soccer and saxophones

an argument for making/doing/writing

I grew up in a family of serious sports fans, but that caring-about-sports gene somehow didn’t get passed down to me. That meant I spent a decent amount of time as a kid doing my best to tolerate sporting events, mostly baseball games—I brought a book to pretty much every baseball game I can remember going to before the age of eight or nine. Despite not liking to watch sporting events, I was a pretty sporty kid, and it was around that age that I started playing softball and bringing my glove to the Wilmington Blue Rocks and Phillies games we went to during the summers. Having a glove meant there was a possibility that I could catch a fly ball if it came my way, and that (admittedly very small) potential made me a hundred times more interested in baseball than I had previously been (read: zero). But what really got me sold on baseball as a spectator sport happened a little bit later, when my dad taught me how to score games. Entering the stadium, I would get a scorecard and that tiny golf pencil, and then every single moment of the rest of the game—every strikeout, every steal, every home run—required my focused attention. Apart from the late game breaks when I would relinquish my card to my dad’s safekeeping while I went to acquire soft serve ice cream (eaten, of course, out of a miniature helmet), I felt as though I were actively participating in every moment of the game. Suddenly, I had ownership—something was personally at stake for me.

That may be a selfish way to think about sports or any other kind of popular culture, that it only “matters” if I can be involved somehow. And coloring in little diamonds to indicate runs is by no means the same as scoring runs yourself. But what I’ve realized over the last few years is that actively participating in the things I enjoy—whether those things are playing sports, writing stories, or making music—makes me happier than just watching those things go by.

This realization has hit me in two opposite ways in college, in two different parts of my life. Of two of my favorite hobbies—playing soccer and playing the saxophone—I didn’t plan to continue either in college, but one I came back to almost right away, and the other I’ve been noticing how much I miss. Sports were a constant presence in my life from when I first started playing on a Kiddie Kickers soccer team at the age of five or six. In high school, I was a varsity athlete—my senior year, a varsity athlete in two sports, a fact that actually seems impossible now considering the fact that I have set foot in the Nelson exactly twice in almost four years on this campus. I didn’t really think of myself as an “athlete,” but soccer was an integral part of my identity. When I got to college, though, that part of my identity instantly disappeared. I was a soccer player for more than 10 years of my life, and suddenly, I was not. I didn’t anticipate that change being hard to cope with, but the absence of organized sports in my college life (minus the occasional intramural) has plagued me since I first noticed it freshman year. Because of this, I’ve decided that my number one goal post-graduation is to join an adult rec league. (Okay, my number two goal, because my number one goal is to find a job.) I’ve been to a lot of football, basketball, and hockey games over the last four years as a member of the Brown Band, but I’m still a soccer fan—and soccer player—at heart. When I’m actively playing sports again, not just watching them, I may not feel like an athlete—I think the stage of my life where that term could apply has passed—but I will feel more like myself.

I shed my “athlete” identity when I started college, but I’ve kept my identity as a band nerd—though my musical involvement on campus now is much less serious than my high school musical endeavors. I started playing the alto sax in fourth grade and continued all throughout high school. Classical music wasn’t something I listened to outside of the band room, but I found myself making up words to the “Jupiter” movement of Holst’s “The Planets” suite and singing them to my friends, constantly whistling excerpts from a long, slow Russian Christmas piece, or loving a piece we played my freshman year called “An Irish Rhapsody” so much that I helped convince my band director we should play it again my senior year. These are pieces of music I never would have discovered or felt passionate about on my own—my brother and I grew up listening to the Beatles, a constant stream of the one classic rock station always playing in my dad’s car, and my mom’s vast iTunes library of popular music from her adolescence and college years. But I grew enamored of intricate melodies starring the alto saxes (my chosen instrument), tricky sixteenth-note runs that took weeks of practice both inside and outside the classroom to master, and the beautiful way a second alto part harmonized with the first. Spending one class period a day for weeks at a time on the same few pieces of music made it feel as if those pieces, my specific parts, belonged to me and my fellow high school musicians. And so, naturally, I was possessive of them and I loved them in a way I never would have anticipated when I first picked up my sax as a nine-year-old who basically only cared about the musical stylings of the Backstreet Boys.

Today, almost four years since the last time I played my saxophone in a concert band atmosphere, I don’t listen to symphonic band music much anymore. When I do, it’s when I go to wind symphony and orchestra concerts at Brown to cheer on my friends who are performing. At these concerts, I’m always happy to hear my friends perform beautifully, but when the concert ends, the music I heard has almost always left little to no impression on me, because I haven’t spent time with those pieces of music, practicing and learning them by heart. Watching my friends make music, I’ve realized, is not the same as making it myself.

And maybe that’s a little bit of why I joined the Brown Band. I didn’t know that I would miss making music after high school—I felt fine about my initial decision to leave my saxophone at home and pursue other extracurriculars at Brown. But stumbling into the band, tentatively showing up to those first few rehearsals freshman year, playing songs I already loved—like “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” and “I Want You Back”—I remembered how much I loved playing music with other people, people who would soon become some of my closest friends on campus. And the same thing happened with songs we played that I’d never heard before joining the band—my unconscious tendency to constantly whistle the second alto part from “The Impression That I Get” or “Karn Evil 9: First Impression – Part 2” has been pointed out to me repeatedly by numerous friends. Again, it’s not the specific songs that appeal to me—it’s that I associate all these songs with fun times and good friends and the joy of the act of making our own music.

There’s something to be said for engaging in culture, for creating it and participating in it rather than passively consuming it—though to be fair, I do a decent amount of passive consumption of media and pop culture as well. But that passive consumption leads to active participation: Watching sports made me want to play them. Hearing music made me want to make music too. (Also saxophones are loud and shiny, which I was pretty into as a nine-year-old.) It can be really difficult in college to remember to make stuff, especially because there are so many things already out there in the world for me to consume (Netflix is both a beautiful blessing and a torturous curse). And it is (relatively) easy to watch a soccer game, listen to music, read a book. But I need to remind myself to do the harder thing, to remember that part of the joy and the privilege of existing in this world is the ability to make things. I have a brain and a heart and a body that all allow me to write, to run, to make music; I need to remind myself not to let them go to waste.