The only (school related) extracurricular activity I was ever interested in, from elementary school through college, was Band. From the moment they let me pick up a flute in the fourth grade, I wanted to play it. Not only that, I wanted to play it well. And I did. I was first chair; I won awards; I made All-State Band–the whole shebang. That is, until I got to ninth grade.
My high school offered Concert Band, and there was no question that I wanted in. I loved the thrill of sitting down with my flute and a folder full of new concert pieces. Thrived on mastering difficult passages and incorporating them into the music with lilting grace. Felt pure, magical elation when the audition process went well and I was given a solo, or placed in first chair position.
The joy of being a part of all those instruments coming together over weeks of practices, listening to and being able to recognize our improvement, as each individual sound evolved and melded into a beautiful whole–it makes me feel alive just thinking about it. And when it was finally time to dress up in our formal black and take our places on stage, the collective energy in the silence, just before we played the first note of a concert, can only be described as breathtaking.
My high school, however, did not allow students to participate in Concert Band unless they were also in Marching Band. And that was something in which I had zero interest.
Even the name was offensive to me–marching band? What did marching have to do with that incredible musical experience to which I had become so addicted? No offense to Sousa. I was perfectly happy to sit on a stage and play a rousing concert of the finest marches ever composed. *Sit* being the operative word. Forcing me to march while I did it was undignified.
I categorically resented this draft into starchy, polyester uniform-wearing, knee-lifting, football-field service. I hated football. I’d nursed my grudge against it since I was three years old and my dad would sit in his La-Z-Boy, pulling the tabs off Pabst Blue Ribbon cans, and scaring the shit out of me as his yelling at the television grew progressively more violent. He was a Dolphins fan, and they were coming off their anomaly of a perfect season and winning two Super Bowl’s in a row, so I’m sure they gave him plenty to yell about. But that’s a story for another blog post.
I did not want to be in the Marching Band. And to add insult to injury, I would be forced to attend a mandatory “Band Camp” during the last two weeks of my summer vacation before the school year started. I told my mother I wasn’t going.
Mom sympathized with my horror at the entire prospect, but reminded me that I had loved Band since the fourth grade. She reminded me that playing the flute was one of my favorite things in the world (second only to re-reading Tolkien and devouring romance novels), and that I had always been excited about it and successful at it. I couldn’t give up on it without at least trying to make it work. She said maybe, just like with raw oysters and Brussels sprouts, I would find that I actually enjoyed Marching Band.
And being the (relatively) obedient and dutiful child that I still was at that age, I agreed to give Band Camp a chance. Even though I knew I was going to hate it. Marching in formation at football games did not equate to developing a sophisticated palate for food.
I feel obliged to point out, at this juncture in the story, that things could go either way. Those of you who had a blast playing in the Marching Band are undoubtedly smiling in fond remembrance. Most likely you are anticipating my 360 degree attitude adjustment, and a happy ending, where I describe how I learned to let loose and fell in love with the fun and whimsy of the experience.
I only mention this because I would hate for you to be disappointed.
On the first day of Band Camp, I found myself on an open field beneath the kind of uncompromising sun that can only be found in the dead of a
summer. Unless you happen to live in the desert or on the equator. I was one of a gangly group of freshman, sweating nervously beneath the martial eyes of three older band geeks. Florida
The leader of the trio took the wordplay between “Band Camp” and “Boot Camp” a tad too seriously. He was our drill sergeant, barking orders at us and insisting we call him ‘Sir’, while the other two toned it down with smiles and occasional jokes. This guy was an entirely new breed of band geek. Drunk on authority and giving his credence to rank, form and file, rather than focusing on musical technique and nuance. Which was fine for some people, but I wanted to play the flute in a concert hall, not join the ROTC.
All of this to say that my disenchantment with the idea of Band Camp had not lessened one jot by the time we started playing Simon Says. Now that might not sound like a particularly hostile activity, but it was during the physical movement of said activity that I realized I had forgotten to wear a bra. It wouldn’t have been that big of a deal, but I’d recently gone through something of a growth spurt, if you catch my drift.
And not only was I suddenly feeling uncomfortably jiggly, but I also realized that I’d made the lamentable wardrobe choice of a shirt with overly wide sleeves–the kind that would provide an excellent view of my jiggling if draped open at a certain angle. These epiphanies were somewhat distracting to my mortified teenage girl brain and, between trying not to bounce too much or move my arms the wrong way, I slipped up and forgot what Simon said.
The penalty was twenty jumping jacks. Up at the front of the line. While the whole group watched.
I completed my punishment with cheeks flaming red beneath the sun, counting off aloud in a shaky voice, and no doubt looking horribly awkward as I attempted to throw my arms up at such an angle so as not to flash the entire field.
I don’t remember how I got through the rest of that excruciating day of similarly pointless, non-musical activity. The only other thing I remember about it is that someone got sick from heat stroke. The next day, I did not suck it up and return to Band Camp. That year, I did not play in the Marching Band or the Concert Band.
I completed high school without ever picking up my flute again.
I probably could have found a group of local musicians to play with if I’d really tried. Though I’d never even seen the internet at that point, and locating them without it would have been much more difficult than it would be today. My mom would have given me her wholehearted support. But I was thoroughly discouraged and disgusted.
My new extracurricular activity became partying, and I embraced it with vigor. I had a lot of fun, but I also did some really dangerous and stupid things during the course of the next four years. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have done those things if I’d remained in Band, but who can say for sure?
I finally picked up my flute again in my second year of college, where after one undecided year at FSU, I majored in Music Education and graduated from FAU. I played in the Band and the Orchestra, jockeyed with my colleagues for first and second chairs, earned solos, and played as a guest with the Boca Pops. I even joined the Pep Band and played during basketball games (while seated, of course.) Not because I had to, or even particularly wanted to, but because I loved my band director and he needed volunteers.
My degree pretty much serves as fodder for my resume now. I have the highest respect for teachers, but I have neither the disposition nor the inclination to be one. I am a temperamental artist at my core, and for me it’s either performance, or nothing. That’s something I suspected, but didn’t know for sure, about myself back then. I chose the education degree over performance because it was a statistically more practical choice.
I still pick up my flute from time to time. But these days I happily channel my artistic obsessions into writing.
Sometimes I wonder, though, what wildly different trajectory my life might have taken if my musical interest had been allowed to flourish with that Concert Band in high school. If I’d stayed on the course of my earlier successes and held to my love of the art, would that have carried over into college? Would I have been on track to apply for a school like Juilliard, where a degree in performance might have actually been worth pursuing?
An idle question, and there’s no guarantee I would have been successful even if the answer is ‘yes’.
I realize that my high school needed students to fill the ranks of their Marching Band, and making it mandatory was how they chose to accomplish that. But for me, not being allowed to play in the Concert Band just because I refused to take part in the Marching Band was a soul crushing blow.
Marching and Concert are two vastly different pursuits. In my mind, forcing a classical concert instrumentalist to play in the Marching Band is like forcing an opera singer to perform rap. I’m sure there are opera singers (and vice versa) who can do both with aplomb, but it should be a choice.
Forcing kids to choose both, or else not take part in the musical experience at all, is a failure on the part of adults who should know better. And that, my friends, is the lament of a former band geek.