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0 Comments | Aug 23, 2012

Being in Band

TubaIn my dream[1] I run aimless and panting up and down the neutrallypainted, cinderblock-lined corridors of Brunswick High School, trying desperately to recall which of the countless thousands of lockers stretching before me is, in fact, my locker, and, having eventually located it after much fretting and fuming, struggling with even greater desperation to recall the specific left/right/left combination that will open it. It doesn’t help that all of the lockers look exactly the same—battleship gray, arrayed in a grid two high and effectively infinite in length, extending down both sides of the corridor to a distant vanishing point. That each is uniquely numbered with a small riveted brass plate is of no use either, since, given my ineluctable state of torpor before ten a.m., the ability to remember my own locker number is no easier than is successful execution of the combination, this despite the former being a good deal shorter. But what really makes this dream different from the traditional ‘lost and late’ scenario is the encumbrance I bear throughout the ordeal, an enormous and battered musical instrument case that drags behind me as I struggle up and down the endless corridors. I mention all of this at the outset of an essay about high school band only because I am convinced that a great deal of the lifelong baggage I bear concerning that period in my life (a good deal of which manifests itself in recurring dreams like this one) stems, in fact, from my having spent a significant portion of that time in the band.

I once saw a stand-up comedian elicit a good laugh by mocking the subtle but critical distinction between being in a band in high school versus being in band, the former, of course, connoting coolness, peer envy, and a general avante garde sense almost completely lacking in but nonetheless tirelessly striven for by most high school kids, what with their generally herd-like tendencies deriving from the endless but ultimately futile pursuit of uniqueness. The latter position, on the other hand, i.e., being in band, signifies a positive dearth of coolness and, more often than not, the mockery and derision of one’s fellow students. Being in band represents, indeed, the very apogee of uncoolness, whose exact magnitude is a function of not only band membership per se but, as well, the specific instrument one has chosen[2] to play. The fact that in band and in a band differ by no more than the single monosyllabic indefinite article ‘a’ only serves to reinforce the cruel distinction between the two situations, particularly as regards the adolescent psyche, with its already plentiful assortment of hormone-induced traumas unavoidable during this fraught stage of life, a life that would be at least moderately more bearable were it not for the inclusion of the various band-related insults it is my purpose to herein describe.

Preliminaries aside, let me begin by summarizing briefly my own grim history in the domain of formal adolescent music instruction. I began taking piano lessons at around the age of seven, said instruction proceeding, more or less uninterrupted, for perhaps six years. I learned several valuable life lessons during this experience, most important of which is that I was utterly uncoachable, a character flaw that would help greatly to define the remainder of my life.[3] This is worth a slight digression, as it will go some way to explaining a few of the anecdotes that follow. I do here assert, without exaggeration or apology, that the only endeavors[4] of any consequence I have accomplished in my life are those I have taught myself. I have benefited not a whit from mentors, instructors, or coaches in any field of physical endeavor whatsoever, which is not for a moment to indict their sincerity, efforts, or coaching skill, but only to say that their efforts in my regard were as so much water hurled at the proverbial duck’s back. If an activity interests me, I simply begin to do it, first obtaining whatever equipment or apparatus may be required, and then diving right in. As a general matter, any instruction I do happen to receive (either accidentally or on purpose) in the endeavor I either ignore or, in extreme cases, do the precise opposite. I offer no explanation to account for this behavior, but only report it as fact, having endured the effects of this trait on my life for more than half a century.[5] That I can play anything at all now on a piano owes not a jot to the endless and repetitive harangues of my instructor, nor to the equally endless and repetitive drills that universally characterize adolescent music instruction, regardless of the chosen instrument. I learn things by attempting to do them, screwing them up a few times, cleaning up whatever mess I’ve caused, and then doing them again until I’ve either given up or gotten it right, or at least sufficiently right to satisfy my own internally established objectives. If these goals have historically tended toward the mediocre, so be it. I have always gravitated toward the life of the generalist[6] rather than exerting the focus and effort required to become truly expert in any single endeavor.[7]

I mention the adolescent piano lesson experience only because it goes some way toward explaining how it is that I came to be volunteered[8] for band even before beginning my freshman year of high school. There was, as is not difficult to imagine, a severe dearth of musical talent from which our high school band director, Ernest George, could recruit in those days. A proper band requires something like a minimum of forty people to field any sort of credible ensemble,[9] and finding this many children, of even marginal ability and motivation, is no mean feat in a school comprising an entire student body of only a few hundred. Which is how it came to pass that I received a note requesting I meet with Mister George at my earliest convenience in his office on what I vaguely recall was only my second or third day as a freshman, a time during which the reader will doubtless recall, from his/her own adolescent experience, a perfectly sufficient amount of trauma already occurring simply by virtue of navigating the transition from top of the heap in junior high to bottom of an entirely new and daunting heap in high school. The last thing any fourteen-year-old needs at this fraught moment in life is one more source of angst and humiliation. Sadly for me, I had not been a band member in junior high, and so I was ill-equipped to fully appreciate the magnitude of the calamity that was taking shape. And so there I sat in Mister George’s office on that fateful morning, wondering what I’d gotten myself into but, alas, insufficiently informed to wonder, as well, how I might extricate myself from it.

