(Pictured: Arturo Toscanini conducts the NBC Symphony Orchestra, circa 1944. My relationship with a putative Toscanini did not end well.)
Let’s file this under Off-Topic Tuesday, since it is.
A picture showed up on Facebook the other day. It was a newspaper photo from 1978, a picture of the senior band members at my high school who were about to take part in their final week of concerts. It didn’t matter that the picture was very hard to read—I could recognize the faces. Many of my closest friends were in it—a couple of whom I’m still fairly close to today.
I am not in the picture.
In the summer between fifth and sixth grade, I took up the tenor saxophone, mostly on a whim. For the next four years, I would be a not-very-good tenor saxophone player. Part of the problem was the same thing that made me an ex-piano student a couple of years before: I didn’t like to practice, or even to attempt anything that was challenging. But I was also frustrated because Scott, the other tenor sax, was so much better than I was. (We didn’t know then that Scott had rare musical gifts, for he grew up to become a tenured professor of instrumental music who plays in a symphony orchestra.) When I could just honk away at my part in rehearsal every day, however, I liked it well enough.
When I got to high school, the bands were directed by one of the great oddballs I have ever encountered. The marching-band arrangements of popular songs favored by the junior-high director were not for him; his taste was much more artistic, and so was his temperament. You never knew what his demeanor would be from day to day. But there was also this: gifted students who consistently played well were singled out for lavish praise, and many of them became almost cultlike in their devotion to him. Those of us less talented were often singled out for scorn, and it wasn’t long before playing became no fun at all.
Eventually, what some of my fellow students saw as artistic temperament I saw as a Napoleon complex, and I sometimes called bullshit on him, in class or out. One day, he interrupted rehearsal for some kind of nonverbal communication exercise. It came from so far out of left field that when he said, “Does anyone have any questions?” I raised my hand and asked, “Yes, have you flipped?” Another day, he responded to a poor rehearsal by storming into his office, shutting the door, and refusing to continue. I started packing up my horn. “You can’t leave,” said one of his cultists in a horrified tone. “Why can’t I?” I asked. “If he’s leaving, why should we stay?”
The last straw was the day he announced that the next year, we’d have three bands instead of two, and that there would be a new division of them. Instead of by class (freshmen in one, everybody else in the other), there would be tryouts. We’d be placed by ability, he said, but the bands would be equal. I raised my hand and asked how they could be equal if we’d be placed in them by ability. He insisted that they would be. I insisted that they would not: “You’re going to end up with a good band, a mediocre band, and a poor band,” and I knew which one I was going to be in.
One day in the spring of 1975, we were called into the band office one by one to learn our assignments. The director’s assistant sat behind the desk; the director sat in a nearby chair with his head down. I spoke first: “Before either one of you says a word, you should know I’m not going to play in the band next year.” The assistant’s face fell. The director, head still down, asked, “Is it really so terrible?” I replied, “Yes, I guess it is,” and I walked out of the office an ex-saxophone player.
If you had asked me three years later, during that emotional week of farewell concerts, if I missed being in the band, I would have vehemently insisted that I did not. But when that picture showed up on Facebook the other day, I realized that I really did miss it—in 1978 and now. That week, I watched them with my nose pressed figuratively against the glass, wishing I was sharing their experience. Just a few days ago, looking at a picture from that time, I wished the same thing again.