My last year of middle school concert band was a disaster.
Technically it was called a wind ensemble, but that was in name only. “Wind ensemble” was meant for the 8th graders while the other grades had their own bands: a beginning band for 6th graders and a lower/higher tier band for the 7th graders. So, for wind ensemble, you would ideally have a lot of players from the higher tier band and a few good ones from the lower tier band, should anyone have chosen to continue playing in that band. That year, however, a lot of talented players from the higher-tier band stopped after their 7th grade was over, and left a huge hole that could not be fixed with the current people we had. Since we became short-staffed before the year even began, the band teacher began inviting a few standout 7th graders to play with us big boys. Our band, as a result, was not seriously aiming for any competitions. This didn’t stop the band teacher from getting visibly angry with our collective lack of practice, which subsequently did not encourage the struggling players to improve. Seeing the players languish over very simple scores, I too felt the numb sensation of hopelessness.
Unlike many others in the band who are only involved in music thanks to middle school band, I had been privately tutored in classical piano for many years prior to joining in 6th grade on the clarinet. I, and a few others with similar histories, were the only ones who knew what we were doing and rightfully deserved the first chair positions we were given. Unfortunately, that only meant that we were reading different music than the other chairs in our sections. There was no structure, no scheduled practice times, and certainly no care put into place, nor was there any prerogative on any of the first chairs to be responsible for their own sections. As a result, there was very little incentive to practice. As a result, there was no improvement.
Once it came time for an annual competition and we squeaked our way past our intended pieces, the judge actually stood up, walked onto the stage, and lectured us on how to follow the conductor, read the music, and play in tune. It was absolutely mortifying. On the plus side, the competition was in Anaheim so the whole band got to go to Disneyland afterwards, but it did little to distract me from the fact that we basically accomplished nothing that whole year.
Fast forward to the beginning of high school, as I enter a new band room and the school’s marching band. While it wasn’t a prestigious marching band by any means, they were clearly much more polished in their performance and always take part in the city’s annual parade. These guys were serious business, and I intended to join them.
Five minutes into the session and I realize how far behind I was. My summer was spent working up at a summer camp while the rest of the band went to band camp. I had to borrow music I had never played before from people I had never previously talked to before. The marching band instructor was noticably more strict and uptight about getting things done on time and in sync. They checked individual players and made them play their part on the spot to make sure they got it right. The pieces themselves were several levels more difficult than the pieces I played in middle school. That three-hour session turned out to be more brutal and more rigorous than I had imagined it to be, and yet it was exactly what I wanted it to be. The challenge I desperately needed was laid at my feet, ripe for the taking.
There was, however, a big problem with me joining. Since the marching band played for the school’s football games, it meant that the band had to practice, practice, practice, and practice even more. Meaning, three-hour sessions from 6pm to 9pm every weekday for the rest of the year. And since I lived on the very edge of town, only my work-ridden single mom could take me back home every night. I had to live and breathe marching band music and step over my mother’s well-being if I ever wanted to think I stood a chance.
In light of those circumstances, my mom gave me an ultimatum: be serious about marching band or quit now. She, obviously, didn’t want me to continue with high school band. I already had the piano for music, and with college prep education becoming more and more important than ever before, my mom was very worried what would happen if my grades dropped thanks to all the time spent on marching band. She didn’t think marching band was as important as having good grades. Soon, I came to believe that as well. So I did as she told me to. I quit marching band before I got a chance to start and buried myself in academics.
Seeing Aoi quit concert band on that rainy day made all those feelings suddenly rush back. Though I understood my mother’s logic, I certainly wasn’t happy about the prospect of quitting music, even if I wasn’t quitting music entirely. I feared the possibility of putting away my clarinet believing it to only be a short break, only to never use it again for the rest of my life. I had heard the stories from my instructors as well as my friends, that those who put away their instruments for a long time will rarely pick them up again. I felt that I was risking losing something that was vital to how I functioned, or at least what I held dear to my heart at the time. Unlike Aoi, who had the resourcefulness to think about her decision over a long period of time, I needed to decide what I wanted to do with my high school life within the next day or two. Back then, I believed it to be the hardest decision I ever had to make for myself.
It wouldn’t be until after I made the decision to quit that I realized I saved myself many years worth of stress and anguish. High school proved to be more time-consuming that I imagined it to be, and my piano lessons were only getting more complicated and intricate as the years stacked on. I would eventually join a speech and debate club instead, which took up even more time. The regret of abandoning marching band became less painful with each passing day, until that first session from 6 to 9 became all but a distant memory of a young, naive me trying to get everything he wanted out of high school life. And as anyone out of high school would tell you, high school is not something you should spend too much time cherishing.
It wouldn’t be until this year, eight years after I stopped playing in any sort of band, that I would pick up clarinet again for jazz improv classes at the community college. That long stretch of time has certainly worn on my dexterity, as well as my embouchure. I definitely feel a lot weaker than I used to, playing all those years ago. However, those horror stories my instructors and friends back in the day about hung-up instruments ended up not being true in my case. For me, and perhaps for Aoi someday, despite the many years it would take, even if it leads me into odd directions in my life, I found my way back into music. It’s unfortunate that I had to sacrifice the unforgettable experience of being in marching band, but seeing all of the events stack up the way they did I’m glad I quit before I made my life a bigger disaster.
- s2 when
- scissoring when
- cmon man gotta see kumiko tap dat brass