Truth be told, I do not really recall being offered a choice in the matter. It was simply conveyed to me that I was fortunate indeed to have been chosen as a member of the Brunswick High School band, that I ought to take pride in having been so recognized, and that band rehearsal took place during first period on Tuesdays and Thursdays of every week, the first such rehearsal of the new school year occurring, as luck would have it, the very next morning. All of which left unresolved only the matter of which instrument it would be my duty, nay my honor, to play. By this point in my life I had all but abandoned formal piano instruction, but had begun dabbling in acoustic guitar. Sadly, though, neither guitar nor piano has much place in a high school band, which, despite playing the occasional obligatory auditorium concert on the high holidays, was fundamentally a marching band. Mister George took the initiative at this juncture and proceeded to glance about the capacious instrument storage room in which we were sitting, as if to convey the sense that he was making this weighty decision extemporaneously, when, in fact, he had known the answer long before I entered the room. You know, he offered, after a suitable period of rumination, two of our Sousaphone players graduated last year and we are now rather lacking in that department.

At which inauspicious point I feel compelled to pause and clarify a few things. First, most everyone reading this will know that “Sousaphone” is a long way of saying “tuba.”[10] Second, the Sousaphone is, almost certainly without exaggeration, the most ponderous of all band instruments[11], indeed plausibly larger than all the rest combined. And third, I was singularly undersized for my age all throughout my junior high and high school years. All of which must surely have made for a great joke on Mister George’s part. Nevertheless, it came to pass, then and there, with me having neither the opportunity nor the verve to object, that I became the third-seat Sousaphone player in the Brunswick High School marching band.

I mentioned earlier, if somewhat obliquely, that I am not a morning person. Indeed, it is all I can manage to perform morning ablutions without injuring myself. I invite you to imagine, then, the chaotic and hideous cacophony that issues forth from the typical high school band inflicted upon one’s person from 7:30 to 8:15 a.m. every Tuesday and Thursday. Imagine, as well, that you are not merely subjected to this wretched din from the position of spectator, but, rather, are actually immersed in the midst of it. And finally, imagine being obliged to not only put up with this nonsense two mornings each week, but to also spend an hour or more after school two or three days a week struggling to gain competence on this fiberglass behemoth,[12] a skill I got the hang of in a reasonable time, owing largely to my having been blessed with a generally good musical sense and to the fundamentally unchallenging nature of the instrument to begin with.[13] Unlike clarinets and violins,[14] the tuba is at least somewhat forgiving of error, it’s only pedagogical downside being the prodigious volume with which sound is emitted, said volume tending naturally to magnify any and all errors.

The reader will note that I employed several potentially pejorative descriptors, e.g., “hideous cacophony,” “wretched din,” etc., in that preceding paragraph to describe the sounds that emanate from the typical high school band, and I feel the need to take a moment here to defend these linguistic choices, if only to deflect any offense that may accrue to readers who have themselves spent a portion of their youths in similar ensembles. I might rightly deserve to be pilloried for such abusive comments were my experience limited to only the band in which I played as a youth, for it is perfectly plausible to suppose that our band was simply worse than all the rest. But, in fact, through a combination of exchange concerts and assorted friends and family members who have remained involved with high school music into their adult lives, I have had occasion to hear a wide assortment of high school bands—both concert and marching—representing large and small schools. And I state here, without fear of contradiction, they are all odious and excruciating. An analogy would perhaps help to convey the solidity with which I ascribe to this view. A high school band is—or is, at any rate, intended to be—a holistic musical ensemble whose goal is to be at least as proficient as the sum of its parts (in this case the musicians), in much the same way that an aircraft functions only as well as each of its parts. Imagine, then, an aircraft comprising thousands of parts, each manufactured by teenagers devoid of engineering expertise and who, by and large, don’t even particularly want to spend their time designing and building aircraft parts. One quickly gets a sense for how well, how long, and to what ultimate effect such an aircraft might perform. And so it is with a high school band. Not to put too fine a point on it, but these are children who have only limited experience with their instruments, who are, in many cases, genuinely annoyed to be participating in the endeavor at all, and who, for the most part, have no long-term musical aspirations.[15] The result is pretty predictable, all things considered.

