I could hear the excitement in my mother's voice as she told me about a conversation she'd had with the high school band teacher. "If you go in and play for him, he'll put you in the top band!" I laughed at the hope in her eyes. I was never going back to a band room. Painful memories of junior high mockery flooded my vision with HIS face. So often invisible, he looked past me everyday. The girl in the second row. But it was better than when he did see me. On the occasion that he was forced to acknowledge this chubby student he degraded me, stifling my desire for growth with the disgust behind his icy blue eyes. He weaved my inadequacies into the pads of my instrument and infused the metal keys with a thousand reflections of my ugliness. No. I would never open the Pandora's box that was my clarinet case lest I unleash a myriad of memories I buried the last day of 9th grade.
Then my mom clarified that I didn't really have a choice.
I can't imagine what thoughts raced through this new teacher's mind as I entered his office. Palms sweaty, clutching the plastic shaft of the old clarinet, and tears welling up in my eyes, I licked the chipped reed and sank my teeth into the mouthpiece. He asked me to play a scale. Dissonant notes swelled in the air as my fingers stumbled over the keys. Do. Re. Me. So, no it's fa. Fa! So. Ti flat. . . ahh! La. La. Ti. Doooooo. He smiled sympathetically and I painfully plunked out another out-of-tune scale. He handed me a piece to sight read. It had been over a year since I'd looked at any sheet music and my brain no longer connected my fingers to the little black dots and stripes on the page, not that they ever did very well anyway. Tears ran down my face and dripped on my t-shirt as I guessed and questioned and squeaked my way through the unrecognizable song. Some audition. He gave me a hesitant but warm smile and said he'd see me in class.
You've got to be kidding me, I thought.
I barely made it though my first day in Symphonic band. Warm ups began with the twelve major scales. I only knew seven, so I fumbled and fingered my way through the last five, letting out a gigantic sigh of relief when it was over. The teacher raised his hands again and called out, "Now minors!" I watched in horror as my classmates played through their twelve minor scales without hesitation. How was I going to play any of the music in this band when I couldn't even play the warm-ups? Sure enough, he handed out the pep band music which might have well have been Arabian scripture for all I knew. The next class period was chair auditions. I knew I would be last chair. I knew it more than I knew the sun would rise or that my mom would serve soup on Thursdays, but it stung as the peers I only barely knew watched me take my rightful seat next to the bassoon.
Every day in that class was a painful reminder that my junior high instructor was right about me. I had no potential, no skill, and that last place I deserved to be was a top band.
At least, that's what I thought for a little while.
My new band director recommended a clarinet teacher he knew from college who was wonderfully patient and could help me catch up. In her living room, I had to relearn the most basic of techniques. Reed care, embouchure, fingerings, and scales; I was discovering my instrument for the first time and realizing just how little I'd been taught as I'd sat under the nose of that junior high teacher for three years, unworthy of his tutelage and wisdom.
At the end of the first semester, we re-auditioned for chairs and I moved up a seat. It was a small accomplishment but enough to motivate a little extra effort on my part. I practiced just a little longer every day. I tried to sight-read songs, memorize those dang minor scales, and work on intonation so I wasn't always so sharp. When the school year ended I felt sad at the coming summer. I would miss all the musical friends I'd made and the encouraging nods from my conductor.
Over the summer I practiced. This may seem like a trivial fact, but it was monumental to me. My mother wasn't forcing me. My teachers were grading me on it. I just wanted to be better. When my senior year began we had chair auditions, and I was not the last or second to last chair. I was fourth. Out of eight. I was average at last! I celebrated with my clarinet teacher. My mother cheered when she heard the news. I wrote about it in my journal. Yet, there was still that little part of me that wondered if it was some sort of fluke. The clarinetist in the chair just below me had been second chair the year before. Surely, I didn't play better than her. She must not have thought so either, because a couple of weeks into the semester she challenged my chair.
I went home and cried. How could this girl take this accomplishment away from me when I'd worked so unbelievably hard to get it? I cried to my clarinet teacher. I bawled at my mom. When my dad walked through the door I collapsed in despair. My father tenderly, yet firmly scolded me for my behavior. In my shock, I stopped crying and stared at him in disbelief. He told me if I sat around whining I would lose my chair. I remember the creases around his hazel eyes as he said, "Get to work."
That week I spent every waking moment glued to my clarinet. I followed me to dinner, sang out during the commercial breaks during my favorite show, and accompanied me to the bathroom. Good acoustic, you know. And on the day of the challenge, I stood in the office of my band teacher shaking, with memorized music in hand. He smiled at me and asked me if I was ready. I could see in his slightly mischievous grin that he not only was confident in my quaking hands, but he was rooting for me. I breathed out slowly and raised my instrument to my lips and listened to my song soar over my head as if it came from another clarinet in the room. Fast and high, it fluttered about until the final note settled in my chest. My teacher's eyes were ablaze with excitement. He handed me the sight-reading piece selected by my opponent, and I played through it slowly and carefully. He opened the door of his office and invited me back into the classroom. I sat down and avoided eye-contact with everyone as I awaited the verdict.
I heard the teacher step onto his squeaky platform. "Both of these ladies are talented musicians, but-" Here it comes, I thought. The end of my two week run of average. I said a silent goodbye to my seat and looked up. "But I've decided to leave the chairs as they are." I started to tear up, the fifth chair avoided my gaze, and that inspired teacher nodded to me as if to confirm his choice. I sat up a little taller and practiced a little harder.
Christmas break rolled around. Every day I sat in front of the piano and played Christmas songs on the old clarinet. I could feel the pain of junior high being stripped away as a new-found confidence set in. The feel of the cool metal keys sent shivers up my spine and a joyful flutter in my heart. The new semester began after the holidays and chair auditions came knocking. I felt nervous, but also calm. Music was no longer about accomplishment. It was about the joy of creation and the beauty that teamwork that a little elbow grease could produce. Even still, I was shocked when the results of the auditions were posted and I had landed myself in SECOND chair.
During that semester, my teacher gave me so many opportunities to grow. From being handpicked to play in the concerto orchestra, to a solo at graduation, I basked the rays of reassuring sunlight that poured over me from this teacher that never gave up, from my clarinet tutor who wouldn't allow me to be held back by excuses, and from my mommy who, obligated by uterine law, and probably prompted from some divine source, believed in me even when I sounded hopelessly horrible. (No really, it was bad for a while.) All of that unwavering faith washed away the doubt and self-loathing placed there by that junior high monstrosity and helped me see who I could have been all along. Myself. And me was good enough.
This is why I've always wanted to be a teacher. This is why I wanted to be a mother. If I could show my children and impressionable teenagers how special and incredible they are, then maybe, just maybe, I could pay forward the life-changing lessons I learned with a clarinet.