April 25, 2019 | Narrative
confessions of an expat band geek
One Time at Band Camp…
Consisting of 60 hours over five days in the last week of August, camp inspired its own special form of dread, the kind that festers and then collapses in on itself when the thing you have to do gets close. But it was ultra-mandatory: No camp meant no membership in the ensemble for the entire year. Play or get played! The days were army-regimented: morning marching drills before it got too hot, then midmorning large-group work, then midday section work, then marching drills when it was too hot, then large-group work again as the summer light faded. Our director, Mr. Hill, was a squat and balding man with beady eyes and crooked teeth. Too much hair gel. He spent the days at camp telling us how inefficient we were. Lazy, too. Unable to meet expectations. Every day was the same mess of brass and put-downs: hot air all around, accented by short whistle blows. Always sunburn.
Into the Wild Blue Yon-der!
Central Pennsylvania has a lot of vets. Memorial and Veterans Days were major events, as were the parades. For the few days before them, we used our morning practices to play “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” After we mastered a piece, Hill would order us to stop playing and get in parade formation. We’d march around the school football field in silence, instruments in playing position but not making a single squeak until dismissal at 7:40 a.m. when the school day began. Roll step to honor the troops.
Never Have I Ever…Cried During Rehearsal
The band was the only school group that had 7 a.m. practices, which were held inside during the winter season. Winter meant no football and more concerts. I was second chair alto saxophone, and it was two days before a Friday night show. Our first chair player decided he’d rather go to his baseball game than the concert, so I stepped up to take his solo. It was a short ditty—some sharps and flats for technical flair, but no biggie (sax is all about faking it anyway). But on the morning of the concert, I still couldn’t play those few measures perfectly. I tripped over the transition down to low F, which set me back half a beat and messed with the trumpets’ intros. I tried the run twice; my third time was not the charm. Hill had heard enough: He stopped the entire ensemble to stress the importance of individuals delivering on their promises, of preparation as a form of respect for the group, and, I guess, the importance of not being a major screw-up in general, with me as counterexample #1. He rapped his stand with the baton. Try again.
Shut Up, It’s Not Dislocated.
The back of the band bus was a lawless place. On the outside, it was just a regular school bus that carted us around to play at Friday night football games. But the bus always saw more drama than the field: a girl threw up everywhere, a boy got a blow job under a blanket in the back row, the driver accidentally backed into the school at an away game. On one drive home, a kid from the drum section was sitting cross-legged in a row toward the back, resting his knee on the metal siding. We went over a bump, and his knee thudded against the bus, ripping his patella out of place as if it hadn’t been attached at all. He didn’t cry or moan; instead, he stood and held himself up with the back of the seats, trying to get someone’s attention. No one believed him (the bump was tiny; you’ve got to be kidding!) until someone went over and took a look at the kneecap jutting out way too far. I walked down the aisle and rolled up my sleeves to pop it back in, thinking that I could maybe follow instructions over the phone from my dad (an eye doctor with a knack for giving emergency advice to his kids). Apparently a patella dislocation isn’t as dangerous as a full knee dislocation, and performing an impromptu relocation isn’t a good idea if you have zero medical knowledge or training. The kid stood for the rest of the ride, wincing on every turn. We all sat quietly until we returned to school.
Jazz was “Apple Honey” by Woody Herman and “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder—the best part of being in band and my sweet spot. Jazz ensemble was the only reason I hadn’t quit playing. The group was optional for band members, but participation in the marching and concert bands was a required corequisite. Some kids put down their marching instruments to riff on bass guitar, piano, or a full drum set; everyone played like they meant it. Soloists ripped up nasty improv sections, and we all swayed when a piece started to groove. It was the kind of music that makes you close your eyes, so you can feel yourself making it.
Quitting, in C Minor
My musical career ended in mezzo-forte. Jazz just wasn’t enough anymore. Band had lost whatever sparkle it once had, and the near-constant dread outweighed any joy. Hill said something like, “That’s too bad. I understand,” and then I might have said, “Okay, well, I enjoyed my time in the band.” That was it. It was the end of junior year, and I was six years in—four under his direction. The moment felt like a drained A-flat with a fermata that wasn’t held long enough—awkward, with no resolution.
You’ll Be Missed and Other Lies
The band played on without me, as bands tend to do. I told myself that quitting wasn’t about the music; it was the too-severe director and the too-boring football games and the too-little happiness the whole experience brought me. I told myself that I’d keep playing, that I could separate the making music part from everything else.
I didn’t bring my sax to college.