I hasten to point out that the generally poor quality of high school band music is not entirely the fault of the musicians. The only thing a band director could possibly do to compound the already dubious nature of the situation would be to arm the musicians with versions of popular music that have been specifically adapted for use by such ensembles. If you’ve ever been subjected to a marching band’s rendition of Feelings or the theme to Hawaii Five-Oh, you’ll understand what I’m talking about. Bad music combined with bad musicians can really only land you in one place.

And while we’re on the subject of musical inferiority, this is as good a spot as any to expound upon the marching aspect of things. For it is apparently not enough to combine unskilled, unmotivated musicians with badly selected musical numbers. Turns out that if you also force these musicians to march around in the middle of a football field[16] while attempting to execute said musical selections, you can elicit an even lower quality result, musically speaking. High school football halftimes generally last something like fifteen minutes, during which interval the band members, clad in their quasi-military attire[17], replete with white shoes and headgear inspired by either the dress caps of field-grade military officers or Buckingham Palace guards, depending on the particular school[18] one attended, gathered on the sidelines in preparation to rush onto the field at the sound of the horn that signified the end of the second quarter. We would generally begin by assembling in some innocuous shape such as a simple grid, and then, once the music began, commence marching around and through each other in an attempt to create letters, school mascot shapes, etc. Such marching often involved maneuvers in which we would split into two or more discreet groups that would then pass between each other in extremely close quarters, an exercise fraught with peril for an undersized kid lugging a forty-pound instrument on his shoulder while attempting to read and play sheet music.

I mentioned inclement weather earlier, and it’s worth expounding on its impact a bit more here, particularly as our school was located in southern Maine and the football season ran from the start of the school year in early September through Thanksgiving or thereabouts, which is to say, during a period when the weather could be anything from a heat wave to a blizzard. During the all-too-frequent rain storms,[19] our home field, being part of a relatively low-budget school system, would become a quagmire of mud that rendered any and all attempts at formation marching futile in the extreme. I should note, as well, that while the bell of my Sousaphone afforded a modicum of shelter from the rain, it functioned also as a remarkably effective sail, thus making my attempts at staying in formation all the more challenging.

I stated at the outset that, despite our being primarily a marching band, there did occur a few obligatory indoor concerts each year, typically associated with holidays or special school events. These were the occasions when you truly got to appreciate the utter criminality of our musical renditions. Several factors combined to make the concert experience so much more horrific than that experienced at a football game, not least of which is the fact that the main attraction at a game is, of course, the game itself, the band’s contribution being, as it were, incidental to the principal reason people are there. And, of course, at a game, there were ample avenues of escape when it came time for the halftime entertainment. Indoor concerts were attended pretty much only by parents of the kids in the band, and then only because of the terrific pressure[20] adults seem to feel to attend any activity being participated in by their offspring. Therefore, the band’s performance was not only decidedly not incidental, it was, if you will, the raison d’etre for the entire assemblage. If then, as a final insult, you enclose the entire affair indoors, i.e., in a confined space from which none of the hellish noises can escape, thus serving to amplify the entire thing, well, suffice it to say that by the end of the evening’s festivities, more than one parent spent the drive home reconsidering the wisdom of having enrolled their progeny in such an organization.[21]

Long story short, I don’t so much regret my time in high school band as I regard it as but one painful component of my entire uncool secondary school experience.[22] I can’t say either that I’ve gotten a terribly great amount of benefit out of four years of Sousaphone playing in the years since graduation, though I do confess to experiencing momentary twinges of nostalgia on those rare occasions when I see a marching band pass by. I still play some piano and guitar from time to time, though I can attribute none of that interest or ability to anything I ever did in band practice. I do, though, wonder from time to time what it would feel like to heft one of those colossal things onto my shoulder again and give it a try for old times’ sake.[23]

[1] Opening disclaimer: If the reader spent any time at all during their high school years in band, reading the following treatise presents the very real risk of reopening what are hopefully, by now, fully healed and scarred wounds. Proceed at your own risk as the author accepts no responsibility for whatever trauma may ensue.

[2] Or had chosen for him. More on this directly.

[3] Other valuable life lessons I learned included a) any delusions I might have entertained about making a living as a concert pianist were horribly misplaced, b) performing at recitals in front of crowds (even relatively friendly captive audiences like parents) was fraught with anxiety so intense I frequently felt like passing out in mid-performance, c) anything you do because someone else wants you to do it sucks, and d) I don’t much care for dressing up in suit and tie.

[4] I am referring here to physical activities, e.g., sports, music, carpentry, etc., i.e., things that one does (as opposed to academic knowledge, much of which I am happy to concede to having learned from others, either through books, lectures, films, etc.)

