Musical youth.

Monday, July 30th, 2001

I’m trying to teach myself how to play the clarinet again. That’s an “again” in two senses: I am both trying to teach myself how to play the clarinet as I once played it, and trying yet again to teach myself how to play the clarinet as I once played it.

I first picked up the clarinet when I was about 14. It was the third instrument I attempted to learn how to play. About 5 years prior to the clarinet, there had been piano lessons. These were brought to an abrupt end because of my temper tantrums at the ivories, which involved me pounding on the keys with my fists if I couldn’t play a piece perfectly the first time around (now, almost two decades on, I still don’t have much patience when it comes to learning how to do things – I want to be able to do everything perfectly, but I don’t want to have to learn how to do it). The end of piano lessons was a bit traumatic, 1) because I was fully aware of the fact that it was my fault that I was being made to stop, and 2) because I believed it meant that I would never be able to play the piano as beautifully as my mother (and I was right about that – to this day, I can’t).

Following hard on the heels of the botched piano lessons came the much more successful violin lessons. In my fifth and sixth grade classes (when I was about 10), it was mandatory to play in the school orchestra. On the first day of music class we each had to choose the instrument – violin, viola, cello or bass – we wanted to play. I distinctly remember being drawn to the violin because my teacher said that, of the four instruments, the violin had a sound that most closely approximated that of the human voice. That caught my attention. It gave the violin a sort of power, a sort of soul. I was fascinated by the idea of this inanimate object having its own voice, so I decided that that was the instrument I wanted to play.

I was thrilled to get my rented violin. I was tall enough to merit a full-size violin, and I was happy that the wood of the violin was a deep, rich red and the lining of its case was velvety and dark blue. I liked the accouterments that came with it: the amber cake of rosin in its little compartment in my case, the corduroy-covered chin rest. I don’t remember the process of learning how to play. I do, however, remember the feeling I got when we were all finally able to play (greatly simplified) bits of the New World Symphony in unison. It was the first time I had ever played music with other people, and the feeling of being a small part of this incredible sound lifting up around me and connecting me to everyone I was playing with – well, it was transcendental.

Even at the age of 10, playing music could make me feel ecstatic. I couldn’t have put that name to that feeling, but I knew that it was pure joy. It’s a feeling that remains with me to this day and comes welling up inside of me when I’m playing in the middle of a really good Irish session, or when everything comes together in the band. It’s when I realize that the music that is being created has suddenly taken on a life of its own and become something greater than just the sum of its parts. It’s a feeling of losing myself entirely and at the same time being acutely aware of existing as an integral part of something much bigger. It’s one of the most fantastic feelings in the world.

Anyway, I was pretty good at the violin – not the best, by far, but decent enough. And I would have continued to play if we hadn’t moved and I hadn’t started at a new school which didn’t have an orchestra. Luckily, however, my new school had a band, and that brings us back to the clarinet.

When I joined Beginning Band, as it was called, I once again had to choose an instrument. I knew I didn’t want to play the flute, brass didn’t really interest me either, and the drums were only being played by a few boys with long hair who were probably just dreaming of the day they would become rock stars. So it came down to the woodwinds. I think I tended towards the clarinet because everyone else wanted to play the saxophone – and that automatically made the saxophone seem boring to me. Besides, the clarinet was much more lovely – more compact, smooth black and sparkly silver, with a warm, woody sound. Like the violin, the clarinet had a unique voice, and that voice spoke to me.

I was fairly good on the clarinet, and I enjoyed playing it. I got the same thrill playing in the school band as I had gotten playing in the orchestra. When everything really came together musically, I felt like I would just fly out of my seat with joy, instrument in hand, like something out of a painting by Marc Chagall. We were particularly good at playing “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” and every time I hear the song now, I see myself sitting in my chair in my 9th grade band practice room and tooting on my clarinet.

