Even setting aside the judicious application of Pink Floyd albums to settle me down to sleep as an infant, music has been a central part of my life pretty much from the beginning. My earliest recollection of classical music is when we used to go to dress rehearsals and concerts for the Colorado Springs Philharmonic, under the direction of the charismatic and talented Christopher Wilkins. The music washed over me (and over my head) and I became enchanted with the up-and-down motion of the bows, the synchronized reach to turn the page, and particularly the dance of the tuxedo-clad maestro. I learned to relax the focus of my eyes until the stage melted into a golden glow of pulsating music, and I sat there, in a trance, imagining myself soaking it up like a thirsty plant.
(If I read that last sentence somewhere, I’d think that the author was over-dramatizing their childhood experience, but it’s the honest truth. I’m sure there were shows where I squirmed and fidgeted – my mom could verify that – but the moments I remember were the ones that reduced me to a state of paralysis. I remember believing for many years that I wanted to grow up to be an orchestra conductor, tails and all, with that euphoric sensation in my mind.)
When kids start going to school, they get exposed to all kinds of contagious germs and diseases. I was no exception, and before long I came home infected with the desire for piano lessons. Thea played piano, so I wanted to play piano. Just your basic five-year-old oneupsmanship. Fortunately, this fell in line with my parents’ plans, and soon I had an instructor and a turn-of-the-century upright that we bought for a few hundred dollars.
I was a typical kid. There were times when I had to be bribed, threatened, or otherwise forced to practice. But it paid off, and I progressed from “kid whose feet don’t reach the pedals” to “fledgling classically trained pianist.” Devoting massive amounts of mental real estate to the memorization of sonatinas didn’t end up winning me any blue ribbons, but it won me a bet or two. (You can make pretty good money off of playing nine-page compositions, blindfolded, in middle school.)
And then the second semester of fifth grade rolled around, bringing with it a day I’d been anticipating for two years: instrument “petting zoo” day.
This requires a chronological backtrack with no real milestones; forgive me.
I’ve tried, and failed, a hundred times to nail down my first band influence. (That’s different from a “bad influence,” but only very slightly.) The concept of band has always been floating around, thanks to my mom’s tenure as a drummer and ties to the University of Texas Longhorn Marching Band. One of our roadtrip casettes had a recording of “Texas Fight” on it, and I knew every trombone rip and trumpet flourish. I hadn’t been to a lot of parades – weather rarely cooperated in Colorado – but the sight of a band marching down a street always stirred my blood. There literally isn’t a point in my conscious when I said, “one day I think I’ll join band” – it was a given, like “one day I think I’ll be a woman.”
And so, when the middle school (or the high school, or the local music store – I honestly don’t know who it was) filled an empty classroom with cheap musical instruments and invited all interested fifth graders to give ’em a whirl, I was the first person in line. I passed up the percussion instruments, spent some time discovering that I was utterly incapable of producing sound on the flute, shrugged at the long line of girls waiting for the clarinet, and tried valiantly to get a grip on the unwieldy French horn. Next up was the saxophone, nearly as long as I was tall, and I immediately perked up. This was the instrument my grammy liked, the instrument that weeped in the twilight down echoey streets in mountain tourist towns. This might do.
That spring, my family went garage sale-ing in Denver. Our last stop was inspired by an ad for photography development equipment, but while digging around in the driveway debris my mom mentioned that what we were really looking for was a saxophone.
“That’s funny,” said the homeowner. “I actually have one that I need to get rid of.”
It had been her late husband’s, and since his death had hidden under a bed in a musty leather case. We unfastened the clasps and discovered a 1920’s-era Martin alto, pearl keys, velvet bed. It was love at first sight, and for all I know it cost more to get Martin in working order than it did to buy it, but I had found my beloved companion for the next chapter of my life.