My Story, Part Two

My first major breakthrough came early, during summer band before my sixth grade year. I’d spent several days sitting in the back row of an enormous crowd of wannabe musicians growing increasingly frustrated with the saxophone around my neck. The strap was biting into my muscle and blow as I might, I could barely elicit a sound from the mouthpiece. A cold knot of dread settled into my stomach as I contemplated telling my parents that I wasn’t going to want to play saxophone after all.
Suddenly, the scary old high school band teacher whose band room had been commandeered knelt behind me. The rest of the room was busy squeaking and squawking their merry hearts out, and no one saw as he laid a hand on my shoulder. I jumped, certain that he was about to confirm my fears that I would never be in band.

But instead: “Don’t blow so hard,” he told me.

Those four words were electrifying. I cut my airflow and suddenly sounds – nice sounds – came out the other end of the stubborn horn. By the end of summer band, I was one of the better players and had even learned that more comfortable neck straps were available. And although it took me many years to realize it (and many more to implement it), I’d learned an important lesson about trying to force things. Some things can’t be done by force, and some things just have to be left alone to progress naturally.

My middle school had three by-audition eighth grade performance groups: drama, choir, and jazz band. I had my eyes on that band as early as sixth grade, craved the day when I could audition to be a part of it. In fact,  the biggest reason (in my mind) that I didn’t take the school’s advice to skip seventh grade was that I wouldn’t be permitted to audition into Jazz Plus. In seventh grade I joined the beginning jazz band, and you can see evidence of my first improvised solo in the third photo to the left. It was a somewhat stilted jam on “Louie, Louie;” I can’t say I’m especially proud of that, but a girl has to start somewhere. 🙂 It was a funny little jazz band – a baritone, a flute, two keyboards, a French horn – but it was something.

Then in eighth grade I auditioned for and made Jazz Plus. That year’s pivotal solo was in “Norwegian Wood” at the middle school graduation, proving fairly conclusively that the director had an odd definition of jazz. It was a fantastic year, and I thought we were quite the hot ensemble. In retrospect, I guess we all see ourselves as pretty terrific, wherever we are at a given time. Little kids feel grown up, beginning musicians feel seasoned teenagers think they know it all. 🙂

Times were changing in more than one way, though, and in the spring of eighth grade my family decided to move. That summer, we packed up our things and moved from Colorado Springs to Boise, and come fall I enrolled at Meridian High School. I was happy about the move, except for the fact that the high school I would have attended in Colorado was prepped for a marching trip to Disney World while this new school didn’t permit ninth graders to march. That year, one of the senior saxophone players came into the freshman concert band and took orders for rubber mouthpieces; a few weeks later, he returned with tiny rectangular boxes for the handful of us who took him up on it. Martin had always had a good sound, but I hadn’t realized what an impact a different mouthpiece could make.

The following year I joined the Meridian Marching Unit, renowned at the time for its poor performance at local competitions. The previous year had been a low point; during one major competition they’d had to stop mid-song and start over. To this day, no one knows what caused the cosmic shift that propelled the Unit from that bad place into the trophy case my sophomore year. Maybe it was shame, maybe it was a different style of music – maybe it was just time. Whatever it was, it reduced tough senior boys to tears and sent shockwaves through the entire ensemble. To the day I die I’ll never forget standing in the bleachers as our name was called, snapping to attention as the drum majors collected their trophy, aware peripherally of my fellow musicians silently sobbing, statue-still.

I became a band-adrenaline junkie, living for the moments – whether on stage or the field – when the music supercollided and became something tangible, almost visible, vibrating with power. It was easiest to find on a football field, when physical movement could amplify the music’s effect on my body, but I felt it in Holst and Holsinger, Williams and Reed.

In eleventh grade I became section leader of an unruly pack of six-foot-tall boys and began the difficult task of sculpting my natural bossiness into effective leadership. I have those kids (three of whom were named Mike) to thank for any ability I have today to deal with people, because Holy Bovine did I screw up a lot. Staggering, embarrassing mistakes. (It’s strange to look backward and realize that I was only sixteen years old at the time, but it does make it easier to forgive myself for being so dumb.)

I also became first alto in the jazz band, and if leading boys on the field was hard then jamming with them on the stage was nigh impossible. I don’t know how typical my experience was, but I found myself in the middle of a raging pit of testosterone and ego. To these guys, a woman’s place was as far from a jazz band as possible, and from day one I was fighting to prove myself to them. It wasn’t always an unpleasant experience, and the strength of the music made up for the bad times, but there were a lot of tears shed in those last two years of high school. It didn’t help that – whether through pressure or just adolescence – I’d lost the conidence to really let loose on a fastpaced improv. While they were channeling Charlie Parker, trying to outdo one another in the land speed records for jazz solo, I was only truly at ease with a nice dirty blues. I gave Martin a lot of credit for that; it seemed like that horn was built for the blues, and I was merely the tool that filled Martin with air so it could sing. Unfortunately, the blues were thin currency in my jazz band.

My second major breakthrough came at the best of all possible times. I stood up into the microphone for my lengthy improv solo at the BSU Jazz Festival. The judges were all mumbling into their tape recorders, and I was paying attention to a dozen different things as I stood – the music stand, the microphone stand, my reed – but not my feet. And I stumbled. I caught myself, one foot shoved forward at an awkward angle, twisted in the microphone cord. The band played the lead-in, and there was nothing to be done but to start playing, crooked and ungainly, looking – I was sure – like a total idiot.

Being off-balance, though, did something strange to me as I played. I was looser. I leaned into the microphone, rocked into the phrases, followed through on the runs as if I were trying to make a basket. It was the “click” moment, when a gear in your brain turns over and you suddenly understand something you’ve been studying, and an analogy for the greater lesson: sometimes everything has to go wrong in order for everything to go right. All things – even nearly doing a face-plant in the middle of a performance – happen for a reason.

I’m a competitive person, and I thrived on being a part of a competitive band. When our drum majors called us to attention at rehearsal’s end and bellowed out the call-and-response, I took it as a spiritual experience.

Feet are: TOGETHER!
Stomach is: IN!
Chest is: OUT!
Shoulders are: BACK!
Chin is: UP!
Eyes are: WITH PRIDE!

As a sophomore and junior in high school I watched performances by the Boise State marching band – a tremendously entertaining band that didn’t spend too much time cleaning individual technique – and felt disdain. I knew that it was a good band, but I couldn’t understand why they didn’t make the effort to be flawless. Then I went through my senior season, with all of the highs and lows of competition, and I began to see the marching band experience in a new light. Maybe I was just tired of the stress and pressure, but I’d developed a new philosophy of band. If it wasn’t fun – for the participants and the audience – what was the point? That year I saw the Boise State band with new eyes, and I began picturing myself in blue and orange.

I did the typical college/university mating dance in the spring of my senior year and came up with a few tempting scholarship offers, but in the end two criteria made my final decision for me. I wanted to at least start out close to home, and I wanted a marching band. Only one school would do, and in the fall of 1999 I matriculated to Boise State University and joined the Keith Stein Blue Thunder Marching Band.


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