But for all the joy in brought me, the clarinet was also witness to a failure in my young life that, in some ways, has haunted me to this day.

Every year, a few of the bands in my school went on “Band Tour.” Band Tour was, if I remember correctly, a week-long trip to a school in another country to play concerts there (perhaps I should mention that my school was in Germany, so going to another country did not always involve traveling very far). Band Tour was open to the Intermediate and Advanced Bands, but if you were a Beginning Band player, you could audition to go on Band Tour as well.

As it happened, Band Tour in the year I started playing clarinet was a trip to Wales. And as it happened, that year also marked the peak of an all-encompassing obsession with Wales on my part. The obsession with Wales was a curious, rather inexplicable phase in my teenage life. I think it stemmed from a fascination with Arthurian legend, a budding interest in obscure foreign languages, and a general sort of love of all things to do with the British Isles. The obsession manifested itself in my collection of Welsh flags, Welsh stickers, Welsh language tapes, maps of Wales, and books on Wales; my decision to someday move to the town of Aberystwyth because I loved its name; and my propensity for writing words with lots of “y’s.”

I mention all of this because I want to somehow convey the depth of my enchantment with this place. Laugh if you will, but Wales was the end of the rainbow. It was my Shangri-La. I had never yet stepped foot in Wales, and I wanted to go there like I wanted nothing else in the world.

So, naturally I decided to audition for Band Tour. And I practiced. And practiced. And practiced. And practiced. The things I had to play weren’t actually that difficult for me: a few scales, a few short tunes, some long notes to show off my tone. By the end of all the practicing, I could have played the stuff in my sleep. I could do it. I knew I could do it. I knew I would be able to go to Wales.

When the day of my audition came around, I stood in a room off to the side of the main band room and practiced my notes and my scales as I waited for my turn to perform. And as I waited and waited, I thought about how badly I wanted to go on this trip and how much was riding on this one short audition – and that was when I started to doubt myself. I had never been nervous about performing in front of people before. But the longer I had to stand in that cramped little room with its dusty instrument cases and ugly fluorescent light, the longer I had to wait – breathless with anxiety, my hands icy cold and trembling – the more flustered I became.

By the time I was finally called out to audition, I was a wreck. I faced the tiered rows of chairs, occupied by my band teacher and several students from the more advanced bands, and I went completely blank. The music just wasn’t there anymore – it, along with all my confidence and concentration, had fled utterly, to be replaced by nothing but cold, empty anxiety. I did manage to wheeze out a few shaky scales and sad notes, but they were only a pale imitation of what I had been able to play when I sat alone in my room preparing for this big day. I just couldn’t do it.

Several days later, when the lists were posted in the band practice room – the lists of those students who would be going on Band Tour – I still had the desperate, irrational hope that I would find my name there. I prayed that my teacher had recognized that it wasn’t incompetence but rather nervousness that had caused me to botch my audition. She knew I was a good player, and I thought that maybe she would have given me a chance after all – but she hadn’t. My name wasn’t on the list, and it was all I could do to keep from bursting into tears in the classroom. I had failed.

I got over it, and I did get to Wales eventually anyway, so all was well in the end. I suspect that that experience left me with the performance anxiety I suffer from today, but thankfully it didn’t end my musical life all together. I kept playing in the band until we moved again, when I let the clarinet fall by the wayside and started dabbling with the recorder and the piano again. And years later I discovered Irish music, which led me back to my beloved fiddle, and klezmer music, which has led me back to the clarinet.

So it’s all come full circle, really. And once again I find myself sitting in my room, trying to play notes and scales and turning blue in the face from the amount of air it takes to get any sound at all out of the blasted instrument. It takes all my lung capacity just to gasp out “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” at a snail’s pace, so it’s a safe bet that I won’t be performing in front of anyone anytime soon. And that’s fine by me. I have no star pretensions, I can go to Wales any time I want, and the only person I have to prove anything to this time around is myself.

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