quit long ago. I had to be quiet and never got the melody, absolutely never got a solo. My mother said the saxophone was too loud for the house and since I had asthma I should not do anything involving blowing. Too bad that boy did not pick drums.
I do think that those jazz band performances got their hooks into me, into me deep. And I think that though I never got to play parts like the first flutes and the first clarinets, I was able to hear them in band class, anyway, almost every day. Many other kids played so beautifully. Just hearing them tune up was nice. It was better than being in the typing room where there were no lovely sounds and a gaggle of girls who vied for attention from the young male typing teacher. So not my scene.
So I went back, after almost leaving it permanently, and eventually I was in the senior jazz band, second chair, and the teacher counted off and walked away from ME. It was great.
This year, 2012, after a long hiatus, I took band class again. Jazz combo class. I was extremely grateful to be able to do it, because it was so much fun to play the music again. Only because I had played quite a lot in high school did I have the skills to jump back in. And this year I’m trying something new, because I’m learning to improvise. I was really frightened of it before. Second chair was my comfort zone. Blend in. Tune to the first chair. Hide in harmonies. I have a long way to go, but for many reasons it’s happening. There’s always something great about being a beginner at something.
A final note about this. Was it a mistake to quit band with my friends and lose my place in the hierarchy and have to crawl back up again? Heck, no.
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