Last night, I caught an old, familiar smell: Wood fiber plus the humid heaviness of human breath. That is exactly what it was. It was from a clarinet reed clamped to the mouthpiece and hovering just below my chin, waiting. I’d been sitting on a metal folding chair tensely counting to four for sixteen measures while the brass and percussion labored away, seventeen-two three four, eighteen-two-three-four, nineteen-two-three, then a sharp intake of breath and I’m in! But not before I got a sharp whiff of the reed.
I started playing clarinet in fifth grade. It seemed like the ideal instrument, and it still does. Like a human voice but smooth like water; black and lovely with shining silver keys in abstruse shapes, some long and angular for alternate fingering, one short and to the point, like a little spoon. Elegant little rings over the finger holes to make the little pads work in concert with the motions of your hands. Blow too hard and it squeals and honks like a duck; but tuck your bottom lip over your teeth, plant your top teeth firmly on the mouthpiece, hold your cheeks taut, sit up straight, employ your abdomen, be brave, and the sound comes out like a human voice, but smooth like water.
Mr. Faro, the stooped, nearsighted music teacher who taught us all was terribly patient. He must have known I wasn’t really learning the names of the notes, and he certainly knew I wasn’t practicing in between lessons. I had enough musical sense to fake my way through the book, and our terrible little band of beginners sat on the stage on folding chairs and breathily trundled our way through “Theme from The Surprise Symphony” and “Grandfather’s Clock” and “Londonderry Air” and, when the time came, we Jingle Bell Rocked.
Mr. Faro’s office was a supply closet about five feet wide, and that’s where he taught probably thousands of dopey children, one by one, to coax a sound out of their chosen instruments. He was a tall, oddly broad man, who dressed like he was planning to sell encyclopedias door to door. His trousers were hemmed too short and his thick, wavy hair was parted with aching precision. Coke bottle glasses made his eyes look tiny. One time I came into the storage closet classroom late, clutching my plastic Bundy rental clarinet and my marked up lesson book, and he splayed out in his folding chair, whaling away at his clarinet with no mouthpiece on it, lips pursed on the neck like a trumpet, and doodling an improvised jazz number like Dizzie Gillespie. His head popped up when I came in, and he said, “Oh, sorry.” I said, “That’s okay,” and we started in with “Oats, Peas, and Beans.”
I tried it later, on my own, and you can make a sound that way, but I definitely couldn’t make it sound like Mr. Faro. I don’t know if he used to play in a jazz band or what, before he started teaching kids.
So I wasn’t good, and I didn’t work hard, but hard enough, but there was something about playing in a band. Going from sitting down for that first wretched mess of a read-through to something we all have a handle on, something with a form and a color and an idea. I played in the school band all through elementary school and most of high school, including the marching band. I unabashedly loved marching band, even as I moaned and complained because it was the thing to do. I loved the terrible white vinyl strap-on spats and the crushingly heavy shako hat with its beautiful red plume. Loved parades, loved marking time, loved marching and turning in synch; loved crouching on the bleachers through blustery autumn football games that our team always lost, blaring out fight songs to roust up the crowd that ignored us.
I made a few stabs at going to All State, but high school is where my lazy ways caught up with me, and the judges could tell I had chosen the middle movement to audition just because it was the slowest one, and I never made the cut. I picked up sheet music where I could find it through college and a bit beyond, and I could play as long as there weren’t too many sharps or flats. But more and more time elapsed, and I put the instrument together less and less often, and once I ordered some reeds, and made a stab at some things I half remembered, but there was nothing bringing me back to try again. Then the mouthpiece went missing, and that was that.
This Christmas, my husband bought me a new clarinet. I’m 48 years old. The original plan was to fix up my trusty old Bundy, but the music store in town is open such odd hours, I guess they never got around to working on it in time, so he just got a new one. And that is how I found myself sitting again in a metal folding chair, correcting my spine position, anxiously tapping my foot through a long rest, then filling my lungs with air, and smelling again that familiar smell of the reed, remembering everything.
I’m in a band for adults. Some are absolute beginners, but most are like me, people who used to play a long time ago, but let it go for one reason or another. Everyone is there because they want to be, and everyone is just doing their best to make a decent sound and learn a little something and help each other out. It is the most friendly, encouraging group of people I have spent time with in ages, and oh, how familiar those band jokes are. There’s a tricky syncopated passage we have to keep returning to, and one random misplaced honk sounds out, and the conductor drops his hands and stares reproachfully at the brass. They all point at each other and giggle. Everyone is giggling, everyone is gray and paunchy. Everyone is wearing reading glasses so we can see the tiny little measure numbers, and everyone is painfully stretching and flexing their fingers out in between sessions, because somehow, in the last 35 years, these instruments got heavy.
And yet they are so much lighter. Last time I was in band, I was a teenager, filled with angst and irritation and guilt and self-doubt. Now there is nothing but just what it says on the group’s website: Your best is good enough. They really mean it! And do you know, music sounds really good when it comes from people who are making it just because they love it.
What a delight. What an absolute gift to sit in a borrowed basement and feel that beautiful flow when you’ve got it, you’re keeping right up, you’re adding your flavor to the harmony and you didn’t get lost with the tricky codas but you made it right through the crescendo to that long hold, and now this is the fun part, where the woodwinds take over and everyone can hear what you can do. And you do it just right, and the conductor drops his hands and says, “Okay, good.” How lovely.
And it’s also lovely, in its own way, to get hopelessly lost, to know that we’re somewhere between the key change and the finale, and you’re just gong to have to jump in when it gets familiar. There isn’t a lot of shame or panic like there would have been years ago. I got some of it this time; I’ll do better next time. That’s all. It’s just such a good way to spend time.
And do you know, my fingers remember. I did fake a lot, 37 years ago, but I also learned a lot. I remember alternate fingering, and I remember all kinds of articulation markings, things I haven’t though about in decades. So much is automatic, and more and more returns to me each week. Do you know what it feels like to have something return to you, when you’re 48 years old? 48 is when things start to fall away, one by one by one. But music, my clarinet, is coming back to me. I think it’s going to be a good year.
Image © DrKssn / Wikimedia Commons