When I reached Fifth Grade, I had the opportunity to choose a music elective. I thought that the idea of learning to play an instrument was pretty neat, and my parents encouraged me to give it a try. Of course, renting an instrument was not entirely cheap and buying an instrument was also pretty expensive, so to start with I signed up to be a saxophonist, because we already had a saxophone.
I have to confess that my memory around this is somewhat hazy (it was 25 years ago, after all), but I do clearly remember that the saxophone we had was silver and, to my young mind, may well have been unearthed by an archaeological expedition. It had previously belonged to my grandfather.
I think it was actually a pretty nice saxophone, but some of the pads had lost their glue (which held them onto the covers) or their elasticity (which allowed them to cover the holes more effectively) or both. The result was an instrument that had a bit of a unique sound to it.
An experienced player may well have seen the value in the instrument and lovingly restored it. As a beginner and a child, I saw it as an impediment to my progress. It didn’t help that I got made fun of quite a bit for trying to play with something that looked far different from the shiny brass beginner instruments most of my classmates had.
In any case, after proving both my willingness and ability to stick with band, my parents bought me a student-quality saxophone.
I quite enjoyed band though.
Truth be told, I don’t have a musical bone in my body. If you handed me an instrument and asked me to improvise, I’d be stuck. I’m about halfway to being tone-deaf and to this day playing by ear seems like dark magic. On the other hand, I’m also tragically bad at reading music. To be honest, I think it’s just that I never forced myself to learn. I understand the component parts: I recognize notes, I know how to count most basic time signatures, I understand what most of the symbols mean. But reading and playing at the same time is a talent I never mastered.
What I did instead, embarrassingly, was write the names of the notes above each note on the sheet music.
My band teacher must have known that I did this, since I turned in all my sheet music at the end of the year with my hand-scrawled deciphering. I guess he didn’t really care, which is a little surprising, but I guess I’m not sure what he should have done…forbade me from doing so and told me to figure it out? I’d probably just have made my own copies of the sheet music and defaced those instead.
And the thing is, I was actually a pretty good player. I guess once you remove the challenge of reading the music the only additional difficulty is pushing the right keys on the instrument at the right times, and I did that part pretty well.
I ended up playing until I graduated, so eight years total. I enjoyed it the entire time. I’ve got some more stories from band, but those will have to wait for another time.