[5] And resulting, in particular, in athletic performance whereby endeavors such as skiing, tennis, etc. exhibit a performance trajectory almost identical in every case, i.e., rising steeply at first and then leveling out at some mediocre level once certain bad habits have been learned and then reinforced through repetition and lack of correction.

[6] Or dilettante in the pejorative.

[7] Now that I think about it, I wonder if my lack of coachability and my short attention span might not have something to do with each other. I’ve also been told on countless occasions (both personally and professionally) that I am a horrible listener. One senses a theme.

[8] I judiciously choose the word “volunteered” here in recognition of the fact that my mother (i.e., the one responsible for the volunteering) may one day read this essay, in which case the use of a more truthful if pejorative term like “drafted” could be seen to reflect badly upon her judgment at that time.

[9] The notion of credibility to be explored in more detail in short order.

[10] Not to dwell overly on the particulars here, but a Sousaphone is essentially a concert tuba that has been reshaped so as to facilitate being carried on one’s shoulder while walking versus the seated position required of the traditional tuba. Also, the Sousaphone has only three valves, whereas many (though not all) concert tubas, in fact, have four. Finally, tubas are made of brass, whereas Sousaphones are more commonly fabricated from fiberglass that has been painted white, presumably to reduce their considerable weight so as to reduce the burden of carrying the instrument while playing it. There do exist brass Sousaphones, though I never had the opportunity of playing one, which is just as well since they weigh about as much as I did in those halcyon years.

[11] The only possible exception being the bass drum. This hardly qualifies as competition though, since a) many bands provide some sort of trolley or other wheeled apparatus for carrying the drum, and b) even if the bass drummer is obliged to actually carry the drum, it weighs far less than a Sousaphone.

[12] I positively drew the line (to the extent that a fourteen-year-old can draw a line beneath anything) at carrying the Sousaphone home with me on the school bus. Forget the colossal inconvenience (envision a fourteen-year-old trying to carry a Sousaphone in its case onto a school bus); the peer derision that such an act would have engendered can only be imagined.

[13] At least at the high school level. Make no mistake; as with every other instrument, there exist extraordinarily talented and skillful tuba players, many of whom make a rather good living at it in places like, for example, New Orleans.

[14] I believe there is a special (soundproofed) area of heaven awaiting every parent who endures a child learning to play any woodwind or bowed instrument.

[15] Sadly enough, unlike guitar and piano, there isn’t even an ancillary social benefit to playing a band instrument that might come in handy outside of school. You don’t see too many kids sitting around the campfire listening to some guy play his trombone or clarinet.

[16] Not just march around aimlessly, mind you, but, rather, march around in various and sundry synchronized formations designed, presumably, to elicit team spirit from the audience through the creation of school logos, geometric shapes, and other potentially recognizable patterns whose nature is, in truth, discernible, if at all, only by someone positioned directly overhead in a light aircraft, i.e., utterly undecipherable to the average spectator seated in an obliquely angled (viz a viz the field) grandstand. Not that it matters in the slightest anyway, since what few spectators attend high school football games invariably make a mad dash for the snack bar or restroom during halftime and are, as such, seldom witness to the spectacle taking place on the field between halves. Oh, and more often than I care to recall, this marching in synchronized formation while attempting to play bad music took place in the midst of driving rain or snow.

[17] Ours were black with orange piping and looked, at a distance, remarkably like German SS uniforms, but I’m not even going to go there.

[18] Mercifully, ours were of the former variety, as about the only thing that can make playing a Sousaphone even more annoying is trying to fit a foot-tall, fluffy Q-tip-like hat beneath that enormous bell.

[19] During which football, unlike baseball, continues unabated.

[20] Both internal and societal.

[21] The kindest thing that can be said of an indoor high school band concert is that at least the kids get to sit down and not get rained on while they’re playing.

[22] Another of which experiences (topic of a future essay) included making the embarrassing and inevitably futile decision to go out for freshman football. It was during the first practice session that I discovered myself to be approximately half the average weight of all the others players on the team. As if this wasn’t problematic enough, anyone who’s ever grown up in small town where all the kids go through school together can tell you that it is abundantly clear who the jocks are long before you get to high school. Turned out I wasn’t one of them.

[23] In a bizarre random occurrence, the skill of blowing into a tuba mouthpiece did actually come in handy for about five seconds while on vacation in Mexico a couple of years ago. There was a bar near the pool at our hotel that announced the onset of happy hour through the expedient of the bartender blowing vigorously into a large conch shell. Upon being invited to give this a go, I performed with greater skill and aplomb than any other guests in recent memory, at least according to the bar manager.

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